Spotlight on the creator of Narnia

As a film of 'Narnia' looms, all eyes turn to C.S. Lewis

In his erudite new biography of Clive Staples Lewis, Alan Jacobs estimates that from 1949 to 1955, Lewis wrote 600,000 words of prose (not counting work on his book on 16th-century literature).

In anticipation of the new movie "The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe," Harper Collins is releasing all of them, and then some. One hundred and seventy books on, by, or about the famous author and defender of Christianity are being pumped into 60 countries in time for the Dec. 9 première.

It's a stack tall enough to give even the most voracious bookworm vertigo. The result, though, is that readers can satisfy their taste for almost any aspect of Lewis's life, letters, or arcana (the "Narnia Cookbook," anyone?). Among the cascade of books are three new biographies of Lewis that share a Christian perspective, but are very different in their approach.

The Narnian, by Professor Jacobs of Illinois's Wheaton College, which houses Lewis's papers, is the most impressive, and is designed for readers who want to get to know Lewis the scholar and theologian.

Jacobs says he's less interested in what Lewis (who was known to all as "Jack") did on any given day, than in "the life of the mind, the story of an imagination." While he follows a chronological format through Lewis's childhood, the early death of his mother, schooling, and service in World War I, once Lewis is ensconced as a don at Oxford, Jacobs jumps around to themes that most interest him.

He provides excellent context by explaining authors and literature that influenced Lewis, such as George MacDonald and "The Golden Bough." But readers who haven't read such Lewis works as "Mere Christianity," "The Problem of Pain," or "The Four Loves," may feel tangled in a theological thicket, a sensation exacerbated by Jacobs's occasionally stilted tone.

To his credit, Jacobs doesn't shy away from handling topics such as charges of sexism and racism in Lewis's writings, and his matter-of-fact approach is welcome (although I wish he had overcome his prejudice against Charles Williams, a novelist whom Lewis regarded as a dear friend and about whom we hear little).

Overall, if you delight in the idea of G.K. Chesterton debating playwright George Bernard Shaw and are tickled by the title "English Literature in the Sixteenth Century (Excluding Drama)" pull up a chair.

Readers who are interested in the day-to-day routine will enjoy The C.S. Lewis Chronicles by Colin Duriez. Filled with trivia, and written in day-book style, it may also appeal to those who like to draw their own conclusions with less of a biographer's filter. Of the three "The Chronicles" also gives the fullest portrait of Oxford's Inklings, Christian scholars and writers interested in fantasy whose members included Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien.

(Jacobs, however, does a better job of outlining the importance of that friendship to both men, and the subsequent coolness on the part of Tolkien, who despised the Narnia books and objected to the idea of Lewis, a layman, explaining Christianity to the masses.)

Finally, Lewis's stepson Douglas Gresham has penned a love letter called Jack's Life. It's not a memoir like his earlier "Lenten Lands," in which he wrote about his childhood with Lewis and his mom, Joy Davidman Gresham, an American poet who married Lewis in 1956.

So there are few personal reminiscences in this biography, which is probably best suited for children of about 10 who want to know more about Lewis.

Gresham talks frequently about God taking a hand in Lewis's life, so atheist or agnostic parents would probably not choose it for their kids, and the book takes on a patronizing tone that can grate on adult ears. Plus, this reader was put off by his constant jabs at Lewis's older brother, Warren, who, although an alcoholic, served in both world wars, published several books on French history, and was devoted to his younger brother.

Although the three books are very different, they do draw several similar conclusions, especially regarding Lewis's childhood schooling (interestingly, the Narnia character the teenage Jack most resembled was the priggish Eustace Scrubb), and his troubled relations with his dad, who sent the 9-year-old Jack off to boarding school just weeks after his mother died and wouldn't come visit him when Lewis was wounded in World War I. (However, he still clearly loved his son and supported him financially while Lewis worked toward three degrees at Oxford.)

All three works, however, paint similarly happy pictures of Lewis's marriage to Joy Davidman, which was fictionalized in the play and movie "Shadowlands."

When Lewis was working on his autobiography "Surprised by Joy," Duriez says at least one of his friends felt it was just as notable for what it left out. Dr. Robert Havard, a fellow Inkling, threatened to publish a companion volume titled "Suppressed by Jack."

While Lewis would write back to anyone who sent him a letter (even the insane correspondents), there were aspects of his life he flatly refused to discuss with anyone, including Warren, who lived with him for decades.

Chief among these is the woman who shared his home for 30 years, Jane Moore. The mother of a friend of Lewis who was killed in World War I, she is either Lewis's adopted mother or his common-law wife, depending on which biography you read.

Gresham hews strictly to the adopted-mother theory, as does Duriez, with a variant that takes into account youthful letters Lewis wrote to best friend Arthur Greeves. Yes, Duriez says, Lewis was in love with Moore in his youth, but she didn't reciprocate, and they lived as mother and son.

Jacobs, however, believes this view strains credulity. (Plus, there are those letters.)

He quotes a lecturer's wife, who when her husband is asked whether Moore and Lewis had sexual relations "piped up from the back of the room: "Oh, of course they did, dear - go ahead and say it!"

No one, however, seems to like Moore very much (although Duriez is the most even-handed). They may be taking their lead from Lewis's brother, Warren, who detested her, and many of Lewis's friends. (Duriez cites Inkling Hugo Dyson, who quoted "Othello" regarding her: "O cursed spite, that gave thee to the Moor.")

What's most interesting to this reader is that Lewis remained steadfast toward Moore through age, illness, and dementia, as he did to Warren throughout Warren's alcoholic binges.

The fact that he was able to write "The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe" under such circumstances, and while maintaining an exhausting schedule of teaching and lectures, is in itself a remarkable feat. That he did so without complaining and without losing his extraordinary generosity is astounding.

Yvonne Zipp is a freelance writer in Kalamazoo, Mich.

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