Biographies of C.S. Lewis
reviewed by David Bratman
Slightly expanded from an article written for Mythprint, August 1997, but minimally revised. No information about in-print status is included; check with a bookstore, or at amazon.com or elsewhere online for current availablity.
There's more to C.S. Lewis than Shadowlands. The memorable film about his marriage to Joy Davidman has made Lewis famous to many people who previously only knew him vaguely as the author of The Screwtape Letters and the Chronicles of Narnia. At an early screening, I chatted before the film with a woman who thought that C.S. Lewis was the father of the actor Daniel Day-Lewis. (No, that was Cecil Day-Lewis, another noted British writer.) Though Shadowlands is a moving story, it freely alters facts for dramatic purposes, and says little about the rest of Lewis's life. To find the real C.S. Lewis, you have to read books.
That shouldn't be a daunting prescription for anyone reading this, but which books? Preferably Lewis's own, of course: like most authors he held that a writer's true biography is his works. But many readers are not satisfied with that: they turn to biographies and other books about the author to learn something about him. In Lewis's case this can be a daunting task. There are far more biographies of one sort or another about him than there are of his Inklings companions J.R.R. Tolkien and Charles Williams. Opinions will differ, but here for the guidance of the curious is my take on the major biographical books about C.S. Lewis.
Three full-length books for adults cover Lewis's life in full, from the cradle to the grave. All contain much original research.
Roger Lancelyn Green and Walter Hooper, C.S. Lewis: A Biography.
First published in 1974, this is the authorized biography of Lewis, co-authored by one of his favorite pupils and his literary executor. As the first biography of Lewis, its approach is "just the facts". It has considerable scholarly value, though subsequent books have superseded a lot of that. But its objective, surface-oriented approach hides the significance of many of its events to Lewis. I read the whole book when it was new without ever noticing the importance of Mrs. Moore. The current edition states "Revised" on the cover, but the text is still from 1974: the only addition is a section of photos.
George Sayer, Jack: C.S. Lewis and His Times.
True Lewis devotees will recommend this book. Sayer, like Green, was one of Lewis's most cherished pupils, and he includes much personal reminiscence. His portrait of Lewis's character is fully sympathetic and commands belief. This is its main value to the devotee, and therefore to readers seeking to know why Lewis is loved. Yet it has its flaws to my eyes. Sayer says that in biographies "the early years are the most interesting," so he has concentrated on these. He does not neglect the later years, but this lends imbalance. He also tends to blithely fill in gaps where information is lacking, as with the origin of the Inklings.
A.N. Wilson, C.S. Lewis: A Biography.
On the other hand, true Lewis devotees will warn you away from this book with a passion. Wilson is a cold "modern man" to the point of rudeness, and often morbidly funny at Lewis's expense. Some find this offensive. Yet those who feel that Lewis is being treated by his devotees as a "plaster saint" should enjoy this book very much (not that there's any plaster in Sayer). Friends of Lewis's who are not devotees have seen the real Lewis in Wilson as much as others have seen him in Sayer. For my part, I see no defamation here: Wilson admires much about Lewis, his criticisms are fair, and his summaries incisive. So despite the snide tone, and a few staggering misjudgments (most of them silently removed in the paperback reprint), this is a good and readable book.
Other books cover only aspects or portions of Lewis's life, or treat biography incidentally.
Humphrey Carpenter, The Inklings.
A biographical history of Lewis's Oxford literary circle - not to be confused with the "friends" in Shadowlands, who are fictional and quite unlike the Inklings. Carpenter treats Lewis as the vital center of the group, so the book functions as a Lewis biography specializing in Friendship. The author does not really have Lewis's measure, being uncomfortable with his spirituality (even more so with Williams), but it is a readable book, and (with a few reservations about interpretation) the definitive scholarly work on the group.
James T. Como, editor. C.S. Lewis at the Breakfast Table and Other Reminiscences.
Stephen Schofield, editor. In Search of C.S. Lewis.
Two fascinating collections of memoirs of tremendous interest and biographical value. Though they do not add up to even partial biographies, as individual pieces most are very satisfying. Como's authors include surviving friends, colleagues, and pupils from all periods of Lewis's adult life. Schofield includes more of the same, but concentrates more on readers who met Lewis during his later years. Other collections of memoirs of biographical interest, though they concentrate more on his writings than on his person as these do, are Light on C.S. Lewis edited by Jocelyn Gibb, C.S. Lewis: Speaker & Teacher edited by Carolyn Keefe, and Owen Barfield on C.S. Lewis by Owen Barfield.
