I have just had the delightful experience of reading John Lawlor’s book, C.S. Lewis: Memories and Reflections (1998). Prof. Lawlor was an undergraduate student of C.S. Lewis’ before and after WWII before continuing on to do his graduate work with J.R.R. Tolkien. That’s a one-two punch many of us would love to take. Lawlor was a scholar of medieval and romantic literature, working in the shadow of Lewis and remaining friends until the latter’s death. Memoirs and Reflections is a tribute book, first to friendship and then to scholarship, honouring the craft of writing both in content and form.
I don’t always love memoirs of the people I study, especially when they repeat well-worn anecdotes full of wink and whimsy. With Lawlor it is entirely different. Instead of the same old stories, we have a fresh insider look at Oxonian life at the time when Lewis was at the peak of his work as a public intellectual. The memoirs are funny, evocative, and intentionally controversial. Lawlor wants to cast himself as an outsider-insider, an arrogant student slowly won over by the awe-inspiring presence of an unmatched thinker and writer of this day. Yet it is not merely hagiographical; Lawlor sheds light on Lewis’ weaknesses as well as his strengths. Above all, the book is not cute. There is enough pretentiousness and wit for me to read it with a posh BBC accent (in my mind).
The four essays that make up the “reflections” cover the Ransom Cycle, Narnia, the theme of reason and romanticism, and Lewis as writer and scholar (or, perhaps, writer-scholar). The first essay on the Ransom Cycle is a robust and integrative summary without a true critical thesis. And it is all the better for it, taking on the tone of a senior scholar as he invites readers into a literary conversation as broad as his own. There are no footnotes, as if we are expected to have Owen Barfield or Jonathan Swift at hand to look up the full references. This essay and the one on Narnia are pieces I would send back to the senior undergraduate because they don’t provide enough links to the text. As the culmination of a lifetime of reading Lewis, though, they are marvelous reading.
The only difficult essay in the book is the one that is by far the best. In the piece where Lawlor treats Lewis as scholar and writer, he spends a great deal of time in The Allegory of Love and Lewis’ other literary historical and critical works. It is a breathtaking chapter that, when combined with the postscript, cuts to the heart of Lewis’ spirituality and integrates it with his work as literary scholar and popular writer.
Memories and Reflections is written for a very particular kind of reader. Unlike so many books about Lewis that bring the reader through burnt-over biographical lands, Lawlor expects that you know Lewis’ story pretty well and have a good sense of his work. Memories and Reflections is for the reader who loves (or hates) Lewis’ fiction and has been dabbling in the more literary work. Once you have read Alan Jacobs’ The Narnian (2005) or George Sayers’ Jack (1988), John Lawlor’s book is a great next step into just Lewis’ world and the worlds he created. It would be good to have read The Allegory of Love (1936) or The Discarded Image (1964), but the essays are worthwhile even if you are new to those great, accessible histories of medieval stories.
Honestly, I am quite surprised that I don’t hear more about this book. Harry Lee Poe and Rebecca Whitten Poe recommend it in C.S. Lewis Remembered (2006). Some biographers refer to Lawlor, including Alister McGrath, Alan Jacobs, and Joel Heck (including his book on education). This book is included in the bibliographies and in a smattering of papers, as is his Patterns of Love and Courtesy: Essays in Memory of C. S. Lewis (1966)—meant as a retirement gift to Lewis but offered instead as a memorial volume. You can also read an essay on his experience as Lewis student in Jock Gibb’s Light on C.S. Lewis (1965), or in Lawlor’s lifetime of writings on the transformation of the university and medieval literature.
I would be inclined to challenge Prof. Lawlor on some of his readings. His gregarious use of commas to hold together gargantuan sentences is not in my taste. His use of the semicolon should be outlawed. All in all, though, Memories and Reflections is an evocative and creative look at Lewis and his work from one of his early disciples. I recommend it for readers of Lewis wanted to move beyond introductory material.