When C.S Lewis was a pupil at one of the many very nasty prep schools that were dotted around England in the Edwardian era he started to take religion seriously. He started to say his prayers and read his bible and obey his conscience. But he soon gave it up and became a schoolboy skeptic. He was, he said, "In that state of mind in which a boy thinks it extremely telling to call God Jahveh and Jesus Yeshua".
There were two reasons, he says, for his loss of faith. He was studying the Greek and Roman classics at school, and becoming fascinated with Norse mythology on his own time. All his tutors and peers took it absolutely for granted that Zeus and Thor were at best pretty stories made up by poets or at worst wicked deceptions forced on the credulous by priests. So why he asked, should it just so happen that, while all the other gods were rubbish, that God worshipped by white English people was the literal truth?
The second reason was this: Young Lewis understood that words without thoughts never to heaven go: so he tried, very hard, to concentrate on his prayers; to believe what he was saying; and not to let his mind wander. This meant that praying could take hours and hours: every time he got to the Amen, a little voice would tell him that he hadn't been doing it properly and ought to start again.
A.N Wilson -- in what with all its flaws is still the only grown-up biography of C.S Lewis -- is inclined to believe the first explanation but not the second. The first is the kind of thing that might occur to a very clever school boy; the second is too much the kind of thing that a middle aged moralist might project back into his boyhood.
Devin Brown does not have much time for that kind of skepticism. His book, A Life Observed is subtitled a Spiritual Biography of C.S Lewis. It carries a recommendation and an introduction by no less a person than Douglas Gresham.
"There is a kind of biography that claims to understand Lewis's life better than Lewis himself did" writes Brown "There is a kind of biography that looks at what Lewis tells us in his autobiography and, following the biographer's own set of presuppositions, claims to understand Lewis's life in a way that Lewis himself could not. This is not that kind of biography."
"Before leaving this stage in Lewis's life we might again look, as we did earlier, at a biographer who claims to know Lewis better than he knew himself.... As we noted earlier, there is a type of biography that takes the details Lewis gives us about his own life, and using a secular lens, claims to be able to see through them to what really lies behind them in a way that Lewis himself could not. There is a type of biography that sees this practice as its proper foundation and purpose. This is not that kind of biography."
So: the right kind of biographer is one who leaves his presuppositions at the door, and presents value-free facts about his subject without skepticism or interpretation. This sounds like what C.S Lewis might have called dryasdust scholarship: the kind of thing which tells you that a biscuit tin is a container for cookies (p21) and that when Lewis talks about queuing in rationing-era England, he means waiting in a line (p118). But Devin Brown does not really approve of that kind of biography either:
"There is a kind of C.S Lewis biography which is lengthy and definitive. In it, readers find our when Lewis's great great grand-father was born and what Richard Lewis, for that was his name, did for a living. This is not that kind of biography."
He was born in 1775 and was a farmer. His son Joseph was a methodist minister, and his son Richard was a boiler maker. Lewis's own father, Albert, was a lawyer. It's not that hard.
Douglas Gresham in his introduction says that books of that kind are too dry:
"The pages crackle with facts, faces, places, dates and history. Some of them are very good books about Jack, but -- here's the rub -- Jack is not in them."
We will come back to what it means for a person to be "in" a book.
So, in one sense a biography should not really be interested in the authors life at all. What we should really be interested in is the subject's real and ongoing existence, in heaven (or, presumably, and depending who you are writing about, in hell):
"This book is different" writes Douglas again "It is the story of Jack's real and true life -- not the mere flash of the firefly in the infinite darkness of time that is our momentary life in this world, but the one he left this world to begin -- and how he came to attain it."
"What Winston Churchill is doing in Heaven" or "How John Lennon is getting on in Purgatory" would be rather odd books. I suppose you could fill several volumes with the officially recognised activities of the Virgin Mary in the millennia since her Assumption. One of the four most important biographers in human history said that if he included everything that his Subject did, the whole world could not contain all the books that would be written. But for Brown and Gresham writing about the subject's real, spiritual life seems simply to mean writing about how the subject's heavenly existence intersected with their material one.
"My goal" (writes Brown) "is to focus closely on the story of Lewis's spiritual journey and his search for the object of that mysterious longing that he called Joy."
