A.N. Wilson’s C.S. Lewis: A Mythology

C.S. Lewis: A BiographyC.S. Lewis: A Biography by A.N. Wilson
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

If this were a drinking party instead of a book, A.N. Wilson‘s C.S. Lewis: A Biography would be a five-star story. Humorous, light in tone, deftly written, the life of C.S. Lewis told here is engaging, moving, and poignant. Unfortunately, this was not a night around the dinner table, picking and eating and drinking and talking about this Oxford don that our new friend Wilson had met one time. It is a book that purports to be a biography but has the unfortunate condition of not being terribly accurate.

You can see a list of errata by Kathryn Lindskoog here. The list is as telling about C.S. Lewis studies as it is about Wilson’s work. Many Lewis fans will have rejected the book because it has damning or lurid things in it, and because it drifts toward the Freudian, psychoanalytic view of history. I don’t reject it out of hand for these reasons provided there can be sufficient evidence that the author can bring us truthfully into the history of the moment.

Wilson’s smoking jacket old boys club approach to biographical approach to storytelling, though, left me with no confidence whatsoever that I could either trust his account where biographers differ, or that I could test his hypothesis. The errata is part of it. Even when you take out the protectionistic and interpretive bits, there are simply dozens of errors. As Arend Smilde coyly noted in his much more complete review of the book,

“Wilson might have been practising a kind of biography which is legitimate in its own way but which I have not yet learnt to appreciate” (see here).

I will surmise what that technique is below, but we should watch as Smilde goes on to list pages of errors that we can divide into rough categories: 1) error of fact due to sloppiness; 2) error of interpretation due to uncareful weighing of evidence; 3) concerns or errors due to the fact that Wilson’s evidence is based on hearsay, gossip, or private conversations not open to historical testing; and 4) places where Wilson just simply seems bent against a sensible or evidence-based interpretation.

These categories are a bit puzzling to me as I have read Wilson’s biographies on St. Paul and Tolstoy. I enjoyed Tolstoy, though I know almost nothing about the figure. I have done a masters degree on Paul, however, and that book made me angry at times. As scholars we make biographical and historical choices based on the best of our reading, and hopefully keep checking our biases. Wilson’s bio of Paul simply slalomed through, grabbing the best interpretation from scholars to suit his purposes. It was a frustrating read, but what makes his bio of Lewis so different is that the Paul bio was pretty well researched for a popular biographer’s work. This Lewis biography was not well researched, leaving out the most important biography of the generation: Jack: A Life of C.S. Lewis by George Sayer, Lewis’ student and friend. This makes me wonder if Wilson’s Lewis book is a bit of a gap in his must stronger (though still controversial) work.

I won’t repeat the errors in the text–not simply because others have done that with startling attention to detail, but also because I just really enjoyed reading this book. To be fair, this was my “jammed between the seats of the car to read while I’m waiting for things book” book. It is a special category of book, made up of a soft-cover text that can hold a pencil, about 300-350 pages so it sits nicely between the seats, one that I can both hold the story together in my head and one I don’t mind taking 2 or 3 years to read. Because I read it in such small segments, and because my expectations were low, I never got really angry at any one point. It was an entertaining read that filled time in the dentist’s office or the garage or while waiting for the traffic behind the water main break to flow again.

It is not, however, the first or last biography of C.S. Lewis anyone should read. That is, of course, if you are thinking of history. Wilson himself admits as much to the reader after more than 300 pages that

C. S. Lewis has become a mythological figure, and it has therefore seemed legitimate to some to retell his story without too much regard for empirical evidence, just as poets have told and retold the tales of Greek or Norse mythology (306).

by C.S. LewisAnd that’s it, right there. This is a four-star or five-star mythology, but a pretty poor biography. I love mythology, but I think A.N. Wilson is being unjust to readers who buy his book and has got the work of an amateur mythographer where they expected the work of a professional biographer.

To honour the late-night story feeling of the book, though, I think sharing a few points worth pondering when we are feeling speculative could be fun (or infuriating):

“Most of Lewis’s important experiences were, in fact, literary ones” (44, is this true? Perhaps not, but a great quote).

“How much is the bookish man distinguishable from his imagined self, the self he projects into the books he reads?” (45, note, Wilson uses “project” a lot this good, at least a half-dozen times to pose this question, unfortunately not doing the historical work to answer it; at least as many times Wilson suggests Lewis is obssessed with one thing or another).

