book cover imageC. S. Lewis—A Life: Eccentric Genius, Reluctant Prophet
by Alister McGrath.
Tyndale, 2013.
Hardcover, 488 pages, $24.

Fifty years after his death, the Irish born but British bred scholar, apologist, and novelist C. S. Lewis remains incredibly popular in America, where formal C. S. Lewis Societies and numerous smaller groups have been established to study and perpetuate his vast corpus of works. The most famous of these, the seven children’s stories that comprise The Chronicles of Narnia, have sold millions of copies in many languages and have been adapted for the silver screen.

The success of Lewis’s diverse writings has also fueled a sustained interest in Lewis the man. Formal biographies, academic studies, and the biographical film Shadowlands have emphasized Lewis as imaginative genius, Oxford don, literary theologian, or even love-struck middle aged man. A new chapter in these continuing conversations was opened with the publication from 2004–2006 of three volumes of Lewis’s private letters that allowed the public to hear Lewis’s own glosses on his works and the events of his life.

Alister McGrath brings Lewis’s own voice to the foreground by effectively shaping the 3,500 pages of letters into the backbone of C. S. Lewis: A Life. This psychoanalytical biography offers fresh insights, judgments, and criticisms of Lewis’s life and writings by carefully examining Lewis’s own motivations that hitherto had been hidden from public view. In doing so McGrath achieves his stated goal of “exploring the complex and fascinating connections between Lewis’s external and internal world . . . not to praise Lewis or condemn him, but to understand him.”

For McGrath, Lewis’s letters, while interesting in themselves, serve the greater purpose of elucidating Lewis’s published works. Throughout the biography he moves from the works to Lewis’s stated or implicit inspirations that surround them, sometimes rendering a definitive interpretation, other times rhetorically speculating over questions that will ultimately go unanswered. For instance, in recounting Lewis’s earliest years, McGrath identifies the countryside of Lewis’s native Northern Ireland as the scenic backdrop for several of Lewis’s works; yet McGrath suggestively speculates about other events of his youth that might have found their way into Lewis’s stories. “Is the professor’s house in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe modeled on Leeborough,” the house into which seven-year-old Lewis moved with his family? Other assessments are more introspective: McGrath sees the depiction of Digory Kirke’s deceased mother in The Magician’s Nephew as based on Lewis’s own recollections of his mother, who died when he was ten. Yet he pushes further: “In allowing Digory’s mother to be cured of her terminal illness by the magic apple from Narnia, Lewis seems to be healing his own deep emotional wounds with an imaginative balm, trying to deal with what really happened by imagining what might have happened.”

McGrath employs this psychological approach as he follows Lewis through his tumultuous experience in a British boarding school, his service in the Great War, his education at Oxford, and his strained relationship with his father. He also devotes significant space to evaluating Lewis’s unique and complex relationship with Mrs. Jane Moore, the mother of a friend killed in war, with whom he lived for many years until her death.

But it is Lewis’s years as teacher and writer that receive the most attention. When Lewis arrived at Oxfordfor his teaching fellowship in 1925, he was a specialist in medieval literature and a committed atheist. His conversion first to theism and later to Christianity was thrust upon him by “his discovery of the rational and imaginative appeal of Christianity.” Based on his reading of Lewis’s published works and private correspondence, McGrath advances a new hypothesis: Lewis’s own reckoning of his conversion date was fifteen months before the fact since “[t]here is no evidence for any change of heart on this matter in any of Lewis’s writings dating from 1929,” the year Lewis cites in the autobiographical Surprised by Joy.

Lewis’s conversion had a profound effect on his life and subsequent writings because Christianity provided “the ordering principles of his inner world” that “brought both motivation and theoretical underpinning to his own literary creations.” At Oxford in the 1930s Lewis devoted himself to a demanding regime of tutorials, lectures, and membership in a reading group called the Inklings, where Lewis played the role of “literary midwife” to J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. At this time he had achieved small notoriety for his scholarly and popular writings; during World War II his apologetic works, broadcast over air and read in print, made him a national hero and an international star.

McGrath summarizes and fairly critiques Lewis’s major apologetic works, especially his most famous, Mere Christianity, which “clearly expresses Lewis’s own vision of a basic Christian orthodoxy, shorn of any denominational agendas or interest in ecclesiastical tribalism.” McGrath defends Lewis from what he perceives as unjust attacks by theologians demanding academic rigor from a literary and imaginative apologetic; yet he acknowledges several shortcomings in the work, including the ineffectiveness of Lewis’s famous “trilemma” and the barrier that Lewis’s “social and moral assumptions now pose” to the contemporary reader.

McGrath devotes two chapters to exploring the Narnia series, including its genesis and its many symbolisms. Like Russell Kirk, Lewis recognized that “the key to moral improvement is . . . the captivation of the imagination through powerful stories telling of brave knights and heroic courage.” In the midst of his analysis, McGrath advises that “[w]e should read Narnia as Lewis asks us to read other works of literature—as something that is to be enjoyed on the one hand, and something with the capacity to enlarge our vision of reality on the other.”

McGrath concludes with an assessment of the sustained growth and aura of the “Lewis phenomenon” despite the claims by many Lewis critics that his works would not survive the 1960s. His popularity did ebb in the years before and immediately after his death, but the posthumous appearance of unpublished works combined with the first biographies and the formation of C. S. Lewis Societies revived his stardom. He has been embraced in America more for his religious appeal by a broad scope of Christian denominations who have found his vision of the faith “to be intellectually robust, imaginatively compelling, and ethically fertile.”

For decades Lewis has received a fair amount of criticism on both the left and the right, a reality that McGrath argues is indicative “of his iconic cultural status” that cannot be ignored. For readers interested in Lewis, his work, or how his cultural status developed, McGrath’s biography also cannot be ignored. His flowing narrative and probing inquiries uncover the roots of how the “eccentric genius” from Oxford became a “reluctant prophet” to a multitude of readers in very different social and political settings. In bringing Lewis’s own thoughts to bear on his own life and works, McGrath has illuminated the foibles and inspirations behind the man who has foiled a few and inspired so many. 

David G. Bonagura,Jr. teaches theology at the Seminary of the Immaculate Conception, Huntington, New York.