Part One of a Four Part Review of C.S. Lewis: A Life by Alister McGrath
Narnia was one of the only fantasy series I was allowed to read growing up. And as a kid, the BBC movies from the 80s were incredible. I saw them before reading the books. They inspired my imagination. I wanted to be Peter. There are four kids in my family, so drawing comparisons between each Pevensie child and each of us Arndt children (mostly because of our ages) was easy.
I powered through the Chronicles of Narnia with no problem, reading them for the first time at 12 years-old. Actually, I skipped The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe because I saw the BBC movie so many times. The Magician’s Nephew and The Last Battle stand out in my memory now. The Last Battle in particular because I couldn’t put it down and it had me in tears.
Later, as a young adult, I realized C. S. Lewis wrote so much more. I tried reading Mere Christianity, but got bored. The same with The Screwtape Letters. It’s hard to get through the language and heady thought processes.
Still, Lewis stood out to me as an author I needed to be more acquainted with. I knew little about the man or what he wrote. Finding his biography on audiobook opened the door for me to finally figure out who this guy was. What I found surprised me.
C.S. Lewis’ awkward relationship with a woman who could have been his mother
Lewis lived anything but a typical Christian life. Even after conversion, his life took a path that I’m wholly unfamiliar with. He was a scholar, living on or near a university for most of his life. That’s a life I can’t connect with. But the most awkward element of his life, for me, was his relationship with Mrs. Moore.
Lewis lived with a woman who could have been his mother, Mrs. Moore. She was the mother of one of Lewis’ friends from officer training in the First World War. The author of this biography was nearly certain of a romantic relationship between Lewis and Mrs. Moore. Others disagree, but no matter the nature of their relationship, it stands out as strange to me.
They lived together from when Lewis was 18 or 19, just after the war, to Mrs. Moore’s death in 1951. However their relationship started, it turned bitter soon enough. While she was alive, Lewis dreaded being at home. After her passing, Lewis, although miserable about her death, was able to live in relative peace.
Their relationship was weird for me from the beginning. I think it was weird for the people close to Lewis as well. It doesn’t colour how I see Lewis or his writing, but it was the major element of Lewis’ life that reset my perspective of who he was. I only knew of Lewis’ writing and bit of his academic life. I knew about the Inklings and his wartime broadcasts. Learning about his relationship and life with Mrs. Moore filled out a truer picture of the man, Clive Staples Lewis. As awkward as the picture became for me, it’s still intriguing. And he still had the Inklings.
The Inklings group makes me want to find other writers to drink and talk with
J.R.R. Tolkien and Lewis would get together weekly to drink, smoke, talk about their writing, and dream about taking over the English department at Oxford. Their personal talks eventually included Lewis’ brother, Warren (AKA Warnie), and their good friends, Owen Barfield, Hugo Dyson (who was also a part of the conversation when Tolkien challenged Lewis to engage faith with his imagination), and Nevill Coghill. Membership fluctuated over the years, but through it all, these six men were almost always at the core.
They focused loosely on Christianity and literature, but mostly they were just a group of friends, sharing their work and helping each other through the writing process. Almost all of the Lord of the Rings was birthed through the critical ear and forum of the Inklings. Lewis’ Pilgrim’s Regress was one of his first to be shared with the group, as well as The Problem of Pain.
The Inklings sounds like it was an incubator for good writing. Tuesdays at lunch they drank at a pub, mostly talking about faith, life, philosophy and any other gossip of the day. Thursday evenings they made tea, lit pipes, and read texts aloud to each other. These friends would spur one another on, helping each other navigate writing blocks, obstacles, awkwardnesses and incongruities. But what’s really attractive is how they championed each other in their writing. That’s invaluable to any creative.
This was the typical picture I had of Lewis, sitting with Tolkien, smoking a pipe, and arguing over philosophy. That was only partially true. His home life was turbulent. He was an uncertain man, often worried about money. Some people find this comforting. To learn that a literary and Christian icon was just as human as the rest of us wasn’t really comforting for me. But it wasn’t disappointing either. It was a recalibration that felt satisfying. I now have a truer picture of this man. I am content with that.
As anticlimactic as all of this is, there is still so much about Lewis and his writing that inspires me. Even though his life with the Inklings is balanced by his life with Mrs. Moore, the Inklings are still a motivating study. But what impacts me the most about Lewis’ experience is his conversion to Christianity, not because it was sudden and dramatic, but because he walked slowly into the arms of Jesus, finally able to reconcile two hemispheres of his inner life, reason and imagination.
Part Two covers Lewis’ conversion to Christianity and how he got his reputation as a defender of the faith.