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.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated 20 April 2013