Book review: CS Lewis: A Life by Alister McGrath

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LAST night I read a nine-year-old boy a chapter of The Magician’s Nephew, CS Lewis’s prequel to the Narnia books.

CS Lewis: A Life

BY Alister McGrath

Hodder, 448pp, £20

As ever, once the audience was asleep, I had to read on. They are cracking stories: the scariness of Uncle Andrew’s appearance in the attic room; the curious device of the wood between the worlds; the gender inversion of the story of Adam and Eve, whereby it’s the boy in this story who succumbs to temptation, the girl who sees trouble coming – all irresistible.

These stories draw on umpteen strands of the author’s imagination – the medievalist, the academic, the Christian – but the thing about them is their genius as stories well told.

The Narnia books alone would justify CS Lewis’s remarkable afterlife, half a century this year after his death, but he has other claims to be read. The one that interests Alister McGrath most in this new biography is that of religious apologist — indeed, his discussion of Lewis’s legacy is largely to do with his reputation among Christians.

For my money, Lewis’s more important function is as an evangelist for the lost worlds of antiquity and the Middle Ages – a category that Lewis pretty well demolished – perhaps best represented by The Discarded Image, a collection of his lectures on medieval and Renaissance lectures at Oxford, which is still the best introduction to the subject.

McGrath is, as was Lewis, a Protestant Ulsterman, and one of the things this biography does especially well is rehabilitate Lewis as an Irishman – he was born well before Partition. His mother died when he was ten and his father despatched him to a grim prep school in Watford, followed by Malvern College, both of which he detested. But although he never really returned properly to Ireland, his vision of the earthly paradise remained County Down. Heaven on earth, he remarked, would be Oxford transplanted there.

Correspondingly, he seems to have regarded his time in the trenches during the First World War as less hellish than his years at a sporting English public school.

McGrath has combed all the sources meticulously and chronologically, a mixed blessing for his readers, for whom the question of precisely when Lewis converted to Christianity – which his biographer triumphantly re-dates – is of less importance than the fact. And most of us are going to be less engaged by matters of detail, such as the presence of another CS Lewis at Keble when he was undergoing military training there, than the more lurid stuff, such as his interesting undergraduate weakness for the English vice, flagellation.

His fantasy about spanking a bottom laid across his lap is, I am afraid, going to stay with me. For all that, he was unambiguously heterosexual: McGrath comes tentatively down on the side of those who consider that Mrs Moore, mother of his friend Paddy Moore, was his lover. Still, when a friend confesses his homosexuality, Lewis writes to congratulate him on his honesty.

He didn’t have much luck with the ladies, though he was very willing to treat women such as Dorothy Sayers as his intellectual peers. But he probably didn’t have a chance against Joy Davidson, the American divorcée who set out, as her son remarked, “to seduce Lewis” and succeeded. Forget Shadowlands; the woman was a predator with a mercenary streak, notwithstanding her role as muse.

I can’t say I share all McGrath’s enthusiasms: Mere Christianity never did much for me and A Grief Observed has never comforted any bereaved person I know. But those of us who have been changed for ever by Lewis’s introduction to vanished worlds must be grateful for this sympathetic and thorough account.