Biographies of C.S. Lewis

C. S. Lewis, his worlds, and his faith.

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Biographies of C.S. Lewis

Postby Courtenay » Nov 01, 2019 5:49 pm

Hi everyone,

I've searched and there doesn't seem to be an existing thread on this specific topic, so I hope no-one will mind me starting one. I just thought it would be interesting to discuss biographies of C.S. Lewis — ones we've read or would like to read — and share our reviews and thoughts about them.

I've only read one full-length biography of Lewis so far: The Narnian: The Life and Imagination of C.S. Lewis by Alan Jacobs, which is relatively short, but very informative and readable. I'd certainly recommend it to anyone wanting to know more about Lewis's life and ideas and the main influences on his writing. I did, some years earlier, make a start on the first and probably best-known biography, C.S. Lewis: A Biography by Roger Lancelyn Green and Walter Hooper, but although it was very well written, I just found it too long and detailed and difficult to get into. I may come back to it some day, though.

Just recently, I learned that Douglas Gresham, Lewis's stepson, has written a couple of biographical works too — Lenten Lands: My Childhood with Joy Davidman and C.S. Lewis and Jack's Life: The Life Story of C.S. Lewis. I've read excerpts from them online and they sound very good, so I've ordered both. I'll be happy to post my thoughts on them if people are interested. I'd also love to hear anyone else's thoughts and recommendations on Lewis biographies that you've read.

I should add (almost didn't think of this! :ymblushing: ) — I have also read Lewis's own autobiography, Surprised by Joy. I'm sorry to say I found it quite disappointing, however. I would have loved to see him go into much more depth about how his thoughts about God and religion developed and what in particular gradually convinced him that a) there is undeniably a God, and b) that this God is the one revealed through Jesus Christ. He does of course talk about that a bit, but much of it seems to be about how dreadful most of his schools were and what an obnoxious young bloke he was in general. If you took everything out but the parts where he does deal directly and clearly with his spiritual development (which I thought was supposed to be the point of the book), you'd be left with a really thin booklet. :( I do understand he was a very private man and found it difficult to write publicly about his deepest personal experiences, but most of the really interesting details of his life, especially of his journey from atheism to Christianity, I've only learned through reading other books about him.
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Re: Biographies of C.S. Lewis

Postby Ramiles » Nov 03, 2019 8:59 am

There's a book I've had for years called "The Land of NARNIA" - by Brian Sibley - 12 Oct 1989 - which explores "the life of C.S.Lewis and his writing of the "Narnia" books. It looks in detail at the geography and creatures of Narnia and the theme behind the stories, and the illustrations provided for this book by the Narnia illustrator, Pauline Baynes, are accompanied by the original map and frontispieces. Brian Sibley is the author of "Shadowlands: the Story of C.S.Lewis and Joy Davidman" and the radio serialization of "The Magician's Nephew" and "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe" it's quite a short book (99 pages) which I recommend - at least as an introduction.
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Re: Biographies of C.S. Lewis

Postby coracle » Nov 03, 2019 3:24 pm

Ramiles, I own that one too. I used it for information in many threads over the years, both on here and on the (closed) forum on,"Into The Wardrobe," particularly the timeline information.

I also own Colin Duriez's book 'A Field Guide to Narnia' which includes good biographical material.

Sadly, there are some awful bios, including one by someone Wilson. Even more unfortunately, this one was used as a source for programme notes for a stage production of 'Shadowlands' I saw 6 months ago in England (with Hugh Bonneville playing Lewis).
But the one I like best is 'Jack' by George Sayer. I think Doug Gresham would agree with me on that.

'Jack's Life' was written in an interesting way - the early chapters seem to be written for younger readers, but it becomes more adult as its subject grows up. (Deliberately done by Mr Gresham).

'Lentenlands' is more focussed on its author's experience, but is a worthwhile book.
Happy reading!
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Re: Biographies of C.S. Lewis

Postby Courtenay » Nov 03, 2019 4:28 pm

Ramiles wrote:There's a book I've had for years called "The Land of NARNIA" - by Brian Sibley - 12 Oct 1989 - which explores "the life of C.S.Lewis and his writing of the "Narnia" books. It looks in detail at the geography and creatures of Narnia and the theme behind the stories, and the illustrations provided for this book by the Narnia illustrator, Pauline Baynes, are accompanied by the original map and frontispieces.


Oh, I've got that one — Mum bought it for me during a visit to the legendary children's bookshop, The Little Bookroom, in Melbourne (now sadly closed down), when I was 7 or 8 years old and had only recently finished reading all the Narnia books and wanted everything Narnia-esque that I could lay my hands on. Happy days! :) I still have it, though it's back at my parents' home in Australia.

(Welcome to the forum, by the way, Ramiles — I just saw that was your first post!)

