To demonstrate the unique charm of this CS Lewis biography by Alan Jacobs, I’ll have to throw you right into the deep end. Try to follow me here: When Lewis encountered a modern literary scholar who, commenting on an older critic’s assertion that the theme of Milton’s Paradise Lost was simply that ‘Obedience to the will of God makes men happy and disobedience makes men miserable,’ called it ‘vague’, Lewis wrote the following: “Dull if you will. Or platitudinous. Or harsh, or jejune, but how vague? Has it not rather the desolating clarity and concreteness of certain classic utterances we remember from the morning of our own lives? ‘Bend over; go to bed; write out ‘I must do as I am told’ a hundred times. Do not speak with your mouth full.’ How are we to account for the fact that great modern scholars have missed what is so dazzlingly simple? It is after all the commonest of themes. Even Peter Rabbit came to grief because he would go into Mr. MacGregor’s garden.”
While any biographer can dig up that great quote, only a biographer with a strong literary mind and a clever pen can make the following comment:
“This is as delightful as it is wise. Any literary critic who can, in the course of a few sentences, take us from the great Milton’s account of the fall of humanity in twelve books of stately and heroic blank verse, to Beatrix Potter’s rather humbler account of Peter Rabbit’s rather humbler troubles, is a critic of – to put it midlly – considerable range.”
And so you see why, of all the commendable biographies of CS Lewis that I could read, I chose to start with Alan Jacobs’. Being familiar with some other books by Alan Jacobs (Original Sin, The Year of our Lord 1943), as well as his essays at First Things (chiefly on W.H. Auden) and elsewhere, I trusted him to do justice to not only the biographical details of Lewis’s life but the contours of his thought and the substance of his writing. I was not disappointed. One reviewer calls Jacobs’ writing ‘thick and circuitous,’ and I think that an apt description of his writing everywhere I’ve encountered it. I find it wonderful. Perhaps it is not to everyone’s liking, but I would rank him as one of the best prose writers of our day.
I have long been fascinated by CS Lewis. And while I am pretty familiar with many of his books and recurring themes, I have never read a full biography until now. I enjoyed learning about the breadth of his life: from the tragedy and loneliness of his childhood, to his adolescent arrogance, atheism and budding brilliance, to the horrors of the Great War trenches and corpses, to the strange and scandalous living arrangement he entered into after the war, to his conversion and the central place that myth and story occupied in it, to his most productive years where he churned out book after book, to his surprising but brief marriage, declining health, and death. Jacobs serves as a more-than-able guide through all these seasons of his life. While Jacobs does not hide his affinity and appreciation for Lewis, neither does he gloss over the unsavory aspects of his life, letters, and character.
Some readers expecting a deep dive into the actual writing of the Narnia Chronicles may be disappointed. For that particular itch perhaps Michael Ward’s Planet Narnia would be more suitable, although it is even more dense and scholarly than this volume.
I gladly recommend it to those looking for a good CS Lewis biography that will acquaint them with not only the arc of his life but also with the singular imagination and intellect of this towering 20th-century figure.