HarperSanFransisco, 2005 342 pages $25.95
Alan Jacobs has written a superb biography chronicling the life of C.S. Lewis. Unlike other exhaustive works on Lewis, this one is focused on how his life led him to create the enduring works The Chronicles of Narnia. What enables this boy with a wild imagination who created “Animal Land” to become an atheist? What was the catalyst for turning away from atheism, “…kicking, struggling, resentful and darting his eyes in every direction for a chance to escape”?(129) It was this turn that had the largest impact on the creation of Narnia.
For Lewis, his undoing as an atheist was his love of story and myth. “What alternative was there to the materialist’ suspicious undermining of all myth and the supernaturalist’ universalizing of the Christian story?”(142) The real light switch for this was his friendship with Tolkien who, “…the question of myth…had much occupied…for many years, and his thinking on the subject was therefore considerably more sophisticated than Lewis’s.”(142-143) What did myth have to do with Christianity? Tolkien’s answer was, “…to perceive the Creation truly we must move beyond knowing what stars are ‘made of,’ and because we are fallen and finite creatures, this we can do only by image, metaphor, and myth.”(145) For Lewis this is the beginning of understanding. He had always longed for joy, and this longing had plagued him for years since there never seemed to be a way to satiate this desire. “So Tolkien goes on to ask a countering question: ‘Whence came the wish, and whence the power to dream’? That is, if materialist philosophy is true, why do we even have such dreams and desires?”(145)
Here Tolkien was reaching to the heart of his friend. Lewis had focused all his attention either on what Joy was or how to get it, but Tolkien was forcing him to consider the matter in a wholly different light. It was not Joy itself but its presence in a biological organism comprised largely of water, nitrogen and carbon that constituted the greatest puzzle. That we dream and wish at all is a powerful element in the case for the belief that myths communicate some truth that cannot be communicated in any other way.(145-146)
Lewis’ lifelong desires had been pointing him to something greater – his love of myth and storytelling had primed his heart for the truth that he was discovering.
“Now the story of Christ is simply a true myth: a myth working on us in the same way as the others, but with the tremendous difference that it really happened: and one must be content to accept it in the same way, remembering that it is God’s myth where others are men’s myths: i.e. the Pagan stories are God expressing himself through the minds of poets, using such images as He found there, while Christianity is God expressing himself through ‘real things.'”….”the ‘doctrines’ we get out of the true myth are of course less true: they are translations into our concepts and ideas of that wh. God has already expressed in a language more adequate, namely the actual incarnation, crucifixion and resurrection.” That is, the language of actual historical event, such as can be narrated in mythical form, is a more truthful language than the ‘concept and ideas’.(149)
Jacobs does a wonderful job of showing how so many of the things in Lewis’ life make their way into the Narnia stories: the death of his mother, the horrible treatment he received at boarding school and even his own time as a teacher – each one of these things makes an impact. Almost every part of Lewis’ life influences Narnia in one way or another, and Jacobs’ masterful grasp of his subject adds to a deeper understanding of Lewis’ life and his most famous works.
I first read a book by C.S. Lewis 25 years ago, and I have been reading his work consistently since then. I know his voice quite well, as well as I know anyone’s; it is utterly distinctive. And the most dominant feeling I get when I read his early letters – that is, those written in the first 30 years of his life – is that in none of them does he sound like himself. That pre-conversion Lewis is, though obviously highly intelligent, neither a particularly likable nor a particularly interesting person – at least in his letters. He may have been delightful to know, but I doubt it. But once he “admitted that God was God,” it is as though the key to his own hidden and locked-away personality was given to him. What appears almost immediately is a kind of gusto (sheer, bold enthusiasm for what he loves) that is characteristic of him ever after.(131)
I recently read another well-written biography, Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson. I was struck by how similar geniuses seem to be – they are driven and usually end up challenging the status quo. But there is something that separates these men, Lewis and Jobs, and it really makes all the difference. Jobs continually fights in his life to be important, to do something meaningful and be remembered. When he did not get his way, he would literally throw a tantrum. The driving force in his life was himself, and in the end it left him empty. Lewis was headed down that same path, but something grabbed him and altered his very foundation.
What brought the comparison of these two men to mind was Jacobs’s description of the change that belief in God had on Lewis. Isaacson talks about the perfecting nature of Jobs and his pursuit of greatness that drove him, and when he failed it left him longing for more of what he could never seem to obtain. Lewis on the other hand is able to find the fullness, the joy, that he had always been looking for by surrendering to God. It was only through this surrender that Lewis was able to give us Narnia.
“It is a reasonable hope,” Lewis writes, “that of those who heard you in Oxford many will understand that when poets of old made some virtue their theme they were not teaching but adoring, and that what we take for didactic is often the enchanted.” Lewis is known as a moralist, but I think we can infer from this comment that his teaching is often a function of his adoration – so that the moral elements if his writing are not so easily distinguished from the enchantment of storytelling and story-loving. It is the merger of the moral and the imaginative – this vision of virtue itself as adorable, even ravishing – that makes Lewis so distinctive.(xxiv)
I am thankful that Lewis was dragged kicking and screaming to the Lord and that his whole self was unlocked for all the world to benefit from. This book is well worth the read and you just may finding yourself longing to revisit Narnia soon after.