Wednesday, May 21, 2008

C.S. Lewis: A Biography by Michael White

“Why ever do we need another biography of C. S. (‘Jack’) Lewis,” I said, as I took this book down from the shelf? Just because the author claims in his preface to have ‘an abiding interest in C. S. Lewis’, that he has been captivated by Lewis’s fantasy world and especially relished the Screwtape Letters, are not good enough reasons for a retell.

But popular biographer, Michael White, has stated his angle and his rationale for getting him through the research and writing of this new book:

“Most of those who have written about Lewis have been deeply religious people or academics, so they have concentrated on these aspects of his life…but there are many other human elements that shaped C. S. Lewis.”

“I wanted to consider C. S. Lewis from the position of a fan, certainly, but I did not want to dwell too much on his religious devotion or his academic accomplishments.”

“In many ways, I am the polar opposite of my subject. I am an atheist and I very much enjoy the twenty-first century, whereas Lewis had little time for the era in which he lived. Lewis concentrated on the past—his childhood. My inclination is to focus on the present and the future, something Lewis seemed to do only rarely.”

It is good that Michael White persisted in visiting the Lewis sites and writing the story from his study in Perth, Western Australia, because he writes with freshness, paints colourful word pictures and possesses the skill of a good storyteller.

The most persuasive reasons for delivering a new Lewis biography in the twenty-first century are found in White’s final chapter and end pages. The biographer evaluates the Lewis legacy, drawing many examples from the continuing story since Lewis’s death on the same day as JFK and Aldous Huxley died. In addition to viewing Lewis as a religious commentator and a writer, White notes the popularity and universal appeal of the theatrical productions of ‘The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe’ and their adaptation in the Narnia films.

White is respectful but his position outside the faith enables him to pen a ‘warts and all’ account of Lewis that is bound to offend many devotees who have reasons for keeping the Oxford don on a pedestal.

The author visits the C. S. Lewis exhibit at Wheaton College, Illinois and concludes that much of the adulation for Lewis is “based on confusion and misinterpretation.” He believes that this American exhibit “has managed to morph the real Jack Lewis into a version of himself even he would have trouble recognising.” In contrast, White’s more human account of Lewis’s life provides details of his vices and weaknesses that make him more accessible to readers. The highlighting of Lewis’s painful childhood, his unsettled education and his service in WWI goes a long way to explaining why Lewis acted and thought as he did. Specific examples of his relationship with women and his fluctuating friendship with fellow ‘Inkling’, J. R. R. Tolkien, provide insightful illustrations into the personality of Lewis.

As many Lewis biographies have erred on the side of hero worship and preserving a fabricated model of Christian devotion, White’s book is a welcome read. He has not shorn the biography of spiritual reflection and academic features but he has been attentive to many other factors that have shaped the Lewis life and legacy. Michael White skillfully walks the tightrope in continuing to be a fan of Clive Staples Lewis while concluding that “his character was replete with contradictions.”

Of special value to modern readers are the appendices which include ‘A Guide to the Publications of C. S. Lewis’, a ‘Chronology of the Life and Times of C. S. Lewis (including publications up to the year 2000!), an interesting account of ‘Those Who Survived C. S. Lewis’, a Bibliography (what would Lewis the Luddite think of a bibliography that lists websites?) and a detailed Index.

It was F. W. Boreham (a writer in the same era and another populariser of Christianity) who said, “When a man has been fifty years in his grave it ought to be possible to review his work dispassionately. The sentiment that is born of human fondness has by that time evaporated; and the prejudices that arise from personal animosity have died down.” For these reasons and more it is good that Michael White has waited half a century to write this new biography of C. S. Lewis.

Michael White, C. S. Lewis: The Boy Who Chronicled Narnia—a Biography (London: Abacus, 2005).

This book is available from Magrudy’s Bookshops in the UAE at a cost of Dh 63.00.

Dr. Geoff Pound

Image: Front cover of C. S. Lewis: The Boy Who Chronicled Narnia; biographer, Michael White.