The basic story of C. S. Lewis’s life has often been told. Born in Belfast in 1898, he was sent to school at Malvern College, which he hated. Joining University College, Oxford, in 1917, he began his studies there in earnest two years later, having served meanwhile as an infantry officer in France, where he was wounded and then invalided home in May 1918. He gained a double First in classics, followed by a further first-class degree in English. For the greater part of his life, from 1925 to 1954, he was Fellow and Tutor at Magdalen College, Oxford.
During this time Lewis was a spectacularly popular lecturer on medieval and Renaissance literature, filling the largest halls week after week. He also published a number of scholarly academic works culminating with his English Literature in the Sixteenth Century Excluding Drama (1954), which won him election to the British Academy. In the early 1930s, he converted from atheism to Christianity, and went on to publish lively works of popular theology such as The Problem of Pain (1940) and The Screwtape Letters (1942). During the war, he achieved national fame through a series of talks as “The Voice of Faith” on the BBC. These addresses were collected in the volume Mere Christianity (1952), widely regarded as his most successful venture into Christian apologetics.
Lewis also wrote three works of science fiction during the 1940s, and after his last major theological work, Miracles, had been critically mauled in 1948, he devoted more and more attention to the writing of novels for children – a then unfashionable genre which he helped to make respectable. He created the imaginative world of Narnia, introduced by The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe in 1950, and further explored in six succeeding novels. In 1955, after being long denied a chair at Oxford, Lewis became Professor of Medieval and Renaissance English at Cambridge, with a fellowship at Magdalene College.
As an Oxford don, Lewis lived in a house in Headington, The Kilns, with his brother Warnie, and with Jane Moore, the mother of Paddy Moore, a student contemporary killed in the First World War. Sometime after Mrs Moore’s death in 1951, Lewis entered into a complicated relationship with an American writer, Joy Davidman, whom he eventually married twice, once in a register office in 1956 and once in a bedside religious ceremony in 1957. Joy helped him with his penultimate book, The Four Loves (1960), and her death in 1960 brought forth a poignant expression of mourning in A Grief Observed (1961). Lewis himself died of prostate cancer in 1963.
In this diligently researched, densely footnoted, helpfully illustrated and solemnly crafted biography, Alister McGrath has seen it as his task to supplement and correct the work of previous biographers. Some of his revisions of the received narrative will interest only devotees of Lewis who are familiar with earlier biographies. Such, for instance, are the claims that it was in 1930 rather than 1929 that Lewis began to believe in God, and that he came to belief in Christ while being driven to Whipsnade zoo by car in 1932, rather than when riding to the zoo in a motorbike sidecar in 1931. Such, too, is the discussion of the correct order in which to read the Narnia novels. Other novelties are of more general interest, such as the discovery that in 1961 Lewis nominated J. R. R. Tolkien for the Nobel Prize in Literature. One of the most attractive features of the book, in fact, is its careful delineation of the rise and decline of the friendship between the two Oxford writers.