Deeper Shallows

Stefan Collini

  • C.S. Lewis: A Life by Alister McGrath
    Hodder, 431 pp, £20.00, April 2013, ISBN 978 1 4447 4552 8

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.

Quite what the nature of Lewis’s relationship was with Mrs Moore has become one of the cruces of a growing body of biographical studies. In his stylish Life of 1990, A.N. Wilson declared: ‘That he fell in love with Mrs Moore, and she with him … cannot be in doubt,’ adding: ‘While nothing will ever be proved on either side, the burden of proof is on those who believe that Lewis and Mrs Moore were not lovers – probably from the summer of 1918 onwards.’ Well, maybe, but the evidence appears to be inconclusive. There was clearly a lot of arrested emotional development in the young Lewis, even by the standards of his time and class, and there are hints of an early interest in sado-masochistic pleasures (to one friend he confessed his flagellant fantasies, signing himself ‘Philomastix’ – ‘lover of the whip’). He also seems to have needed and wanted a substitute mother, a role Jane Moore certainly played. In the early phase he wrote to her every day, even though he was visiting her most afternoons (she later burned his letters). Their relationship lasted in some form until her death in 1951. She became ever more demanding and difficult and in her last years was in poor physical and mental health. Through all her ailments, real or imagined, Lewis had cared for her (and walked her dogs, one of her obsessions); when she had to spend the last seven months of her life in a nursing home, increasingly demented, Lewis visited her every day. She had not been a particularly intellectual woman, or, according to some witnesses, a particularly nice one. Whether Lewis mostly worshipped her or mostly suffered her, or both or neither, we don’t really know. He began by needing her and ended by looking after her; perhaps it was not such an unusual relationship.

In 1926 Lewis began a friendship that was to have a formative influence of a different kind on his life, especially his imaginative life. J.R.R. Tolkien was six years older and already the professor of Anglo-Saxon at Oxford. He and Lewis shared interests in Norse mythology, Old English literature, religion (Tolkien was a devout Catholic, Lewis at this point a self-described agnostic), fantasy and beer. Tolkien played some part in Lewis’s rediscovery of his Christian faith at the beginning of the 1930s, though he was disappointed that his friend stopped at the halfway house of Anglicanism (in so far as Lewis adopted any fixed denominational identity). These two became the centre of a small group of (male) friends in Oxford with similar tastes, later known as the Inklings, who met regularly in a pub or in college rooms to talk and sometimes to read and discuss drafts of work in progress. The leading members of the group, which included the Anglican writer Charles Williams during the years of the Second World War, also seem to have shared a form of conservatism – one with Tory anarchist leanings – that was more cultural than political (and was the more conservative for seeing itself as apolitical). Tolkien and Lewis encouraged each other in their forays into the genres of fantasy and children’s writing, though the relationship could become strained, especially over Lewis’s domestic arrangements. The enormous later celebrity of the group’s two principal members has led to some mythologising of the intellectual character of its regular meetings; in reality the atmosphere seems to have been marked more by a kind of learned heartiness, ‘beer and Beowulf’.

Perhaps because of the success of his popular writings, Lewis was not held in universally high regard in Oxford and was twice passed over for a professorship. In 1954 Cambridge created a new chair in Medieval and Renaissance English, and Lewis seems to have been widely regarded as the obvious contender. After a brief episode of comedy in which he turned down the offer because he feared that moving to Cambridge would mean losing his Headington gardener and handyman, he was appointed, and began a routine of spending weeknights during term in his Cambridge college rooms and otherwise maintaining his established ménage in Headington.

