The Best Book Written About C.S. Lewis

December 1988By Sheldon Vanauken

Sheldon Vanauken is a writer in Vir­ginia. His award-winning A Severe Mer­cy dealt in part with C.S. Lewis. His latest book is Mercies, his collected poems.

JACK: C.S. Lewis and His Times.  By George Sayer. Harper & Row. 278 pages. $19.50.



What is the justification for yet another book — a critical biography — on C.S. Lewis, “Jack” to his friends? The title, JACK, is then part of the justifi­cation: George Sayer was a close friend, one of the Inklings. But he says the justification is simply that more material is available to him. He doesn’t mention the dec­ade of thought and writing that went into his book. He was one of Lewis’s pupils, reading English under him back in the 1930s, so he knows that side of Lewis; and then he became a close friend and walking companion in his subsequent career as a school­master at Malvern College, Lewis’s old school. Now, long-thought and studied, comes this gracefully written book in which Sayer takes the reader by the hand, as it were, and with calm good sense guides him through Lewis’s life, offering him thoughtful explana­tions of Lewis’s actions and no less thoughtful insights into Lew­is’s works. One of the most remarkable aspects of JACK is the reader’s sense of having a trust­worthy guide who knows the ter­rain. Sayer is quite willing to point out Lewis’s mistakes — the times when he was wrong — and yet, somehow, Lewis emerges from this a greater man, the more lovable for being human. At the same time, Sayer is hum­ble. When he doesn’t know, he says so. On the very day he met Lewis, as a freshman in 1934, Tolkien, who was himself waiting to see Lewis, remarked that Lew­is would indeed be an interesting tutor, adding: “You’ll never get to the bottom of him.” Remem­bering that, Sayer says: “Although I became a friend of Lewis, I nev­er got to the bottom of him.”

As one who also knew Jack at Oxford and after, I agree that there’s no getting to the bottom of him; but I believe Sayer has gone deeper into Lewis, more nearly got to the bottom of him, than anyone else has ever done or ever will do.

There are scores of books about Lewis. To mention only a few, there is the Green-Hooper biography; Carpenter’s entertain­ing The Inklings with a good deal of biographical material; Griffin’s C.S. Lewis: A Dramatic Life, which, rather than a true, inter­pretive biography, is merely a series of colorful glimpses of Lewis’s life; Clyde Kilby’s several Lewis books; Chad Walsh’s book on Lewis’s Literary Legacy; Paul Holmer’s brilliant study of Lew­is’s faith; Christopher Derrick’s C.S. Lewis and the Church of Rome; and able studies by Peter Kreeft and Thomas Howard. And yet I should say that, from this moment on, any reader who wish­es to supplement his reading of Lewis himself with one book about him should choose JACK.

Sayer devotes a good deal of space to Lewis’s ancestry (half English and half Celtic, Welsh, and Scotch), his childhood in Belfast, his family (with particu­lar attention to the father), and his schools in England. There are good reasons for this. Previous accounts, influenced by the writ­ings of Lewis’s brother, Warnie, or by Jack himself in Surprised by Joy, erred in condemning un­justly Jack’s father, Albert Lewis, and in painting his schools, par­ticularly Malvern College, too black. Here, as everywhere, Sayer is a wise guide. I found it a par­ticular pleasure to see Albert Lewis more clearly and sympa­thetically, despite his great mis­take of failing to visit Jack in the hospital after his wounding on the Western Front. Still, Albert emerges redeemed, and Jack him­self is seen as at least a bit intol­erant. Similarly, the schools, however unsuitable for a boy like Jack, are seen in a more balanced light — for instance, that Malvern was not the nest of homosexuals that Jack’s unbalanced account suggests, and that he had a very great teacher there — “Smugy.”

Even more welcome is Sayer’s calm and good sense with re­spect to the somewhat mysteri­ous and long-lasting relationship with Mrs. Moore. Almost every­one who has written about it has seen it as rather sinister, certainly unfortunate, and Jack in some sort of bondage to her. In so do­ing they are following the lead of Warren Lewis, who not only dis­liked her but in his “Memoir” in­troducing Letters spoke of her as “domineering” and “possessive” and of Jack’s “servitude.” And there is usually the suggestion of a sexual bondage. And now comes the calm good sense and guidance of George Sayer like a fresh breeze. We see the other side of Janie Moore: the motherliness, the warm generosity. Jack had lost his own mother; now he finds a new one. If he was rather secre­tive about the relationship, there was good reason, not only in the gossiping tongues of humankind but in Mrs. Moore’s separated husband who could cut off the money she and her daughter liv­ed on. But was there a sexual re­lationship? We cannot know. But if there was, is it not odd — Say­er asks — that Jack always called her “Mother,” introduced her as “Mother” without even a quali­fying “adopted”? Sayer lets the light of day fall upon the rela­tionship, and the shadows slink away, leaving no hint of guilty passion. What Mrs. Moore gave him was what he needed: a moth­er, a sister, family warmth, a home.

