Clive Staples Lewis is arguably a household name for most of the Western world, despite his own predictions of obscurity within five years of his death. The almost larger than life person that is C.S. Lewis is now the topic of scholarly research, literature tours of Oxford and Cambridge, and even the topic of the Desiring God national conference in September. But what is it that makes this man from Ireland so appealing to such a wide range of audiences, both Christian and non-Christian alike? This new biography by Alister McGrath, perhaps better known for his writings on systematic theology, seeks to provide a non-hagiographic account of the life and work of Lewis.
McGrath provides a fresh approach to Lewis, as one who did not know him personally, but rather came to know the C.S. Lewis of his writings. This approach is combined with the recent publication by Walter Hooper of Lewis’ combined letters. Upon this new material McGrath brings his academic investigative mind to bear, and challenges some of the long held dates and orders of accounts of Lewis’ life. However, more fruitful than some of the seemingly pedantic quibbles over dating is the rich portrait of Lewis that emerges from McGrath’s analysis of both the man, and his writings. McGrath delves deeply into the letters between Lewis and his childhood friend Arthur Greeves, and uses these to shed light on other happenings in Lewis’ life. Through this the book helpfully fills out many gaps that have been left by prior biographies, including aspects of Lewis’ life that may appear to be idiosyncratic to a modern evangelical audience; such as his relationship with Mrs. Moore. McGrath does not attempt to hide some of the more eccentric aspects of Lewis’ character, although nor does he dwell on them any more than is needed.
In addition to the illumination that McGrath sheds upon Lewis’ life, he also equally illuminates the world of Lewis’ writings and storytelling in equal measure. From Lewis’ early attempts at poetry, through to his academic works on Milton’s Paradise Lost, to the wartime writing of the scripts that would become Mere Christianity, on to the science-fiction such as Perelandra (the Space Trilogy), and his best known series: Narnia; McGrath helpfully sheds light on the background to each work and comments on the links that are sometimes tantalisingly below the surface. For example when describing the Space Trilogy the parallels with the anti-vivisection movement of the day are picked out, or when investigating the death of Aslan in Narnia, Lewis’ own views on the atonement are compared and highlighted. These links drawn from Lewis’ own written material are invaluable for anyone approaching Lewis from his literature.
Overall McGrath tracks Lewis’ life from his early years in Ireland, through his period of military service and then studies at Oxford, his eventual fellowship there, his writings, involvement with the Inklings, to his later life in Cambridge and finally his passing. The picture that is painted of Lewis is rich and detailed, not passing over the blemishes and imperfections, but also not dwelling upon them. It does not seek to deify the man that is C.S. Lewis, but instead is appropriately critical when needed. This biography provides a great apologia for C.S. Lewis in some areas, and suggests improvements for scholarship in others. McGrath writes engagingly and attractively, painting his picture of Lewis adeptly. C.S. Lewis: A Life is a great biography of the man, and one that is a brilliant read; one that perhaps can only be improved by reading it in the back room of the Eagle and Child.
I give it 4.5/5 stars