Another good one I found a few years after that is Past Watchful Dragons by Walter Hooper — like Sibley's The Land of Narnia, it's partly biographical and partly a commentary on the Narnia books. I re-read it quite recently and found a lot of interesting info in it that I'd forgotten about or possibly skipped over as a younger reader.

coracle wrote:Sadly, there are some awful bios, including one by someone Wilson. Even more unfortunately, this one was used as a source for programme notes for a stage production of 'Shadowlands' I saw 6 months ago in England (with Hugh Bonneville playing Lewis).


Ah, I ran across the A.N. Wilson one online yesterday or the day before when I was doing some searching — I saw and read some excerpts from it, none of which I can remember, but there was something about the whole tone of it that I just didn't like, even though there was nothing openly disparaging in those quotes.

Incidentally, regarding Shadowlands, I saw a stage production of it a few years ago — I hadn't seen it before, either the play or the film — and was deeply disappointed with the way it portrayed Lewis and his faith. I couldn't agree more with this article I found soon afterwards: How Hollywood Reinvented C.S. Lewis in the Film "Shadowlands"

coracle wrote:The one I like best is 'Jack' by George Sayer. I think Doug Gresham would agree with me on that.


I'll look out for that one in future, after I've read the two Gresham ones, thanks!

coracle wrote:'Jack's Life' was written in an interesting way - the early chapters seem to be written for younger readers, but it becomes more adult as its subject grows up. (Deliberately done by Mr Gresham).
'Lentenlands' is more focussed on its author's experience, but is a worthwhile book.
Happy reading!


They both do sound worthwhile and I'm looking forward to reading them. Thanks again!
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Re: Biographies of C.S. Lewis

Postby coracle » Nov 03, 2019 7:21 pm

Courtenay wrote:Ah, I ran across the A.N. Wilson one online yesterday or the day before when I was doing some searching — I saw and read some excerpts from it, none of which I can remember, but there was something about the whole tone of it that I just didn't like, even though there was nothing openly disparaging in those quotes.

Incidentally, regarding Shadowlands, I saw a stage production of it a few years ago — I hadn't seen it before, either the play or the film — and was deeply disappointed with the way it portrayed Lewis and his faith. I couldn't agree more with this article I found soon afterwards: How Hollywood Reinvented C.S. Lewis in the Film "Shadowlands"


I didn't remember seeing that article on Into The Wardrobe.
I don't know the writer, but some of his information was probably drawn from Wilson's biography.
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Re: Biographies of C.S. Lewis

Postby Courtenay » Nov 04, 2019 11:21 am

I don't know any of the allegations from that biography, since I haven't read it (and don't intend to now), so don't worry, I won't be discussing any of it either!

Just curious, though, Coracle — you're talking about the article about Shadowlands that I linked to (by John G. West, Jr), I gather? I'm not sure what information in that could have been drawn from Wilson's biography. It's the play itself (Shadowlands) that I thought was unfair in the way it portrays Lewis as a rather self-assured, almost smug scholar loftily theorising on why God allows pain and suffering, but he himself has apparently never really been hurt in his life until he falls in love with Joy and then loses her, and then it's heavily implied that his faith in God has turned out to be pretty empty when confronted at last with real suffering. That's why I was disappointed when I saw the play — because I already knew enough about Lewis to know that he had definitely suffered terrible losses in his life before Joy's death, and although his faith was certainly tested, it was never shattered as the play implies.

The John G. West article (which I found after I saw the play) is saying just that — that Shadowlands is a sympathetic but very inaccurate portrayal of Lewis and it could lead viewers to assume that "Lewis's defence of Christianity could not stand the scrutiny of real life." I don't know if that's also how Wilson's biography portrays Lewis, but West certainly isn't agreeing with him, if so.
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Re: Biographies of C.S. Lewis

Postby Cleander » Nov 04, 2019 3:46 pm

Like Courtenay, the only Lewis biography I've read is The Narnian. I remember being slightly unimpressed by it for some reason. I guess it might have had something to do with the author's tendency to go off on tangents (like frequent comparisons of Narnia to LOTR.) I do seem recall the parts in which he stayed on topic were pretty detailed and interesting though.
(I can't just pull out and reference the book right now because I got it out of the library years ago and haven't read it since.)
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Re: Biographies of C.S. Lewis

Postby coracle » Nov 04, 2019 10:46 pm

Courtenay, I was looking at another issue, but the one you raise is more important to consider.
There were a lot of people who made claims about Jack Lewis, such as scoffing about him writing children's books when he didn't mix with children or have any of his own - but they overlooked the evacuees who stayed in his home during the war!

