Book Review — C.S. Lewis: A Life

CSLewisBookCover_smClive 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

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