In this new (2013) biography of well-known the Medieval scholar and Christian apologist, C.S. Lewis, Alister McGrath states his purpose in the preface to the book: “This book aims to tell the story of the shaping and expressing of Lewis’s mind, focussing on his writings . . . exploring the complex and fascinating connections between Lewis’s external and internal worlds.” McGrath says his book will be “firmly grounded in earlier studies, yet able to go beyond them.”
Well. I did glean several tidbits of information from Mr. McGrath’s biography, information about Lewis and his work that either was new or new to me. I’ve read Surprised by Joy, Lewis’s own account of his early life and his conversion to Christianity. I’ve also read The Narnia Code by Michael Ward, Jack: A Life of C.S. Lewis by George Sayer, The Narnian by Alan Jacobs, and various other sketches, articles and most of Lewis’s writings, too. So I come to this biography with some background in the subject, although I’m certainly no C.S. Lewis scholar.
First, the (random) things I learned:
Lewis thought writing was a cure-all for depression.
“As he once advised his confidant Arthur Greeves: ‘Whenever you are fed up with life, start writing: ink is the great cure for all human ills, as I have found out long ago.’”
I tend to agree. I think better when I write down my thoughts, and I feel better afterwards, too.
C.S. Lewis not only had trouble typing accurately because of having only one joint in his thumbs, but he also chose not to type.
“This mechanical mode of writing, he believe, interfered with the creative process in that the incessant clacking of the typewriter keys dulled the writer’s appreciation of the rhythms and cadences of the English language.”
Maybe that’s why I can’t write decent poetry.
Tolkien said that he would never have finished The Lord of the Rings without C.S. Lewis’s encouragement.
“The unpayable debt I owe to [Lewis] was not ‘influence’ as it is ordinarily understood, but sheer encouragement. He was for long my only audience. Only from him did I ever get the idea that my ‘stuff’ could be more than a private hobby. But for his interest and unceasing eagerness for more I should never have brought The L. of the R. to a conclusion.”
And the world would have been much impoverished by the lack of that book and all that stemmed from it.
Lewis heavily annotated his books and may have thereby gained a depth of knowledge that most of us don’t even understand.
“Nobody who has worked through Lewis’s heavily annotated personal library can doubt the intensity or quality of his engagement with the texts he studied. . . . Lewis increasingly seems to witness to a lost age of scholarly methods, above all the mental inhabitation of primary sources, which does not appear to have survived his generation.”
Wouldn’t I love to have Lewis’s copy of one of my favorite pieces of medieval or ancient literature with his annotations to guide me and pique my interest and make me think of things I wouldn’t think of on my own? Joy.
So those are the passages I marked with sticky notes. I noticed, too, however, that Mr. McGrath and I do not agree on some basics. He is rather dismissive of Lewis’s attempts at apologetics, saying that most “critics” and “academic theologians” are able to poke holes in Lewis’s arguments quite easily. All I can say is that Lewis not only convinces me, most of the time, but he’s also influenced and convinced quite a few people who are probably much more erudite and learned than I (Chuck Colson, Peter Kreeft, John Piper, Randy Alcorn, Joseph Pearce, Anne Rice, Francis Collins, Phillip Yancey, and many, many more).
Then there are things that Mr. McGrath glosses or skips over completely. Charles Williams, Owen Barfield, G.K. Chesterton, and George Macdonald, to mention a few of the major influences on Lewis’s writing, are all mentioned only very briefly. Tolkien is, on the other hand, given center stage. Now, as I said above, I love Tolkien, but I consider that in a book about influences on C.S. Lewis’s life and thought, Tolkien is only one of the people who should be featured or emphasized.
And in another example of misplaced emphasis, McGrath writes about the Narnia books in excruciating details while speeding by the Space trilogy and The Great Divorce with indecent haste. These books constitute some of Lewis’s best writing in my estimation. The balance just feels off, but what there is there is interesting and informative.
For a more extensive and scholarly review of C.S. Lewis: A Life, see this article by Arend Smilde in The Journal of Inkling Studies.
By the way, I went with Eldest Daughter this past weekend to an academic conference on Walker Percy, the Southern author best known for his novel The Moviegoer, and my thoughts about Mr. Percy and his works became entangled with my thoughts about Lewis, to some benefit perhaps. More on Percy and Lewis and the intersection thereof in a later post.