Paul Johnson reviews 'C.S. Lewis: A Life', by Alister McGrath

20 April 2013

9:00 AM

20 April 2013

9:00 AM

C.S. Lewis: A Life Alister McGrath

Hodder, pp.448, £20

C.S. Lewis became a celebrity but remains a mysterious figure. Several biographies have been written, not to much avail, and now Alister McGrath, a professor of historical theology, has compiled a painstaking, systematic and ungrudging examination of his life and works. Despite all the trouble he has taken, his book lacks charm and does not make one warm to his subject.

Lewis was an Ulsterman, and prone to the melancholy of his race, though without their bitter prejudices. The principal figures in his life were all unattractive. First was his father, whom Lewis disliked intensely and felt horrible guilt about his lack of love. Second was Mrs Moore, widow of a wartime comrade whom Lewis promised to look after, and did, though she gradually became domineering and selfish and then a demanding burden after dementia set in. Third, late in his life, was a pushy New Yorker, Joy Davidson, who prised her way into his career and married him, before dying.And throughout all this, there was his brother Warnie, a chronic alcoholic who had to be looked after. This is unpromising material.

But the fact is, Lewis was a genius. I was never in any doubt about that. The first grown-up book I read voluntarily, when I was 14, was A Preface to Paradise Lost, in which Lewis tackled the hugely difficult subject of the English epic, and made it enchanting. When I arrived at Magdalen College, Oxford, aged 17, I was overwhelmed to find Lewis there, and friendly. We many times went the famous circuit of Addison’s Walk and Lewis’s obiter dicta remain with me for life. (‘Imagine if Wordsworth and Coleridge had gone to Oxford, not Cambridge: the whole of modern English literature would have been quite different.’)


He had a rich, fruity laugh which boomed out, dispelling his underlying sadness. He was a superb lecturer, beginning as he entered Magdalen hall, and continuing after he passed out of the door at the end, and his powerful voice faded away. The girls adored him and crowded out the benches, lying on the boards at his feet as there was no room to sit. He got them excited and, it was said, your best chance of seducing one was the afternoon of a Lewis lecture on medieval romance, the subject of his most famous academic work, The Allegory of Love.

He was also an excellent tutor, and for most of his time at Magdalen did 24 hours a week, a heavy burden on top of his lecturing, particularly since he prepared his work conscientiously and listened tenderly to his pupils’ essays. He crowned his time there by writing the volume on the 16th century in the Oxford History of English Literature, all except the drama, but including the first modern treatment of Spenser — a masterly exposition.

Unfortunately Lewis damned himself at Oxford by becoming famous. Early in the Thirties he fell under the influence of two other scholars, J.R.R. Tolkien and Hugo Dyson. The first is famous but McGrath has little to say about Dyson, who was actually the more interesting of the two. Through them, Lewis came to believe in God, and eventually in Christianity. During the war, the BBC taught him to broadcast and he emerged a master.

His fame spread to America and made his religious books, especially on miracles, the problem of pain and the Devil, best- sellers. Run-of-the-mill dons do not like fame, especially on the airwaves, and Lewis — like his Magdalen contemporary, A.J.P. Taylor, and for the same reason — was denied a professorial chair. In Lewis’s case, the rejection was severe because his Christian teaching was intimately linked to his love and understanding of English literature. They were mutually self-supporting.

It was left to Cambridge to right the injustice, and in the early Fifties to bestow a newly created chair. In the meantime, Lewis, like his colleague Tolkien, had created a series of imaginative stories. The Chronicles of Narnia were works of keen imagination, appealing alike to many children and perceptive adults. They echoed the incarnation of Christ, his death and resurrection, and have enjoyed a mass-revival in the United States in recent years, where they have been responsible for creating a new kind of Christianity: what might be called educated evangelicalism. This is a remarkable and valuable phenomenon, and gives Lewis a high rank among writers on religion, alongside Wesley and Newman.

He deserves his lasting appeal, and for three reasons. First he was immensely well- read, delving into every corner of English literature with intelligence and sympathy, and squeezing from it moral qualities which had been hitherto unsuspected in many works. Second, he had an enviable clarity, so that his meaning, even when making rarefied distinctions, always leaps from the page. Thirdly, he had excellent judgment in both literature and theology, and combined them both in fascinating books which never condescend and are always a pleasure to read. Alister McGrath gives us much food for thought in this dutiful, sound and worthy book.

