A couple of weeks ago I wrote that “Tolkien Studies Projects Sweep the Mythopoeic Scholarship Award Shortlist in Inklings Studies.” This was a double-edged post that congratulated the authors of editors of five great Tolkien books while noting that, once again, C.S. Lewis studies projects have been locked out of this prestigious award for Inklings Studies. Because I was writing to commend these strong Tolkien studies and urge authors and scholars to write greater Lewis books, I thought I would share some of the good and useful books of the last decade that did not get a Mythopoeic Award nomination.
Last week, I made the first post in this “Good C.S. Lewis Studies Books That Did Not Win the Mythopoeic Award” by talking about various good and excellent studies on C.S. Lewis on Theology, Philosophy, and Spiritual Life, which is the centre of my particular studies these days. Today, I want to focus on C.S. Lewis biographies. Indeed, the last study focussed primarily on Lewis to be nominated was Alistair E. McGrath’s C.S. Lewis–A Life: Eccentric Genius, Reluctant Prophet, published all the way back in 2013. Critical Lewis and Inklings biographies have been recognized by the Mythopoeic Awards, including winning books by Roger Lancelyn Green and Walter Hooper, Joe R. Christopher, George Sayer, and Philip and Carol Zaleski’s The Fellowship. Alan Jacobs nominated The Narnian is also, in my estimation, in this class. Indeed, Jacobs’ The Narnian is one of the best literary biographies I have read–as strong as Abigail Santamaria’s biography of Joy Davidman (which perhaps also deserved a win). I have included Sayer, McGrath, and Jacobs in my vlog, “5 C.S. Lewis Biographies for 5 Different Readings“:
- #1 A personal biography by student and friend, George Sayer, Jack: A Life of C.S. Lewis
- #2 A baseline critical biography by Alister McGrath, C.S. Lewis: Eccentric Genius, Reluctant Prophet
- #3 A controversial biography from a skeptical angle, A.N. Wilson, C.S. Lewis: A Biography
- #4 A literary biography by American public intellectual Alan Jacobs, The Narnian: The Life and Imagination of C.S. Lewis
- #5 A biography of the spiritual life, Devin Brown, A Life Observed: A Spiritual Biography of C.S. Lewis
Remember, I have warned you that I would cheat here and there, and if I am missing something crucial, let me know. Here are some more good, helpful, interesting, or excellent Lewis (and Lewis-related) biographies from the last decade that did not win the Mythopoeic award but that any student or committed reader of C.S. Lewis should read.
- Part 1: C.S. Lewis on Theology, Philosophy, and Spiritual Life
- Part 2: C.S. Lewis Biographies
- Insert: Marsha Daigle-Williamson’s Reflecting the Eternal and Dante in the Work of C.S. Lewis, with Thoughts about Intertextuality
- Part 3: Literary Studies on C.S. Lewis
- Part 4: C.S. Lewis Reception Studies
Besides being a pretty generous mentor to emerging scholars and young readers, Devin Brown has been producing books about Lewis and his writing for some years. His 2013 biography, A Life Observed: A Spiritual Biography of C.S. Lewis (2013), provided precisely the element I was looking for as I began my PhD that year. Brown focuses on “Lewis’s spiritual journey and his search for the object of the mysterious longing he called Joy (always capitalized), a quest which he claimed was the central story of his life” (xi). What Brown adds to the many Lewis biographies of the period is the precise focus on questions of spiritual life, Christian development, discipleship, and Lewis’ relationship to the numinous, what he calls Sehnsucht or Joy. This book landed on one of my Top 5 lists and pairs well with Will Vaus’ The Hidden Story of Narnia: A Book-by-Book Guide to C.S. Lewis’ Spiritual Themes (2010), Lyle W. Dorsett’s oral history-based Seeking the Secret Place: The Spiritual Formation of C.S. Lewis (2004), and David C. Downing accessible and brilliant Into the Region of Awe: Mysticism in C.S. Lewis (2005).
