Review: C.S. Lewis – A Life

Hodder& Stoughton

Alister McGrath. C.S. Lewis – A Life: Eccentric Genius, Reluctant Prophet. London: Hodder & Stoughton, 2013. 431 pp., £20.00/$24.99 cloth.

Alister McGrath’s new biography of C.S. Lewis is a useful addition to Lewis literature, especially as a summary of and guide to the current controversies in Lewis scholarship for the lay reader. Its companion, The Intellectual World of C.S. Lewis (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2014), covers the academic discussion of Lewis which McGrath chose not to include in the biography, and is therefore more useful to Lewis scholars.[1] However, McGrath’s biography provides a good point-of-entry for readers interested in learning more about the academic Lewis (as opposed to the imaginative or apologetic Lewises), and does provide new information for both the lay reader and the scholar.

In order to research the biography, McGrath read through Lewis’ corpus in the order in which materials were written, not published. This process yields the major discovery of the book, which is McGrath’s re-dating of Lewis’ conversion to theism from Lewis’ own date of Trinity Term 1929 (as given in Surprised by Joy) to Trinity Term 1930. McGrath notes that the first hint of an impending conversion in Lewis’ correspondence is his 3 February 1930 letter to Owen Barfield, in which he states that the life force behind the universe is starting to appear more and more like a personal God. Using this letter, as well as other evidence, McGrath claims that Lewis misremembered the year of his conversion as 1929 rather than the actual date, Trinity Term 1930. McGrath’s re-dating of Lewis’ theistic conversion is convincing, and is an important discovery for Lewis scholars. Even so,  it does not dramatically change how his texts are read.[2]

McGrath also deals with controversial questions surrounding Lewis’ relationships with Janie King Moore (the mother of his wartime friend Paddy Moore), and Joy Davidman. He concludes that Lewis did have a romantic relationship with Mrs Moore, although he bases his conclusion only on ‘circumstantial evidence’ (75), such as Lewis’ duplicity about his exact relationship to Mrs Moore with family and colleagues. On the other hand, McGrath provides slightly more evidence for his positioning of Davidman as a gold-digging seductress, such as the recent discovery by Douglas Gresham, Davidman’s son and Lewis’ step-son, of a sonnet cycle written by Davidman about Lewis, which indicates that Davidman was in love with Lewis before they ever met. [3] McGrath uses this sonnet sequence, along with other accounts of Davidman’s behaviour (such as her disputes with Maureen Moore about ownership of the Kilns), as evidence that she was ‘someone whose interests in [Lewis] were at least as mercenary as they were literary or spiritual’ (330). Yet one could question McGrath’s ratios and ask whether pure romantic attraction even holds a place in this calculation of motivations.

McGrath’s discussion of Lewisian controversies continues with an extended exploration of the proper reading order for the Chronicles of Narnia (272-4). (Short answer: Start with The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, not The Magician’s Nephew.) In addition, McGrath helpfully demonstrates that Lewis was a highly-respected academic figure outside Oxford, using evidence such as Lewis’ elections to the British Academy and the Royal Society of Literature based on his Oxford work, which contradicts a common narrative that Lewis was a lowly tutor who was shunned by his colleagues until Cambridge lifted him out of the dark pit of professional obscurity. McGrath is also good at providing the influences which helped shape Lewis’ work, as when he points out the influence of G.K. Chesterton’s The Everlasting Man, ‘with its classic distinction between ‘imaginary’ and ‘imaginative’’ (279), on Lewis’ view of myth. McGrath explores these influences in more depth in his companion volume of essays.

In relation to other Lewis biographies, McGrath’s is a critical study as opposed to a collection of personal reminiscences – closer to A.N. Wilson than George Sayer. It doesn’t read as well as a story as Wilson, but does create a new appreciation of Lewis as an academic, one worthy of the respect of being approached academically. As such, it is a welcome invitation to future study of the academic Lewis.


[1] See my review of this volume in the April 2014 issue of the journal The Way, published by the Jesuits in Britain.
[2] It is important to note that McGrath was not actually alone in this discovery. In 2012, Andrew Lazo came to similar conclusion by means of the newly-discovered Lewis manuscript, the ‘Early Prose Joy.’ His take can be read here.
[3] The sonnets are now held at the Wade Center, Wheaton College (Illinois), and are being edited by Davidman scholar Don King for publication.

Review by Cole Matson

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