JAMES COMO started to read Lewis in 1964 and has been deeply immersed in the huge body of work ever since, having clearly read everything by and about him. Some of this is set out in the first chapter of the book, which makes it somewhat indigestible.
The reader is advised to plunge straight in at chapter two, and, from there on, Como magisterially compresses a vast amount of material to tell the compelling story of Lewis’s life and work, summarising all the major works in a lucid fashion. He ends with what are his, and my, favourite works of Lewis, the wartime essay “The Weight of Glory” and his last book, Letters to Malcolm, Chiefly on Prayer. Here, as Como writes, is “the real man at ease, his voice resolved, its music tender”. The book also has a helpful summary of Lewis’s writings according to genre.
This book does what it sets out to do: provide an excellent introduction to the whole life and corpus of Lewis. For those familiar with this, there is, however, still much to learn and admire: the fact that, with the help of his brother, Lewis answered every one of hundreds of letters he received every week, for example; and his refusal of a knighthood, Como suggests, because he disapproved of Churchill’s support for empire.
Como regards the night of 19 September as the crucial point in Lewis’s life when, through conversation with his friends, he came to believe in Christ. Strangely, he does not mention the point in 1929 when, as Lewis wrote: “I gave in, and admitted God was God, and knelt and prayed: perhaps that night the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England.”
In response to a small book of mine on Lewis, I once received a letter from America along the lines of “How dare I, a mere mortal, criticise him!” The book was not reprinted. This highlights one of the problems of assessing Lewis: either unqualified admiration or, too often, nothing but ignorant and vituperative abuse. Como summarises the latter in a box at the end.
It is a pity that he himself did not do his own assessment; for the fact is that even great admirers of Lewis can feel uneasy about aspects of his personality or some of his views. In particular, Como does not discuss Austin Farrer’s analysis of why The Problem of Pain is unsatisfactory, or his brilliant summary of where the real strength of Lewis lay. Lewis, a hard person to please, hugely admired Farrer, who took his wife’s funeral, and spoke at his memorial service. Lewis saw in Farrer someone able to put aside all vanity and egoisms.
And this brings out another feature of Lewis, as revealed by Como: his lacerating self-knowledge. This was shown, for example, in the time that it took Lewis to accept the forgiveness of God for what he came to believe was a sinful relationship with Mrs Moore, a reluctance that, Lewis came to see, was caused by his pride. Then there is a poem, not published in Lewis’s lifetime, that Como quotes and in which Lewis wrote: “I am a mercenary and self-seeking through and through,” only being shown this truth late in life, and rescued from it through his relationship with Joy.
The Rt Revd Lord Harries of Pentregarth is a former Bishop of Oxford.
C. S. Lewis: A very short introduction
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