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The Narnian: The Life and Imagination of C. S. Lewis

The Narnian: The Life and Imagination of C. S. Lewis

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by Alan Jacobs

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The White Witch, Aslan, fauns and talking beasts, centaurs and epic battles between good and evil -- all these have become a part of our collective imagination through the classic volumes of The Chronicles of Narnia. Over the past half century, children everywhere have escaped into this world and delighted in its wonders and enchantments. Yet what we do


The White Witch, Aslan, fauns and talking beasts, centaurs and epic battles between good and evil -- all these have become a part of our collective imagination through the classic volumes of The Chronicles of Narnia. Over the past half century, children everywhere have escaped into this world and delighted in its wonders and enchantments. Yet what we do know of the man who created Narnia? This biography sheds new light on the making of the original Narnian, C. S. Lewis himself.

Lewis was one of the intellectual giants of the twentieth century and arguably the most influential religious writer of his day. An Oxford don and scholar of medieval literature, he loved to debate philosophy at his local pub, and his wartime broadcasts on the basics of Christian belief made him a celebrity in his native Britain. Yet one of the most intriguing aspects of Clive Staples Lewis remains a mystery. How did this middle-aged Irish bachelor turn to the writing of stories for children -- stories that would become among the most popular and beloved ever written?

Alan Jacobs masterfully tells the story of the original Narnian. From Lewis's childhood days in Ireland playing with his brother, Warnie, to his horrific experiences in the trenches during World War I, to his friendship with J. R. R. Tolkien (and other members of the "Inklings"), and his remarkable late-life marriage to Joy Davidman, Jacobs traces the events and people that shaped Lewis's philosophy, theology, and fiction. The result is much more than a conventional biography of Lewis: Jacobs tells the story of a profound and extraordinary imagination. For those who grew up with Narnia, or for those just discovering it, The Narnian tells a remarkable tale of a man who knew great loss and great delight, but who knew above all that the world holds far more richness and meaning than the average eye can see.