All seemed set for a quiet final phase to his career, a prospect that was disrupted by what is probably now the most famous episode of Lewis’s life, especially as represented, and perhaps somewhat travestied, in Richard Attenborough’s 1993 film Shadowlands. In 1952 Lewis met and developed some form of relationship with (was single-mindedly pursued by?) a noisy, unhappily married, not very successful, American freelance writer 16 years younger than he was. In 1955 Joy Davidman and the sons from her now ended marriage moved into a house in Headington, not far from Lewis’s. It seems he supported her financially, and then in 1956 in a civil ceremony married her, perhaps principally in order to allow her to remain and work in Britain. Later that year she was diagnosed with advanced cancer. Faced with her imminent death, Lewis went to some lengths to find a clergyman willing to conduct a Christian marriage, a ceremony that took place in Joy’s hospital room. But then she made an unexpected recovery and lived for a further three years, during which time Lewis, according to his own later account in A Grief Observed (1961), truly fell in love with her. Characteristically, he put the experience to the service of Christian apologetics, pondering not for the first time the place of pain and suffering in the world. The emotionally needy Lewis was consistent in constructing a settled form of life for himself with people whose appeal was, shall we say, not obvious to outsiders – Warnie the bluff alcoholic; Jane the demanding drama queen; Joy the over-assertive gold-digger. But in these matters outsiders are just that: the inference must be that these three individuals helped him to know certain kinds of happiness, however inscrutable their contribution must remain. Lewis died on 22 November 1963, at about the time Kennedy’s motorcade began to leave the airport in Dallas.


Alister McGrath provides an accessible account of the life without aspiring to detailed comprehensiveness; his book is a sympathetic portrait that concentrates primarily on the Christian apologetics. He maintains an amiable, slightly didactic tone, reminiscent of the evening-class lecturer conscious that his audience want the pleasure of feeling they have been stretched without having to absorb anything too taxing. He announces that his book is ‘not a work of synopsis, but of analysis’, and that he aims ‘to explain, not simply why Lewis became such a figure of authority and influence, but why he remains so today’. Even granting him his terms (though Lewis is now surely a figure of ‘authority’ only in the most metaphorical sense, and then only for those of a particular religious inclination), answering these questions would require forms of historical and sociological analysis that McGrath stays well away from.

Lewis’s life has already been documented with unusual fullness. There are several biographies, scores of studies of his work, and a massive (almost 4000-page) edition of his letters, completed in 2006, not to mention the constantly autobiographical (or ostensibly autobiographical) and confessional nature of his own writings. Yet it isn’t easy, given his prolific and disparate output, to put the pieces together or to arrive at a clear view of his achievements, and reading some of his work alongside McGrath’s biography (together with a companion volume of essays on various aspects of his subject’s thought) only increases one’s feeling that Lewis could be both impressive and irritating – at times a witty and powerful writer, but at times seeming to use surface depths to mask deeper shallows.[*]

By the late 1930s, Lewis was a well-regarded scholar and teacher, but not any kind of public figure. Wider fame came suddenly and unexpectedly. In the early months of the war he wrote his first piece of popular apologetics, a little book called The Problem of Pain. The informal clarity of its plain man’s answer to the traditional theodicy problem struck a popular chord. There was evidently a hunger for such consolation, and the BBC felt impelled to address it. The war years marked the peak of radio’s influence, and producers were conscious of the need to use their monopolistic power with impartiality, especially on such a sensitive subject as religion. Lewis seemed appealing as a possible speaker precisely because he was a layman who could speak to other laymen without being too closely identified with one particular denomination. Beginning in August 1941, his series of talks making an informal and personal case for Christian belief were a huge success: it became common to refer to him as ‘the voice of faith’ for the nation, alongside other broadcasters labelled as ‘the voice of gardening’ and so on. Between 1941 and 1944 he gave four series of talks, the texts of which were brought together, in only lightly revised form, as Mere Christianity in 1952.

His radio talks alone brought Lewis a kind of national celebrity. The publication in 1942 of The Screwtape Letters brought him international fame. Initially published as weekly articles, these ruminations on the everyday sources of spiritual experience were archly disguised as the advice of a senior demon to his nephew, Wormwood, on how to prevent gullible humans from falling into faith. This slight book was an immediate publishing phenomenon, translated into 15 languages and selling more than two million copies. It enjoyed particular success in the United States, the beginning of Lewis’s cultish following in that country. McGrath tells us that the first PhD thesis written about Lewis’s work was completed as early as 1948 at the Northern Baptist Theological Seminary in Chicago. However, McGrath also reports that some fundamentalists in the US now regard Lewis as a dangerous heretic; ‘C.S. Lewis,’ one website declares, ‘was an impostor, who corrupted the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and led multitudes of victims into Hellfire with his doctrines of devils. Lewis used profanities, told lewd stories, and frequently got drunk with his students.’ Which just shows that you can’t be too careful, whether mildly experimenting with literary forms or offering students the odd tutorial sherry.

