It is difficult to write about C.S. Lewis without giving offence. Most authors have their admirers, and literary sectarianism is hardly rare, but Lewis is unusual in being at the heart of more than one cult, having excelled in genres where attachments are warmest and the cool touch of analysis can be most resented, such as popular religious writing and children’s literature. That he was also a noted scholar and academic only makes appraisal of his achievements more perilous, since one group of loyalists will fear that focusing on his celebrity among various kinds of ‘ordinary reader’ signals an undervaluing of his contribution to the study of medieval and Renaissance literature, while those who claim to speak for the legions of passionate admirers will be suspicious of any intellectual perspective liable to be seen as unsympathetic to the elemental readerly needs assuaged by his writing.
When he died in 1963, it seemed that his star was waning, following a peak of popularity in the 1940s and early 1950s, but his standing has enjoyed an extraordinary resurgence in the past couple of decades. In 1998, on the centenary of his birth, the Royal Mail issued a set of commemorative stamps, and when in 2011 a set of eight stamps was printed celebrating magical figures from all of English literature, two of them were from his best-loved children’s book, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, published in 1950. His standing as a Christian apologist has risen even more remarkably in these years. At the time of his centenary, Christianity Today announced that he had come to be ‘the Aquinas, the Augustine and the Aesop of contemporary evangelicalism’, a list suggestive of deep alphabetical reserves of praise to come. Recent polls of American Christians apparently reveal that Mere Christianity (a reworked selection of short talks he gave on the BBC during the Second World War) ‘is regularly cited as the most influential religious book of the 20th century’. Quite why the recycled wartime spiritual pep talks of a lapsed Belfast Anglican turned myth-cultivating Oxford don should, more than fifty years later, be a bestseller among born-again American Evangelicals is a pretty question for cultural history.
Partly because Lewis was an inveterate if selective autobiographer, and partly because there have been several previous biographies of him, the outlines of his life are assumed to be fairly well known. Since both his scholarly and popular writings are often taken to exemplify a stereotypical Englishness, it is important to remember that he was originally not English, or at least that his adopted identity grew out of the ‘more British than thou’ soil of Ulster Protestantism. Lewis (known to family and friends as ‘Jack’) grew up in Belfast and was educated partly in Northern Ireland, partly in England. He retained his early attachment to the Ulster countryside, always his preferred holiday location, and he is reported to have remarked that ‘Heaven is Oxford lifted and placed in the middle of County Down’. His mother died when he was nine, confining him to an emotionally strained and distant relationship with his father, a Belfast solicitor who was a pillar of his local congregation, and encouraging an unbreakably strong bond with his older brother, Warren (‘Warnie’). He mostly hated his schooldays in England, but flourished under the supervision of an eccentric private coach, sufficiently so to gain a place at Oxford. For a healthy British male, November 1916 was not the best moment to have one’s 18th birthday, universal conscription having been introduced earlier that year and the Battle of the Somme having just come to its murderous end, but at least by spending a term at Oxford in the Officers’ Training Corps Lewis qualified to get a commission in the army. He was sent to France in November 1917 and invalided home with a shell wound in May 1918. His undergraduate career began in earnest in January 1919.
During his training, Lewis had developed a close friendship with another fresh-faced future subaltern, Paddy Moore. Lewis’s relationship with Jane Moore, Paddy’s mother, was to be arguably the most important in his life. She had separated from her husband in Ireland and had recently moved to Oxford (accompanied by her 12-year-old daughter) to be close to her son. When they met in 1917, Lewis was a young 18, she a handsome 45. They formed a close attachment whose exact character remains a matter of speculation, but the relationship, whatever it was, was only intensified by Paddy’s death in action in 1918. Mrs Moore began to take lodgings wherever Lewis was convalescing, following him around the country, and when he returned to Oxford to resume his studies, he partly lived in the house that Mrs Moore rented in Headington, explaining, when necessary, that she was his landlady. Having distinguished himself with a First in Greats in 1922, Lewis took the less prestigious course in English Language and Literature in one year, gaining another First. After a year or two of hand-to-mouth existence (always accompanied by Mrs Moore), in 1925 he landed a tutorial fellowship in English at Magdalen College, and this became his base and home from home for the next 29 years.
Publicly, Lewis lived the life of a bachelor don, but he combined this with a limited form of settled domesticity with Jane Moore and her daughter. From 1932 onwards, Lewis, Warnie and an increasingly fractious Mrs Moore shared a house in Headington, though Lewis retained his rooms in college. Warnie had taken early retirement from his military career, probably because he was already on the way to the alcoholism for which he later received repeated treatment. Despite their obvious differences, the brothers remained remarkably close, Warnie often sitting in Lewis’s inner room at Magdalen, typing some of his brother’s work or correspondence, while Lewis gave a tutorial in the outer room.
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[*] The Intellectual World of C.S. Lewis by Alister McGrath (Wiley, 191 pp., £19.99, April, 978 0 470 67279 2).