C.S. Lewis is hard to like and easy to love. As a solitary, clever, and bookish child he was a study in precocity, a model prig. “I have a prejudice against the French,” he announced, a four year old, to his father. Why? “If I knew why it wouldn’t be a prejudice.” At the age of nine he was reading Paradise Lost and (he told his diary) making “reflections there-on.” At the age of fourteen, he had written an entire novel. As a schoolboy classicist, brightest of his peers, he graded ancient authors as if competitors with him for academic prizes: Thucydides “desperately dull and tedious,” Plato and Horace “charming,” Homer a “giant.”
Many adolescents speak like this but with Lewis it was no bluff. His self-belief, his assurance of superiority, was utterly serene. Reading more, thinking more, remembering more than his contemporaries, he was formidable in debate, a person to admire at a distance but avoid in the deeper intimacies of life. A childhood of “long corridors, empty sunlit rooms, upstairs indoor silences and . . . endless books” prepared him to take on the world and to win. He was happiest when, Johnson-like, he argued for victory.
Many of those quarrels, alas, were with his father, an eccentric and troubled man but one whose love for a brilliant son was returned with ill-concealed irritation, occasionally with contempt. With his mother dying when he was nine, Lewis sought refuge in a library, not in the companionship of a man like himself obviously needy, lonely, and ready for love. Years of frustration and petulance followed, reconciliation coming only at the end. Throughout his life, Lewis addressed his letters to a “dear Papy” and signed off as a “loving son”—one of his less believable fictions. It is hard to warm to such a person.
For all that, Lewis is still beloved as an author, apologist, and advocate. He was one of the most successful and improbable public Christians of the twentieth century, a beery Billy Graham, a televangelist in tweeds. Known to millions and admired to the point of adoration by many of them, he turned somehow from being an academic terror into favorite uncle: warm, friendly, benign, wise. There is even a hint of idolatry about the cult of admiration for C.S. Lewis that began forming even during his life, with its shrines, sacred texts, keepers of the flame, and theological niceties. The result is paradoxical. C.S. Lewis has become “C.S. Lewis”—a brand mark, a type, a multi-million-dollar business. His intensely private world has become public property. His thoughts have become everyone’s thoughts. Mere Christianity has become More Christianity. The Logos has become a series of logos.
To his credit, Lewis was unsettled by this. For one thing, he understood the spiritual dangers of vanity. For another, it was time-consuming to be a guru. Most important, he knew that winning an argument could be as dangerous as losing one. “No doctrine is dimmer to the eye of faith,” he once wrote, “than that which a man has just successfully defended.” He was speaking about his own faith. “For a moment, you see, it has seemed to rest upon oneself: as a result, when you go away, it seems no stronger than that weak pillar.” To wake in the stretches of the night and think of a public eager for the latest book or broadcast was his own peculiar cross.
It was not easy for C.S. Lewis to be “C.S. Lewis.” What if his arguments were wrong? (On one famous occasion he was bested by G.E.M. Anscombe, who pointed out an apparent logical fallacy in his theodicy.) What if they were too clever by half? What if they were self-serving? What if victory in the eyes of the world meant defeat in the eyes of God? The scrupulous possibilities were endless, a thicket of self-examination. Apologists, he concluded, can be saved “only by falling back continually from the web of our own arguments . . . into the Reality—from Christian apologetics into Christ himself.” That was a satisfactorily Calvinist formulation—a good argument about the dangers of good arguments. It also had the value of being true.
As Alan Jacobs points out in his new work on Lewis, The Narnian, the man before his conversion was “neither a particularly likable nor a particularly interesting person.” Once he “admitted that God was God,” and that Christ was the true revelation of that God to Man, “the key to his own hidden and locked-away personality was given to him. . . . What appears almost immediately is a kind of gusto (sheer bold enthusiasm for what he loves) that is characteristic of him ever after.”
Conversion stories demand such dichotomies and, trained to question their schematic simplicity, their suspicious neatness, we doubt if they tell the whole truth. Still, Jacobs makes a more-than-plausible case for the profundity of the change. Suddenly, joy entered Lewis’ life. Suddenly he experienced, almost for the first time, an appetite and capacity for enchantment. Suddenly he knew, almost as a private pleasure, that the world made by a loving Father and redeemed by a self-giving Son was a world to be embraced, enjoyed, and loved.
Suddenly, you might say, he discovered the sacramental imagination. The child Lewis—an Ulster Protestant with the usual hostility towards papists—would have been amazed at the adult Lewis’ thoroughly Catholic theology of pleasure: “There is no good in trying to be more spiritual than God. God never meant man to be a purely spiritual creature. That is why he uses material things like bread and wine to put new life into us. We may think this rather crude and unspiritual. God does not: He invented eating. He likes matter. He invented it.”
Enchantment is the theme, then, and Jacobs more or less pulls it off. His book is about Lewis the Narnian—the man who entered another world and discovered, as if in a vision, that it is our own. The rest of his life was spent as a traveler returning from that land, encouraging us to see it for ourselves: encouraging us, in other words, to see what is all around us. The adventure of Christianity is available to everyone. Moments of joy—lives of joy—can be had by all. The gospel is good news.
That is why the child who read Milton became the man who wanted to read fairy stories. Those stories reveal truths that other tales only report—that darkness is real, but so, too, light; that death will come but that life will triumph; that the universe has moral structure and that we are part of it. G.K. Chesterton loved fairy stories for the same reason. He wrote in Orthodoxy of the Ethics of Elfland, rightly seeing them as the ethics of everyman. For both Chesterton and Lewis, enchantment was not whimsy or sentimental optimism, willful escapism or hoping for the best. It was a glimpse, sometimes all too fleeting, of how things really are. Lewis never ceased to be grateful for it.
course there are false enchantments—the will to power, the lure of lust. Evil spells exist as well as good ones. That is the Christian challenge—to tell the difference between one and the other, to embrace the world while avoiding its wiles. Lewis managed to do so even as the insistent world pressed in upon him—the invitations to speak, the flattering applause, the evidence, all around him, that he had become a Great Man. It was an achievement greater than any of his books. Vanity, vanity, all is vanity, says the preacher, slyly looking into the mirror. Lewis knew the danger of smiling at his own reflection. The Narnian, Alan Jacobs assures us, is not a conventional biography. Jacobs seeks instead the “more elusive quarry” of the “formation and expression of one of the most intriguing minds of the twentieth century.” But the book is, in fact, a conventional enough life and quite well done. It has its faults. Research rapture shines from almost every page, an enchantment with the irrelevant.
If you want to know that visitors to Oxford can now “purchase a lovely little facsimile edition of [Shelley’s] ‘Necessity of Atheism’ at the Bodleian Library Shop,” this is the book for you. Still, The Narnian’s vices are easily outweighed by its virtues: enthusiasm, intelligence, thoughtful exegesis, moral decency. C.S. Lewis’ fans will like it, and perhaps even some who are not.
Dermot Quinn is professor of history at Seton Hall University and serves on the Board of Directors of the G.K. Chesterton Institute for Faith and Culture.