“It has become customary for those who write about Lewis to speak of his fondness for Mrs Moore and the domestic routines in which she involved him as a tyranny which he endured with a martyr’s patience. Almost any domestic routine which involves more than one person can be viewed in this light; and it is unquestionable that Mrs Moore was a demanding companion whose desire for Lewis to be involved in the smallest detail of her life did not diminish with the years. But though she may have given him more than he bargained for, it would be unfair to her memory to deny that she was providing something which he very much needed and wanted” (72, there really is a villainization of Mrs. Moore in some circles, largely because of Warren Lewis’ feelings about her).

“The feeling abroad was that English was not really a man’s subject – more suitable for girls. It was too nebulous in its intellectual range. Criticism as a pseudo-science had scarcely begun and when it did so, in other universities, it was not welcomed at Oxford. English Literature was studied there, in Lewis’s time as an undergraduate, from a relentlessly philological and historical point of view” (76, so reading is a girls game, words a boys one).

“Tolkien was by temperament a very different man from Lewis. He could be touchy and irritable; Lewis could be brash and tactless. There was a touch of elfish melancholy, as well as of delicacy, in Tolkien which would never respond to the broader outlines of Lewis’s essentially sunny disposition. Lewis would not have guessed that Tolkien’s Lay would remain unfinished. It must have seemed clear to him at once that Tolkien was a man of literary genius, and this fact only brought home to him his own sense of failure as a writer. ‘From the age of sixteen onwards, I had one single ambition, from which I never wavered, in the prosecution of which I spent every ounce I could, on which I really and deliberately staked my whole contentment; and I recognise myself as having unmistakeably failed in it.’9 He knew that as yet the appropriate style eluded him. He knew neither what to write nor how to write it. In Tolkien, by huge contrast, he met a man whose style had been with him from the beginning” (119).

“Like many sexually naive people, Lewis supposed that if he eliminated the consciously erotic elements of his sexuality from the surface of life, he would be able to dispel the habits and characteristics of which these particular tastes were a mere symptom. Perhaps if he had worried less about them, and taken a less self-reproachful line, the outlines of his personality would have softened with the years. Perhaps, too, if they had known about his ‘tastes’, his friends would have been less puzzled by two of his most mysterious personality traits: his delight in verbal bullying, of students or intellectual opponents, and his apparently cheerful domestic enslavement to Mrs Moore” (129).

The Discarded Image is a book which was written by a man with an unusual sensitivity to the differences between past and present. The men and women of the past saw the same physical universe that we did, but their way of seeing it was quite different; their way of describing it in written form more different still. This does not mean that the old books can provide us with no concrete evidence from the past, but it does mean that old books must be read with delicacy; with a sense that if we go blundering into them, assuming that they mean what we mean by words like sky, earth, history or nature we shall get everything wrong. If we read the book in their way – whether we are reading Dante, or Chaucer, or Isadore of Seville – we will get something from it. The more we soak up their way of looking at things, their method of understanding, the more we shall get. Read it in our way and we shall merely be, as Lewis says in the preface to The Discarded Image, like ‘travellers who carry their resolute Englishry with them all over the Continent, mix only with other English tourists, enjoy all they see for its “quaintness” and have no wish to realise what those ways of life, those churches, those vineyards mean to the natives’.15 As an apologist, he seems totally blind to the fact that the New Testament is just such a collection of old books, which require, if we are to understand them aright, patience and a willingness to listen to scholars who have meditated for a long time on the nature of the (often quite puzzling and contradictory) material which they contain” (164).

“Lewis never lost his schoolboyish sense of wonder and enjoyment. It is what makes him such a refreshing literary historian” (173).

“To the comedy of such pen-portraits (and Screwtape, it has to be admitted, is a cruel book), is added moral wisdom and a developing religious vision. Lewis is extremely good at describing the actual territory in which the moral life, for most of us, is thrashed out, and the extent to which we enable ourselves to be deluded about ourselves and other people” (177).

“It is not whimsical to say that Narnia is the inside of Lewis’s mind, peopled with a rich enjoyment of old books and old stories and the beauties of nature, but always threatened by a terrible sense of loss, of love’s frailty” (221).

“The Experiment [in Criticism] ends with one of the finest paragraphs in the whole Lewis œuvre” (289).

“a taste for Lewis is, in large part, a taste for reading about him. Though it was denied him to become a great poet, he shares with ‘the last Romantics’ a vivid awareness of his own consciousness, a sense that the chief end of writing is to communicate sensation and experience” (290).