Lyle Dorsett, And God Came In. Also published as Joy and C.S. Lewis.
Brian Sibley, C.S. Lewis Through the Shadowlands. Also published as Shadowlands: The Story of C.S. Lewis and Joy Davidman.
Those curious about the true story of which Shadowlands is a fictionalization should read one of these books immediately. This is what actually happened, and Dorsett and Sibley explain Jack and Joy's feelings and intents more clearly than do any of the full-length biographies. Dorsett's book was one of the film's sources: it is a full biography of Joy Davidman and her marriage to Lewis, and is somewhat more analytical than Sibley but tremendously insightful. Sibley's book was written in response to the film: it treats Jack and Joy more equally but in less detail.
Douglas H. Gresham, Lenten Lands.
The memoirs of Joy's younger son. This is his story, not a biography of Jack or Joy or their marriage, but as a first-hand account it is both interesting and valuable. Gresham describes what he observed and understood as a child and teenager, carefully avoiding most of what he did not.
William Griffin, Clive Staples Lewis: A Dramatic Life.
Blurbed as a full-length biography, it actually begins with Lewis's appointment as an Oxford don at the age of 26. Griffin presents the rest of Lewis's life (plus flashbacks) in a series of short dramatized scenes with no linking material. The effect is of viewing Lewis's life through a kinescope. Despite the informal tone, very hard to read, very confusing, too long, and contains no original research or insights.
Walter Hooper, C.S. Lewis: A Companion & Guide.
A massive tome intended as a handbook of the factual details of Lewis's life and works. It opens with a 118-page biography, followed by a 6-page chronology. Encyclopedia entries on people, places, etc., in Lewis's life are of the greatest possible biographical value. In total this is one-third of the book; the rest is summary, analysis, and bibliography of Lewis's works. Even more than the Green and Hooper book, this work is a mine of hard facts. Though short, the biography finds space for many exact dates and other minutiae, even if insignificant to the big picture. This is not a criticism: there should be a source for dates and places to be found, and this is that source. Those skeptical of bias in Hooper's previous books will find a refreshing honesty and detachment here.
C.S. Lewis, All My Road Before Me.
I'm not sure why this book was published: this massive edition of Lewis's diary from his 20s before his conversion had long since been mined in manuscript by scholars for all useful and interesting material. The editor, Walter Hooper, suggests there is value in seeing the day-to-day pattern of Lewis's life. Perhaps, but not at such length; and a preface by Owen Barfield reveals that Lewis left much of his intellectual life out of his diary.
C.S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy: The Shape of My Early Life.
Often described as an account of Lewis's conversion at the age of 30 and the events leading up to it, it's actually scanty on the conversion itself, and is better described by its own subtitle. It's really a description of the events and desires in his early life that made him long for Christian belief, though he did not at first know it. Like all of Lewis's books, especially the late ones, it's both very readable and thoughtful. It's Lewis's only acknowledged autobiography, but several of his other books have autobiographical elements, including The Pilgrim's Regress, an allegory of the road to Christianity that is, once its symbolism is penetrated, closer to what Surprised by Joy is often supposed to be; A Grief Observed, considered by many scholars an honest account of his feelings after Joy's death, though some believe it fictionalizes them; and various volumes of his letters.
Warren Hamilton Lewis, Brothers and Friends.
The diaries of Lewis's brother, who lived with him for much of their adult life, kept intermittently from the age of 22 until his death ten years after his brother's. A much better as well as more consistent diarist than his brother, W.H. Lewis displays some grouchiness but is quite readable, and paints a fine portrait of his brother in bits and pieces. This book is the most valuable published primary source for Lewis's later life.
Several children's biographies of Lewis have been published. Adults should not disdain children's nonfiction books: they can be fine sources for brief introductions to a topic. Unfortunately, none of the children's biographies of Lewis can be recommended with any enthusiasm: they are all imbalanced or inaccurate. The most easily available currently, The Man Who Created Narnia by Michael Coren, is riddled with factual errors, in particular distorting the story of Lewis's changing religious beliefs.
Two collections of photographs relating to Lewis and his life and friends -- quite interesting but not really biographies -- are C.S. Lewis: Images of His World by Douglas Gilbert and Clyde S. Kilby, and Through Joy and Beyond by Walter Hooper.