So: the best kind of biography is the spiritual biography, the one which pays attention to the subject's faith and inner life and ignores nearly everything else. Very conveniently, C.S Lewis has already written this kind of autobiography: Surprised by Joy.
The thrust of Lewis's book is that he came to faith through a highly subjective experience which he calls Joy. Brown glosses this as: "an unsatisfied desire which was more desirable than any other kind of satisfaction" which pointed to "something which hovered just beyond what his consciousness could grasp--- something unattainable but wonderful."
Lewis doesn't quite say that what he was longing for was straightforwardly God; and he doesn't quite resort to the kind of syllogism sometimes attributed to him by very clever schoolboy skeptics.
The Proof From Joy
Mr C.S Lewis would like God to exist
Therefore, God exists.
But he does indeed say that "in a sense the central story of my life is about nothing else". And unless we are writing that sort of biography, we have to take him at his word.
So a biography of C.S. Lewis can really only be a retelling of Surprised by Joy; and that's what Devin Brown gives us: a pretty uncontroversial summary of the book, with a few sidelong glances into the admittedly obscure Pilgrim's Regress; and a canter through Lewis's post-conversion life -- Inkling, Tolkien, BBC, Narnia, marriage, bereavement.
But Surprised by Joy is a very strange book. A.N Wilson praises it as a piece of unintentional comedy. Lewis sets out to explain how he came back to faith in early middle-age and omits from the book anything which is not relevant to that story. Fair enough. Writing is all about selecting material. No-one tries to put every incident and every fact into their book. (Well, no-one apart from Karl Ove Knausgaard.) But can we take it on trust that Lewis knows what events were relevant to his conversion and which were irrelevant? He says that the endless physical abuse at the hands of a literally psychopathic schoolteacher did him "in the long run...little harm." Surely we are permitted to reply "Says who?" (Can Lewis be unaware that "it never did me any harm" is a shocking cliche in talking about that kind of thing?) He spends a lot of time painting a picture of his eccentric Irish father, and then kills him off in a half a sentence because his death "does not really come into the story which I am telling", to which, again, one feels the need to say "Oh yeah?" Even his experiences in the First World War "have little to do with this story." Really?
A detailed, critical, close-reading of Surprised by Joy from a sympathetic theological perspective would be well worth attempting. In fact, if I knew anything about research grants and footnotes I might have a go at writing it myself. My Masters thesis was called What Chaucer Didn't Write. (It was about spurious additions to the Canterbury Tales: medieval fan-fiction.) "What C.S Lewis Didn't Say" might be a very good title.
We could start by talking about omissions which Lewis himself draws attention to. The thing that happened at Prep school that was even worse than the psychotic beatings. The World War I experiences that are not worth talking about, except as a joke. The enormous emotional episode which everyone (including Brown) assumes has something to do with Mrs Moore, his semi adoptive mother.
And the demon-possessed man. I think the demon-possessed man is probably quite important.
But we could also spend many a happy hour tracking down all the people he name checks. Maybe John Garth or someone could identify the Irishman called Johnson who would have been a life-long friend if he hadn't died in the trenches? It's an odd approach. Lewis's story, he tells us, is about nothing apart from the experience of Joy, and written for the benefit of strangers who know him only from his books. But he spends a lot of time telling us the names of the dead old men he's not going to tell us about. At times, Surprised By Joy feels more like an Oscar acceptance speech than a spiritual autobiography.
"The worst is that I must leave undescribed many men whom I love and to whom I am deeply in debt: G. H. Stevenson and E. F. Carritt, my tutors, the Fark (but who could paint him anyway?), and five great Magdalen men who enlarged my very idea of what a learned life should be - P. V. M. Benecke, C. C. J. Webb, J. A. Smith, F. E. Brightman, and C. T. Onions."
Another possible title for the book would be Who The Fark?
I'd also want to look up the texts of the many poems Lewis he quotes and alludes to. The Greek quotes and the literary allusions make me suspect that Surprised by Joy is really directed at his academic colleagues, not his thousands of radio-listeners -- unless, I suppose, he is disingenuously presenting an oblique argument from authority to the plebs. I have heard of Trollop, Conan-Doyle and Beatrix Potter, but struggle with Lummuck, Trahern and W.W. Jacobs. After finishing Yeats, Lewis plunged into Maeterlinck and Bergonson, which is nice to know. And what, for goodness sake, is a Votary of the Blue Flower?
