Review of #Becoming C.S. Lewis: A Biography of young Jack Lewis (1898-1918) (Crossway)
Harry Lee Poe
This biography of C.S. Lewis (1898-1918) covers the formative years: his childhood, his mother’s untimely death, family relationships with especial emphasis placed on the rather miserable scool years in a place called Wynyards, which thankfully doesn’t exist any more, and later on, Malvern College.
“In September 1908, without benefit of trial by a jury of his peers, contrary to magna carta, and in the absence of habeas corpus, young Jack Lewis found himself interred in a concentration camp.”
(aka boarding school)
Written with a sense of irony perhaps but also not so far from the truth of what many endured at such institutions – many were scarred for life by such experiences. I found this early section of the book the most interesting as Lewis negotiates life without his mother, surviving the horrendous Wynyards, his closeness to his brother Warnie (a closeness later lost) and their father Albert’s struggles to raise two motherless boys.
The latter half of the book deals with Lewis as a teenager from leaving Malvern to being tutored for Oxford Entrance in the private home of a man called Fitzpatrick – a friend of his father’s. There is also a lengthy section dealing with Lewis’ literary influences including:
Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, Malory’s Morte d’Arthur, Chretien de Troyes. William Morris’ tales of Siegrfried and The Well at the World’s End – a story set in an historical medieval world where the four sons of King Peter of Upmeads set out to explore the world. Spenser’s Faerie Queene, The Norse myths.
The horrors of the First World War, in which his brother Warnie was fighting for his and everyone else’s lives, scarcely impinged upon the young Jack sheltered in his mentor Kirkpatrick’s house in Great Bookham in those days surrounded by open country. Jack’s letters to his friend Arthur continue to reflect his literary obsessions. Lewis referred in other writings to that sense of longing and desire that nothing in ordinary experience could satisfy and doesn’t strike me as being anyone who ever wished to engage with the world. Given what was happening at the time perhaps that’s unsurprising.
But the values that he cared about in literature were not reflected in the ‘brute universe that consisted of a meaningless dance of atoms’
But then oddly after such arguments Poe states of Lewis:
“He could be dismissive of imaginations as a teenager because he thought the world of imagination was not real.”
Yet it seemed the imagination is where Lewis mostly dwelt. Rejecting his father’s faith in his struggle for his own identity and independence “the last thing Jack wanted was an interfering God from whom one could never escape,” there followed a struggle with various ideologies, materialist and metaphysical. Lewis embraced theories such as ‘logical positivism’ (the view that only what can be verified by sensory evidence actually exists and has meaning) and a confusion of scientific and philosophical strands.
Describing him as a typical teenager – a construct that barely existed at the beginning of the 20th century – Poe’s descriptions of Lewis immersing himself in classics, philosophy, literature and history from a young age, in Homer, Spenser and Ruskin, show a young man earmarked for the ivory towers of Oxford, where he meets and befriends J.R.R. Tolkein.
The book covers Lewis’ entry into Oxford and his concerns about the possibility of conscription. In 1916 apparently oblivious to the fact that his brother was fighting in the Battle of the Somme, Jack and his father were making plans regarding his entrance examinations into Oxford. Until a letter arrived from his brother describing being surrounded by “things which were once men”.
The author describes Jack as being adolescent and rebellious and perhaps for those days he was but he comes across more as complacent and the idea of a seventeen year old being considered rebellious because he doesn’t want to do what his father tells him is a bit old hat. Certain sections of the book covering whether or not Jack would enlist, or with whom he would spend the Easter holidays, which operas he may or may not have attended, struck me as being superfluous.
For fans of the Chronicles of Narnia and other of Lewis’ writings, there is some interest here in following the trail of white stones that led through the forest of his young psyche.
But for those who wish to find the wardrobe and pass through behind the fur coats to the forest where it is always winter, never Christmas – and especially for those who wish to meet Mr. Tumnus carrying his packages wrapped in brown paper – you are much better off reading the books.
Thanks to #NetGalley and #Crossway for this review copy.