Patti Callahan turns from her career as a popular novelist to the study of Joy Davidman, American poet, literary convert, and ultimately “Mrs. Lewis,” late-of-life companion to C.S. Lewis. Callahan balances the historical work of people like Abigail Santamaria and uses some recently discovered love poems to C.S. Lewis to structure a novel about Joy’s life. It is a fictional retelling, so we should be aware of some of the conceits used to make the story flow. I am not someone who feels he can truly judge the biographical novel as a genre, so you can perhaps ignore me when I say there were many parts that I did not feel this was “Joy” for me. I still quite liked reading the novel as a novel. As a resource for Lewis studies, moreover, it provides a nice bedside table book for thinking about Lewis in new ways. Check out my resource post, “The Places of Joy Davidman and C.S. Lewis,” including podcasts, interviews, and a pretty cool timeline. You may also find this helpful: “Joy Davidman’s Conversion Story ‘The Longest Way Round’: Audio Narration and Doodle.”
I was thrilled when I heard that New Yorker James Como was writing the “Very Short Introduction” volume for C.S. Lewis when someone showed me the text in a galley-proof form. I purchased Como’s bio of Lewis as soon as it hit the stories. Honestly, I was surprised this little volume was as good as it is. Not because of James Como, who has invested 50 years into reading C.S. Lewis well. But I have read about 20 of these Very Short introductions, and have looked at another dozen or so. Frankly, they are not all winners. Though they typically balance brevity and thoroughness, this one is peculiar for the strong voice of the text. Como writes in a lively style within a very understated series. Effectively, Como gives us a 120-page summary of Lewis’ life organized as a study of his texts, and thus evages the trap of providing us with merely a narrative timeline. Como’s choice pays off for a quick, thoughtful, and accessible introduction to Lewis’ life. There are even a few surprises and refreshing moments, particularly in his treatment of Till We Have Faces and Letters to Malcolm.
Joel Heck has done what few scholars have done: Dr. Heck has spent the last number of years (at least a decade, but probably much longer) working on the minutiae of C.S. Lewis’ life, providing a list of the major events and activities of Lewis’ daily activities. Gleaned from letters, journals, biographies, historical references, manuscripts and other archival material, Heck has provided a 1,200+ page, 1,000,000+ word, text searchable resource of Lewis’ life, and a detailed bibliography of his 528 known publications (see here). From Atheism to Christianity is a readable biography focussing especially upon Lewis’ teen years–a time of loss, artistic development, friendship, and war–and his intellectual development in his 20s, up to the point of his conversion (1930-31). No one knows Lewis’ movements better in the period, though I would still encourage readers to reread David Downing’s Most Reluctant Covert (2002) and consider Norbert Feinendegen’s argument in “The Philosopher’s Progress: C.S. Lewis’ Intellectual Journey from Atheism to Theism” (2018). Also important are Norbert Feinendegen and Arend Smildeès edited piece, “The ‘Great War’ of Owen Barfield and C. S. Lewis edited by Norbert Feinendegen and Arend Smilde (Inklings Studies Supplements № 1 (2015)), and a Lionel Adey book that’s a bit older. I am pleased that Heck did not fall into the writing style of William Griffin, whose 1986 C.S. Lewis: The Authentic Voice = Clive Staples Lewis: A Dramatic Life, which reads like an FBI report of a person of interest. With Heck’s book, there is still a narrative. Combined with his resource page, scholars have what they need to work on their own.
I am still in the middle of this particular book and I am not sure that it yet warrants being included in the “good” pile. “Good” is a very high bar for me, frankly. Whether or not it is good, it is an important resource for Lewis researchers. The first of a trilogy of deep-dive, detailed biographies by a long-time Lewis reader, Hal Poe, covers Lewis’ formative years until the end of WWI. The second volume, The Making of C.S. Lewis: From Atheist to Apologist walks down the same road that David Downing and Joel Heck have done in focussing upon Lewis’ conversion–not to mention every other biographer. Not only does Poe boldly retread these same steps, but he largely ignores what scholars and biographers have said–though he will occasionally take on an argument by a biographer (Jacobs, McGrath, Sayer, Green & Hoopers), and there are a couple of mentions of Downing and Heck in volume 2, The Making of C. S. Lewis (1918-1945): From Atheist to Apologist (2021)–though I do not think he has taken into account Norbert Feinendegen’s argument, and do not know to what degree he has dialogued with Andrew Lazo and Alistair McGrath on their important conversion work.
