I’ve just finished McGrath’s C.S. Lewis: A Life, a book in which  my interests in biography, theology and literature converge.
I’ve had an uneasy relationship with Lewis. I was brought up on The Chronicles of Narnia. The crude 1970s cartoon version of The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe was the only video provided for children to watch at several church camps when I was young. For my eighth birthday, my parents bought me the set of books in a boxset (not a common thing; I didn’t own that many books as a child – it was always the libraries); they were a precious possession, and I enjoyed them a lot – although never quite as much as I perhaps felt I should. I went onto to read the Space trilogy as a teenager, but avoided his Christian writings, probably partly because of one over-zealous youth group leader who had only ever read C.S. Lewis and made him sound incredibly dull to me by steering every conversation back to him. Lewis was also just too obvious a choice for me with my dual interest in theology and literature. Yet a couple of years ago, I was blown away by the brilliance of The Great Divorce, one of the best books on eschatology I have ever read, and since then my interest in him has been strengthened.
McGrath’s research is excellent and he is insightful in telling the story of Lewis’s life. Yet his style is precisely wrong for his subject, and it is a failing which drags the book down for me. The problem is one of over-clarity, not only over-simple, pedestrian prose, but constant signposting of every transition (too many ‘to which we now turn’s at the end of each section) and repetitions which grow tiresome. It may well be an attempt to make the book as readable as possible, and it probably succeeds in doing that, but although McGrath writes of the poetry in Lewis’s writing and its beauty, there is little of it in this account of Lewis.
Lewis was long dead before I began reading him; his work comes to the present generations as an established whole. It was of so much value to learn of the development of each book chronologically, of how each book emerged from a particular period of Lewis’s life. The hodge-podge of Lewis I’ve had in my reading – from late works to early works and in between and back again – muddles the sense of a mind not fixed with one position but developing and changing. For example, it was interesting to learn of how his two books on suffering – The Problem of Pain and A Grief Observed – were written at very different times of his life, one a theoretical apology, and the other an emotional account of his own reaction to his wife’s death.
I knew so little of Lewis’s life before reading this biography, and the complexities of it were gripping. I found myself wishing McGrath was just a little more interested in scandal, although he certainly presents the scandalous aspects in a plain-spoken way. Lewis had the strangest relationship with a wife-mother figure, Mrs Moore. I’m sure others have explored it in greater length, and McGrath gives an adequate account, but it is bizarre and seems to have been so crucial to the type of life he lived. McGrath presents Lewis’s eventual wife, Joy Davidman, as a conniving woman, and it is another strange story. McGrath minimises the attempts to get inside Lewis’s head, but I think he should have tried some more. One of the problems, no doubt, is the reticence Lewis would have shown in print about his unusual relationships with women.
Structurally, it all seems to be over so quickly, but that’s the inevitable experience of a biography which is not the size of a brick. Perhaps it was only a question of how engrossed I was, but the second half of his life seemed to be covered in too little detail, perhaps because McGrath’s attention shifted to Lewis’s published work.
Which brings me to a question of biographical method and structure. The book stalled for me in Part Three – ‘Narnia’. McGrath breaks off his narrative of Lewis’s life to offer a rather basic overview of the themes and significance of Narnia. It seems a contravention of the book’s own internal parameters. I think the book would be stronger as a biography if the discussion of Narnia was more deeply rooted in the biographical, even if that meant not saying things McGrath regards as important.
My complaints aside, McGrath has deepened my interest in Lewis and written a good popular-level biography. It would be an interesting exercise to compare the companion release, a more academic account of Lewis – but I’ll probably leave that to others.