I just completed Alister McGrath’s new biography, C. S. Lewis: A Life. Eccentric Genius, Reluctant Prophet. While I find much of McGrath’s work underwhelming in many respects, this is an exception. The book is engagingly written and perceptive, with sound critiques and judgments of Lewis’s work. I don’t agree with him 100% on everything he says, but I think he gets Lewis right on most things.
McGrath concludes with some interesting observations on the posthumous popularity of the man, which he refers to as “the Lewis phenomenon.” I found McGrath’s insightful and sympathetic portrayal more powerful in some respects than George Sayer’s Jack, perhaps because McGrath (being the same age as I) can approach Lewis from the distance of a slightly later generation rather than the more personal “Jack as I knew him” variety of biographies, including that of Walter Hooper. It seems to lend an objectivity that demonstrates Lewis’s durability over time, his ability to speak profoundly to those who never knew him, as Lewis did to me when I read Mere Christianity for the first time nearly thirty years ago.
A sample of one of many keen observations by McGrath, particularly interesting to ENV readers, is the following:
It is easy to depict the Narnia novels as an infantile attempt to pretend that animals can speak and experience emotion. Yet Lewis’s narrative mounts a deceptively subtle critique of certain Darwinian ways of understanding the place of humanity within the natural order, and offers a corrective. Lewis’s portrayal of animal characters in Narnia is partly a protest against shallow assertions of humanity’s right to do what it pleases with nature. The rich depictions of animals in the Chronicles of Narnia are partly informed by the “bestiaries” of the Middle Ages — classic accounts of animal life which emphasized their distinct identities and roles within the created order. Each was seen as witnessing to the complex interdependency of the natural world. Lewis adds to these by portraying animals as conscious moral agents. . . . The most obvious example of this is Reepicheep, a mouse of nobility and virtue, who ends up teaching Eustice Scrubb about honor, courage, and loyalty. This inversion of Darwinian hierarchies does not represent a lapse into irrational sentimentality, nor is it regression to the “Dressed Animals” of Lewis’s childhood world of Boxen. For Lewis, the true mark of the primacy of humans over animals is “acknowledging duties to them which they do not acknowledge to us.” Noblesse oblige, as the French say.
I’ve read Lewis’s Narnia tales more than once and always enjoyed them, but McGrath’s observation just never came to me in this way, though now I can see it. Anyway, if you’ve not read this biography yet, I highly recommend it. It now will sit proudly next to my copy of John West’s edited volume The Magician’s Twin. Kudos to McGrath!