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.