A Life of C.S. Lewis Worthy of the Writer

MANY readers of C.S. Lewis will not welcome A.N. Wilson's new biography of the great scholar, novelist, and Christian apologist. Readers of his scholarship will find it unhelpful in critical controversy; readers of his fiction may wish to be left alone with the novels; and those who love his works on Christian themes may find it distracting. This is a critical biography by a very skillful biographer and novelist; it is not an introduction to Lewis's writings or a paean to a man who can no longer enjoy praise. Lewis was born in Belfast in 1898; it's arguable he never grew up. As Wilson shows, he began his popular Narnia stories for children with the ``The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe'' in 1939, on the rebound. He had just been publicly trounced in a philosophy debate at Oxford University, where he taught literature; and his companion of 20 years had just died; his male friendships had cooled. ``There can be little doubt that the energy and passion of the Narnia stories spring from the intensely unhappy and physically depleted state through which he had been passing,'' says Wilson.

Lewis's affair with Janie Moore began on a chivalric note. He had promised Mrs. Moore's son, Paddy, that should Paddy die in the trenches of World War I, whence they both went in 1917, he would take care of Paddy's mother and sister. Paddy was killed; Lewis moved in; he and Mrs. Moore were together until her death. As Wilson says, the burden of proof falls on those who think the relationship was platonic.

But at last Lewis had a family. His mother died when he was nine. His father shipped him off to school in England a few months later. Lewis never forgave his father. It was Mrs. Moore who saw him off to the war, not Mr. Lewis. Nor did Mr. Lewis greet him when he came home. When Lewis came to write his autobiography, he left out his relationships with his father and Mrs. Moore. Wilson says he feared people would interpret his life as a footnote to the Oedipal theory.

Wilson himself avoids theory. His view is that Lewis ``was to spend nearly all his literary energies imagining what the world would look like if seen from heaven.'' While his arrangement and presentation of the facts may disappoint some fans of C.S. Lewis, the fullness of his account - his lively appreciation of the full range of Lewis's work, his obvious affection for the man, his vigorous, witty style - must be counted in the balance.

If Lewis's life is not a Freudian allegory, it may be an ``allegory of love.'' ``The Allegory of Love'' was Lewis's first book. It's a reading of medieval romance literature and original as an introduction to allegory. In one of his last books, Lewis wrote: ``Years ago when I wrote about medieval love poetry and described its strange half make-believe `religion of love' I was blind enough to treat this as an almost purely literary phenomenon. I know better now.''

AS Wilson shows in fascinating detail, Lewis began as a young skeptic, a member of a generation of philosophers who could find no words for things they could not see. He had met Yeats, wanted to be, like him, a major poet, but was taking up philosophy professionally. When an opportunity arose for him to study literature and stay with Mrs. Moore, he took it, rather than move away. So Mrs. Moore and love allegory teamed up and turned his head. He had some help from the man who edited his first book for Oxford University Press, Charles Williams; and he had help from Owen Barfield and J.R. Tolkien, who convinced him that a failure to grasp Christianity was a failure of the imagination.

Wilson charts Lewis's spiritual path in phases. In the first phase, he accepted a theistic principle called God; in the second phase, he accepted the Gospel. When Mrs. Moore died, he had a ``second conversion'' and experienced for the first time the grace of God's forgiving love.

That's when he met his wife, Joy Davidman, an American woman running away from a perfectly awful husband who soon divorced her. When Lewis married Joy, they knew she had cancer. When the cancer went into remission, they felt it was a miracle. They had almost nine mostly happy years together before she died.

Lewis was not through learning about himself and God. The works he wrote after Joy's death are some of his most powerful, most eloquent, most useful, and most used. He wrote them with ashesin his mouth. Lewis wrote, ``My idea of God is not a divine idea. It has to be shattered time after time. He shatters it himself.''

Wilson rightly pauses here. Lewis had rebounded in a most extraordinary way. His faith had made room for his grief; his imagination had made room for an iconoclastic God. The toughness of Lewis in the end is astonishing, inspiring, and can only be explained if we accept, without apology or pretentions, all the facts of his life.

Many will read this book who never read Lewis. Wilson believes, and his biography shows, that we need to understand the man if we are to understand the works because Lewis is that kind of writer - as were Wordsworth and Yeats. Which puts Lewis in the company he always wanted to be in anyway. In brief, this book is worthy of the man. Exact, stylish, shrewd, and generous; it stands alone.

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