In Britain, the arc of Lewis’s reputation seems to be clearly linked to the revival of Christianity, both among intellectuals and more widely, in the 1940s and early 1950s. When William Empson returned to Britain in 1953, having spent his teaching career up to that point in the Far East and the US, he professed to be shocked by the predominance of ‘neo-Christian’ perspectives in the teaching of English literature. The belligerently agnostic Empson liked to shock his contemporaries, but there was some historical basis to his observation. When one looks at the board that elected Lewis to the Cambridge chair, one sees, in addition to his old friends Tolkien and Stanley Bennett, such leading Christians as David Knowles, Benedictine monk and ecclesiastical historian, and Basil Willey, lifelong Methodist and member of the literary panel for the translation of the New English Bible. (The electors’ second choice, to whom they offered the chair during Lewis’s initial dithering, was that devout Anglican Helen Gardner.) As in the wider culture, such literary Christianity fell sharply out of fashion in the 1960s and 1970s, and Lewis’s reputation dipped correspondingly; though perhaps his children’s books maintained their standing. Once again, his reputation in the US (which he never visited; but then he never went anywhere) took a distinctive form and seems to have benefited particularly from his association with Tolkien, a commercial success there on a quite other scale.

Lewis’s religious identity is what most interests McGrath (and a lot of other people, it must be said). Brought up in the Church of Ireland, Lewis became an agnostic for a decade or so from his student years, and then, at the beginning of the 1930s, underwent a celebrated conversion. But to what, exactly? To some kind of theism in the first instance, it seems, and only subsequently to Christianity. He began to attend Church of England services, and gave that as his denominational identity when required, but the distinctiveness of his religious position, such as it seems to have been, lay in his endorsement of what he called ‘mere Christianity’. That’s to say, Lewis came to think that the basic mythical or quasi-historical story shared by all forms of Christianity was true and that the spiritual experience to which one was awakened by belief in this story was more important than all the matters that divided one denomination from another. Lewis skilfully represented himself as the Christian-in-the-street: not overly churchy; not preoccupied with the finer points of theology (though as a medievalist he was deeply learned about such matters); but a suffering soul with a personal relation to God.

One reason he was an apologist of genius was the capacity he had to persuade readers that the wisdom and humanity of his views came from looking deep into himself and not flinching from what he found. In his most popular writings he was a cracker-barrel theologian, a purveyor of religious saws, a pedlar of spiritual quack-medicine – and hugely successful as a result. There is often a dash of Chesterton about these apologetic writings – that use of the natty phrase to jolly the reader into following him to an unjustified logical conclusion. However much latitude we grant Lewis on account of the diversity of his talents and the heterogeneity of the genres he cultivated, the truth is that he could be a kind of ideologue. The shallowness of the ‘modern world’ was relentlessly denounced (though his experience of that world was strictly circumscribed); all secular beliefs were, ultimately, inadequate or false; the truth of Christianity was, plainly, inescapable. In this mode, he often comes across as one of those highly intelligent people who are willing to encourage the embrace by others of not very intelligent views when it suits their argumentative purposes.

Part of what gave Lewis’s essays and popular spiritual writings their appeal was that he appeared to write with the authority of a man who has shared, still shares, the common human failings and perplexities, but who is able to draw a helpful moral from the experience. Lewis is the constant autobiographer in part because he seems to find his own inner life so interesting. It is one mark of a bore, of course, to presume that what he finds interesting will be interesting, at length, to others, but Lewis has a lighter, wittier touch than that suggests. More damaging is the unrelenting, if sometimes covert didacticism. This may be inseparable from the genre of apologetic writing (and perhaps from certain kinds of writing for children, too), but it can make Lewis seem bullyingly middlebrow – which, at his best, and above all at his scholarly best, he certainly isn’t. The obvious comparison here is J.B. Priestley, another figure who had great success as a wartime broadcaster. Unalike in so many ways, they both communicated a deep reassuringness, a feeling that the travails of common experience were familiar to them yet also ultimately surmountable – a message, or tone, that found an especially responsive audience in wartime. Priestley cultivated the middlebrow identity with polemical gusto, an identity that sat more easily with being a Bradford lad than an Oxford don. But Jack Priestley and ‘Jack’ Lewis both excelled at using an informal conversational tone in print and on air, and both succeeded in inducing just enough reflectiveness in their readers and listeners to enrich their lives without threatening to change them.

