Make Mine Without Warts, Please

Earlier this year I read a biography: C.S. Lewis – A Life: Eccentric Genius, Reluctant Prophet. by Alister McGrath. Although I admire McGrath, I have mixed feelings about the book.

On one hand, knowing something about an author’s life is useful in understanding their work. On the other, however, I’m not sure that exploring every single detail of an author’s life is useful in understanding their work.

A reader’s response to this biography (and others as well) will probably be shaped by why they’re interested in Lewis. I doubt everyone who simply loves Lewis’s work (fiction or non-fiction) will care for some of the questions it raises that are left unresolved. To be fair, it appears some of this information was revealed when Lewis’s letters were published several years ago, and also is likely to be explored in future works about Lewis and those with whom he was connected, so the author probably simply wanted to address extant information – certainly a challenging task!

Still, I came away with the conviction that delving into the complex question of Joy Davidman’s motivation for pursuing a relationship with Lewis does very little to shed light on Lewis’s work. Who can possibly claim to know exactly what Joy was thinking about Lewis before she met him? In the end, a marriage is between two spouses. The rest of us can only be, in a very real sense, ignorant outsiders, and raising questions that no one alive now can answer seems a fruitless quest. In my opinion, all such questions are best answered by A Grief Observed, Lewis’s passionate and poignant account of how he suffered after Joy died. Lewis documented the power of their relationship, and it’s absolutely clear that he was devastated by losing his friend, his colleague, and his love. What more do we need to know?

So: What’s to be learned from reading a “warts and all” biography about a favorite author? Perhaps for some people (who believe their own sins are unforgivable?) such a depiction might offer encouragement. After all, Lewis obviously relied on grace, mercy, and forgiveness rather than his own (non-existent) perfection, and as a result of that faith was able to speak the truth powerfully in his work. For it does take courage to write about truth when you know your own faults. You’re writing, after all, about ideals you can only hope and pray and strive to live for, knowing you will always fall short.

Fortunately, the book also followed the development of Lewis’s thought and how this was reflected in his writing: his pre-Christian poetry, followed by The Pilgrim’s Regress and his apologetic works, through his fiction, especially Narnia. I particularly enjoyed the reflective chapters on Narnia as the author unpacked how Lewis came to write the series, and what some of the underlying, unifying themes might be (e.g., see Planet Narnia, by Michael Ward).

In future, this type of analysis and reflection about the work rather than speculation about personalities is what I’ll be looking for when I read other books about Lewis. Already on my short list: Bandersnatch, and rereading Bright Shadow of Reality: Spiritual Longing in C.S. Lewis.

Reading a Story for What It Is

I just finished reading Alister McGrath’s biography, C.S. Lewis – A Life: Eccentric Genius, Reluctant Prophet. This caused me to reflect once more on the relationship between Lewis and Tolkien, which in turn led (in a round-about way) to this post.

In the course of reading hundreds of reviews on Amazon and Goodreads over the past few years, I’ve noticed that instead of asking: “What question is the author asking in this story?” many readers assert (in one way or another): “This author didn’t do what they were supposed to do in this story.”

Now, I understand that in genre fiction certain tropes exist and the author should deliver them. I also understand that if a story makes a promise to the reader early on, the author must follow through on that promise by the last page of the book.

But I’m not talking about either of those things here. I’m talking about readers insisting that their preferred philosophy of story-telling is the legitimate approach to telling a story, and any story that doesn’t fit their philosophy is rubbish. IMO, this represents a rather narrow approach to reading!

One of the best examples of this gap between philosophies of story-telling is already fairly well-known among lovers of fantasy fiction: Tolkien’s dislike of The Chronicles of Narnia. If you are the type of reader who wants to know more about the authors of your favorite stories, then you probably already know that Tolkien didn’t appreciate Narnia. Apparently he disliked what he considered the patchwork quality of Lewis’s world-building.

And it’s not difficult to understand how strange Narnia would seem to Tolkien, a man who spent nearly his entire life building a world of magnificent depth and detail, and who spent many long years agonizing over continuity, rewriting passages, and rewriting them again, in an effort to achieve perfect consistency. Tolkien attempted to execute his philosophy of writer as sub-creator with exhaustive (and often exhausting) precision, and the result was an astonishing body of work that has engaged millions of people all over the world for several generations.

Now, I’ll confess right here that I don’t entirely disagree with Tolkien’s view that Narnia could have been fleshed out in more detail. I’ve often wished Lewis had done so! And I also recognize Tolkien didn’t necessarily demand that every writer measure up to the rigorous goals he set for himself. (Proof of this is in Tolkien’s positive and balanced comments about the world Lewis built in Out of the Silent Planet (the first volume in Lewis’s Space Trilogy), to be found in Tolkien’s Letters.)

Still, while Tolkien had every right to find Narnia not to his taste, I’m not aware that he ever acknowledged Lewis’s goal in creating it. Lewis never intended Narnia to be primarily an exercise in sub-creation in the same way that Tolkien approached his own work. In other words, Lewis’s work didn’t live up to Tolkien’s standard, but Lewis never intended to measure up to Tolkien’s standard.

So to the extent Tolkien viewed Narnia only through his own lens, it’s no wonder he was disappointed.

Lewis said the reason he wrote The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe was in answer to a specific “supposal” (what we might call the question at the heart of a speculative work): What would it look like if Christ were to become incarnate in a world of sentient animals and mythological creatures?

This is not a question Tolkien asks in LOTR. Quite the opposite: He said that although he wrote LOTR to be consistent with Christianity, he also avoided addressing the Incarnation in his mythology.

So even though both Tolkien and Lewis wrote fantasy fiction, the goals (philosophies) behind the creation of Middle Earth and the creation of Narnia could not have been more different.

And yet, despite the vast gap between these two authors’ goals for their stories, millions of readers love them. In fact, I think it’s safe to say that many of the same readers love both Tolkien and Lewis (although people who love both undoubtedly represent a smaller subset of readers).

But the only way the same reader could love both LOTR and The Chronicles of Narnia is if that reader is willing to read each on its own terms. The reader must be willing to at least respect each author’s philosophy of story-telling, and appreciate these stories for what they were intended to be – rather than finding fault with them for what they were never intended to be.

For example: If we insist that a Christ-figure must appear in LOTR, then we’re going to spend a lot of time and energy trying to make Gandalf or Aragorn fit a Messianic profile, even though this was not Tolkien’s intent.

And if we demand that The Chronicles of Narnia measure up to Tolkien’s personal standard of world-building and myth-making, then we’re going to be disappointed, because Lewis never set out to create any such thing.

In short: Maybe we’ll be happier readers if we consider an author’s goals as one legitimate component of our reading experience.