Saturday, January 07, 2006

"The Narnian" by Alan Jacobs -- A Review

The Narnian: The Life and Imagination of C. S. Lewis by Alan Jacobs
(San Francisco: Harper. 2005)

Review by Richard Kew

As I scan my bookshelves I realize there are two people whose lives and writings I have pondered more than any others, and both of them reached their zenith at the same time, but in very different ways. The one is Winston Churchill, the other is C. S. Lewis, and I have spent the last few weeks in the company of them both! Alan Jacobs' book, The Narnian, has been both enchanting and a tour de force.

Lewis has been on people's minds of late with the The Chronicles of Narnia reaching the big screen and his children's books finding their way back to the top of the best seller lists. Jacobs' book, therefore, has been published at just the right time. Before getting into the content let me comment on the jacket which is itself worth the price of the volume. It has a photograph of Lewis wearing an old-fashioned dressing gown over the top of his street clothes, with Aslan's tail wrapped around him.

Alan Jacobs is an Anglican, and is Professor of English at Wheaton College. He brings to his subject both a love of Lewis's work and an insider's grasp of how something like the Book of Common Prayer (1662) nourished Lewis's soul once he had come to faith as a thirtysomething Oxford don. What Jacobs does is to tell the story of Lewis's life, but instead of a mere recitation of the facts, interesting as these are, he identifies the events and relationships that shaped Lewis's personality, and what it was that enabled for his subject's supreme creativity to engage with his gigantic intelligence.

I spent a day with Jacobs in the company of some others a few years ago, and was amazed by the man's learning and fluency. As the conversation progressed, there seemed to be nothing he had not read and fully digested. If I were looking for comparisons, he seems to me to be a bit like an American Alister McGrath, except that his expertise is English Literature, not theology and biology.

Jacobs has a profound love and respect for Lewis, and clearly reveres Lewis's mental abilities. When describing how Lewis wrote one of his major academic works, English Literature in the Sixteenth Century (Excluding Drama), he comments that he actually read "every single sixteenth-century book in the Duke Humfrey's Library, the oldest part of Oxford's grat Bodleian Library" (Pages 183-184). Here is one literary omnivore admiring the capacity of another!

I love the way that Jacobs weaves his insights about Lewis's creativity and imagination into a pattern that takes into account each chapter of the great man's life. I don't think I can remember another book about Lewis which as it identifies high points in his life illustrates how they interface with his writing. What he also does is to demonstrate the commonalities that there are from particular periods of Jack Lewis's career. For example, until Jacobs pointed it out I would not have thought that much comparison could be made between The Abolition of Man and the characters who appear in The Magician's Nephew. Yet obviously there is, and, by the way, Tolkien's Lord of the Rings get thrown in there for good measure.

There is an honest generosity about the way Jacobs explores the relationships that Lewis had with his father, his brother, his oldest friend, Arthur Greeves, his colleagues, Mrs. Moore, Joy Davidman, and others. As is always the case with a good biograpical work, even if you think you know everything there is to know about someone's life, you occasionally turn the page and there is a fascinating set of new insights and facts that are new to you.

I thought that I had a pretty good grasp on the nature of the relationship between Lewis and Tolkien, but Jacobs measures the delights and the tensions better than anyone I have come across. These insights go right through to the intense difficulties between the two that marred the latter years of Lewis's life. I love one little anecdote Jacobs cites not long after Lewis's first meeting J.R.R. Tolkien. Lewis commented in a letter that as a Protestant Irishman he had been raised to distrust Papists, then as a scholar of literature he was taught to distrust philologists. The joke was that Tolkien was both!

Jacobs does not shy away from some of the difficult questions about the life of Lewis like the problems he and his father had with one another, and the specific nature of his relationship with Mrs. Moore. Mrs. Moore was the mother of a friend who had died on the Western Front, and having promised he would care for the man's mother in case of his not coming back, he did so until the early 1950s when she finally died. Yes, Jacobs, admits, in the early days, when Jack was a confirmed atheist, there does seem to have been a sexual component to the relationship, but by the end of her life she had become a crotchety and difficult 'mother' who ran Jack Lewis ragged with her demands.

When Mrs. Moore was gone and Lewis was, as it were, available, there was in fact another female with whom he was very friendly, a poet and painter by the name of Ruth Pitter. It would seem that in her somewhat pushy New York way, Joy Davidman pushed in and stole Lewis's heart from this "mannerly and decorous woman" who "did nothing to pursue Lewis" (Page 269). Then Jacobs paints in relatively few words a fascinating picture of the relationship between Jack and Joy, and the impact that they had upon each other.

Yet even as these elements are woven together, there is within this mixture a careful attempt to unravel Lewis's worldview, and how he came to it. When his faith reached maturity, he was an old-fashioned pretty orthodox Anglican whose way of believing and thinking was given its form by the King James Bible and the historic Book of Common Prayer. It was part of his spiritual discipline to attend Communion on Sundays at his parish church and to worship each morning in the chapel at first Magdelen College, Oxford, and then Magdelene College, Cambridge.

His education having been philosophical and logically-based, he brought not just his love of the faery and the imaginative to his understanding of the faith, but intellectual tools that were ruthless in their analysis of flaky thinking -- and he did not refrain from using them. Lewis not only enjoyed the rough and tumble of discussion within the Inklings, but corresponded and debated folks who were his match who disagreed with him. Indeed, his mailbag was enormous, and his debating ability ferocious.

As far as Lewis was concerned, it is clear that "when it is necessary to approach difficult questions, one must... stick as closely as possibly to 'the belief that has been common to nearly all Christians at all times'" (Page 215). Although he battled with facets of his sexuality, and although he came close to playing intellectual games to justify his marriage to Joy Davidman, he had a solidly biblical notion of truth, and the nature of ethical behavior and lifestyles. He would probably consider those who challenge these today as "men without chests" (from the Abolition of Man), and have felt that these were sectarian attitudes that come from curiosity exceeding faithfulness.

I could go on and on, for there is much in this book that is informative, entertaining, and challenging. It is beautifully written, as you would expect from an English professor, and well-organized. Jacobs understands Lewis well, and greatly admires this kind and charitable individual, a little eccentric as was the way with so many Oxbridge professors of his era, but one of the razor-sharp thinkers who we avoid at our peril.

Jacobs recognizes that Lewis was not without shortcomings, and when it came to things like his attitude toward women, which Jacobs makes plain was not misogynistic, he was very much the product of English boys' schools, the army, a virtually all-male university, and an age in which women had yet to come into their own. He belonged to a church that abhored any notion of ordained women at that time, as did virtually every other church in Christendom. In many ways, therefore, he was a product of his times, but we must not confuse his cultural conditioning with his formidable affirmations that reflect the truth from all times.

Read and get pleasure from Alan Jacobs' work. Meanwhile, revel in Narnia, have your mind stretched by books like The Problem of Pain, quake afresh as you discover the horrors of evil in That Hideous Strength, and meditate with joy upon some of Lewis's extraordinary poetry. As you do this look forward to the fact that one day we will meet Jack Lewis in "the Real Narnia" and can put to the man himself the questions we now have -- if, that is, we have any interest in doing so given the dimension in which we now find ourselves!

1 comment:

CJ said...

This was an enjoyable review to read. Thanks for taking the time to write it. I haven't read this book, but I do like the writings of Jacobs.