As promised, here’s a brief review of Alister McGrath’s new biography of C.S. Lewis!
I saw rows and rows and rows of C.S. Lewis: A Life, all in fresh, shiny dust jackets, in a bookstore over Thanksgiving. I picked up a copy, put it back down, read a bit here, a bit there, and debated on whether or not to buy it. I’m always a bit hesitant to read books about people who I really really like, for fear that the author will destroy my good image of that person. I’d heard some people say that McGrath revealed some unpleasant things about Lewis. And since Lewis has always been one of my biggest heroes, not to mention one of my most influential spiritual mentors, I wasn’t sure that I wanted to read McGrath’s take on Lewis’s life. But in the end, curiosity won me over. I bought the book, settled down to read it, and for weeks I’ve had my nose glued to the pages of C.S. Lewis: A Life. Even after reading every book by Lewis, or about Lewis, that I can get my hands on, I think it’s fair to say that I understand him better now than ever before.
Alister McGrath did a fantastic job with this biography. He strikes the perfect balance between painstakingly researched background information and details, and a highly entertaining and readable writing style. I have read many accounts of Lewis’s life – most importantly, Lewis’s excellent autobiography Surprised by Joy. But thanks to McGrath’s skill at pulling from every available resource about Lewis, C.S. Lewis: A Life offers readers one of the most comprehensive, clear accounts to date. McGrath is clearly a very serious scholar and “fan” of Lewis, yet he writes a fair, honest biography. Seeing as Lewis did not become a Christian until he was in his 30’s, there are perhaps some facts about his early life that would shock some fans. (Having read Lewis’s letters and autobiography, I already knew about some “pagan” aspects of his youth, and so was not surprised.) But McGrath’s biography is by no means one of those horrible destructive, or “dissecting” types of biography. All of my hesitation and worry about this book destroying my good image of Lewis turned out to be unfounded.
Not only does McGrath provide a clear, enjoyable account of C.S. Lewis’s personal and scholarly life, he also weaves in some very insightful sections on Lewis’s writings. By giving a brief explanation and critical analysis of each of Lewis’s works in the context of Lewis’s personal life, I feel like I understand the motives and reasons behind Lewis’s books better than before. For example, in the middle of a chapter on Lewis’s life at Oxford during WWII, McGrath briefly paused the narrative and delved into Lewis’s wartime talks that later became Mere Christianity. By putting an analysis of Lewis’s works within the framework of what Lewis was doing and thinking around the time that he wrote each work, McGrath gives Lewis fans a better understanding of why Lewis wrote those works in the first place. Also, McGrath is one of the only adult writers I’ve ever read who takes the world of Narnia very seriously. He delves into Lewis’s creation of The Chronicles of Narnia with great passion, taking two whole chapters to look at the issue from every possible angle. For someone who has been deeply impacted by Narnia for her entire life, I was relieved and inspired to find that well-educated, scholarly people take Lewis’s fantasy world as seriously as I do.
Although I did have a few quibbles with C.S. Lewis: A Life (like McGrath occasionally imposing his own, overly psychological explanations for some of Lewis’s very straightforward writings), my overall impression was one of immense satisfaction. I consider McGrath’s biography to be a must-read for any Lewis fan. Whether you’ve read every available biography of Lewis, or whether you know nothing about him, C.S. Lewis: A Life will bring Lewis to life in a way you’ve never experienced before.