Lewis “himself as a writer is so constantly accessible and interesting because he is unashamed of the story-telling element in all literary modes” (291).

“Physical extinction was a perpetual nightmare to him and, whatever his theological convictions and hopes, he was unable, before his wife’s death, to reconcile himself to the transition which death must inevitably entail” (293, I would love to see evidence of that).

“The disputes between scholars and the guardians of C. S. Lewis’s memory are unedifying, but they reflect something much more than a learned debate or a purely mercenary desire to lay hands on valuable manuscripts. Indeed, despite the claims of cynics, mere would appear to have been very little element of avarice in these wrangles. What was emerging was a profound divergence of imaginative views of rival mythologies” about C.S. Lewis (303-4).

View all my reviews

About Brenton Dickieson

“A Pilgrim in Narnia” is a blog project in reading and talking about the work of C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and the worlds they touched. As a "Faith, Fantasy, and Fiction" blog, we cover topics like children’s literature, apologetics and philosophy, myths and mythology, fantasy, theology, cultural critique, art and writing. This blog includes my thoughts as I read through Lewis and Tolkien and reflect on my own life and culture. In this sense, I am a Pilgrim in Narnia--or Middle Earth, or Fairyland. I am often peeking inside of wardrobes, looking for magic bricks in urban alleys, or rooting through yard sale boxes for old rings. If something here captures your imagination, leave a comment, “like” a post, share with your friends, or sign up to receive Narnian Pilgrim posts in your email box. Brenton Dickieson is a father, husband, friend, university lecturer, and freelance writer from Prince Edward Island, Canada. You can follow him on Twitter, @BrentonDana.
This entry was posted in Reviews and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

52 Responses to A.N. Wilson’s C.S. Lewis: A Mythology

  1. dalejamesnelson says:

    I suppose Lewis’s own Surprised by Joy should be “assumed” — everyone interested in Lewis ought to start with it. I agree in rating Sayer’s Jack highly.

    McGrath’s C. S. Lewis: A Life provided good orientation for Americans regarding Lewis’s academic life, as I recall. But if one has read Surprised by Joy and Sayer, I might suggest that one’s next biographical reading about Lewis should be C. S. Lewis at the Breakfast Table, a delightful gathering of reminiscences by various people, with lots of leads for reading.

    In David Graham’s We Remember C. S. Lewis, I cherish Roger Poole’s “Lewis Lecturing.” In the Poes’ C. S. Lewis Remembered, Paul Piehler’s “Encounters with Lewis: An Interim Report” prompted me to write “WOW!” by its entry in the table of contents. I wish everyone here would read Poole’s and Piehler’s contributions. Can you get hold of an article in Wheaton’s journal Seven, Vol. 27 (2010), by Tom McAlindon, called “C. S. Lewis Remembered: Cambridge, 1957-1960”? These are likely to inspired, or refresh, a desire for the learned life or, at least, a sense of what our culture is losing.

    Has anyone read Alan Jacobs’ The Narnian? I haven’t yet.

    Dale Nelson


    • Thanks Dale. I tweeted this earlier to someone:
      For literary beauty, see Alan Jacobs’ The Narnian
      For friendliness and closeness to Lewis, see George Sayer’s Jack
      For details and up-to-date scholarship, see @alisteremcgrath’s C.S. Lewis: A Life
      I have the rest, except Poole. I’ll read the McAlindon one sometime.


    • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

      I, too, delight in C. S. Lewis at the Breakfast Table (though I only know the first edition), but what follows is (so far as I recall) all new to me – for which, thanks!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. While not a Lewis scholar myself, I have read and enjoyed enough of his work to be impressed and entertained by your erudition and insights, Brenton. I highly enjoyed this essay! Thank you.


  3. Emma Othen says:

    I think this book has been around some time? I read it a very long time ago so it is not fresh in my mind, but more recently there was a much thinner addendum by A N Wilson released, revisiting his biography of C S Lewis, and I found this much more balanced – and valuable and moving. It also reveals some of the things that were going on in his own life when Wilson wrote the biography, which caused him, he infers now, to be unconsciously hostile . . . The book was published as an accompaniment to a TV programme, in the UK, which I also recorded and watched, which had Wilson revisiting addresses Lewis had lived at or that were significant for him.


    • Yes, it’s an old book. I haven’t read this updated version but I will hunt it down. Do you mean that the new slimmer version is an update, or the older book was part of the TV programme?


