I finally finished The Narnian: The Life and Imagination of C. S. Lewis by Alan Jacobs earlier this week. Although it was a slow go for me (more on this later), on the whole I enjoyed this thematic look into Lewis’s life and works immensely. The Narnian is not a difficult read at all, and despite the fact that my main acquaintance with Lewis is through Narnia, I could follow most of Jacobs’s thoughts and arguments fairly well, even when they were centered on others of Lewis’s works. I should note here that I did write a rather lengthy paper on Lewis during undergraduate school, and even read a few of his other works. The Screwtape Letters is one I remember reading, and I remember trying to read Till We Have Faces, reading it, but not understanding much about it at all. The Narnian has whetted my appetite for more of Lewis, and has even birthed in me an interest in reading Lewis’s works of science fiction, which is not a genre I particularly enjoy.
Rather than give a real review here, I think I’ll just share some of my favorite quotes from the book, as well as note some things I learned about Lewis that I never knew. Both Janet and Bekah have written about The Narnian, so I’ll just point you toward their reviews (their names are linked to them) for more details.
- Jack Lewis was both tutored and attended “regular” schools. I thought this was interesting about his education with one of his tutors, particularly in light of what I’ve learned about Charlotte Mason’s philosophy and method of education:
[. . .] Octie [Jack’s tutor] did Jack a great service by raising his standards and reminding him that there was a world of literature that far transcended the “twaddling school stories” he had grown addicted to while at Wynyard. And in his solitude, while it lasted, Jack could explore that world to his heart’s content. Interestingly, during this period he read many fairy tales and became particularly enamored of Dwarfs [. . .] When he was alone, his inner life grew and developed [. . .]
- Professor Kirk, under whose tutelage Lewis blossomed as a literary scholar, was an “anthropological and pessimistic” atheist. Jacobs writes, “The work of Arthur Schopenhauer provided a specifically philosophical basis for pessimism, that is, the belief that misery and disorder provide a kind of negative but overwhelming case against the existence of a good and loving God.” This belief matched Lewis’s own belief as a young man: “From a series of experiences as varied as his intractable physical clumsiness and the death of his mother, he had learned that he could not expect anything to work out as he hoped. He was a Schopenhauerian long before hearing of Schopenhauer from Kirk.” However, Jacobs traces Lewis’s “awakening” to Christianity, and most notably how it shows up in his writings. Professor Kirk is recast as Digory Kirke in The Magician’s Nephew (linked to my review) and later (or earlier, depending on if we consider it from chronology or date-of-publication) as the Professor Kirke with whom the Pevensie children live. The fictional Professor Kirke, then, has escaped the real Professor Kirk’s atheism. I loved thinking about how Lewis made all of this play out in Narnia.
- As gifted as Lewis was in language, he was “thoroughly, even flamboyantly, incompetent” in mathematics. In fact, “he never managed to pass Responsions [entrance examinations] and, if he had not been exempted from it as a returning serviceman [from World War I], would perhaps have been unable to attend a university at all.” How about that!
- Because I thoroughly enjoy a good academic lecture, I would’ve loved to have been in on one of Lewis’s:
As the popularity of his lectures grew (and the rate at which it grew accelerated when he became a well-known spokesman for Christianity), undergraduates would not only flock to his lectures but seek every opportunity to talk with him before or after. Therefore Lewis–who hated answering questions anyway–develoepd the strategy of arriving at the last minute, sometimes even beginning his lecture while he was still in the hallway so that he was in full flight by the time he entered the room, and then, as the period drew to a close, while still talking, gathering his notes and walking out of the room, declaiming his last sentence as he departed the premises. He would be long gone before his dutiful audience had finished scribbling the great man’s pearls of wisdom.
Well, I could go on and on and on, but I won’t. I’ll end my list of notes (it seems all I can do lately is make lists, not write reviews!) by noting one more little tidbit that I found particularly interesting: Puddleglum, one of my favorite of all characters in the Narnian Chronicles, was modeled after a real, live person! Imagine that! That just makes me smile. 🙂
I suppose the thing I liked best of all about reading The Narnian is that it impressed upon me the interconnectedness of everything Lewis wrote. Jacobs makes a great point that so much of Lewis’s ideas are worked out again and again in all of his writing, whether it’s children’s fantasy, science fiction, or something more academic. Reading The Narnian has encouraged me to try some of Lewis’s other books again some time. I give this book a warm Highly Recommended for anyone remotely interested in C.S. Lewis. (Harper Collins 2009)
I mentioned at the beginning of this post that it took me a while to read this book. The Narnian is the first real book I’ve read on my Kindle, and through this experience think I’ve come to appreciate this bit of technology. My favorite thing about it is that I can highlight or make notes as I’m reading very easily, simply by manipulating a few of the little keys on the keyboard. I tend to get a little carried away with highlighting, though; I highlighted ninety separate passages in this book! (Aren’t you glad I didn’t try to share them all?) It’s still odd to me to not have a visual perspective on how much of the book I’ve read, etc. There is a little progress bar at the bottom of each page that shows what percentage of the book has been read, but somehow that’s not the same thing to me as seeing the thickness of the pages left. Overall, though, the experience was much more pleasant than I anticipated.