Prolific English biographer White (Leonardo, 2000, etc.) delineates in lively fashion the less than saintly life of the Christian apologist, children’s author, Luddite, and fuddy-duddy Oxford don.
Best known for his Chronicles of Narnia, a charming allegorical adventure disguising a complex Christian hierarchy, Lewis was first and foremost a scholar of medieval and Renaissance English literature, a tutor at Oxford for most of his life, and a drinking comrade of fellow don J.R.R. Tolkien and their disputatious group of Inklings. Born Clive Staples in 1898 to middle-class Protestant parents in Belfast, young Jack (as he was known) enjoyed an insular fantasy world with his older brother until their mother’s death when he was nine. Privately tutored to enter Oxford during WWI, he made a deathbed promise to take care of a soldier friend’s mother, which turned into a 30-year relationship with Janie Moore, estranged but never divorced from her husband and a good 20 years Lewis’s senior. White offers opinionated speculation on “Mother,” as Lewis called her, with whom he lived at his Oxford home and about whom he never spoke openly; despite Lewis’s Evangelical disciples who insist it was a platonic mother-son relationship, White reminds us that “apart from his brilliance, Jack Lewis was a man like any other.” A late bloomer as a writer, Lewis began tapping into his childhood fantasy world in 1938 with the Ransom series, followed by The Screwtape Letters (correspondence between two devils) and The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, which in 1950 inaugurated the seven-volume Narnia series. White impishly refutes the portrait of Lewis as “St. Jack of Oxford,” frankly discussing his religious orthodoxy, elitism, and antimodernism in all forms, as well as his eyebrow-raising later liaison with American pen pal Joy Gresham. A previous biographer of Tolkien, the author also offers a thorough look at the crucial support and influence each writer had on the other’s work.
A readable, balanced portrait of a great humanist.