From the first page to the last, we see C.S. Lewis with a wholeness not to be found in any other book I’ve read. The wise guide makes it easy.

We see Jack with equal clar­ity as teacher — who should know better than Sayer? — as the genial companion, as the power­ful lecturer, and as the poet and writer. And we remain aware of the Ulster — Northern Ireland — background.

Sayer, an Englishman and a Catholic convert, is of course aware of the powerful anti-Cath­olic prejudice of the Protestant Anglo-Scotch majority of the six counties of Ulster, a colony of Great Britain established about the same time, in the reign of King James I, as the Virginian colony was planted — the native Irish swept out as the Indians were pushed back in America. In the 18th century, Sayer points out, there weren’t “above seven papists” in Belfast and not above 150 in the whole of Northern Ire­land; but in the middle of the 19th century the Catholics of Southern Ireland began to immi­grate in search of jobs. They are the newcomers in that land, and the Lewis family came in for crit­icism for having two Catholic ser­vants. Sayer quotes Warnie: “The religious, political, and social cleavage between the Protestant Unionist [union with Great Brit­ain] and the Roman Catholic Na­tionalist was as deep and rigid as that which separates the Moslem from the Hindu. I for instance had never in my life spoken to a Roman Catholic with my own social background until I entered Sandhurst….” Elsewhere War­nie is quoted on Anglican church-going in Belfast when he and Jack were boys: “Our butcher and grocer attended…primari­ly to draw customers’ attention to the fact that at their shops could be bought decent Protes­tant food untainted by the dam­nable heresies of Rome.” With such a history and such attitudes — and now with IRA terrorism — it is easy to understand how the present violence in Ulster has come about; and it is also easy to understand how Jack might have deep, almost ineradicable preju­dices against the Catholic Church.

But this brings me to what seems a rather astonishing omis­sion in JACK. Apart from show­ing the roots of anti-Catholicism, Sayer nowhere discusses the ques­tion of C.S. Lewis and Catholi­cism. He says only: “There is no evidence that he ever seriously considered becoming a Roman Catholic.” But Sayer’s fellow Englishman Christopher Derrick, like him a Magdalen man and a pupil of Lewis and later a friend, wrote the searching book C.S. Lewis and the Church of Rome. The book is not mentioned by Sayer, not even in the bibliogra­phy: this is the omission I spoke of. Whether or not there is evi­dence of Jack’s thinking serious­ly about becoming Roman Cath­olic, there is still the question of the Catholicism of Lewis’s mind. In reviewing the Derrick book in these pages (May 1982), I quot­ed Derrick as follows: “In every emotional and imaginative sense, and as regards a large area of his actual belief and practice, he did [become Roman Catholic]. Only by the narrowest nit-picking stan­dards of the canon lawyer and the ecclesiastical theoretician was he separated, in his later years, from the Church of Rome.” But — Derrick goes on — that’s not the whole story: Lewis went far beyond doctrinaire Protestant­ism, yet he could not escape his Ulster prejudices and take the fi­nal step. Whether to affirm this intellectual Catholicism or to de­ny it, it seems to me that Sayer ought to have touched on it. And there is one bit of evidence that Lewis “seriously considered be­coming a Roman Catholic.” According to Derrick’s book, about a month after Lewis’s death, Fr. Guy Brinkworth, S.J., wrote in the Roman Catholic journal The Tablet, that he had corresponded for some years with Lewis round 1950, and said: “In the letters I received from him, he time and again asked specifically for pray­ers that God might give him ‘the light and grace to make the final gesture.’ He even went so far as to ask in a postscript to one of his letters for ‘prayers that the prejudices instilled in me by an Ulster nurse might be overcome.’” Regrettably, Fr. Brinkworth did not retain these letters.

I had hoped to find in JACK some discussion of these matters. It is the only significant omission in the book. It may be that Sayer didn’t want to be drawn into anything at all “sec­tarian,” since Jack himself repre­sents “Mere Christianity.” Then, too, Jack considered that the great war in Christendom was, in every church, between the Supernaturalism (acceptance of mira­cles) that he stood for and the Naturalism that denies miracles, including the Resurrection.

An Oxford tutor once wrote that Oxford exists to dis­cover its students’ fundamental assumptions — the things we “just know,” such as many of our ideas on gender or racial dif­ferences — and either find grounds for them or discard them. Sayer says of Lewis: “In­deed, as all of his pupils of the 1930s will testify, his teaching consisted largely of making us aware of and debunking our ab­surdities, inconsistencies, and false sentiments.” That is Oxford. And Lewis the Oxonian did the same thing with semi-Christian clerics and more than one of his critics.

