C.S. Lewis is one of the most versatile figures in literary history. He dreamed of becoming a great poet; instead, he achieved fame as the writer of children's books, nonfiction, science fiction, and literary criticism. In this biography, A.N. Wilson explores the life and works of C.S. Lewis, from his early childhood, through years of fighting in World War I, his relationships, his books, and his friendships.
He was a complicated man, made up of a myriad of moments: tragedies, successes, failures, with his life-and-death struggles. And, even now, the answers that we find in his life and works only leave us with more questions. Who was this man?
The Pursuit of Literature
Lewis experienced the death of his mother at an early age, and he said "all that was tranquil and reliable, disappeared from my life." Then, he was sent off to boarding school and separated from everything he had known. He had a habit for keeping very much to himself; so not surprising that his love for literature would continue to grow and evolve. He once wrote to his friend, Arthur Greeves, "though I have no personal experience of the thing they call love, I have what is better--the experience of Sappho, of Euripides, of Shakespeare, of Spenser, of Austen, of Bronte, of,--anyone else I have read."
The happiest moments in his life were always those times of reading, writing, or talking about reading and writing. As Wilson explains, "Most of Lewis's important experiences were, in fact, literary ones. They happened when he was holding a book or a pen in his hand."
His life was remarkable enhanced by his appreciation of literature, which may help to explain why he made a great teacher of literature at Oxford College. But, his early attempts at writing literature met with much less success. As Lewis once wrote, "From the age of sixteen onward, I had a single ambition, from which I never wavered, in the prosecution of which I spent every ounce I could, on which I really and deliberately staked my whole contentment, and I recognized myself as having unmistakably failed in it."
Of Narnia, Fantasy, and Other Fictions
Lewis failed in that he would never be recognized as a world-famous poet; but his talents in other areas have helped him to be known and loved by millions of readers. After the war, he was left with memories: "the frights, the cold,--the horribly smashed men still moving like half-crushed beetles, the sitting or standing corpses, the landscape of sheer earth without a blade of grass, the boots worn day and night until they seemed to grow to your feet--"
Through writing, Lewis was able to tap into the fantasy of childhood; and he was also able to explore his new-found faith. It took him longer to get started; but after the age of 33, "works of scholarship, fantasy, literary appreciation, and apologetics poured from his ever-fertile brain."
Perhaps the events of his life had just led up to the moment when all of the words could pour out of his brain; perhaps it was his association with Tolkien and the other writers in his Inklings writer's group at Oxford; or perhaps other life changes can be credited for Lewis's great potency as a writer. Although he wasn't always right and he even admitted the error of his logic on occasion, Lewis was touching his readers. The "Chronicles of Narnia" is still loved by millions of readers; "Screwtape Letters" is unforgettable; "English Literature in the Sixteenth Century is his biggest achievement, offering an entertaining look at literary history; and these works are just a few of the many books, essays, articles, letters, and stories he created.
Through those years, and the many works he created for himself a lasting reputation and legacy. And, in the end, Wilson writes: "Like the story of Narnia itself the story of C.S. Lewis would appear to be one 'which goes on for ever: in which every chapter is better than the one before.'" He comes to us in many personas, one more interesting than the last. And, the book is more than just about the man and the legend. We get a sense of how the Lewis legend has evolved, how the appreciation of his writings have changed, and what elements have helped to make him one of the most curious figures in literary history.