Editorial Reviews

Few authors have seemed less destined to write great children's literature than C. S. Lewis (1898-1963). At the time that he wrote his classic Chronicles of Narnia, this Irish-born bachelor was an Oxford scholar/professor whose critical reputation rested on his works on medieval literature and religious topics. But, as biographer Alan Jacobs demonstrates in this unconventional life, Lewis's talents and experience infuses the Narnia epic with a special resonance and power.
Publishers Weekly
In what amounts to a love letter to C.S. Lewis, Wheaton English professor Jacobs dutifully traces the development of Lewis's imagination from its childhood roots when he sought the companionship of books, including fairy tales, adventure stories and the writings of Beatrix Potter to its mature expression in the Chronicles of Narnia. For many years, he struggled with the meaning and existence of God and the value of Christianity, and Lewis's conversations with fellow members of the literary group called the Inklings, especially Tolkein, led him to a reconversion to Christianity (which he had abandoned in his youth). Lewis's delight in God, according to Jacobs, provides the foundations of both his more apologetic works and the Narnia books. In addition, Lewis developed a "willingness to be enchanted" that marked his fervent love of the poems of Milton, Spenser, Philip Sydney and Tennyson. As Jacob points out, Lewis combines these traits, as well as a desire to be entertained by a good story, in his Narnia books. However, Jacobs's stilted and pedantic prose ("Let us pause for a moment to reflect...") makes for uninspiring reading. Readers would be better advised to turn to Roger Lancelyn Green and Walter Hooper's definitive biography. (Oct.) Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
There have been a number of biographies of Lewis over the years by the likes of Walter Hooper, A.N. Wilson, and George Sayer. This new study stands out from the lot in that it covers more than just the facts of Lewis's life. Jacobs (literature, Wheaton Coll.) aims to unravel the origins of Lewis's imagination and write a life of the mind. He is interested in tracing how a child from Ulster grew up to become an Oxford don and a great Christian thinker. Jacobs doesn't overlook Lewis's shortcomings either, aptly demonstrating how some of his best work was produced at the most difficult times in his life. Occasionally sympathetic but mostly balanced, this riveting biography is destined to become a standard work on Lewis for some time. Highly recommended. Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
An amiable, uncluttered biography by Jacobs (Literature/Wheaton Coll.) that provides a key to Lewis's Christian hierarchy of Narnia. Jacobs's life of Oxford don, poet, Christian apologist and children's author Lewis is not as richly detailed as A.N. Wilson's recent biography (C.S. Lewis, 2004), but Jacobs has the advantage of close access to the Marion Wade Center at Wheaton College, where the Lewis archives are housed. The author breezes through Lewis's gloomy, dutiful childhood in Belfast, and later in England, as he endured the early death of his mother, the eccentricities of his father and the usual miseries of public school; to occupy themselves, he and his older brother, Warnie, created imaginary worlds full of talking animals that prefigure the universe of Narnia. Never a great fan of children, Lewis, who died in 1963, preferred the company of men, and as a fellow of Magdalen, Oxford, teaching medieval literature, he fell in with the famously strange crowd of Inklings, of whom JRR Tolkien was a member: "They formed a society in which formerly lonely and isolated men discovered that it wasn't necessarily so crazy, after all, to believe in God and miracles." About his 30-year relationship with Janie Moore, 25 years his senior, Jacobs is rather indulgent and forgiving, acknowledging the emotional stability a mother substitute lent his life. Jacobs continually returns to the extravagant vision of Narnia, and aims to fit the events of Lewis's life as neatly as possible into its structure. In a final chapter, he addresses some of Narnia's troublesome racist and sexist depictions. Just in time for the film version of The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe, to bereleased in December.
Frederick Buechner
“It is hard to imagine a more insightful and even-handed treatment of the life and work of Lewis.”
Edward Mendelson
“A book about Lewis that will fascinate even those readers who think they aren’t interested in reading about him.”
Mary S. Lovell
“An erudite and welcome addition to the C. S. Lewis canon.”
Richard John Neuhaus
“The most influential Christian apologist of the last hundred years has found a worthy biographer.”
Charles Marsh
“This is the book on Lewis we’ve all been waiting for: probing, generous, lyrical and entertaining.”
Presbyterians Today
“...[B]est appreciated by the Narnia enthusiasts seeking to learn more about the man behind the stories.”
The Christian Science Monitor
“[Jacobs] provides excellent context by explaining authors and literature that influenced Lewis…his matter-of-fact approach is welcome.”
“The Narnian is thoughtful, intriguing and inspiring—a treasure for Narnia fans, as well as aficionados of fine biography.”
Minneapolis Star Tribune
“Jacobs has written[...]not onlya portrait of a dazzling writer but also a defense of Lewis as aseeker and thinker...”
Richard Jenkyns
“Jacobs provides a fluent and sensible re-telling of the main outlines of Lewis’s life...”
Books & Culture
“Combines fine scholarship with winsome writing . . . it is an important contribution.”
Christianity Today
“A deeply insightful yet broadly accessible intellectual biography, written in an engaging voice.”

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The Narnian
The Life and Imagination of C. S. Lewis

Chapter One

"Happy, but for so happy ill secured . . ."

When Clive Staples Lewis was four years old, in 1902 or 1903, he quite suddenly announced to his mother, father, and older brother that from that day forth he would no longer be known as Clive, but rather as "Jacksie." To no other name would he answer. Eventually he allowed slight modifications—Jacksie yielded to Jacks, and then, finally, to Jack—but never again would he be Clive. Except to teachers and others whom he knew only formally, he remained Jack to the end of his days, sixty years later.

Such boldness indicates a precocious self-assurance, and surely the indication is correct: it was only a few years later that Jack interrupted his father in his study in order to announce, "I have a prejudice against the French." When his father asked him why, he replied, "If I knew why it would not be a prejudice." So, self-assurance, yes, but also an assurance of being loved—the expectation of tolerance, affection, and even indulgence that is so often found in the youngest child of a family.

