The Best Book Written About C.S. Lewis
JACK: C.S. Lewis and His Times
By George Sayer
Publisher: Harper & Row
Pages: 278 pages
Review Author: Sheldon Vanauken
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.”
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