I don't really like the film of Shadowlands; Doug Gresham has said [something like] it portrays the essence of the events correctly but not the details.
I prefer the original script which was a made-for-TV film in England, with Joss Acland (playing Jack much more convincingly than Hopkins did) and Claire Bloom. [I found some of it on Youtube] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9Xyn2Reya_g It also depicts both the boys.
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Re: Biographies of C.S. Lewis

Postby Ramiles » Nov 06, 2019 4:24 am

I had wondered if there were such a thing as an "official" biography i.e.

https://www.google.com/search?q=Officia ... e&ie=UTF-8

http://www.cslewis.com/us/about-cs-lewis/
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Re: Biographies of C.S. Lewis

Postby Courtenay » Nov 09, 2019 3:48 am

Just as an update, I'm really enjoying Lenten Lands by Douglas Gresham! :) I'm about halfway through it at the moment. He writes really well — his style is quite reminiscent of Lewis at times, I think! — and it's very interesting to hear what Joy was really like, and what her relationship with "Jack" was like, straight from someone who was so close to them.

Meanwhile Gresham's later book, Jack's Life, has also arrived, so I'll go straight on with that after I've finished this one!
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Re: Biographies of C.S. Lewis

Postby Courtenay » Nov 12, 2019 4:41 am

Now I've finished both Douglas Gresham's books and I must say they were really worth it!

Lenten Lands is beautifully written — they both are — and full of really interesting insights into what it was like to be there, as young Douglas was, while Joy and Jack got to know each other and gradually fell in love, and how incredibly strong she was all through her years of illness, and what remarkable people they both were. Much better to have that directly from someone who was there at the time and who knew them both better than almost anyone else, than reading someone else's mushy cliché-ridden romantic fiction about it. (I'm referring to Becoming Mrs Lewis, which as I described in another thread, I started out reading recently and just couldn't get through it.)

I did feel Lenten Lands fizzled out towards the end, after both Joy and Jack had died and Gresham then goes into the story of his own marriage and family — which is interesting in its own right, but more and more off topic from the main part of the book, and then he ends it really abruptly with the death of Warnie Lewis. But that was the only downside of the book, and not a major one.

Jack's Life was, in its own way, possibly even better. It's quite a short biography and obviously aimed at young readers, but that makes it all the more readable. I've ploughed through enough academic-style biographies (not only of Lewis, but of other historical figures) and it's more than a little refreshing to read one that's friendly and chatty rather than scholarly!! Gresham, understandably, barely says anything even a little negative about Lewis, but he's not actually putting him on a pedestal — he shows that Lewis was a real human being with human flaws like any of us, but he was able to overcome self-centredness and pride to a huge degree and live a remarkably unselfish and humble life in the face of major hardships. Gresham also doesn't hesitate to attribute Lewis's great qualities to the fact that he was a devoted Christian and always striving to live up to what his faith demanded of him ("walking the talk", as the saying goes nowadays).

This biography naturally didn't go into the depths of analysis that many of them do, but I didn't feel it needed to. Reading it made me feel like I was getting to know more of Lewis as he really was as a person, rather than what some distant, scholarly, outside observer thought he was or should have been. Very highly recommended to anyone who's interested, even if you've read other Lewis biographies before! (I wish I could have read this book when I was 7 or 8 years old and first becoming besotted with all things Narnian — I'd have loved it — but it hadn't yet been written then.)

I might just add, too, that Douglas Gresham has an excellent, very engaging writing style that's a delight to read — I'd definitely go so far as to say he takes after his stepfather!! :ymapplause:
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Re: Biographies of C.S. Lewis

Postby coracle » Nov 13, 2019 1:10 pm

Great to read your comments!
I believe Lenten Lands began as a memoir and interviews, so sometimes it flows well as a biography and at others it does chunks that overlap a bit with other chunks.
I do hope Doug will have time when he is in his 80s to catch up the later half of his life, though.
I like your thought of his taking after Jack; of course he had a very intelligent mother who wrote and spoke very articulately and creatively, and his father was also a published novelist. Imagine living in that house filled with clever creative people and NOT being a good speaker/writer?
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Re: Biographies of C.S. Lewis

Postby Courtenay » Nov 13, 2019 2:22 pm

coracle wrote:I like your thought of his taking after Jack; of course he had a very intelligent mother who wrote and spoke very articulately and creatively, and his father was also a published novelist. Imagine living in that house filled with clever creative people and NOT being a good speaker/writer?


Good point! I haven't read any of Joy's writings (so far!), so I can't compare, but I should think she must have been an influence on Douglas's writing as well.
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Re: Biographies of C.S. Lewis

Postby coracle » Nov 28, 2019 2:21 pm

This seems a good place to observe Jack's birthday, 121 years ago.

When he died in 1963 he was one week away from his 64th birthday.

Thank you, Jack Lewis, for all your work and kindness.
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