From Shadowlands to Narnia
THE NARNIAN: The Life and Imagination of C.S. Lewis
by Alan Jacobs
Hardcover: 368 pages
This is the best book about C.S. Lewis ever written.
Not everyone agrees with that. Alison Lurie, in a hostile and sometimes silly article on Lewis in The New York Review Of Books (she suggests that Aslan is the British lion, and Narnia the British Empire!), dismisses Jacobs’s book as merely “good”.
The reviewer in American Catholic political commentary First Things, a more sympathetic forum, is snooty and patronising (“conventional enough … quite well done”), but First Things editor John Richard Neuhaus calls it “quite the most satisfying book on Lewis that I have read”.
Life of a mind
The Narnian is not a standard biography in the tradition of previous Lewis biographies by writers such as Roger Lancelyn Green and Walter Hooper, George Sayer and A.N. Wilson. It is rather, as the whole title indicates, what Jacobs calls the “life of a mind”, told in terms of the world of Narnia, that mind’s most revealing expression.
The recent release of the film, The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe, has generated much discussion (including panic and paranoia) on the part of the commentariat, and the book’s cover both reflects and promotes this heightened interest in Lewis.
It carries a photograph of him standing at attention, wearing a smile, a suit and a shabby dressing gown. A large lion is wrapping itself around his legs like an importunate tabby. Beneath this icon, a stamp bears the legend, The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe, a Major Motion Picture, Holiday 2005, thus covering all countries, hemispheres and time zones.
There is a welcome absence of both Freudian psychobabble and conjecture disguised as fact in the treatment of the important adults in Lewis’s life. At least one of the previous biographers made the mistake of thinking that the key to an understanding of Lewis lay in this area.
Jacobs is open about Lewis’s difficult relations with his father, the enormous influence of his tutor, William T. Kirkpatrick (“The Great Knock”), and the impossibility of ever penetrating the nature of his mysterious relationship with Mrs Moore, the older woman with whom he lived for over 30 years. He does, however, suggest that Lewis never really faced up to the psychological significance of his reaction to his mother’s death when he was only eight, and wonders what the survival of this highly intelligent woman might have meant for her son.
While an outstandingly good book, it has its blemishes.
Lewis generated a number of memorable bêtes noires. These included the Inner Ring; pseudo-rational rejection of the Tao (the universal moral law); chronological snobbery (“the assumption that whatever has gone out of date is on that account discredited”); and Bulverism, Lewis’s name for the argumentum ad hominem fallacy.
It is surprising, therefore, to find Jacobs, who is highly respectful, though not hagiographical, toward Lewis, falling into the last two traps. In the process of describing Lewis’s belief in the headship of man over woman, he admits that Lewis is in line with what always, everywhere and by everyone (quod semper, quod ubique, quod ab omnibus), was accepted as Christian orthodoxy, but rejects Lewis’s position merely because it is no longer widely acceptable. He then compounds chronological snobbery with Bulverism by “explaining” that “Oxford in his time was an overwhelmingly masculine society”!
Jacobs is also less than wholly satisfactory about Lewis’s conversion. There is an excellent account of his journey to theism in 1929, and then on to the threshold of his acceptance of Christianity in 1931. At that point Jacobs tails off.
It “is difficult to say”, says Jacobs, when Lewis became a Christian, because “he did not have an immediate and permanent conversion”. But Lewis himself thought that he had. Recounting the famous Whipsnade Zoo incident, right at the end of Surprised by Joy, he wrote: “When we set out, I did not believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, and when we reached the zoo I did.”
Lewis’s testimony will never satisfy the rigorists of either high or low ecclesiology. He was not converted through the church, though he joined it immediately and communicated for the rest of his life. Nor did he turn to Christianity because overwhelming guilt drove him to the Atonement, despite his coming to grasp that, in Jacobs’s words, “it was … a death on our behalf … and … somehow, put us right with God” (hence, of course, the sacrifice of Aslan at the Stone Table).
At least Jacobs, like A.N. Wilson, recognises that one of the most immediate and obvious proofs of his conversion was “a kind of gusto (sheer, bold enthusiasm for what he loves) that is characteristic of him ever after”. In a Chestertonian paradox, which is also a commonplace of Christian spirituality, he found and became himself, in both his life and his writings, by giving up himself.
For many years prior to his conversion, Lewis had attempted to stifle his imagination, his overwhelming preoccupation with the quest for “joy” (an emotion he described as “an unsatisfied desire which is itself more desirable than any other satisfaction”). He had quite deliberately “tried to turn himself into … an analytical creature capable of sharp-edged distinctions … someone impervious to the mystifications of fantasy and Faery”.
In becoming a Christian, he became the Narnian of the book’s title, someone who had integrated rigorous logic and theology with a rumbustious capacity for what J.R.R. Tolkien called mythopoeia – mythmaking.
Limitations of logic
Jacobs dismisses A.N. Wilson’s theory that Lewis turned to children’s stories as a vehicle of evangelism after being bested in an Oxford debate by philosopher Elizabeth Anscombe. At the same time, he admits that Lewis eventually came to recognise the limitations of logic and language: “He became a Christian not through accepting a particular set of arguments but through learning to read a story the right way.” And again, “Sometimes fairy stories may say best what’s to be said.”
Jacobs’s treatment of Joy Davidman and her relationship with Lewis is, on the whole, shrewd and sympathetic. After Joy’s death, Lewis wrote A Grief Observed, in which he “told God what I thought of him”. As Jacobs says, “He could scarcely have written anything angrier or more damning.”
What Jacobs and other biographers miss in this episode is Lewis’s insularity. It is generally acknowledged that he showed scant interest in politics, newspapers and current events; but was all too aware of the anguish-ridden human condition, as a result of his time in the trenches during World War I, if nothing else. In The Problem of Pain, he asks his reader to “reflect for five minutes on the fact that all the great religions were first preached … in a world without chloroform”.
That being said, there is something ineluctably English and middle-class about the faith which Lewis practised and propagated. His writings evidence little or no interest in humanity outside North America and Western Europe. It does not seem to occur to him that out in the Third (or Two-Thirds) World, countless victims at any one time are suffering like his wife Joy Davidman when she was dying of cancer, but without modern hospital facilities – without, even, the possibility of stuffing them full of morphine if worse comes to worst.
Fate of these millions
It is pre-eminently the fate of these millions, rather than that of his wife, which screams out for some sort of theodicy. (This, of course, is not to detract in any way from the reality of Joy’s pain, or the courage with which she faced it).
Lewis’s gravestone carries Shakespeare’s words, “Men must endure their going hence”. In view of his designation in the Narnia books of this life as the Platonic Shadowlands, he might just as appropriately have shared John Henry Newman’s epitaph: Ex umbris et imaginibus in veritatem – Out of shadows and illusion into reality.