Last Monday I produced a review that was a bit tetchy (despite my own apparently hypocritical protestation that I don’t write bad book reviews). Therein I used a big sophisticated word that I clearly didn’t know (“coy”), and tried to highlight some strong features in A.N. Wilson’s work. Overall, I argued that Wilson is selling us a biography but really providing a mythology of an Oxonian literary historian of note who became known for apologetics, controversy, and Narnia.
My review is out of step with scholars of Lewis only in that it offers some positive things.
I should note, though, that outside the relatively tight fellowship of Lewis critics there are smart readers of Wilson’s biography that appreciated the iconoclastic yet appreciative tone of the book. I suspect that Wilson’s Lewis book was the strongest selling one until Alister McGrathAlister McGrath’s 2013 critical biography. By contrast, Lewis biographers tend to write much more positive, cozy books that are often described as hagiography or even idolatry. If you are curious about the conversation, check out Samuel Joeckel’s The C.S. Lewis Phenomenon: Christianity and the Public Sphere (2013), especially ch. 11.
Because of great A Pilgrim in Narnia readers, I have been led on to a couple more A.N. Wilson resources. One of these is a documentary, “Narnia’s Lost Poet: The Secret Lives and Loves of C.S. Lewis,” produced for the BBC. Despite the lurid subtitle and the curious title–lost how? lost where?–it is a pretty good documentary overall. Wilson is a bit goofy at moments, and the filmmakers were tempted to presume more drama than I feel in watching at times. However, the film is visually tight and well-scripted, using A.N. Wilson as a well-connected clubable guide to an hour with the main points of C.S. Lewis’ life and influence. Most of Wilson’s controversial biographical choices are missing from the film, but he allows a couple of those points to sneak in. He ends up being most frustrating in this piece for what he leaves out. For example, he says that Narnia has evocative medieval elements, but he doesn’t really tell us what they are. Given his knowledge and history, I would love more content packed within this pretty piece.
I’ve included the documentary below because it is worth watching. But in looking to see if the audio of Wilson’s C.S. Lewis was available at audible.com (it’s not), I found a shorter book of his, The Man Behind Narnia (2013). This little (3.5 hours/70 pages) book is a lot of fun to read.
Wilson doubles down on most of the controversial aspects of C.S. Lewis’ biography, but the book is not about C.S. Lewis. Critically, The Man Behind Narnia is about Wilson’s relationship with Lewis, and is, therefore, a very engaging read and a worthwhile journey of words. There is a touch of bosh in the Lewis bio bits, but I still very much enjoyed reading (by audio) this companion volume to a documentary of 2013.
I am writing this follow-up post for a few reasons.
First, the documentary and companion volume are worth reading for fans of C.S. Lewis who can forgive a couple of gaps. Wilson’s experience of reading Lewis, of returning to the church, and of fighting with his own demons is quite moving and sometimes funny or heartwarming. Also, because Wilson is such a critic of Lewis, he can get away a chapter entitled “A Really, Really Good Man.” Honestly, it is such an audacious claim–that Lewis was a personally honourable, ethical, and “good” person–in today’s world of scholarship. I would not do it but would leave that conclusion to my readers. Yet Wilson’s ironical wit and loss of pretence of distance disarm me, so I took the chapter well.
And for $2, the book is a pretty easy purchase.
Second, Wilson admits in The Man Behind Narnia that he did not write the 1990 biography when he was in a personally good place. Honestly, I don’t think that books are dead things. I know he did some revision of the 1990 volume (which I haven’t read), and so I want to be fair to authors admitting growth. On a number of points, Wilson admits that he has changed his views of Lewis’ writing, or made a misstep in the original assessment. I like that, and right or wrong I honour him for doing so.
Third, frankly, I am a bit resistant to (my own) Lewis scholars community that has a tendency to retell the same Lewis stories from the same appreciative perspective over and over again. We also tend to resist anyone who resists or criticizes Lewis. I don’t know that Wilson always gets Lewis, but intellectual honesty requires us to widen our conversation a bit.
I know that people might be annoyed by today’s post, but I was honestly a little ill about how well received my last week’s negative review was received in discussion boards and facebook groups. The leap to crucify A.N. Wilson–or John Beversluis, David Holbrook, Kathryn Lindskoog or Walter Hooper–disturbs me at a deep level. I will not do it. So this post is a bit of resistance to all the nice people that said “huzzah!” when I slagged Wilson.
I don’t know if that makes any sense, but it does make me feel better.