“Lewis has made the most difficult transition an author can hope to make-being read by more people a generation after his death than before it.”
While it has now been more than 35 years since an undergraduate course called “The Inklings” introduced me to Clive Staples Lewis, John Ronald Reuel Tolkien, Dorothy Leigh Sayers, and Charles Walter Stansby Williams and their wonderful literary worlds which continue to bring enjoyment and, in true academic fashion, debate to millions of people, Alister McGrath, has brought back the memories of that class in his new biography of C.S. Lewis called, C.S. Lewis: A Life – Eccentric Genius, Reluctant Prophet (Tyndale House Publishers).
Focusing on what he calls, based on a comment by Lewis’ friend Owen Barfield, “three C.S. Lewises,” McGrath with both a critical eye and an admiration for Lewis and his work, walks us through these “three Lewises” – a best selling author, “Christian writer and apologist,” and “perhaps the least familiar to most of his admirers and critics: the distinguished Oxford don and literary critic.” As he does a clearer portrait of a gifted writer and thinker who died the same day as American President John F. Kennedy was assassinated emerges for a contemporary readership.
McGrath’s book, is divided into five sections, Prelude which begins with Lewis’ birth and concludes with his service in the British Army in World War One and the emerging relationship with Jane King Moore; Oxford which picks up with his student days in 1919 and concludes with his growing alienation from the Oxford faculty amidst a changing university post-World War Two culture; Narnia which takes the reader into, through, and around various aspects of Lewis’ well-known Chronicles of Narnia; Cambridge that highlights a rebirth and refocus of Lewis regarding literary scholarship, his controversial marriage to Joy Davidson and then her death as well as his declining health that led to his death on November 22, 1963; and finally Afterlife in which McGrath assesses Lewis among the wider Christian community as well seeking to understand and answer the reasons for his popularity five decades after his death.
In his preface, McGrath makes clear that his biography “sets out, not to praise Lewis or condemn him, but to understand him- above all, his ideas, and how these found expression in his writings.” McGrath attempts to do this by “exploring the complex and fascinating connections between Lewis’s external and internal worlds.” I believe that McGrath accomplishes these goals with the result of a critical biography that I believe will contribute to the on-going discussion, debate, and study of Lewis.
What I liked about this book is that McGrath presents a new and multifaceted view and approach to Lewis and his work. I believe that this will be a work used in classes at both the undergraduate and graduate levels in literature classes in the years to come.
I rate this a ‘great’ read.
Note: I borrowed this book from my local library and chose to write a review of it.