One of the key moments in the story is when he is leafing through a volume of Longfellow's poems and accidentally stumbles on the line:
"I heard a voice that cried,
Balder the beautiful
Is dead, is dead——"
Lewis says that the line struck him completely out of context.
"I knew nothing about Balder; but instantly I was uplifted into huge regions of northern sky, I desired with almost sickening intensity something never to be described (except that it is cold, spacious, severe, pale, and remote) and then, as in the other examples, found myself at the very same moment already falling out of that desire and wishing I were back in it."
"It is safe to say that not many Lewis fans will be moved in the same way that Lewis was by these lines" says Brown, although he thinks they might have been moved by the rallying cry "Narnia and the North!" in the Horse and His Boy in a similar way.
But I think that I can see what it means to experience a weird stab of joy from a line of poetry you don't understand. If words didn't carry force regardless of context, poetry would be an impossibility. Lin Carter, the disciple and populariser of Bob Howard, includes Robert Browning's Childe Rowland in a 1969 anthology of fantasy stories. The poem, he says, is based on one single line ("Childe Rowland to the dark tower came") from King Lear: "but the line, it seems, haunted Browning as the poem he built out of that nagging ghost has haunted me."
Lewis made a bit of a thing out of not understanding T.S Eliot. I hope someone told him that "like a patient etherised upon a table" strikes some people the way "Balder the Beautiful is dead" struck him. Poetry communicates without being understood, as the fellow says. The ghost of electricity howls in the bones of his face.
Lewis says that it was the phrase, and not the imagery or the argument of the Balder poem which triggered him. Tegner’s Drapa is Longfellow's 1850 translation of an 1820 Swedish poem based on the poetic Edda. It is quite striking: and the fact that it is a translation I think gives it a slightly alien, unearthly air:
They laid him in his ship,
With horse and harness,
As on a funeral pyre.
A ring upon his finger,
And whispered in his ear.
Some time later, he says that the phrase "Siegfried and the Twilight of the Gods" set him off on one, even though he had no idea who Siegfried was and what Gotterdamerung meant. But of course, Wagner's epic ends with the cremation of Siegfried and the suicide of Brünnhilde. Isn't it slightly suspicious that Lewis was desperately moved by two isolated lines of poetry both of which came out of poems about funeral pyres? Two poems which both involve rings, and in which the cremation of a dead hero precipitates the end of the gods?
In the Poetic Edda, Wotan whispers the word "rebirth" into Balder's ear. This seems to signify an endless cycle of death and rebirth. The gods of Asgard will be destroyed in the battle of Ragnorak, but from the the ashes New Gods will arise and the story will start all over again. But for Tegner it means that the new, more cuddly religion of Christianity is going to replace the savagery of the Norse world.
The law of force is dead!
The law of love prevails!
Thor, the thunderer,
Shall rule the earth no more,
No more, with threats,
Challenge the meek Christ.
Lewis was deeply interested in the idea of pagan precursors to Christ; and in the idea that Christianity not only replaced what was evil about paganism, but also preserved what was good in it. This was, indeed, how he resolved the problem that had occurred to that very clever little boy: it wasn't that Christianity happened to be true; and that Balder happened to be false: Balder and John Barleycorn and Osiris were prefigurations of the death and resurrection of Jesus: good dreams. This is why he remarked (to the horror of some evangelicals) that it would probably have been okay, as a Christian, to say a prayer to Apollo the healer at Delphi.
Longfellow's line opened Lewis up to Joy; Joy opened Lewis up to God and then to Christianity. But the lines cone from a poem which contain -- prefigure -- a lot of the idea which would be absolutely central to C.S Lewis is a mature thinker.
Isn't it at least possible that what affected him was not the lines, but the myth: that he is remembering the intellectual and emotional response to the whole poem and locating those feelings in the first three lines?
Isn't this the sort of thing which, when reading books about the lives of famous dead writers, we have a right to think about?
Or does even asking the question mark us out as the Wrong Kind of Biographer?