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‘C.S. Lewis: A Life,’ by Alister McGrath


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Washington Post

Michael Dirda

March 13 2013

 

Clive Staples Lewis (1898-1963) assumed that he would be forgotten within five years of his death. While he may have been a great Christian apologist, Lewis was clearly no prophet: Children are still reading “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe”; his trilogy — “Out of the Silent Planet,” “Perelandra” and “That Hideous Strength” — is a science fiction classic; and his thoughtful justification for religious belief, “Mere Christianity,” has been voted the most influential religious book of the 20th century. Just recently it was reissued in a handsome new gift edition by HarperOne.

 

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That it scants Lewis the literary scholar is nearly my only complaint about Alister McGrath’s “C.S. Lewis: A Life.” McGrath, a professor of theology at King’s College London, writes in the light — or shadow — of several previous biographies of Lewis, in particular those by Roger Lancelyn Green and Walter Hooper, George Sayer and A.N. Wilson. But he bases his new life on a recently completed multivolume edition of Lewis’s letters and his own reading, in chronological order, of the complete works. Most of all, though, his biography of Lewis isn’t “another rehearsal of the vast army of facts and figures concerning his life, but an attempt to identify its deeper themes and concerns, and assess its significance. This is not a work of synopsis, but of analysis.”

 

That word “analysis” may sound off-putting, but McGrath is a sprightly writer, quite colloquial in tone, speeding over many aspects of his subject’s life, but slowing down to reflect on those he finds significant. What are some of these key elements and turning points? McGrath stresses young Lewis’s Protestant Irish background, the early death of his beloved mother, the disastrously unhappy years at school in England and the trauma of trench warfare in World War I. He speculates, as many have done before, on Lewis’s relationship with Janie Moore, the mother of one of his friends killed in battle. The young scholar supported the woman throughout his life, eventually establishing a household with her and her daughter at Oxford. While the bond with Mrs. Moore might have been initially sexual, she seems to have provided Lewis with an instant family and home. He remained reticent about their relationship, however, and many people thought she was his rather demanding mother or housekeeper.

 

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