C. S. Lewis died 50 years ago, yet interest in his life and work continues. Allister McGrath's C. S. Lewis - A Life: Eccentric Genius, Reluctant Prophet is the latest contribution to the numerous books about Lewis. McGrath provides a biography that attempts both to retell the story of Lewis's life and to understand "his ideas and how they found expression in his writing" (xiii). 

SUMMARY

The book is divided into five major sections, arranged chronologically: Prelude, Oxford, Narnia, Cambridge, and Afterlife. Thus, the bulk of the book considers the life-story of C. S. Lewis, and the final chapter reflects upon his contemporary influence.

“Prelude” (chapters one through three, describing Lewis’s life from 1898 through 1918) features Lewis' childhood in Ireland, his schooling in England after his mother's death from cancer, and his war service. Though Lewis is not generally understood as an Irish writer, per se, this section suggests how his Irish origins influenced his imagination and later writing.

Next, "Oxford"  (chapters four through ten, 1919 - 1954) describes his relationships both inside and outside of the university, his conversion from atheism to faith, and his rise as a wartime apologist. It details not only Lewis's academic career at Oxford, but also his difficult relationship with his father, his infamous relationship with Mrs. Moore, and his friendships with J. R. R. Tolkien and Charles Williams. Lewis was not well-accepted within the Oxford scholarly community, partly due to both his Christian faith and his writing for a popular audience. During World War Two, he became a war-time Christian apologist, producing The Problem of Pain and a series of broadcast talks that would eventually be published as Mere Christianity. Chapter six provides a unique chronology for Lewis's conversion to theism and eventually to Christianity, suggesting Lewis became a theist in 1930 rather than the traditionally assumed (and even remembered by Lewis) date of 1929. McGrath also puts Lewis' conversion into a broader context of a religious renaissance in English literature during the 1920's.  Lewis contributions during this time included both his own written work and encouraging the work of others. In particular, McGrath highlights Lewis's role as a "midwife" for Tolkien's Lord of the Rings.

Section three, "Narnia" (chapters eleven and twelve) pauses the biographical storytelling and focuses on the inspiration and themes of the seven books that compose the Chronicles of Narnia. McGrath cites Michael Ward's (2008) Planet Narnia to consider how the seven medieval "planets" of the Sun, Moon, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn correspond with the themes in the seven Narnian Chronicles. Other sources include Plato’s cave allegory, which McGrath relates to the relationship between the overworld and the underworld in The Silver Chair. During this section’s pause of Lewis’s biographical story, McGrath explains that one of the key themes of the Narnia stories is the importance of choosing to believe the right story. McGrath explains, “Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia are about finding a master story that makes sense of all other stories - and then embracing that story with delight because of its power to give meaning and value to life” (p. 280).