      • Emma Othen says:

        The new, separate, comparatively slim, book is called ‘The Man behind Narnia’ and I got it as a kindle single. The documentary, which is referred to in the book and it overlaps a bit with it, was for the BBC and was called ‘Narnia’s Lost Poet’ – it seems to have been in 2013 (disconcerting how things you think are ‘a couple of years ago’ turn out to have been about five . . .) I don’t know if the biography has been updated at all – I think not, and this is a new book to be read alongside, and he does adjust his views in it. It also includes accounts of interviews with some people he (or the documentary production company) tracked down.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Brilliant! I will track both down.


          • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

            I was still working on my comment while Emma Othen was supplying the additional details, and I did not see her 7:28 p.m. comment till I had hit “Post Comment” on my 7:39 one! Thank you, Emma Othen! By searching for the title, I now find at both those Amazons The Man behind Narnia listed as a 72-page “Kindle Single” of 10 December 2013, where (in both cases) in the “Look inside” thing I can see the same fairly extensive sample of Chapter One, “C.S. Lewis and I” – which I have paused to read, with interest (and disappointment), and so may be submitting this comment after having once again missed another one – or more!

            Liked by 1 person

      • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

        Wow! I’d never heard of Narnia’s Lost Poet: The Secret Lives and Loves of CS Lewis, apparently first broadcast by the BBC on 27 November 2013 (according to the IMDB) – and I see it is on YouTube under license to Timeline (at 57:37 – seemingly there is as well at least one other slightly longer uploading, of I know not what legality). Do, please, tell us anything more you know about this “much thinner addendum”!

        For, I see on the Amazon.co.uk site an edition of the biography listed as “HarperCollins Publishers; 2Rev Ed edition (7 Nov. 2005)”, while Amazon.com has one listed as “Harper Perennial; 2nd UK ed. edition (July 18, 2013)” – whatever exactly either of those mean. Neither of the two different “Look inside” things provided (one at each) include anything to clarify the matter. The reviewer “Lex” (writing on May 24, 2014) at the latter, says, “My copy is the Harper Perennial 2005 edition (which I understand includes some revisions based on reader’s reactions to the first edition of 1990).” Something I know to be true – from having talked to Lady Jill Freud when she visited us at The Kilns after the hardback first edition appeared and she spoke of some (how many dozens was it again?) corrections she had called for – and from then having compared the index references to her in the first UK hardback and the first UK paperback reprint, with the result that one will find many changes to have been made – quite silently, with no indication whatsoever anywhere in the latter version that any such thing has taken place. Perhaps there have been additional subsequent changes – before and/or after this 2005 edition?

        Liked by 1 person

        • Ah, yes. I have the revision but read the older one (because it is my car book!). I don’t know the revision history, but if I were him and wanted to tidy it up I wouldn’t say much. I would footnote more, be more precise, and then my interpretations would look stronger.


          • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

            This is part of why we have Analytic and Descriptive Bibliography – to find out what may be really going on that the publisher does not tell us…

            I would hope for humble honesty, rejoicing in correction – though publishers are not always interested in going along with that, even when the author/editor wants errors and their corrections, etc., known (sadly my own experience, on my last attempt with Boydell & Brewer).

            Maybe I should find out how to start a Corrigenda website for my works…

            Liked by 1 person

  4. Bookstooge says:

    How can something claim to be a biography if it is factually wrong? Because if the author simply doesn’t care, they can write whatever they want and claim it is “true” and Joe Bookstooge, off the street, is going to read it and not have a clue the author is a lying jackanapes full of excrement.

    As a non-scholar, I have to trust that the non-fiction books I read (all 2-3 a year!!) are actually non-fiction and where there is speculation or something, for the author to let me know that.


    • I think your questions sit open as good rhetorical questions. When scholars have pressed this book to the wall, they are, of course, assuming we know that 80% of the framework of things is intact. You will know Lewis’ life outline with many of his thoughts and word. But the filling in of that framework is suspect here, in a way that other biographers would warn you if they went that direction.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    Wilson was a novelist before he was a biographer – publishing three of four novels before The Laird of Abbotsford: A View of Sir Walter Scott (if Wikipedia can be trusted, here). It struck me on first reading the Lewis bio in its original first UK edition that he effectively created a fictional character and eclipsed Lewis with it – which immediately came to mind, seeing your title, Brenton, and going on to read its working out. How conscious was he, I wonder, of being at work for so much of the book as an experienced novelist (up to 11 or 12 published before the Lewis bio appeared) and/or an amateur mythographer rather than a professional biographer? If anyone had thought to ask him at the time, it couldn’t have been at the Lewis Soc since he declined to return to us for a talk after its publication, though he had been an active member for several years while working on it. An earlier fruit of that is his interesting paper on Lewis, read to the Soc, and later published in Penfriends from Porlock (1988).


