The Narnian

In his public career, C. S. Lewis was known as a gifted professor, scholar, Christian apologist, radio voice, and celebrity who was featured on the front page of Time magazine in 1947. However, his own preference was for solitude and a private imaginative world. He was, according to Alan Jacobs, a Narnian before Narnia was created.

With The Narnian: The Life and Imagination of C. S. Lewis, Jacobs has written what he terms “almost a biography.” A chronicle of the development of Lewis’s mind, the book dispenses with conventional details of a life story in favor of insights that might shed light on the imaginative writer. Essentially, Jacobs finds that the young Lewis’s mind was divided between analytical and imaginative sides. Trained in the skepticism and atheism of late nineteenth and early twentieth century thought, Lewis found it difficult to reconcile faith with modernity. With the help of Christian friends such as J. R. R. Tolkien, he eventually found a means to include Christian faith as an essential part of a new synthesis. Consequently, Lewis’s thought became unleashed, and he produced the outstanding writings for which he is known.

Born in 1898, Clive Staples Lewis grew up a Protestant in Belfast, Ireland. At age four, he determined that he wanted to be called Jack or Jacksie, and was. His brother Warren (Warnie), with whom he would live most of his life, was three years older than he. His mother died when he was nine, and his father became remote. Having lost the security that his mother represented, Lewis describes himself as withdrawing into solitude. In his autobiography Surprised by Joy (1955), he explains that his ideal was the solitude such as one experiences when recovering from an illness, for it allowed him precious time for reading, imagining, and reflection.

He was certainly not happy without his solitude. In the various preparatory and public schools he attended he erected a defense against social snobbery by becoming an intellectual snob. Fortunately, his father found a tutor, named William T. Kirkpatrick, with whom Lewis could board. According to Lewis, Kirkpatrick was a purely logical entity from whom he learned argumentative skills and skepticism, but eventually he would discover the inadequacy of pure logic for a life of faith.

Nicknamed the Great Knock, Kirkpatrick taught Lewis many of the influential texts of the late nineteenth century, and those works tended toward atheism rather than Christianity. Arthur Schopenhauer, for example, recounted the suffering of life to prove that there could be no loving and benevolent God. And The Golden Bough (1890) by Sir James Frazer made the case that Christianity shared so many of the attributes of other myths about dying gods that it could not be regarded as anything more than a variation of that theme. At this early point in his life, Lewis had few alternatives to counteract his educational training. Certainly any Christian beliefs he had were ineffectual.

World War I did nothing to make Lewis a believer. He was wounded by three pieces of shrapnel at the northern French town of Arras in the spring of 1918, after only three and a half months at the front. In his free time at the front and later during convalescence, he worked on writing a sequence of lyric poems which would eventually be published as Spirits in Bondage (1919). Although the poems are professedly atheistic, Jacobs notes that Lewis spends a great deal of time cursing the God in whom he claims not to believe.

As Lewis settled into his postwar life, several different factors combined to launch a very productive career as a Christian writer. Paradoxically, central to his life during this period was his mysterious relationship with Mrs. Janie Moore, a staunch atheist. At Oxford before the war, Lewis had roomed with Paddy Moore, a fellow cadet and Irishman. They made a pact that if either failed to return from the war while the other did, the survivor would take care of the other’s parent. When Paddy was killed, Lewis fulfilled his part of the bargain, spending the following thirty-three years with Mrs. Moore, or Minto, as she was nicknamed. The nature of the relationship was kept secret by Lewis, although Jacobs provides sufficient evidence to prove that it was a romantic one. At any rate, Minto, Lewis, and Warnie would share a home at the Kilns, near Oxford, until her death. Although several of Lewis’s friends appreciated Minto, to Warnie she was tyrannical in her demands on his brother. Jacobs believes that some of the passages in Lewis’s writing about the resentment Christians face in their homes from nonbelievers were a direct consequence of his relationship with her.

Lewis’s life focused, besides on Minto, on Oxford University, to which he had received a scholarship before the war. Returning afterward, he received the equivalent of a degree in philosophy and then sought a second degree in English. To Jacobs, to pursue this course of study was a critical decision because it would eventually nurture Lewis’s imaginative side, which he had been neglecting. Additionally, his choice of medieval and Renaissance studies exposed him to the charms of narrative poetry. In 1924, he...

(The entire section is 2144 words.)