JACK, as I said at starting, is a critical biography. Sayer says truly that Lewis always chose the right lines to quote in his discus­sion of literature. And it is no less true that, in studying the writings of Lewis, Sayer also is singularly deft in choosing the right lines to quote. It is regret­table that the combination of the Lewis Estate and the publishers limited his quotations. But we may be thankful for what is left to us. It is difficult in a review to show the excellence of his literary criticism without quoting whole pages of JACK, but per­haps I may be able to suggest how fine it is.

Every major work of Lewis is at least touched on, many gone into in depth, including the long poem Dymer. I was particularly pleased by his comments on Pil­grim’s Regress, which has too of­ten been brushed aside by his critics without allegorical imagi­nation. But Sayer says: “Al­though it is a serious book — pri­marily an attack on spurious satisfactions, false philosophies, and physical and spiritual temptations — it has a captivating freshness. No other book of his is written with such a light touch, and few are so often witty and pro­found.” Moreover, Sayer says that Regress contains a number of religious lyrics, including two of Jack’s finest, and adds: “It is not unlikely that he spent more time on them than on all the prose in the book.” That delight­ed me, and I wrote “George knows!” in the margin. In my own book A Severe Mercy, where the poems were the heart of it, I know that they cost me 10 times, 20 times the thought, energy, time, and inspiration that the prose did. But in this prosy age, with its form less “chopped-prose” verse, there wouldn’t be one in a thousand readers who would know that.

About the “Space Trilogy,” among many penetrating com­ments, Sayer says to the critics who have complained that West­on and Devine are “cardboard characters” that Lewis “never in­tended them to be fully human.” That is an example of the percep­tive sanity that marks Sayer’s lit­erary criticism.

The Great Divorce must be touched upon if only because Chad Walsh in his Literary Lega­cy of C.S. Lewis more or less dis­missed it as a minor work, a dis­missal that I protested in my NOR review (Dec. 1979), saying, “It is a gem among Lewis’s books.” Now Sayer calls it “one of his finest” and goes on to say that “this short book is perhaps the most profound and nearly perfect of all his works.” Sayer, speaking of the influence of Dante, points out that in this sto­ry of “an infernal day excursion to Paradise,” Lewis was able “to present in a single setting a minia­ture paradise, purgatory, and in­ferno.” The Grey City, whence the bus for Heaven leaves, is at once Purgatory for those who leave it and Hell for those who return to it because they refuse to give up whatever they put before God. As Lewis says, in words that ought to be graven over every church door: “There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, Thy will be done,’ and those to whom God says, ‘Thy will be done.’”

This reviewer has always been amazed by one aspect of Lewis’s accomplishment, illus­trated by The Great Divorce, Perelandra, and many other works. Numerous writers — Milton, Graham Greene — can present evil with incredible power, but fail to make good attractive. C.S. Lewis can make good beautiful, desirable, and adorable, as few other writers can.

I must not go on with illus­trations of Sayer’s critical intelli­gence, except to say that he takes Lewis as poet seriously, as I do. In the aforementioned Chad Walsh book, Walsh calls Lewis “The Almost Poet,” and I pro­tested that “The Unfashionable Poet” (in this prosy age) would be fairer. Also, I might mention Sayer’s pointing out the birth of the idea that lay behind the Narnia stories. Lewis noted the wide­spread failure of reviewers of Out of the Silent Planet to perceive its Christian theology — and he wrote in a letter: “I think that this great ignorance might be a help to the evangelization of En­gland: any amount of theology can now be smuggled into peo­ple’s minds under cover of ro­mance without their knowing it.”

I shan’t touch on Lewis’s marriage to Joy Davidman — ex­cept to say in passing that I’m glad Sayer brings out Lewis’s (Catholic) understanding that Joy was never truly married to Gresham because he had a living ex-wife, and thus Lewis was not marrying a divorcée but only res­cuing her from “living in sin.” Nor shall I touch on Sayer’s per­ceptive comments on her death and Jack’s.

Sayer dedicates his book to the friends he has made through Lewis — friends, he says, who can scarcely help being friends of each other. As I said earlier, he shows us a Lewis who is a very human, sometimes faulty or mis­taken man — who is somehow all the greater for that humanness. He says of Lewis: “He was known as a man of exceptional intellec­tual and even physical vitality, a quality that grew over the years. His flow of wit, humour, and vivid stories told in his deep, rich voice was inexhaustible. He was a good listener as well, and one knew that he would never disclose a confidence entrusted to him. He was a man of his word, a man of integrity, a man of honour.”

DOSSIER: Literature & Literary Criticism



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