    • Hmmm, I didn’t know the history of his work with the society, but I would hate to psychoanalyze it! (ironical, it would be)
      I didn’t know about the novels. Wilson is smart, well-read, thoughtful, and poignant. He represents an intellectual world I have never known, one surrounded by men of a similar education and class and skill. He intrigues me and I would love to see his better work and open my heart to his writing.


      • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

        I really like what he says in the bio about Lewis’s OHEL volume – and your collection of quotations shows similar remarks about The Discarded Image and An Experiment in Criticism which I did not recall.

        Liked by 1 person

        • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

          Well, a lot of what he says about OHEL – on reflection, I remember some retailing of gripes attributed to A.L. Rowse at one point… (but can’t remember how far I investigated the details on my own, thereafter).


          • I didn’t stop and record all the details–I read this book over 27 months, after all. But Wilson is very complimentary of all of Lewis’ literary history. Super complimentary. One thing that changes in his little 2013 Man Behind Narnia is that he admits he was a little harsh on the OHEL problems (in amidst the great stuff). He even went so far to get a pro-Lewis, pro-OHEL young scholar to share her thoughts on the documentary.


  6. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    Checking the BBC Four website for Narnia’s Lost Poet, I find its page has links to:

    an anonymous article – followed by audios of the two surviving BBC radio recordings of Lewis – Beyond Personality: The New Men (broadcast 21 March 1944) and an introduction to The Great Divorce (broadcast 9 May 1948), which I do not ‘have the technology’ to hear – and (alas, only) the former of which I can find in different uploads of different lengths on YouTube (none of which I’ve paused to try, yet):


    and a rather curious-looking selection of programmes (attractively including one snippet of Lady Jill Freud, and something possibly interesting about Lewis and Aldous Huxley where the “Contributors include” Alister McGrath, Nicholas Murray (biographer of Aldous Huxley) and
    Dr. Lucy Noakes (now Rab Butler Professor of Modern History at the University of Essex) which once more I do not ‘have the technology’ to hear:



  7. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    “The feeling abroad was that English was not really a man’s subject – more suitable for girls.” I don’t remember that passage, and don’t have a copy available to see the context, but I think there is some interesting history lurking behind it – have a look at Elizabeth Mary Lea Wright’s biography of her late husband, Joseph Wright, when she introduces her own history (Vol. I, p. 140), “My subject being English – at that date [1887] not a recognized Degree course, and therefore only taken by women students […]” – !:


    And, I think both Tolkien’s later famous lecture, “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics”,and his even later, much less famous Valedictory Address to the University of Oxford (1959) give further glimpses of some of what’s behind that “studied there […] from a relentlessly philological and historical point of view”.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. hannahdemiranda3 says:

    Thanks for this timely review, as it relates to a burning question in my struggle to sift if/how the views and understanding of writers colour what Lewis actually wrote, believed and stood for. This one is from reading Stephen Medcalf’s “The Breaking of the Middle-Period Persona” (pp 126-129) in “Word and Story in CS Lewis” and the ‘devastating’ impact of Anscombe’s ‘assault’ on Lewis. The theory goes that it so devastated him that he completely retreated and “wrote no more works of dogmatic exposition …”.
    Alan Jacobs in his article “The Chronicles of Narnia” in “The Cambridge Companion to CS Lewis (pp266-267) gives this explanation: “But H. Carpenter and A.N. Wilson believe that Lewis was so devastated by Anscombe’s paper that he abandoned Christian apologetics altogether; indeed, Wilson goes so far as to assert that Lewis used the story he began writing to transform Anscombe into a terrifying and monstrous witch. There is nothing that could be called evidence for these speculations – especially considering that Lewis continued to have perfectly cordial relations with Anscombe, whose mind he openly admired and who was moreover his fellow Christian – but one can see how they might appeal to those of an especially theatrical turn of mind”.
    The questions are if Lewis really stopped publishing anything apologetical c.q. if he really ‘shed his rational scales, freeing his imagination’, or did he only ‘regroup’ after that retreat, finding new ways of communicating his ideas, and for a different public, going in ‘under the radar’?