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Show comments
  • Martin Walker

    I recently reread The Lion The Witch and the Wardrobe for the first time since childhood – it’s a ghastly piece of writing, talk about heavy-handed. I think he had a tin ear, even worse than Tolkien’s. So the insufferable Narnia books gave the USA ” a new kind of Christianity” – you can tell that to the Marines.

    • Alarms & Discursions

      Tolkien isn’t writing for 8 year olds.

    • Kristine Christlieb Canavan

      So, you’re all grown up now with adult tastes and knowledge of the most common of critical cliches: “tin ear” and “heavy handed.” Well said.

      • Al_de_Baran

        “So, you’re all grown up now”…

        You might try aspiring to that state before expressing your own Pavlovian reaction.

      • Martin Walker

        I don’t think they are the most common of critical clichés – but apart from that I still enjoy the children’s books of Kenneth Grahame, Edith Nesbit or Lewis Carroll, to mention only three. They could write. Lewis was a manipulative ideologue.

    • vepxistqaosani

      Wow. You try writing intelligently while denying yourself the use of English’s Latin and Greek vocabulary. Tolkien and Solzhenitsyn were both masters of their languages — Anglo-Saxon and Old Slavonic, respectively — and made them live again in the 20th century.

    • Joe Cogan

      Lewis’s writing is sabotaged at every turn in the Narnia books by the ham-fisted Christian allegory. I’ve long suspected that Tolkien was taking a not-so-gentle swipe at his friend and colleague when he spoke of his own detestation of allegory in his preface to the paperback edition of Lord of the Rings.

      • Andrew Attaway

        Allegory? Not quite. Ham-fisted? Hardly. I’ve read that entire Narnia series aloud five times, once to each of my children. They were entranced by it and hardly concerned at all with mapping it to a particular theology.

  • Don Phillipson

    “Second was Mrs Moore, widow of a wartime comrade whom Lewis promised to look after, and did . . .” This seems a fatal error. Mrs. Moore was not the widow of Lewis’s dead school friend: she was his mother; and Lewis’s own mother had died when he was 10 (at which age he was sent to a boarding school run by a lunatic.) If the “unattractive . . . principal figures in his life” matter at all, readers need to know accurately who they were.

    • mistercranky2010

      Another correction: Lewis’s second wife was Joy Davidman not Joy Davidson.

      • ettm

        First correction: Lewis did not have a wife before Joy.

    • Cumberland

      Paddy Moore was an Army friend not a school friend.

  • Robert

    I came to Lewis in my twenties and loved the Narnia books. I was also keen on his SF, but a recent re-reading of my favourite, That Hideous Strength, left me flat. Perhaps I should dwell on what the book meant to me in youth, rather than its effect thirty plus years on.

    Maybe I won’t go back to Narnia, but Lewis wrote with clarity, always with the intention of entertaining even while informing or (sometimes) proselytizing. I can still find delight in fables and fantasies like The Great Divorce – the stuff he did best, which didn’t require too much of a novelist’s touch but were sharply imagined, almost without abstraction.

    Look, he never wrote a work full of “issues” about gender, class and race in which an aging academic has an adulterous affair with a student. But if I want one of those, I know the way to the Booker shelf.

  • Al_de_Baran

    ” Thirdly, {Lewis] had excellent judgment in […] literature”

    No, he didn’t, as his idiotic remarks on Olaf Stapledon, his literary superior in every respect, make plain.

    • Fergus Pickering

      Stapledon is a truly terrible writer.

    • Mudz

      Hahaha, the feud lives! I have to go with Fergus, while Lewis isn’t, so far, my favourite author, at least I enjoyed his Space Trilogy. I got bored about 10% of the way through ‘Star Maker’ and still haven’t gotten back to it.

      But each to their own.

    • ZZMike

      Stapledon is not anyone’s literary superior. “Star Maker”, “Sirius”, and “First & Last Men”, for example, are plodding, tedious stories. They are also among the first serious attempts at writing about things “larger-than-life” (or rather, “larger than anything”). Maybe it’s his 19th-century style that’s gone out of fashion.

