Monday, November 24, 2014

Jack: C.S. Lewis and His Times by George Sayer

Unlike the biography of Alistair McGrath, this biography was written by a former student and personal friend of Lewis.  No doubt because of that, the tone is much softer, less clinical, but fortunately not tainted with any subjective sentimentality.

Sayer studied under Lewis at Oxford where he also knew J.R.R. Tolkien.  He was a member of his inner circle and was his friend throughout his life.

While Sayer gives a lot of the same information as any other biographer as far as a chronology of his life goes, he also gives a much more personal touch to those facts.  His writing is much more like a story narrative so one feels as though they are reading a novel than nonfiction.

Sayers goes farther back into Lewis' ancestry.  He allows us to see what sort of families produced his parents, going back to the great grandfather and how they came to Ulster.

That is one thing this biography have shown me is that Lewis was an Irishman.  He seems so English and I suppose it is because he was a Protestant but also because at such a young age he moved to Oxford and lived there the rest of his life.  Unlike other Irish writers, such as Yeats, Joyce or Heaney, we get no Irish flavor in his writing.

Lewis' mother was kind and loving.  Lewis and his brother Warnie would refer to each other as "Archpigiebotham" (Warnie) or "APB" and "Smallpigiebotham" (Jack) or "SPB" because their mother would often warn them that if they didn't improve their behavior she would "spank them on their piggiebottoms." They used these nicknames for the rest of their lives.  Warren would refer to Jack as his "beloved SPB."  Both she and their father read voraciously to them.  Books spilled out of every nook and cranny.

A cute exchange with his father is recorded.  Jack sat down in front of his father in his study and informed him that he had a prejudice against the French.  When his father asked why, Jack crossed his legs put his fingertips together and said, "If I knew why, it would not be a prejudice."

When Lewis was ten his mother died of abdominal cancer.  His father, who had just lost his father and brother, had no emotional endurance for two young boys.  They were carted off to boarding school in England.  This tearing away from his family, while still in the throes of grief to go to another country far from home to a boarding school that proved to pattern itself after Oliver Twist, was instrumental in Lewis rejecting God.

Unlike McGrath, Sayers does not believe that Lewis was too shy or sensitive and needed to "buck up".  He sites sources that show the headmaster at this school was not only abusive, but insane.  This all played major roles in forming Lewis' beliefs.

Luckily he eventually wound up with a personal tutor, Kirkpatrick.  This was instrumental in developing Lewis' writing skills.  Eventually he wound up at Oxford but how he gained entrance is interesting.

In order to be admitted into Oxford, one has to pass not only the exams in subjects you excel at, such as languages, you had to pass all exams.  Lewis was hopeless as mathmatics and his scores prevented him entrance.  However, by serving in the military during WWI, he became exempt from passing the math tests and was admitted after all.  Can you imagine one of England's most profound writers and apologists almost not making it because he was no good at math?  It gives me encouragement since I am a math retard.

As with McGrath's biography, we learn of Lewis' relationship with Mrs. Moore, their residence at the Kilns, although Sayers plainly states that whether there was anything other than a mother- son relationship is a mystery.  He might have been covering up or he might be simply telling what he knows.

A couple of chapters are devoted to his war work, his radio broadcasts and also his writing of the Narnia Chronicles.

Sayers descriptions of Joy Davidman differ somewhat than McGrath's as well.  According to Sayers, Jack did develop love for Joy and he didn't marry her against his will, only to discover true love at the end.  They had a wonderful, loving relationship, even though she was a typical loud, brassy New Yorker.  Sayers goes into more detail of the development of that relationship and focuses a little more on Joy's desperate love for Jack.

We all know of Lewis' conversion which is faithfully recorded and the rest of his life.  What I enjoyed about this biography was the obvious warmth and, yes, joy that it exudes as it should when one is writing about a beloved friend.  


  1. Lewis was definitely a person worth reading about.

    I think that it is really a good thing to read biographies from two different authors. I have done this a few times in the past and I find that it opens up new dimensions when it comes to understanding a person.

    Great commentary as always Sharon.

    1. Thanks, Brian. Believe or not, I still have a couple more biographies of Lewis to go. We'll see how they compare.

  2. I just bought Remembering C.S. Lewis: Recollections of Those Who Knew Him. I hope it will be as good as any biography out there and even more personal. I'll let you know when I get to it.

    1. Hi Cleopatra. Please do. I'd love to know if it is worth reading and if I should add it to my C.S. Lewis library.


I welcome comments from anyone with a mutual interest in the subjects I written about.