One of my early memories is lying on the hide-a-bed in the living room, listening to my sister read one of the Narnia books. Maybe she read the whole series – I think it was summer vacation, so there was plenty of time.
I had no idea who C. S. Lewis was, and I don’t know if I got any of the Christian symbolism, but I loved the books – all except The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, which I found slow and rather boring. When I discovered, as a teenager, that C. S. Lewis had written other books besides the Chronicles of Narnia, I eagerly read several of them.
What I never read, until last week, was a biography of C. S. Lewis. I’ve mentioned previously that I don’t care for reading biographies. But when it’s about someone whose writing I so admire – both the novels and the non-fiction books on Christianity – I decided it would be worth checking out C. S. Lewis – A Life: Eccentric Genius, Reluctant Prophet.
McGrath does an excellent job of helping the reader get to know something of the man behind the writings. Compared to two other biographies I read recently (for a genre I tend to avoid, I’ve been reading a lot of it lately), it achieves a good balance between too little detail and too much. I learned interesting facts about Lewis that I hadn’t known (for instance, that he was Irish!), but I rarely felt bored by the details.
In his Preface, McGrath says that his goal is neither “to praise Lewis or condemn him, but to understand him – above all, his ideas, and how these found expression in his writings.” As this is the only biography I have read of Lewis, I can’t say objectively how well McGrath succeeds, but I think that approach is part of why I enjoyed reading the book as much as I did – and finished it almost as quickly as I do most works of fiction.
I was looking forward to learning about Lewis’ conversion from atheism to Christianity. I am always interested in stories of how people came to faith from a position of skepticism, what arguments convinced them that Christianity is true. (I am also interested in the stories of people who made the opposite “conversion,” from Christianity to atheism, though my impression is usually that something was lacking in their understanding of Christianity to begin with.)
I was intrigued, though I have to admit somewhat disappointed, to learn that Lewis came to faith not by reason of logical arguments, but by “a process of crystallisation.” A variety of facts and ideas, not all that significant by themselves, turned out to fit into a pattern that made sense once the central truths of Christianity were accepted.
Lewis used this same approach in the radio broadcasts that eventually were published in book form as Mere Christianity. Lewis shows “that what we observe and experience ‘fits in’ with the idea of God.”
Of course, this approach would seem to leave open the possibility that another “big picture” might fit our observations and experiences equally well – or perhaps better. McGrath does not explore this line of thought – that is my own reflection on my disappointment at Lewis’ “inferential, not deductive” approach.
What McGrath does mention, as one of the most significant events of Lewis’ journey to faith, is a conversation he had with his good friend J. R. R. Tolkien about the idea of “true myth.” I remember now having read about this when I was in college, and having found the idea very meaningful.
The idea is that in every human culture there have been “imperfect and partial insights about reality,” manifesting themselves in the myths of the various religions. These are not wholly false; rather they are “echoes or anticipations of the full truth” found in Christianity. Therefore it makes sense that so much would also “fit in” with the ideas of other religions.
(I don’t know whether Lewis studied any other world religions – I tend to doubt it since McGrath makes no mention of such study. I have a set of tapes on world religions that I got to see for myself how well they seemed to “fit” compared to Christianity. None of them struck me as fitting nearly as well, but then I have to say that as an outsider looking in, lacking the interpretive framework that in “insider” would have.)
One of my few criticisms of the book is how much time McGrath spends on the date of Lewis’ conversion. Now that Lewis’ letters have been published, McGrath was able to work out a timeline of various key events related to his conversion. McGrath concludes that not only were previous biographers wrong on the date, Lewis himself got it wrong in Surprised by Joy (he was apparently somewhat weak on dates). It’s an interesting point, but not – to most readers – interesting enough for page after page detailing the basis for McGrath’s revised timeline.
I was of course also very interested in learning more about how Lewis came to write his various works of fiction. Most people in our society are familiar with the Chronicles of Narnia (especially with the recent movie adaptations), but fewer know about his space trilogy or other works of fiction.
Lewis had himself been an avid reader from the time he was a boy, and he realized how powerful imaginative writing was in communicating truth. Having written a number of books arguing the truth of Christianity and thereby achieved fame as a Christian apologist (and also the disdain of many of his fellow academics for writing “popular” books), he later came to choose fantasy as a vehicle for understanding reality.
One of the reader reviews of this book on amazon.com objected to the amount of space devoted to the Narnia books, compared with very little on the other books. I suppose in part this may be due to people’s greater knowledge of and thus greater interest in the Narnia books. Certainly, being children’s books, they are the easiest to read and enjoy. (My other favorite is The Screwtape Letters, hardly difficult to read, but filled with examples of life in wartime Britain that may be harder for people today to relate to.)
One intriguing point about the Narnia books is why there are seven of them. I never would have thought that an important question to answer – I just assumed that was how many story ideas he came up with. But in 2008, a scholar of Lewis’ work suggested that the Narnia novels reflect themes related to the medieval worldview of seven planets (the Sun, the Moon, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn).
I can easily see how The Voyage of the Dawn Treader is associated with the Sun, and I’m not surprised to see The Silver Chair matched with the Moon. McGrath explains the connections between Prince Caspian and Mars. I have no idea on the others; it would be interesting to learn more about Ward’s analysis.
I had thought there might be somewhat more about Lewis’ writings as a scholar of English literature, as well as more about his other works of fiction. But you can only fit so much in one book – at least without turning off some readers whose interest in Lewis does not extend to a longer book.
McGrath has also just written The Intellectual World of C. S. Lewis, which is not about those other books, but explores various aspects of Lewis’ ideas more in-depth. It’s not currently available from our library’s regional network, but when it is, I will probably want to read it.