The casting off of what everyone experts have written to focus on primary readings is wearisome to me, and the lack of scholarly substantiation of quite a number of his often interesting historical claims means that researchers cannot adequately respond. Unfortunately, thus far (halfway into the first biography), Poe’s biography also lacks the literary vivacity that the material warrants and that I know he is capable of. In this first biography, Poe is often plodding through the details of particular events, though he has mini-essays throughout where he pops out a trait or idea and shows Lewis’ mind and imagination in formation. For the researcher, though, there is one thing that make this first volume indispensable: Hal Poe provides the absolutely invaluable service of quoting broadly from the Lewis memoirs, compiled by Warren Lewis and available only in a couple of archives. Whatever merits the book may lack as a bedside table memoir, the first volume absolutely makes up for in providing scholars who cannot simply pop into the Wade or the Bodleian at will access to the Lewis Papers.
When writing about Santamaria’s biography of Joy (see here), I admitted that I saw it as a model piece of work. It did not win the Mythopoeic Award, and though I think that the biography did not need “C.S. Lewis'” in the title (for Davidman’s life is rich and peculiar on its own), it is now a strong resource for Lewis studies. I know that Joy was artistic, brash, fierce, and relentless, but Santamaria helped me see that, at heart, she was also a poet and a romantic, finding herself in one misplaced love after another as she struggled through in her vocation as an artist, a thinker, a mother, and a partner. It is also true that Joy Davidman was the woman who captured C.S. Lewis’ heart. She is the person who inspired Lewis to write the book and radio talks entitled, The Four Loves. And when Joy died of cancer, we read of his great sorrow and loss in A Grief Observed. Santamaria helped me reconcile the various “Joy” figures in my mind, images I pulled together from Davidman’s poetry, letters, and writings, as well as Lewis biographies. I also exorcised or adapted other images, including challenging my Debra Winger-Joy Davidman mental mosaic, and having confidence to challenge some moments in some C.S. Lewis biographies that have never sat well with me. I don’t know that I have the final “Joy” in my mind, but this well-researched biography is the most compelling I have ever encountered. Abigail Santamaria’s stunning biography, Joy: Poet, Seeker, and the Woman Who Captivated C.S. Lewis, takes her meticulous research and providential discoveries, and combines these with careful editorial decisions, a responsible reading of lives and texts, and skillful prose,dupon the life sketches that came before.
Thanks for reading these mini-reviews. If you have biographies that you think I am missing, let me know. Next week will include “Literary Studies on C.S. Lewis,” followed by “C.S. Lewis Reception Studies” the following week, as well as a deeper dive into Marsha Daigle-Williamson’s Reflecting the Eternal: Dante’s Divine Comedy in the Novels of C.S. Lewis (2015) and some books from 2021 that may be essential reads in the year to come. You can see the three articles composed of a dozen reasons why I think that Lewis scholarship (as a whole) is not as strong as Tolkien scholarship (as a whole):
- Why is Tolkien Scholarship Stronger than Lewis Scholarship? Part 1: Creative Breaks that Inspired Tolkien Readers
- Why is Tolkien Scholarship Stronger than Lewis Scholarship? Part 2: Literary Breadth and Depth
- Why is Tolkien Scholarship Stronger than Lewis Scholarship? Part 3: Other Factors
I followed that up by editing a piece by Connor Salter (see “Lewis and Tolkien among American Evangelicals“), and Connor did a second interesting, though less connected piece: “The Once and Forgotten T.H. White: Lessons from Obscurity.” I also made a resource pack with the hope of transforming readers into better scholars (if they want to make their field stronger: “5 Ways to Find Open Source Academic Research on C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and the Inklings.”