The new and now complete three-volume biography of C. S. Lewis is a must read:
OK, we are only a few days away from Christmas and some of you are still looking for a gift for a friend or loved one at this late stage. Well, books of course never go astray. And books by or about C. S. Lewis never go astray either. So let me mention just one book – well, three actually. Given that the last of a three-volume biography of Lewis is now available, let me speak to this terrific set.
I refer to the just completed trilogy of works by Harry Lee Poe on the life and thought of Lewis. There are of course a number of good biographies of this great man around, including those of Alister McGrath, Colin Duriez, and Walter Hooper, to name but a few.
But this new set of works, coming in at over 1100 pages, will be one of the standard go-to works for quite some time to come. The three volumes by Poe are these:
Becoming C. S. Lewis: A Biography of Young Jack Lewis (1898-1918) (Crossway, 2019 – 309pp).
The Making of C. S. Lewis: From Atheist to Apologist (1918-1945) (Crossway, 2021 – 399pp).
The Making of C. S. Lewis: From War to Joy (1945-1963) (Crossway, 2022 – 413pp).
I have already written up the first two volumes. The first one I discuss here: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2020/08/01/c-s-lewis-and-redeeming-the-past/
And the second one is partially dealt with here: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2021/12/20/c-s-lewis-on-politics/
So here I will just say a few words about the final volume, and then quickly post this (after all, time IS running out for those last-minute gifts). As with the other two volumes, Poe makes extensive use of the many letters Lewis wrote to others.
Here he looks at his latter years. As he had written in the final paragraph of his second volume:
In the last stage of his life, Lewis would see many changes to his routine. Lewis liked routine. He did not like change. Yet the last years of his life would be one long series of major changes. Mrs. Moore would die. He would leave the familiarity of Oxford for Cambridge. Freed from his wartime writing obligations, he would devote more time to his teaching and academic writing. He would change the focus of his nonacademic writing. He would marry, and then fall in love—in that order. He would grow old. He would give up old pleasures of twenty-mile walks and swimming in icy water. And he would continue to change his mind.
In this final book Poe describes all this in great detail. Consider just three episodes from his life during this period. One. Christian apologetics had been an important part of the literary output of Lewis, especially during the war years and just beyond. Consider four of them: The Problem of Pain (1940); Mere Christianity (1943, 1945, 1952); Miracles (1947); and The Abolition of Man (1947).
But such works became fewer afterwards. As Poe puts it: “What is clear is that by 1944, Lewis had decided not to take up any more of his valuable time constructing logical arguments. He had written what he had to say. He had made his contributions. He had done his war work. He had fulfilled his duty. Once the war was over, he intended to get back to his own work. Poetry, fiction, and the study of literature were his own work.”
Two. Most Lewis fans know of the Inklings and various books have been written on them. Begun in the 1930s as a writing club, Lewis and others such as Tolkien and Charles Williams discussed fiction, especially fantasy and myth. The writers discussed their own newly penned works as well.
But after the war things changed. Many of the old members were no longer there, and many of the new ones were not great fiction writers as were Tolkien and Lewis. While much discussion still took place, and members included both Anglicans and Catholics, it slowly declined and by late 1949 it sadly came to an end.
Given how busy Lewis was, it was probably a good thing that this happened. Says Poe: “We do well to recall that at this point in his life, Lewis had already collapsed with exhaustion and had few emotional and physical resources to keep the club going.”
Three. The story of the loss of his wife Joy due to cancer is well known of course, and Lewis describes the sad saga in A Grief Observed (1961). They had first met in 1952. They had a civil marriage in 1956, and a Christian marriage in 1957. She passed away in 1960.
Poe says the 1961 book actually began as letters to friends penned around a week after Joy had died on July 13. Those who have read the book can see the full sweep of his emotions at play. The end of the book of course is not the same as the beginning, as he worked his way through so much during this period. Says Poe:
On September 20, Lewis wrote to Peter Bide a letter of consolation in which he said with authority, “Grief is not a state but a process – like a walk in the winding valley with a new prospect at every bend.” He would never really “get over” Joy’s death, because that is the price and the proof of love, but he would become active again.
Lewis had known the death of people he loved before, but no one’s death had ever affected him the way Joy’s death did. He felt very little with his father’s death, though in the long aftermath, he gradually felt a sense of guilt. As close as he was to Charles Williams, he felt a deep peace and confidence in the resurrection after his death. With Joy’s death, he felt the most absolute desolation.
Let me conclude by noting that Poe has written other books on Lewis: mainly
C. S. Lewis Remembered: Collected Reflections of Students, Friends and Colleagues (Zondervan, 2006)
The Inklings of Oxford: C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien, and Their Friends (Zondervan, 2009)
And as he says early on in this third instalment of his biography, the other 15 books that he has written have all been inspired, informed, and influenced by Lewis. And this lasting impact is true of millions of others. We can never get enough of this terrific Christian thinker and apologist.
I for one will forever be in his debt. And anyone who gets this set of books as a Christmas gift (or some other gift) from you will forever be in your debt as well.