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C.S. Lewis: A Life

On the 50th anniversary of his death, this new C.S. Lewis biography succeeds in deepening the appeal of his works.

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But McGrath is nothing if not thorough, taking full advantage of some recent resources not available to earlier biographers. Most notable is the extensive collection of Lewis correspondence published between 2000 to 2006. “These letters, essential to Lewis scholarship, form the narrative backbone of this biography,” McGrath writes.

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Most of the story in McGrath’s book will be familiar to readers of earlier Lewis biographies. Born in Belfast in 1898 to an upper middle-class family, Lewis spent his childhood in a rambling house that had more than a passing resemblance to the setting of “The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe.” The tranquility of Lewis’s early youth gave way to turmoil when his mother died, prompting his father to place him in a series of oppressive boarding schools. Isolated, Lewis took solace in books, giving himself the first lessons he’d use in a career in letters. Eventually, Lewis found a mentor in William Thompson Kirkpatrick, a former school master whose cultivated skepticism fueled Lewis’ growing doubts about orthodox religion. Lewis became an atheist, a position he retained into his early academic career as a scholar of English literature at Oxford.

McGrath, who admits to following a similar path from skepticism to religious faith, seems most engaged at the midpoint of “C.S. Lewis: A Life,” when he carefully charts Lewis’s evolution from nonbeliever to fervent Christian thinker in the years between 1930-1932. McGrath points out that Lewis’ conversion was part of a larger wave nudging fellow intellectuals such as T.S. Eliot and Evelyn Waugh into the church. Lewis, says McGrath, “fits into a broader pattern at this time – the conversion of literary scholars and writers through and because of their literary interests. Lewis’s love of literature is not a backdrop to his conversion; it is integral to his discovery of the rationale and imaginative appeal of Christianity.”

McGrath’s observation is central to his biography, which suggests that the best way to understand Lewis is to know what he read and wrote. The most abiding gift of “C.S. Lewis: Life” is its fierce curiosity about the novels, letters, and books of popular philosophy that are Lewis’ most substantial legacy. McGrath’s biography promises to introduce new readers to those works – and inspire veteran C.S. Lewis fans to visit them again.

Danny Heitman, an author and columnist for The Baton Rouge Advocate, is an adjunct professor at LSU’s Manship School of Mass Communication.      

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