Book Review: The Narnian

The Narnian: The Life And Imagination Of C.S. Lewis, by Alan Jacobs

As someone who tends to read a lot of books by and about C.S. Lewis [1], it is always intriguing to see what new angle a particular book has to offer, given that many books tread over the same ground. As any competent work about C.S. Lewis would do, this one has a lot of quotes by and about him from the lengthy body of works that Lewis wrote during his lifetime, including his highly intriguing body of letters [2]. As this is a biography of Lewis’ imagination, and how it came to develop, it focuses on those aspects of his life that contributed to the most to his imagination—his reading, his voluminous writing, his life as an Oxbridge don, his seemingly miraculous ability to write at length despite the hurried and busy conditions of his life, his friendship with similarly imaginative people, the traumas of war, and his penchant for relationship drama and domestic tragedy. There are other aspects of Lewis’ life that are not focused on in as much length, and the author notes these in passing for those who have at least some curiosity in them.

In terms of its structure and contents, the book is highly chronological in nature. After its introductory section, the author starts with Lewis’ early childhood, details his barbaric experiences as a bookish young man in private school education in an atmosphere where such people were mercilessly teased and bullied by brutal cliques. The account reminded me painfully of my own public school experience. The author then discusses C.S. Lewis’ war experience, his starving of the imagination during his atheistic years, his immense problems with his father, his resolute privacy about his unorthodox personal life, and his sudden and surprising fame as a Christian apologist, which was one of the several areas where he showed skill. The author comments as well on his somewhat rapid decline in health, his friendships, his brother’s and father’s alcoholism, and the struggle over the death of his wife Joy, taking a little more than 300 fairly tightly written pages to discuss the life and imagination of C.S. Lewis, accomplishing the difficult and worthwhile goal he set out to do with a clear mastery of the wide-ranging books of C.S. Lewis and many books written about him. The author claims at the end of the introduction that he never plans on writing a word about C.S. Lewis again, but I hardly know how that would be possible, or even desirable.

It is sometimes the case that in reading about a man like C.S. Lewis that many people, or at least people like me, meet those who are somewhat like oneself. Lewis was an old-fashioned man with orthodox religious beliefs, but his personal life was nothing if not unconventional. He was a layman, but wrote well-regarded works of practical theology and exegesis on such issues as Christian living, the problem of pain, and the Psalms. He was simultaneously a literary critic and a historian of medieval and Renaissance literature. He was a very good teacher, well-regarded as a lecturer, but he hated lecturing, much preferring to read and write in solitude. Being an introverted intellectual, he was also famous for his friendships with other great intellectuals, for his love of good company at a local pub. And though he was most fond of the male company of peers, he was also known for his love of witty women, and his letters are full of compassion for girls and women, some of whom he got along very well with. He was, like many people, a bundle of contradictions, a person of nearly impossible breadth of interests and talents, but also a person who had a striking authorial voice and a tendency to come at the same issues and same problems from different angles in literature, in apologetics, and in his works of historical and literary criticism. And though he was an impossibly prolific writer, he is also a model of how others can use their God-given talents in the marketplace of ideas to make the best life possible for those who are both people of great intellect and feeling, of faith and book knowledge. Those of us who dwell at that same crossroads of reason and imagination have need of all the worthy models we can get.

[1] See, for example:

[2] Some of the many notable quotes in this book are as follows:

“There was something in the whole quality and structure of his thinking, something for which the best label I can find is “presence of mind.” If I were asked to expand on that, I could say only that somehow what he thought about everything was secretly present in what he said about anything.” – Owen Barfield (xxi)

“In fact his whole life was oriented & motivated by an almost uniquely-persisting child’s sense of glory and nightmare. The adult events were received into a medium still as pliable as wax, wide open to the glory, and equally vulnerable, with a man’s strength to feel it all, and a great scholar’s & writer’s skill to express and to interpret.” – Ruth Pitter (xxiii)

“If Jacks were not an impetuous, kind hearted creature who could be cajoled by any woman who had been through the mill, I should not be uneasy.” – Albert Lewis (93)

“It is the modern literature of the educated, not of the uneducated, which is avowedly and aggressively criminal….The vast mass of humanity, with their vast mass of idle books and idle words, have never doubted and will never doubt that courage is splendid, that fidelity is noble, that distressed ladies should be rescued, and vanquished enemies spared. There are a large number of cultivated persons who doubt these maxims of daily life.” – C.S. Lewis (123)

“I have never been able to resist the retrogressive influence of this house which always plunges me back into the pleasures and pains of a boy.” – C.S. Lewis (127)

“Friendship with Lewis compensates for much, and besides giving constant pleasure and comfort has done me much good from the contact with a man at once honest, brave, intellectual—a scholar, a poet, and a philosopher—and a lover, at least after a long pilgrimage, of Our Lord.” – J.R.R. Tolkien (151)

“It is true, of course, that he found university life far less onerous than his earlier schooling, but for Jack Lewis even good tutors and good lectures were little more than necessary evils, in that they prevented him from doing what he always preferred to do: reading and writing.” – Alan Jacobs (163)

“The English love their eccentrics not because the eccentricities themselves are necessarily delightful but because the mere presence of such odd folks among them is a testimony to the community’s gentleness, tolerance, and humor.” – Alan Jacobs (207)

“If there was one word that comes up most often in the comments of people who knew Jack well, it was that he was “kind,” but his kindness was not invariable, and when he employed his great verbal dexterity and his booming voice in order to refute some perceived error, the recipient of his tongue-lashing was not likely to forget or forgive.” – Alan Jacobs (265)

“It is my settled conviction that in order to read Old Western literature aright you must suspend most of the responses and unlearn most of the habits you have acquired in reading modern literature. And because this is the judgment of a native, I claim that, even if the defence of my conviction is weak, the fact of my conviction is a historical datum to which you should give full weight. That way, where I fail as a critic, I may yet be useful as a specimen. I would even dare to go further. Speaking not only for myself but for all other Old Western men whom you may meet, I would say, use your specimens while you can. There are not going to be many more dinosaurs.” – C.S. Lewis (282)

“An Experiment in Criticism is a flawed book in many ways—it is essentially a work of literary theory, and that was not Lewis’ strength as a writer or thinker—but I find it absolutely wonderful that this tired, sick man, worn down by suffering and loss and an ever-weakening heart, could be roused to polemical fury in defense of a small boy reading an adventure story in ignorance or defiance of the cultural norms of his household. From his earliest youth Lewis had jealously guarded his freedom as a reader: he had craved every moment he could get alone with some book taken from the vast shelves and stacks of Little Lea, and all his life he had treasured mild illnesses as justification for irresponsible and purely voluntary reading. It was to defend, and more to celebrate, the Reader that this old warrior put on his armor one last time and set forth to slay the dragon named Critic.” – Alan Jacobs (295)

“We must play. But our merriment must be of that kind (and it is, in fact, the merriest kind) which exists between people who have, from the outset, taken each other seriously—no flippancy, no superiority, no presumption.” C.S. Lewis (299)

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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5 Responses to Book Review: The Narnian

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