  • Jon Jermey

    The claim that Lewis’s books on religion don’t ‘condescend’ may have been true for his target audience at the time, but from a modern perspective most of his apologetic arguments are puerile and easily refuted. Unfortunately they have been seized on as ‘proof’ by large numbers of believers — particularly fundamentalists — and a good deal of time and effort now has to be spent on their refutation. Perhaps if Lewis had been a less fluent writer he might have been a better thinker.

    • MikeT-NYC

      This only proves Jon hasn’t read Lewis’s serious books. “Mere Christianity,” e.g., was written for working-class men and women to listen to on the radio. Obviously a book like that had to be in a simple, easily understood format. But the arguments Lewis wrote for his scholarly peers are definitely not “easily refuted.” I would have loved to see Lewis debate Christopher Hitchens, whom he would have (very politely) ground into mincemeat.

      • Chris Morriss

        Lewis did rely on bluster in his arguments. I have no doubt he would have walked all over Richard Dawkins, who like most on the left, thinks himself invincible, but Hitchens, I’m not so sure.

        • John Border

          You lot are venemous to Dawkins because he really hit hard and you’ve suffered mockery ever since.

      • pbasch

        If Lewis had debated me, I would have ground him into mincemeat! See how easy that was? And since he’s dead, there’s no refuting it!
        Lewis sounds like a wonderful person, and his writing is full of charm and brio. His apologetics are unconvincing, to me, anyway, but if you really want to believe the Christian myth then I suppose they offer some comfort.

        On the other hand, if only every idiotic, mean-spirited, bigoted evangelical had Lewis’s gentility and politeness, we’d have a better world.

        • Mudz

          Kind of goes without saying doesn’t it? If every idiotic, mean-spirited gimpy one-eyed duck was like Lewis it would be a better world. And slightly more interesting.

          I haven’t read ‘Mere Christianity’ yet, but I am quite comfortable already. Should try not to make assumptions about the intellectual comfort levels of Christians, for the same reasons one shouldn’t make the assumption that our ghosts are better than your ghosts.

        • John Border

          “If Lewis had ‘debated’ me…”. Well he’d have ripped you to shreds for that howler alone.

          • pbasch

            First, he was (by all accounts) far too gentle for that. But, other than that… what do you mean? Was my usage wrong? Should it have been “debated with me”? Or something else? Can you not “debate” a person, but only a topic with a person?
            I’d love to know.

    • Fergus Pickering

      Make up your mind. If they are easily refuted then where is the time and effort?

  • Fergus Pickering

    There are two views about C.S. Lewis. He was a marvellous teacher so long as you agreed with everything he said. John Betjeman didn’t get on with him at all and left Oxford without a degree mainly because Lewis disliked him. Which was a poor show since Betjeman knew a lot, even as an undergraduate. It is not good for a brilliant teacher to be a bully. Which Lewis was.

    • John Border

      “He left Oxford without a degree because Lewis disliked him? ” Come off it; even if true it makes Betjeman a complete woos who didnt deserve a degree.

      And B “knew a lot”. Do you believe that this is the quality needed for a degree? Perhaps at Oxford it’s enough, but not at a real university.

      • Fergus Pickering

        Yes. I think knowing a lot is a qualification for gaining a degree. Better than knowing bugger all, wouldn’t you say? What is a real university, by the way?

  • Eric Schumacher

    I couldn’t find the review of the book. I thought it was on this page. Is it somewhere else?

  • Raymond Swenson

    Being able to make your arguments comprehensible to the less educated is the primary demonstration that you yourself understand them. And despite the prejudices of academia, the comprehendibility of an argument does not make it less true or less worthy of respect. Lewis had the ability to bring into the light the unspoken assumptions made in atheist arguments and make a good case that they were often based on human prejudices rather than pure reason.

  • Luci N. Shaw

    It’s true that this deeply-researched biography lacks charm, but it does reveal C. S. Lewis is more human than I’d thought. For one thing, he was deceptive throughout his life, concealing his living arrangements with Mrs. Janie Moore to all but a very few close colleagues. I’m interested that McGrath re-dates C.S.L.’s conversion to Christian faith a year later than other biographers, largely because Lewis had “a terrible memory for dates” and in later years may have conflated a couple of incidents that occurred within a year of each other while he was at Oxford.

  • Jearnshaw

    To mark the 50th anniversary of CS Lewis’ death, a new production of the play “Shadowlands” is being performed by the Unleashed Theatre Company at Buckfast Abbey in Devon from 26th August – 31st August 2013.