Alan Jacobs quotes Philip Hensher on C. S. Lewis: ‘Let us drop C. S. Lewis and his ghastly, priggish, half-witted money-making drivel about Narnia down the nearest deep hole … They are mean-minded books, written to corrupt the minds of the young with allegory, smugly denouncing anything that differs in the slightest respect from Lewis’s creed of clean-living, muscular Christianity, pipe-smoking misogyny, racism and the most vulgar snobbery.’ He doesn’t like the ‘science fiction’ trilogy or Screwtape either.
Mr Hensher is not about to be obeyed. The Narnia Chronicles have sold 85 million copies and, as a special Christmas present to keep Hensher sputtering, Disney is bringing out its first Narnia film this December. There are more to follow. I do not know if these two books on Lewis were written in that knowledge, but they certainly highlight Narnia in their title. In fact neither are books on the Narnia Chronicles. White has a very small section on them, Jacobs more but still a minor part of the book. Both are more or less biographies, White’s more, Jacobs’ less.
Why do we need two more biographies? It seems as if anybody and everybody gets his biography written nowadays. I eagerly await the first biography of a weather forecaster. Lewis of course is more than a weather-forecaster and certainly deserves a biography but he already has some. Why more? The genre of biography is suitable for someone whose whole life was directly interesting or who was living in an interesting environment or with other people who were interesting. There were episodes in Lewis’s life that were interesting, notably his conversion and the establishment of his peculiar form of Christianity and the relations with Charles Williams and J. R. R. Tolkien. His books are interesting. But most of his external life was commendably dull. There are some people, White is one, who are very interested in whether he went to bed with his ‘Mother’, Mrs Moore. Even here Lewis is not helpful, refusing to discuss it and destroying the evidence of letters. This does not stop White going on about it. He has nothing much new to add. Some people, including many of those who are interested in Mrs Moore, are also interested in Lewis’s love for and ‘marriage’ to Joy Davidson. But this has all been written about before. White drags us through the childhood, schooling, the sad relationship with father yet again. We are even given quite a lot on poor old brother Warnie on the toot or drying out. For White is one of those biographers who like to explain, and explain away, ideas by biography: ‘For most of his life [Lewis] could, with great effort, resist this tug of the past through denial and the transference of his desires. And perhaps this past is the reason he needed to find a substitute in religion.’
There’s precious little in this book for anyone who already knows the tale. White has, as he himself happily says, little interest in Lewis’s ‘religious devotions’. He is an atheist ‘focussed on the present and the future’. What I was intrigued by was his curious style. On the first page we find the Inklings each with a beer. And what are they doing with it? They are each ‘nursing a pint of beer’. Outside the pub, it’s windy. What sort of wind? A ‘bracing wind sweeps along St Giles’. This is swiftly followed by Lewis with ‘alcohol coursing through his veins’ and much later becoming ‘a devout Christian’. I was soon hooked on these and ‘eagerly turned’ each page looking for the next one. There are some crackers. ‘Albert [the father] received the dread news that he had cancer’. Lewis returns to England ‘with a heavy heart’. Lewis was ‘isolated from the mundane comings and goings of the world’ and the Inklings have ‘far more beer than was good for them’. His most sustained example is a description of Magdalen College which reminded me of an Oxford tourist bus guide. His most succinct, ‘Lewis was a late bloomer’.
Remove the unnecessary biography from the Jacobs book and you have something much more substantial. Jacobs does not explain ideas through childhood experience. He spends a lot of time on the books themselves. He gives a close account of the intellectual relationship with Tolkien and Williams and has a short but new analysis of Lewis’s curious dislike of Eliot. Most of all he provides some evidence to construct a picture of the sort of Christian Lewis was. It’s a bizarre mix, this sacramentalist and orthodox thinker who could espouse a core ‘mere’ Christianity which was highly ecumenical yet excluded novelties such as women priests, a man with a selectively catholic view, high on Atonement, low on Church but certainly not a ‘muscular Christian’. Jacobs is good too on the relation of Lewis’s understanding of myth and Christianity. In short had this book been called ‘The Ideas and Imagination of C. S. Lewis’ and restricted to them it would have been even better.