    • dalejamesnelson says:

      Here’s Alister McGrath, in C. S. Lewis: A Life (2013), on the Anscombe-Lewis matter:

      “Some of Lewis’s biographers, primarily A. N. Wilson, have seen this [Feb. 1948] incident as signaling, perhaps even causing, a major shift in Lewis’s outlook. Having been defeated in argument, they contend, Lewis lost confidence in the rational basis of his faith, and abandoned his role as a leading apologist. ..

      “However, the substantial body of written evidence concerning the exchange points to a quite different conclusion. A Chastised Lewis recognised the weakness of one specific argument he had deployed… and worked to improve it. Lewis was an academic writer, and academic books [were] tested against the criticisms and concerns of colleagues until the arguments and evidence are presented in the best [p. 254] possible way. Lewis was already used to giving and receiving literary criticism in this way, both through the Inklings and through personal discussions with colleagues such as Tolkien.

      “Anscombe would have seen herself as an agent of intellectual refinement, not contradiction, for Lewis’s general position, with which she clearly felt sympathy. Lewis appears to have been taken aback at having the weakness of his argument demonstrated so publicly….The positive and beneficial outcome of Anscombe’s intervention is clearly evident in the revised version of Lewis’s argument.
      There is no evidence of Lewis retreating into some kind of nonrational fideism or reason-free fantasy as a result of this encounter. …Later papers – such as ‘Is Theism Important?’ (1952) and ‘On Obstinacy in Belief’ (1955) – clearly show a continued recognition of the importance of reasoned argument in apologetics. Furthermore, when Lewis published Mere Christianity in 1952, he did not significantly modify the rational approach to apologetics he had developed in the broadcast talks of the 1940s, despite having the opportunity to do so.

      “Nor can Anscombe’s critique be seen as constituting a “tipping point,” leading Lewis to abandon rational argument in favour of imaginative and narrative approaches to apologetics” [p. 255]. – McGrath points out that Lewis had already, in by 1948, written the “imaginative narrative apologetics” of the Ransom trilogy, also The Great Divorce, etc.

      McGrath points out that A. N. Wilson offered no evidence to suggest that the White Witch is based on Anscombe, and that Lewis was writing about Narnia before the 1948 incident [p. 256].

      McGrath does have interesting things to say on pp. 258ff. about Lewis moving on from writing the kind of apologetics he’d written in the 1940s.

      Dale Nelson

      Liked by 2 people

      • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

        It’s also worth having a look at just what essays and other short works Lewis published in the months and years after the 2 February 1948 Anscombe meeting with the help of Arend Smilde’s chronological list:


        Liked by 2 people

      • Thanks Dale, I think you are right on each point. I have been brewing a further argument inside of me for a while but I’m not ready to release it. it will take a lot of work. Because it is a personal thing, I want to get the evidence tight.
        And your instinct is right, David, to look at the chronology. It is also worth noting that much of Miracles was done by 1945.


      • dalejamesnelson says:

        Here’s more about ANW’s dubious portrait of Lewis. The source is “Encounters with Lewis,” Paul Piehler’s contribution to the Poes’ C. S. Lewis Remembered (Zondervan 2006) — one of my top favorite pieces on Lewis, by the way.

        Piehler remembers Lewis at Oxford:

        —While some students referred to him genially as “Papa Lewis,” I rather saw him as an indulgent but still somewhat awesome uncle who would talk to you man-to-man but respected your privacy as much as he guarded his own….Unfortunately, I seemed to be paired too often with some of the less diligent of Lewis’s students. The one drawback of tutorial teaching at Oxford was that, if anything, some of the dons were just too polite to us. Lewis seemed extraordinarily patient with some really provocatively boring, or shallowly indifferent, undergraduates— [giving way just once to thunder out in “a tone of exasperated amusement”]. (page 121)

        (Piehler continues:)

        —–A. N. Wilson reported complaints that Lewis delighted in “verbal bullying” and was unapproachable and daunting as a tutor. Not in my time. The suggestion that Lewis could be “intimidating” would have raised incredulous laughter in this group….Nor did I or anyone else ever sense or suggest that he considered tutorials “an interruption in his real work”….— (page 124)

        We’ve already seen that Wilson has walked back from some of what he wrote in his Lewis biography, when he was having personal problems.