And the Lewis family was a happy one, according to that model of domesticity adored and nearly perfected by the Victorians: the pater-familas, his Angel in the House, and children (in this case sons) respectful of Papy and adoring of Mamy. When Jack was six they had moved from a semidetached house in Dundela, an inner suburb of Belfast, Ireland—Northern Ireland would not exist, as such, for another few decades—into a rambling, expansive, new brick house in more prestigious Strandtown and had filledit with books. They called it Leeborough, or, more familiarly, Little Lea. It possessed a garden, and the servants were kind. Once the family took a holiday in France. It was ideal—but when, half a century later, Jack wrote about his childhood in his book Surprised by Joy, he prefaced the first chapter with a quote from Milton's Paradise Lost, a dark statement from Satan, musing on the occupants of the Eden into which he peers: "Happy, but for so happy ill secured."

Lewis's mother was named Florence Hamilton; she was called Flora. She had been born in County Cork in 1862, the daughter of an Anglican priest who throughout much of her childhood led a church in Rome. In 1874 he returned to Ireland to become the rector of St. Mark's Church in Dundela. The Reverend Thomas Hamilton could be so deeply moved by Christian faith and doctrine that he actually wept during his own sermons. Like many Ulster Anglicans, he despised Catholics and thought them not only un-Christian but positively Satanic, but he was not simply and uniformly reactionary. He was for his time and place unusually supportive of women's education: when the brand-new Royal University of Ireland (founded in 1878, and now called Queen's University) announced that from the outset it would accept women as students and give them the same rights and privileges as men—something then unthinkable at Oxford or Cambridge—he sent his daughter Flora. She performed very well indeed, in 1885 taking a first (that is, a first-class degree) in logic and a second in mathematics.

A year later a young man named Albert Lewis asked her to marry him; she refused. This appears not to have deterred him, since in 1893 she agreed to his renewed proposal, though she made no pretense of ecstatic transport or (it would seem) anything like a sense of romance. "I wonder do I love you?" she wrote to Albert, as though considering a problem in logic. "I am not quite sure. I know that at least I am very fond of you, and that I should never think of loving anyone else." She would never, in her letters at least, confess to having fallen in love with Albert, but those letters do grow much more affectionate over time, and she reveals to him more and more of her personality. Especially notable is a witty parody of some of the preaching she had heard, a careful exegesis of that famously difficult text "Old Mother Hubbard, she went to the cupboard." Given the extraordinary skills as a satirist and parodist her younger son would later exhibit, one wonders whether this sort of gift could be hereditary.

This Albert Lewis had been born in the same county as Flora, in the city of Cork itself; he was a year younger. When Albert was still an infant his father—who was in the shipbuilding business—moved to Dublin, and then later to Belfast. Albert was sent for his chief education to Lurgan College in County Armagh (an Irish imitation of the English prep school), whose headmaster, an Ulster Scot named W. T. Kirkpatrick, would prove to be a central figure in the later history of the Lewis family. We will hear much more of him later.

After graduating from Lurgan in 1879, Albert was "articled" to a firm of solicitors in Dublin—that is, taken on as a kind of apprentice. Five years later he qualified as a solicitor and soon moved to Belfast to start his own practice. As an attorney he excelled. He was, his younger son would later write, "sentimental, passionate, and rhetorical," and while these qualities may have made him sometimes difficult to live with, they were of great value in the courtroom. "Woe to the poor jury man who wants to have any mind of his own," wrote Albert's former teacher Kirkpatrick; "he will find himself borne down by a resistless Niagara." Perhaps Flora Hamilton had a similar experience; at any rate, the man she married in 1894 was a man on the rise, and he would eventually become a significant figure in the public life of Belfast. At his death in 1929 the newspaper obituaries would be prominent, long, and effusive.

The Narnian
The Life and Imagination of C. S. Lewis
. Copyright © by Alan Jacobs. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.

Meet the Author

Alan Jacobs is professor of English at Wheaton College in Illinois. He is the author of several books, including most recently The Narnian, a biography of C. S. Lewis. His literary and cultural criticism has appeared in a wide range of periodicals, including the Boston Globe, The American Scholar, First Things, Books & Culture, and The Oxford American.

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