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Wednesday, 14 March 2007 00:00

Fascinating as Lewis himself

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Among Christians, C.S. Lewis has a reputation that runs in several directions. As the author of The Chronicles of Narnia, Mere Christianity, The Great Divorce, The Screwtape Letters, and a shelf of other novels, apologetic works, and Renaissance studies, Lewis is regarded by many Christians as “Saint Jack,” the greatest of modern Christian apologists whose biography itself seems a study in redemption and grace.

 

Both Catholics and Protestants read Lewis with interest and pleasure. On the other hand, a small minority of Christians dislike his promotion of Christian orthodoxy. The Screwtape Letters annoys these Christian free-thinkers, as does The Great Divorce, in which Lewis forcibly and wittily shows us how and why a hell might exist.

Because of the autobiographical nature of some of his own writing — Surprised By Joy, A Grief Observed, and certain of his essays — and because he has achieved celebrity status among many Christians (particularly evangelicals), many of Lewis’s readers are familiar with the lineaments of his life. Born into an Anglo-Irish household, taught at one point by an eccentric practitioner of logic who had an enormous influence on his thinking, and wounded in the First World War, he was an Oxford student and don; a member of the Inklings, a group of writers whose members included J.R.R. Tolkien; a writer of several Christian classics; and a man who was married late in life to a woman whose death from cancer brought him to a spiritual crisis. These are the facts, roughly delivered, of Lewis’ life.

Ardent spirits like Lewis attract ardent spirits, men and women who champion their hero and who react to any judgment on his character as a judgment on themselves. No doubt his knowledge of such defenders led Alan Jacobs to write in the preface of The Narnian: The Life and Imagination of C.S. Lewis (ISBN 0-06-076690-5, $25.95) a pre-emptive apology to those who might “take umbrage at some claim, description, or argument I have made in these pages.” He tells these critics “I repent in sackcloth and ashes. I bow to your knowledge and wisdom....”

Jacobs may have gotten some of the details of Lewis’ life wrong, and certainly he could have misconstrued or misinterpreted some events or pieces of evidence used to interpret Lewis’s writing, yet any Lewis admirers who take up their critical hatchets against Jacobs would do well to consider the good that comes from such a biography. Here Jacobs has brought us a living Lewis, a man who was often contradictory in his nature, who found himself in times in spiritual darkness, who could be overbearing and loud in discussions, who took care of Mrs. Moore, the mother of a friend who died in World War I, but who was probably her lover as well, a teacher who often disliked tutoring, yet left his mark on hundreds of students.

Jacobs reveals little new here in terms of the events of Lewis’s life, though in discussing his relationship with Mrs. Moore he seems to make a strong case for a sexual relationship between the two. Where The Narnian captures the hearts of its readers, however, is in its communication of Lewis’s love of beauty, joy, ideas, and faith, and how these related to his work and his life. Jacobs writes most powerfully when examining Lewis’ books, showing us the intricate relationship between the events of an author’s life and the words he puts on paper. In his discussion of The Pilgrim’s Regress, for example, the book which Lewis wrote just after his conversion (and which he viewed as his weakest book), Jacobs brings up G.K. Chesterton, the Scottish Kirk, T.S. Eliot, Hegel and Wittgenstein, orthodoxy, a theory of history, and half-a-dozen other minor topics.

In addition to being a fine literary analyst, Jacobs is a daring critic and biographer. He writes that he considers Lewis’ greatest book to be English Literature in the Sixteenth Century (Excluding Drama), the title alone of which might send most of us sprinting for the nearest exit. Yet Jacobs tells us so much about the making of this book, its scholarship and mastery of its period, the brilliance with which it was written, that we feel increasingly drawn to a desire to read it.

One particularly well-drawn portrait in the book is that of the critic and playwright Kenneth Tynan. Flamboyant, sexually promiscuous, radical in his approach to theater (he directed the first all-nude musical, Oh Calcutta), Tynan would strike most observers as differing radically from the academic Lewis. Yet it happened that Lewis served as Tynan’s tutor at Oxford, meeting with him weekly to discuss his reading and examining his essays. Though he probably never converted to Christianity, Tynan nevertheless felt a life-long respect for Lewis, a respect he apparently discussed many times with his wife and friends. In the final decade of his life, he returned again and again to Lewis’ writings, attracted, as Jacobs writes, “by a vision of the life that is best for people to live.”

At Tynan’s funeral in September, 1980, his 13-year-old daughter Roxana Tynan was last to speak. She read three sentences from C.S. Lewis’ The Weight of Glory.

Tynan had found in Lewis’s words what he wanted as the final commentary on his life, words that may strike a similar chord of harmony in all who love books and beauty:

The books or the music in which we thought the beauty was located will betray us if we trust to them; it was not in them, it only came through them, and what came through them was longing. These things — the beauty, the memory of our own past — are good images of what we really desire; but if they are mistaken for the thing itself, they turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of their worshippers. For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited.

The Narnian: The Life and Imagination of C.S. Lewis by Alan Jacobs. HarperSanFrancisco, 2005. 368 pages.

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