Lance Catedral's Reviews > The Narnian: The Life and Imagination of C. S. Lewis

The Narnian by Alan Jacobs
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Apr 17, 12

Read from April 15 to 17, 2012

In my reading life I try to read as many authors as I possibly can, sampling this person's work before turning to another author. I'm pretty much spread out in that respect. But there are a few authors who make me want to read all of their books, as if there exists an invisible mental catalog; those I'm done with are already neatly crossed out.

There's an inexplicably strong connection I feel with these people, my favorite authors—how their sentences are constructed, how their ideas flow, how they choose their words, and how they engage my emotion. It's a connection not unlike friendship—you can't verbalize why you like being with them; you just do.

If people have rock stars or sports heroes, I have book authors. C. S. Lewis is one of them.

So imagine my excitement when I got hold of Alan Jacob's The Narnian: The Life and Imagination of C. S. Lewis. Finally, a chance to get to know more of him! Prior to this, I've read the entire Narnia collection, save for The Last Battle, which I'm reserving for later. I still don't want the Narnia tales to end yet—to my mind, at least. I've read his autobiography, Surprised by Joy, the exact book I held in my creative shot for the college yearbook. I've read Mere Christianity, given to me by Paul Balite in our freshman year. I'm done with Out of the Silent Planet, The Great Divorce, A Grief Observed, and a lot of his other works. Haven't I told you I'm a big fan?

The Narnian: The Life and Imagination of C.S. Lewis by Alan Jacobs

Alan Jacobs makes it clear that his book is "almost a biography in the usual sense of the word." However, as in T.H.L. Parker's Portrait of Calvin, it is not strictly chronological, drawing themes in Lewis' life instead and presenting them in separate chapters. Jacobs' "chief task here is to write the life of a mind, the story of an imagination." He seeks to answer the fundamental question, "What sort of person wrote the Chronicles of Narnia?"

The book is extensively researched, well thought out, and well written. It can get very slow because Jacobs chooses to synthesize the author's works and private letters with the events that happened in his life. The premise is that Lewis' works reflect largely on who he is, at least at the time he wrote those works. For instance, to explain Jack's (as he was called by his family and friends) dread of boarding school, Jacobs writes,


It is more telling than most readers know that, in the last tale of Narnia, Aslan describes the passage from a dying world to eternal life thus: "The term is over: the holidays have begun." Holidays are heaven; school is, well, . . . death. Lewis had an almost frankly theological—more specifically, eschatological (that is, pertaining to the Last Things)—view of this matter. "Life at a vile boarding school is in this way a good preparation for the Christian life, that it teaches one to live by hope. Even in a sense, by faith; for at the beginning of each term, home and the holidays are so far off that it is as hard to realize them as to realize heaven."


Jacobs also illustrates the struggles the young Lewis had in choosing between his fairy tales (that is, his creative side) or his philosophy (that is, his logical side), as if there truly is a huge divide between the two. On hindsight, then, it made sense that I read this book and John Piper's Think together. The conclusion? No such dichotomy exists.

Reading C. S. Lewis is by no means easy. He writes in simple language, that's true, but he writes about hard things, things normal people wouldn't think about too deeply. So when I say I have read C. S. Lewis, that doesn't mean I have completely understood him. In this sense, I am thankful to Jacobs for elaborating on certain points I didn't quite get in Lewis' books. Clearly I have so much to learn to be a more mature reader.

Like any other fan, I am intrigued by various points in his life—his love life, for instance, for which the evidence has long been destroyed. But he did he really fall in love with Mrs. Moore, a woman much older than him? He remained "single" for most of his life, but what did he think of women and of sex? Why did he take too long to marry?

I'm also curious as to his friendship with J.R.R. Tolkien and the Inklings. Why did he and Tolkien eventually part ways? How was Lewis like as a teacher? How did he tutor his students in Oxford? Jacobs presents and weighs the evidence, gives his personal opinion, and leaves the decision to the reader what to eventually believe.

Above all I was curious how Jacobs will write about Lewis' conversion to Christianity, a supernatural event that changed him in so many ways. How did he move from a belief in something absolute to a belief in a personal God? And why did he choose Christianity over and above all religions of the earth? Here we learn that Lewis has been reading the works of G.K. Chesterton (a Christian apologetic) and has been seriously considering what such author said. Jacobs describes Lewis' conversion as gradual, unlike that of the Apostle Paul on the road to Damascus.

Miscellaneous details about C. S. Lewis emerge in the book as well. For example, his awful arithmetic skills, which I can definitely relate to:


Unfortunately for Jack, one of these academic skills was mathematics, in which he was thoroughly, even flamboyantly, incompetent. (All his life he would struggle even to make change in shops.)


Or Lewis' thoughts about friendship, in which he wrote:


Is there any pleasure on earth as great as a circle of Christian friends by a good fire?


C. S. Lewis died on the same day that President John F. Kennedy was shot. In his funeral, the following words were spoken about him:


But his real power was not proof; it was depiction. There lived in his writings a Christian universe that could be both thought and felt, in which he was at home and in which he made his reader at home.


Such, then, is the gracious hand of God in C. S. Lewis' life. And reading about that in Alan Jacobs' book brought me such joy because it reminded me of the same God at work within my—and every Christian's—heart.
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