        Recently I reread William Ready’s The Tolkien Relation aka Understanding Tolkien and The Lord of the Rings, from the late 1960s — a book nobody else reads now, happily for them. Among the other faults of this shabby treatise is its depiction of a neurotic Lewis. Well, here too, the biographer has his own problems. His Tolkien book is spattered with obvious errors (e.g. Tolkien’s mother as a missionary to the sultan of Zanzibar). Ready’s autobiography, Files on Parade, has been exposed as giving a false account of Marquette University’s acquisition of Tolkien manuscripts (Ready was librarian there). Ready would have us believe that Tolkien praised an article Ready had written on his work as one of only two articles that got things right; but no bibliographer has found this article…. (See Taum Santoski’s “A History of the Acquisition: Marquette and the Tolkien Manuscripts,” in Rateliff, ed., A Wilderness of Dragons: Essays in Honor of Verlyn Flieger, 2018; or William Fliss’s “‘Things That Were, Things That Are, and Things That Yet May Be’: The J. R. R. Tolkien Manuscript Collection at Marquette University,” in Mythlore 36.1 (Fall/Winter 2017); I think this is also available online.) So here’s another unfriendly portrayer of Lewis; and Ready turns out to be a fabricator, to use a more polite word than the first one that came to mind.

        Dale Nelson


        • Thanks for these, Dale. There are sort of two separate issues: the story one creates from the evidence, and the evidence. Because of gaps in the latter I have Wilson doubts; because of my work in the former I read Lewis somewhat differently.
          However, I do personally know a student of Lewis’ who felt quite alienated at the drinking and books parties he had with students. And there were students that Lewis did seem to railroad or pressure, according to George Sayer, who paints a very glowing and affable picture of a good but imperfect person. And the “not in my time” might be key: Lewis may have grown, after all, as he did of his view about “wimmen” students.


    • Hannah, could I say that you are doing exactly the right thing: assessing, reading, thinking, assessing. You do the best you can to decide. On whether Lewis had an extramarital pre-Christian affair with Mrs. Moore, I have decided the best I can, but I am open to growth and correction. I have on the Anscombe question too.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. hannahdemiranda3 says:

    Thanks for the responses – they help a lot with my sifting as lay reader …
    Here another example of how I think sayings of Lewis have been taken out of their context to fit into a theory, also from that Medcalf chapter on Lewis personae, p.129 – with in ‘…..’ words towards that:
    `In his inaugural lecture as Professor … at Cambridge in 1954 he ‘most intelligently’ argued the case that a great gap divides man since the Industrial Revolution from the great European tradition, and ‘not so intelligently’ presented himself as the very embodiment of the subject he was to profess, as Old Western Man from before the gap. Yet he ended that lecture with an ‘odd’ image ‘for his persona’: “There are not going to be many more dinosaurs”.’
    Medcalf even sees the dinosaur metaphor as ‘a rather silly expression of Lewis as this [Middle-period] persona’ … having a premonition of having to shed another layer of scales – supposedly changing his style significantly as that persona after 1955, becoming more personal ….

    It seems to me, that this metaphor had nothing to do with another Eustice-like shedding of dragon scales like that of his first persona … and everything with that great gap dividing man since the Industrial Revolution, like e.g. Neil Postman’s divide between the Typographical way of thinking and that of the Peek-a-boo world; the dinosaurs metaphor a clever and humorous/self-deprecating (instead of silly) way of expressing his great concern about that demise of Old Western Man.

    Liked by 1 person

    • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

      Wow, I’ll have to reread that paper… I wonder if I got my idea for my own paper, which I’ve presented a couple versions of (including at a Dutch Lewis Birth Centenary occasion in 1998) – ‘Lewis as Dinosaur and Philosopher’ – in part from Stephen Medcalf’s? My ‘thesis’ was that Lewis ‘became’ a ‘dinosaur’ by a Eustace-like stripping away of his dragonish ‘modern’ atheist layers which produced a ‘philosopher’ in the proper sense (or, a couple ‘more proper senses’ – comparing Patristic imagery of Christianity as truest ‘philosophy’) – with appreciation of those “clever and humorous/self-deprecating” elements (at least, I hope so – I wonder where any written versions are in my too-often too-messy archives?).

