In The Narnian, Alan Jacobs wanted to write a biography of C. S. Lewis, but not one that brought out a lot of extraneous details of his life. He wanted to concentrate mainly on what made him “the Narnian” – the intellectual, imaginative, and spiritual developments in Lewis’s life that led to his creating Narnia.
He begins with Lewis’s early life and family: the death of his mother and the fact that afterward “all settled happiness, all that was tranquil and reliable, disappeared from my life”; the imaginary worlds he created with his brother (separately first, then they joined them together), his problems with his father, the solitary days playing alone in his home after his brother went to boarding school. When Lewis’s own turn came for boarding school he didn’t get on very well socially and eventually thrived under a private tutor. Jacobs then progresses through Lewis’s time in the military, in academia, His conversion from atheism, his apologetic writing, his fame as a defender of the faith, and his turning from that genre to children’s stories, and closes soon after telling of the end of Lewis’s life.
Along the way he pulls up information from Lewis’s published writings, letters, diaries, and other people’s letters, diaries, comments, and a few other people’s biographies of him.
I didn’t “discover” Lewis until in my early 40s (I know, how did that happen? My education was definitely deficient!) Some time after my first reading of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, I read a biography of Lewis, but I don’t remember which one. I’m thinking it must have been one geared to children, because his childhood is what I mostly remembered from it, but then maybe that’s just due to a faulty memory. At any rate, I enjoyed being reminded of elements I knew and then learning new details of his older life.
I liked the way Jacobs juxtaposed elements of Lewis’s life with the Narnia books, quoting some of the sections about schooling along with talking about Lewis’s schooling, doing the same with his early childhood and military service. There is not much more than basic information about Lewis’s time in the military – he seems to have kept thoughts about it close to his vest – but some of the passages in the Narnia books about having to fight, particularly from Peter’s viewpoint, probably grew from his own experiences. Digory Kirke was based on Lewis’s private Professor Kirkpatrick (sometimes called Kirk), though Kirk was a staunch unbeliever (“Digory Kirke is a picture of what William T. Kirkpatrick might have been – had he ever found a way into Narnia.”) Of course, Jacobs isn’t saying that everything in the books is based on something from Lewis’s life explicitly. Much in the stories came from his imagination, but that’s going to be based on his own experiences as well as those he had read about.
I especially appreciated his defense or explanation of where Lewis was coming from in a couple of areas where some are critical of him. He has been called a misogynist because of his views on women, particularly in regard to teaching that the man is the woman’s head in a relationship, and racist because the Calormen people, the “bad guys” in Narnia, are dark-skinned. Tolkien was also accused of racism in LOTR, and Jacobs explains:
The imaginations of those two men were shaped before the great wars of the twentieth century: they belonged indeed to an Old Western culture to which the chief threat, for hundreds of years, had been the Ottoman Empire. The Calormenes and the Haradrim are but slightly disguised versions of the ravaging Turk who filled the nightmares of European children for more than half a millennium — but whose “exotic” culture (manifested in images of elegant carpets, strong sweet coffee, slippers with turned-up toes, and elaborate story-telling traditions) had also been an endless source of fascinated delight.
Jacobs asserts, and I agree, that most readers “can tell the difference between, on the one hand, an intentionally hostile depiction of some alien culture and, on the other, the use of cultural differences as a mere plot device,” and he puts Lewis’s comments on both topics within the context of the culture of his time and his own upbringing.
What I strongly disliked about this book was Jacobs’ frequent arguing with Lewis’s own reasons for saying certain things. For instance, Lewis asserted that his having prayed for his mother to be cured and not receiving the answer he sought did not influence his eventual conversion one way or the other. He had thought of praying not so much as a religious exercise but as a formula in those days and assumed he didn’t have the right formula or it hadn’t worked. Her death affected him in many ways, but it wasn’t a particular factor in that decision. Jacobs is incredulous and posits that perhaps Lewis’s “insistence must be his attempt to uphold a set of beliefs about what Christianity really is, or really should be” or he had “a great resistance to anything like a ‘Freudian’ explanation of his spiritual history – and in the Freudian account, childhood experiences are usually definitive for later life.” On another subject Lewis “seemed to think that [certain experiences] were not related; I have a sense that they may be.” Jacobs finds it “rather difficult to believe that Lewis’s description of [his first meeting with his tutor] is wholly accurate.” He feels Lewis’s claim that his wartime experiences “‘show rarely and faintly in memory’ – is either something less than fully honest or something less than fully self-knowing.” He quotes Lewis as saying those experiences “haunted my dreams for years” as proof, but Lewis says for years, not for the rest of his life, so at the time he said they were only rare and faint memories, that could have indeed been the case at the time of that writing. He questions Lewis’s account of his conversion and what stage of belief he was in at what point. He questions his relationship with Janie Moore, the mother of a friend who died in WWI. He and this friend had promised each other that if anything happened to one of them, the other would care for the dead one’s parent. This man did die, and Lewis took care of his mother for the rest of her life. He often refers to her as “the woman I call my mother.” But Jacobs insists that the relationship was romantic and even sexual at first (he is not alone in that view, but I am not convinced). When Lewis asserted that he had no “romantic feelings” at first for Joy Davidman Gresham, whom he married in a civil ceremony so she could stay in the country, Jacobs notes that his other biographers “take his word for it” and exclaims, “This seems crazy to me,” and explains why. (Lewis did come to love her, but who is to know at one point that happened.” About a third of the way into the book, Jacobs says as an aside, “Autobiography is, of course, often suspected.” I don’t think that’s the best way to look at autobiography, as if as a reader or researcher one has to disbelieve or suspect or prove what is written. Sure, the viewpoint of an autobiography may be limited: I feel it’s the best source for learning what is going on in the author’s head, what his motives and concerns were, etc., yet it can only show his own point of view. I’m sure there are autobiographies where the material is deliberately slanted, but I don’t think it’s healthy to have a suspectful view of autobiographies in general.
Mr. Jacobs not only disagreed with Lewis’s own views about his life, he also disagreed with some of his biographers, some of whom knew Lewis personally. In one of my snarkier moments I felt that an apt subtitle to his book could have been, “Why I Am Right About C. S. Lewis and Everyone Else Is Wrong, Including Lewis.”
But though this seeming attitude or perspective of Jacobs really bugged me, I did enjoy the book overall and enjoyed getting a fuller picture of the “The Life and Imagination of C. S. Lewis.”
I’ll close with one of my favorite quotes from Lewis in the book:
“We may ignore, but we can nowhere evade the presence of God. The world is crowded with Him. He walks everywhere incognito. And the incognito is not always hard to penetrate. The real labor is to remember, to attend. In fact, to come awake. Still more, to remain awake.”
(This review will also be linked to Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books.)