C.S. Lewis died on Nov. 22, 1963: the very day that John F. Kennedy was assassinated. Few people attended his funeral in Headington Quarry, just outside Oxford, partly because his brother, Major Warnie Lewis, had taken to his bed with a whiskey bottle when Lewis died and told no one of the burial arrangements. The figures around the grave included his estranged friend J.R.R. Tolkien, some members of their famous discussion-group called the Inklings, who had not convened for more than a decade, and his stepsons, themselves by then not the best of friends. Many considered that Lewis’s influence as a Christian apologist was on the wane. But, 50 years on, he is regarded in many circles, especially among American Christians, as “the Aquinas, the Augustine, and the Aesop of contemporary evangelicalism.” His Narnia books, now made into films, break box-office records. His fame is greater than it ever was.
There have been plenty of biographies of Lewis—I once wrote one myself—but I do not think there has been a better one than Alister McGrath’s. He is a punctilious and enthusiastic reader of all Lewis’s work—the children’s stories, the science fiction, the Christian apologetics, and the excellent literary criticism and literary history. He is from Northern Ireland, as Lewis was himself, and he is especially astute about drawing out the essentially Northern Irish qualities of this very odd man. And he is sympathetic to the real oddness of his story.
Having written a book on the same theme, I have had phases of being been obsessed by Lewis myself. I do not believe McGrath entirely explains the extreme oddness, but his narrative has a truly lucid fluency that presents all the case for the baffled reader to consider. And what McGrath is especially good at doing is painstakingly reconstructing the chronology. Lewis wrote a compellingly readable autobiography called Surprised by Joy. He then, to his surprise, married a woman called Joy (whom he scarcely knew), which certainly surprised his friends. But then his friends did not know very much about him, and the autobiography antedated the marriage. “Joy” in Lewis’s book was the word he used for those extraordinary moments, almost mystical moments, in which he had been overcome since early childhood by a sense of yearning, a sense of excitement as another world intruded itself upon his inner life. He felt this, for example, as a boy when reading George Macdonald’s Phantastes.
What makes Surprised by Joy so, well, so surprising—once you know Lewis’s story more fully—is to see how he manages to distort and rearrange the events of his life to make them into a good story. The book is a sort of Apologia Pro Vita Sua, and it is understandable that he should, therefore, concentrate on the development of his religious ideas—first as a schoolboy atheist, then soldier in the First World War, brilliant Oxford scholar, winning a Triple First Degree, and getting a job as a fellow of Magdalen College. Then, the befriending various Christian scholars, most notably the inspirational philologist J.R.R. Tolkien who, in a memorable midnight walk with Lewis, persuaded his friend that Christianity, though a myth, was a myth that was true.
Where McGrath is so good is in sorting out the truth of this story. Lewis remembered, shortly after his conversation with Tolkien, being driven in the sidecar of his brother’s motorbike to an outdoor zoo—Whipsnade. In the course of this journey, he decided he believed in the Incarnation of Christ. He remembered his exultation as the two brothers walked together among bluebells. But, McGrath, points out, it was September—when bluebells are not in flower! McGrath cunningly shows us that the moment of epiphany must in fact have come two years later, when Lewis went to the zoo with his lover, or former lover Mrs. Moore and her daughter Maureen.
Mrs. Moore is the most understandable omission from Lewis’s autobiography. (Another being Lewis’s obsession with sadism; he nicknamed himself Philomastix, or Lover of the Whip). McGrath deals with the whole story remarkably fairly. Lewis trained as an officer to fight in the First World War, and shared a room with a man called Paddy Moore. The two boys agreed that if either were killed in the war, the other would look after the dead one’s parent. Moore was killed. Lewis had already begun a relationship with Janey Moore, with whom he subsequently lived for the rest of his life. When I wrote my life of Lewis, I speculated, as others have done, that they must have been lovers—though this was always hotly contested in those days by some of Lewis’s more pious admirers. When my book was published, Maureen, Mrs. Moore’s daughter, smilingly told me she was glad I had realized what she had been trying to tell me during our conversations about her mother.
Lewis lost his own mother when he was 9 years old. He called Mrs. Moore by a variety of names, but one of them was “Mother.” It is not clear whether he stopped being her lover because of his religious conversion, or whether this inner event postdated the cooling of their relationship, which became increasingly unhappy. Warnie, Lewis’s collapsed brother, an unsuccessful army major, also shared the household, having frequent drinking binges. I was told by Walter Hooper, who served as Lewis’s secretary at the end of his life that the major could polish off three bottles of whisky in a day.
It was against the background of this truly bizarre domestic situation that Lewis wrote the works of Christian apologetics and the Narnia stories that are now so celebrated. After Mrs. Moore died, Lewis married an American divorcée, whose sons inherited the royalties to his books. It must be an inheritance worth millions, though Lewis himself, who never mastered the idea that you had to pay tax, was in a perpetual state of financial anxiety, believing that if you gave money away to good causes or friends, it would not count as income. (God saw his kindness, but the tax man did not.)
In the last decade or so of his life, Lewis gave up being an apologist, feeling he had lost his knack. He concentrated more on the children’s stories and on more meditative stuff, such as a lovely book on the Psalms. His faith was challenged, though not shaken, by the painful cancer death of his wife, and this searing experience produced the heart-rending book A Grief Observed, which was the inspiration for the play (and movie) Shadowlands.
Until reading McGrath, I had never before been so struck by the fact that Lewis was a poet manqué. Of course I had known this—it is the most obvious fact about Lewis the writer. His earliest printed works were poems, but they were no good. He never quite recognized this fact, and the people he truly hated tended to be poets. One of his first pupils at Magdalen was dear old John Betjeman, later poet laureate, but Lewis the sadist treated him abominably. Lewis loathed T.S. Eliot and could not see any virtue in Eliot’s work, even after he became a Christian. Lewis once had a fight in a pub with the poet Roy Campbell. To this degree, he was the classic case (we have all met them in university life) of the secondary talent who could not endure primary talents. Brilliant as an exponent of the virtues in Spenser, Dante, Chaucer, Lewis could not write his own poetry.
Yet toward Tolkien he remained wonderfully generous. Without Lewis’s prompting, there would have been no Lord of the Rings. The only new bit in McGrath’s book that made me cry was a letter he has unearthed in which Lewis proposed Tolkien for the Nobel Prize for Literature. By then the friends were more or less estranged. Tolkien disliked Lewis’s Narnia books intensely and he resented his friend’s marriage to Mrs. Davidson. Yet Lewis never returned Tolkien’s rancor. The cooling of friendship is as sad as the death of other kinds of love, and McGrath conveys this beautifully. His book evokes with aching honesty that vanished male world of heavy-smoking, heavy-drinking Oxford, the world in which emotions are not investigated, not understood, and left at home with the usually unhappy womenfolk. What makes Lewis such a surprising figure is that he who understood so little about the emotional life can still, 50 years after his life, speak so eloquently to millions upon millions of human souls, not one of whom would have found him a soulmate if they had actually known him.