      I’ve come to think I neglected another aspect of his ‘dinosaur’ and ‘early man’ imagery, though – which is, that in addition to that “great gap [which] divides man since the Industrial Revolution from the great European tradition”, Lewis is also accenting that things have changed so much on this side of that gap in the course of his own lifetime, that people are coming up with misinterpretations of the other side of that gap that no-one, atheist or Christian, ‘old-fashioned’ or ‘modern’, would have come up with as recently as his atheist younger days. (Compare Surprised by Joy about the end of ‘Idealist’ and rise of ‘Analytical’ philosophy.)

      Liked by 1 person

      • hannahdemiranda3 says:

        Re “….. things have changed so much on this side of that gap ….. that people are coming up with misinterpretations of the other side of that gap”
        -> that is the gist of my comment ;-))
        and also, missing treasures of wisdom, by focusing on ‘cracks in his earthen vessel’?

        Liked by 1 person

        • Thanks for this convo folks. David, I’m not sure influence (idea finding) is always that linear). I’m sort of a believer in pot-boil evolution, how the first bubbles in the pot occur at a couple of different spots, just as some things come to different people at the same time.


  10. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    I’m not sure where best to note this, but this seems an okay place – I haven’t listened, yet, myself, but have been hoping to catch up with the book, sometime, and have read other interesting ‘Lewis and political philosophy’-related posts by Professor Hayward in the past:


    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for the podcast link! I’ll take a listen. I’ve been curious about that book.


      • dalejamesnelson says:

        Speaking of Lewisian biographical things, I just learned that the late British actor John Hurt said that his father was a friend of C. S. Lewis.

        The source is Lloyd Sachs’ biography T Bone Burnett: A Life in Pursuit (U Texas2016, p. 41).

        There are a few details about Arnold Herbert Hurt here:



        Liked by 1 person

        • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

          Very interesting! So what do T Bone Burnett and, on the one hand, Lewis, and, on the other, John Hurt have to do with each other? (I see his Wikipedia article says, “Burnett was brought up in the Episcopal Church of his mother” and that “His parents had divorced when he was in high school” – while I don’t know much about its history, I can image he could easily hear a fair bit about Lewis in the Diocese of Fort Worth in the 1950s.)

          Liked by 1 person

          • dalejamesnelson says:

            Burnett and John Hurt were involved with a movie called Heaven’s Gate, directed by Michaal Cimino, in 1979. “Burnett….asked John Hurt whether he had read any C. S. Lewis, and important writer for the Christian movement,* and the British actor replied, ‘Oh, yes, my father was friends with Jack Lewis.'” That’s about all there is.

            *This was just after Burnett was a member of the Alpha Band, which had released a couple of albums, Spark in the Dark and The Statue Makers of Hollywood, with Christian lyrics, on a secular music label, Arista.

            Liked by 1 person

            • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

              Thanks! I didn’t know/recall that Heaven’s Gate connection – nor have I ever yet caught up with the movie (though I remember when Harvard wouldn’t let them film in the Yard they went shopping in Oxford and found, if I recall correctly, Trinity College willing – and so, temporarily installed giant Harvard-like trees in the garden….)!

              This Lewis connection adds interest to Hurt’s having voiced Aragorn in the 1978 animated first part of The Lord of the Rings – I wonder if he did any other Inklings audio work? My quick searching finds he was in a 2014 BBC radio dramatic adaptation of Dante’s Divine Comedy (in a little less that 3 hours!) – but not (so far) who he voiced!

              Liked by 1 person

            • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

              Found a sample on YouTube – apparently the beginning, with him as the first one voicing Dante in English…:

              which suddenly makes me think an audiobook by him of The Great Divorce sure would have been worth hearing…

              Liked by 1 person

              • I must say … this is now a weird thread! I appreciate the conversation though I think my brain is unable to learn any new things, as cool as they might be. But you feel free to have fun!


  11. Pingback: Narnia’s Lost Poet and C.S. Lewis’ Lost Biographer: A Further Note on A.N. Wilson | A Pilgrim in Narnia

  12. Pingback: Prime Minister Trudeau and C.S. Lewis | A Pilgrim in Narnia

  13. Pingback: 5 C.S. Lewis Biographies for 5 Different Readigns: A 10 Minute Book Talk by Brenton Dickieson | A Pilgrim in Narnia

  14. Pingback: Good C.S. Lewis Studies Books That Did Not Win the Mythopoeic Award: Part 2: C.S. Lewis Biographies | A Pilgrim in Narnia

  15. Pingback: The C.S. Lewis Studies Series: Where It’s Going and How You Can Contribute | A Pilgrim in Narnia

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.