With the launch of my translation of Alister McGrath’s biography of C. S. Lewis fast approaching, I thought this would be a good time to roll out my review article of the book. The article first appeared in Linguaculture, the International Journal of the Iaşi Linguaculture Centre for (Inter)cultural and (Inter)lingual Research, Volume 5/2, in 2014.
Since this is a longer piece, I will publish it in 2 or 3 instalments. You will find the first one below. The more negative stuff is strategically reserved for the other instalments, after the book launch has passed. 🙂 In all seriousness now, despite some of its flaws, Alister McGrath’s biography is an excellent introduction to the life and thought of C. S. Lewis, a man of penetrative intelligence and boundless imagination.
Let us begin with a confession. The present reviewer has not read the complete works of C. S. Lewis. He has not ploughed through the secondary literature. He has not poured over the thousands of letters annotated and published in the last few years by Walter Hooper–all these being important feats of Alister E. McGrath, the author of the most recent biography of Clive Staples Lewis. Still, the reviewer is called to fair-mindedly appraise the author’s finished work. According to which criteria and based on what standards, we may ask? In virtue of which qualifications or personal merits, we may ponder?
All such questions have, of course, some satisfactory answers that can be given, pertaining either to the reviewer’s credentials or to the nature of the task of reviewing books, but questions remain. If we add to this the burden (and privilege) of being both the book’s translator into Romanian and its reviewer, the task at hand seems onerous indeed. A successful translation may result only if the translator has internalized his text. What he will deliver is at one and the same time his text and the author’s. He is both a servant of someone else’s creation, and a creator in his own right. The absorption of the text and the enfleshing of its ideas in a new idiom make fair-mindedness a quality even more difficult to display. But enough with the patting-oneself-on-the-back-lamentations.
From the outset, McGrath’s declared and daring purpose is to present a coherent narrative that integrates the many dimensions of C. S. Lewis: most famously, as author of the Chronicles of Narnia and other works of fiction (the imaginative dimension), as brother, friend, and spouse (the relational dimension), as accomplished academic (the academic dimension), and as Christian apologist (the apologetic dimension). McGrath prefers narrative coherence to a precise, but dry presentation of biographical facts. His intention is to tell the story of C. S. Lewis, focusing on some of the most important dimensions of his life and work, particularly on the development of his thought, rather than ‘documenting every aspect of Lewis’ life.’
What recommends McGrath as a biographer of the famous author, academic and apologist? McGrath highlights some points of biographical conjunction between himself and Lewis: the Irish roots, the conversion from atheism to Christianity, and the common Oxford education and career. It is not that these, in themselves, can supplant the intellectual skills and virtues necessary for writing a good biography, but they do help the reader warm to the author.
In writing his biography, McGrath has read Lewis’ complete works in chronological order, and the wealth of secondary literature on Lewis and on his intellectual climate and circle of friends. No previous biographer has boasted of what seems like a sensible, if demanding preparatory task. Readers are informed that more academic treatments of major themes in Lewis’ work and discussions of “some of the scholarly questions that emerge” have been left for a “more academic volume.”
McGrath is no encomiast. His confessed admiration for and affinity with Lewis is well tempered. Not afraid to highlight the controversial elements in Lewis’ fascinating life, McGrath presents an honest, critical account. The purpose is clearly not one of offering uncritical praise, but understanding Lewis, particularly his ideas, and identifying the deep themes and structures of his personal and professional life. This is “not a work of synopsis, but of analysis,” “a critical biography,” declares McGrath in the preface of the book.
McGrath dutifully describes the main periods and events of Lewis’ life, probing their significance: the Irish childhood, the uneasy relationship with his father, the traumatic loss of his mother, the English boarding schools experience, the First World War, the enigmatic relationship with Mrs. Moore, the ups and downs in his friendship with J. R. R. Tolkien, his conversion from atheism to philosophical theism and then to Christianity, the Inklings, the fame that followed his highly successful radio talks on BBC, the academic failures and accomplishments, the marriage with Joy Davidman, and her untimely death. The focus remains on the formative influence these events have had on Lewis’ thought life.
The principal source for the biography, which gives it one of its unique selling points, is Lewis’s collected letters, over 3500 pages of text annotated and cross-referenced by Walter Hooper between 2000 and 2006. Unavailable to previous biographers, these constitute the backbone of McGrath’s narrative, also enabling this biography’s distinctive contribution: a compelling reconsideration of the date for Lewis’ conversion from atheism to Christianity. A close reading of the letters leads McGrath to conclude that Lewis’s conversion took place not during the Trinity term of 1929, as recorded by Lewis in Surprised by Joy, but roughly a year later. In establishing this conclusion, McGrath presents some excellent detective-style work and displays a commendable sensitivity to the interplay between Lewis’s “inner” and “outer” worlds.
The discussion on Lewis’ discovery of the Christian faith is rich and stimulating. We learn of Lewis’ love of myth and of his discovery of the Christian faith as ‘true myth’ and as an integrated vision of reality. This ‘big picture’ has room both for the longings and yearnings of the human heart (“arrows of Joy”) and for the operations of reason. Christianity is a capacious narrative that “makes sense of things”. McGrath shows Lewis discovering the way in which the Christian vision of reality reconciles reason and imagination. The two are indispensable and intertwined means of connecting with reality. McGrath also clarifies some of Lewis’ important distinctions, between “imaginary” and “imaginative” worlds, between “allegory” and “supposal”.
(to be continued)
 McGrath, Alister, The Intellectual World of C. S. Lewis. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2014.