I just finished C. S. Lewis - A Life: Eccentric Genius, Reluctant
Prophet and The Intellectual World of C. S. Lewis, both written by
Alister McGrath and published earlier this year. (Incidentally, why does
Intellectual World have a 2014 copyright date?) They are mostly
being reviewed separately, but I think it would be better to think of them as a
single work, with Intellectual World being a set of long footnotes
on particular issues in Genius/Prophet. Consider this to be my
review of these two books.
Someone noted earlier this year on this E-mail mailing list that
Michael Dirda, in his review of Genius/Prophet in The Washington
Post, said that one thing that the book says little about is Lewis's
literary criticism. Since Dirda is a literary critic, that's the obvious
thing that he would notice. In fact, I think that McGrath covers a number
of areas only lightly. McGrath is a professor of theology, so it's not
surprising that he would be better at explaining Lewis's theological (and
general philosophical) views better than other aspects of his life.
The essays in Intellectual World are nearly all about Lewis's
philosophical views or how he used his writings to explain those views.
While Genius/Prophet is a reasonably good biography of Lewis, it's not
the comprehensive, standard biography that someone is going to have to write
someday. There were a lot of sides to Lewis, and it's going to take a
great biographer to write a great biography of him.
Some of McGrath's statements about Lewis's life are very perceptive.
He's probably right about the chronology of Lewis's conversion timeline
being off by about a year from what was previously assumed. I'm not sure
that it's that important, though. The interesting thing about Lewis's
conversion account is the various philosophical/religious positions he went
through, not their timing. Other comments that McGrath makes about Lewis's
life don't seem to me to be as useful.
McGrath wonders why Lewis goes on for so long in Surprised by Joy
about his experiences at boarding school, while he devotes very little of the
book to his time in combat in World War I. I don't find the amount of
print that Lewis spent on each of these times to be that strange. First,
the amount of time that Lewis spent in combat was just under a year, and some of
that time he was actually in various hospitals. He spent several
years in boarding schools. Second, McGrath seems to have a fixed view of
how terrible any combatant must have found World War I to be and of the relative
mildness of the bad experiences of a boarding school. While in the
sense of the actual threat to his life, the war was worse than the schools, but
that's not how Lewis experienced his emotional and physical pain. The
things done to him in boarding school were personal and directed at him by other
students, while those done in the war were against everyone, and
everyone on his side worked together against them.
It also occurs to me, when I think about any biographer's attempt to
quantify the amount of influence that a period of a subject's life has on him by
looking at just the length of that period, that the influence of a period has
less to do with its length and more with the variety of things that happen
during it. Why, to use my own life, do I remember so much about my time in
Austin (from the age of 22 to 25) and so little about my time in Columbus (from
the age of 25 to 29), where both periods were mostly spent struggling
through grad school? You'd think that four years would be easier
to remember than three years, that a more recent period would be easier to
remember than one further back, and that one that has some relation to my
current job would be easier to remember than one that has no such
relation. Yet the opposite is true in my case. Columbus is mostly a
blur, while Austin brings back all sorts of interesting
I don't think McGrath is being fair to Joy Davidman when he attempts to
paint her as a gold-digger who took advantage of Lewis. Even if we assume
that somehow Davidman first visited England with plans to seduce Lewis (and
that's a strange supposition), the fact remains that Lewis was happy during his
brief marriage. There's been an attempt on the part of several biographers
to claim that Lewis would have been better off if he had married Ruth
Pitter. If that's so, why didn't he marry her?
McGrath makes a useful distinction in his discussion of Lewis's apologetics
in saying that what Lewis was doing was not trying to make a tight logical
argument for his beliefs but a demonstration that they were consistent with what
we know of the world. Too often Lewis's fans treat Mere
Christianity, for instance, as if it were the Summa Theologica,
a succession of logical deductions from basic assumptions. I think
this is why so many people misunderstand the so-called Trilemma (a name that
Lewis didn't use himself). I think that Lewis was not offering a
complete categorization of all the possibilities for what Jesus was.
Rather, he was trying to address a common idea among the sort of people who
listened to his wartime broadcasts (the preliminary version of Mere
Christianity) had about Jesus. These people, who were largely those
brought up rather vaguely as Christians and now considering themselves still
rather vaguely Christian, wanted to believe that Jesus could be thought of as a
mere ordinary teacher of morality. Lewis's point was that this wasn't a
consistent logical position, not that he could name all other possible logical
Incidentally, I just noticed something really interesting while I was
looking at the title verso page (where the copyright statements are) for
Genius/Prophet. It says the following:
The Hobbit is a trademark of the Saul Zaentz Company dba Tolkien
The Lord of the Rings is a trademark of the Saul Zaentz Company
dba Tolkien Enterprises.
[dba means "doing business as."]
So Zaentz is now claiming that anyone who uses the phrases "The Hobbit" or
"The Lord of the Rings" has to mention that he owns the trademark on it.