One of the great ironies of British literature is that some of the best writers in the English language have been Irish: James Joyce, William Butler Yeats, Samuel Beckett, Seamus Heaney.
Few readers would think of adding C.S. Lewis to that list. But among the many delightful discoveries in Alister McGrath’s masterful new biography of Lewis – on the 50th anniversary of his death – is the enduring pull on Lewis of “the cool, lush countryside of County Down” in Northern Ireland, where he spent his boyhood.
Though not always explicit, Ireland’s tug on his soul proved constant, McGrath shows, shaping what and how Lewis wrote.
What he wrote remains the most influential religious book of the 20th century, “Mere Christianity,” and some of the most endearing fantasy novels of the same era, the “Chronicles of Narnia.”
How he wrote grew out of his lifelong quest for an otherworldly joy, glimpsed through the mythic doors of perception.
As a lad and much later as an Oxford University don, he stood “on the threshold of another world ... peering within” – longing for the paradise of Ireland, from which he had been expelled.
The result: “a prose saturated with the powerful rhythms and melodious phrasing of a natural poet.” His carefully crafted sentences linger in our memories, McGrath says, because they have first captivated our imaginations.
Proving work’s worth
McGrath may not be as fanciful as Lewis, but he shares many traits with him. He, too, spent his childhood in Northern Ireland; he, too, is an Oxford don, in historical theology; and he, too, possesses a powerful, nearly insatiable intellect.
Still, his new biography must prove its worth, joining an impressive lineup of previous works, from reminiscences by Lewis’ acquaintances to A.N. Wilson’s thorough, if slightly cynical, portrait in 1990.
To that end, McGrath narrows his scope to telling “the story of the shaping and expressing of Lewis’s mind.”
This, I think, takes the right approach for today’s audience. Whatever your opinion of the “Narnia” tales (which I have never liked), Lewis’ religious and literary works display an incontrovertibly great intelligence.
Such is the enduring legacy of his thought that it overshadows all else in his life, including his eccentricities: living with (and presumably bedding) the mother of his friend Paddy Moore, who died in World War I; his marriage late in life to the divorced American Communist Joy Davidman, who said she had set out to seduce Lewis, and who soon died of cancer after she had succeeded; and his remarkable lack of exposure to the world outside the Kilns, his untidy home in Oxfordshire.
But above all it is the voice of Lewis that prevails in McGrath’s book. Not the disheveled, sodden, smoky voice of the Inklings, the band of intellectuals and writers who gathered in pubs for lively debate and literary critiques. No, it is the voice broadcast over the BBC airwaves during World War II, forming the lectures that would become “Mere Christianity”; the voice that resonates devilishly in “The Screwtape Letters”; and the voice that enlightens his readers in his last book of scholarship, “The Discarded Image,” revealing the medieval model of the cosmos that we have irretrievably lost.
‘Great Knock’ tutor
Every nuance of that voice sprang from his exile as a young boy to the “hot, ugly country of England” after his mother died.
For all Albert Lewis’ ineptitude as a father – failing to recognize the toll a foreign boarding school would take on his son’s sensitive soul – he finally found enough wisdom to enlist William Thompson Kirkpatrick as Lewis’ personal tutor.
Kirkpatrick, known as the “Great Knock,” spurred Lewis to develop his critical thinking skills based on evidence and reason, not his personal intuition. He also encouraged contempt for a God whom Lewis no longer believed in. The effects of that teaching, however – unlike the rigors of logic – would not last long.
The story of Lewis’ conversion to theism likely looms as the best-known fact of his life. But McGrath’s exhaustive research – reading all of Lewis’ writings in chronological order – places the year of this transition at 1930, not 1929, as Lewis and all other biographers have dated it.
McGrath considers this to be his scholarly coup. Clearly, he stands in a minority of one. But his discovery strikes me as the equivalent of astronomers saying that Pluto is no longer a planet. Enthralling to the experts, no doubt, but of little consequence to our experience of the solar system.
What stands beyond dispute, however, is the influence of J.R.R. Tolkien, author of “The Lord of the Rings,” in pushing Lewis toward a full-fledged Christian commitment.
Tolkien’s genius during their nighttime conversation in September 1931 was to help Lewis realize that his lack of faith stemmed less from a rational failure to understand Christian doctrine than from an imaginative failure to grasp the greater significance of mythic patterns around him.
That literary fortitude, coupled with his nearly indomitable reasoning prowess, resulted in a vision of basic Christian orthodoxy that better fit his (and our) observations and experiences of life than did alternative worldviews.
On this foundation, Lewis built the authoritative voice that still resonates half a century after his death. His “sense-making” approach to theology let him explore the religious concerns of ordinary people and explain complex terms on their level.
He became the great popularizer of Christianity, which his colleagues in the faculty of English at Oxford found demeaning.
No matter. He had hit upon his calling, whether in literature, philosophy or religion: to express how the best art and thought always hints at deeper structures of reality, spurring us on in a passionate pursuit of lasting significance and truth.
His own pilgrimage to recover the sense of joy that enthralled him as a boy likely would never have reached such enormous fruition without his deep-seated nostalgia for the long, soft hills of County Down.
In this sense, his father did him a favor. And perhaps only another Irish-reared thinker such as McGrath could so convincingly bring that unlikely gift to light.