Several of Lewis’s scholarly books still matter to the kind of reader to whom such writing matters, but probably the two on which his reputation largely rested in his lifetime were The Allegory of Love (1936) and English Literature in the 16th Century (1954). The first focused on the tradition of ‘courtly love’, culminating in an extended discussion of Spenser’s Faerie Queene, while the second, commissioned as a volume in the old Oxford History of English Literature, offered much detailed scholarship on lesser works to support Lewis’s central denial of a sharp break between the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. His Oxford colleague Helen Gardner wrote of The Allegory of Love: ‘Lewis recovered for the ordinary reader what had been lost for centuries, the power to read allegory and to respond to the allegorical mode of thinking. He was able to do this because he was a born allegorist himself … He was, besides, a moralist to the depths of his being, and was deeply moved by allegory’s power to embody moral concepts and illuminate moral experience.’ Allegory constantly threatens to become a didactic mode. Lewis’s habitual use of it is a point of contrast with Tolkien, who sharply rejected any suggestion that The Lord of the Rings was an allegory about contemporary political conflicts. ‘I cordially dislike allegory in all its manifestations,’ he wrote, ‘and always have done so since I grew old and wary enough to detect its presence.’

For all the elegance of Lewis’s scholarly writing, an ideological agenda makes its presence felt there, too. He was hostile to stories of ‘progress’, hostile to anything that seemed to represent a cultural fashion, hostile (more stereotypical Englishness here) to ‘intellectuals’. As his former colleague George Watson observed, ‘The chief purpose of his critical writings, in a negative sense, was the discrediting of 16th-century humanism and 20th-century modernism, both of which he saw as dry, starved and stultifying.’ It says something about Lewis’s imaginative powers and a curious limitation in his tastes that though he worked on English literature at the high point of its involvement with the cultures of Southern Europe, he never visited either France (war service aside) or Italy. ‘Northernness’ is what moved him, not the Mediterranean. He seems to have had an almost Larkinesque aversion to ‘abroad’.

It is noticeable that recent scholarly discussion of the part played by literary critics in public debate in Britain in the middle decades of the 20th century focuses on such figures as Eliot or Leavis or Raymond Williams, usually without mentioning Lewis at all. This may seem surprising, given the scale of his popular success, but two features of his work help to explain his omission. First, he wrote practically nothing that directly addressed current cultural and political issues. He deliberately estranged himself from many of the concerns of wider society, retreating into the worlds of his imagination, and much of the time not even reading newspapers (‘even his friends sometimes found him worryingly ignorant of current affairs,’ McGrath notes). Second, he rather scorned the vogue for ‘criticism’: he saw himself as a literary scholar, deeply learned in the writing and thought-worlds of earlier periods, not as a textual technician or substitute therapist. As he told Priestley late in his life, he was disappointed by the way ‘Eng Lit’ had developed in recent decades: ‘My hope was that it would be primarily a historical study that would lift people out of (so to speak) their chronological provincialism by plunging them into the thought and feeling of ages other than their own.’ In his Cambridge inaugural he presented himself as a dinosaur, Old Western Man, a messenger from the culture of the two millennia before industrialism, a culture he saw as rapidly becoming not just unfamiliar but unintelligible to a younger generation. This could be seen as an honourable role for a scholar, but as a job description it fell some way short of offering, as some other critics appeared to offer, to solve the problems of the modern world.

One judgment about Lewis bound to cause offence was voiced by his admirer and former pupil John Wain, who observed in 1964 that ‘his writing improves as it gets further from the popular and demagogic.’ That latter adjective may sound harsh and inexact, but on occasion in his apologetics it does seem as though Lewis wrote to please the crowd – wrote down, wrote beneath himself – and the effect could be cringe-making. But that is by no means the whole of his writing, and beyond that we must allow that it is not altogether Lewis’s fault that he has become the poster-boy of Evangelical Christianity. More generally, to read bits of Lewis alongside McGrath's enthusiastic but somewhat bland biography is a reminder that his various disciples may not be his best advocates. Lewis is too easily diminished by shallow praise.

[*] The Intellectual World of C.S. Lewis by Alister McGrath (Wiley, 191 pp., £19.99, April, 978 0 470 67279 2).