Item description for The Narnian: The Life and Imagination of C. S. Lewis by Alan Jacobs...
Overview A journey into the imaginative life of C.S. Lewis exploring the themes and life events that allowed an Oxford don, a scholar of medieval literature who loved to debate philosophy at his local pub, to write one of the most enduring classics of children's literature. C.S. Lewis was one of the intellectual giants of the twentieth century and arguably the most influential Christian writer of his day. Yet among his poetry, literary history and criticism, novels and Christian apologetics stands a unique, delightfully imaginative children's series called The Chronicles of Narnia, which have become enduring classics. Alan Jacobs takes this imaginary world of Narnia, that has captivated children and adults alike for years, and uses the themes and stories found within to explore the imaginative life of C.S. Lewis. Few things are more interesting to human beings than trying to figure out how another human being (espeically a profoundly gifted one) works. Not just a conventional, straightforward biography of Lewis, Jacobs instead seeks a more elusive quarry: an understanding of the way Lewis's experiences, both direct and literary, formed themselves into patterns-themes that then shaped his thought and writings, especially the stories of Narnia. It is in the Narnia stories that we see the most of Lewis, and this illuminating biography delivers a true picture of the life and imagination of the Narnian.
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Alan Jacobs is Distinguished Professor of the Humanities in the Honors Program at Baylor University. He is the author of several books, including "The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction" (Oxford) and "Original Sin: A Cultural History" (HarperOne), and he has edited W. H. Auden's long poems "For the Time Being" and "The Age of Anxiety" (both Princeton).
Reviews - What do customers think about The Narnian: The Life and Imagination of C. S. Lewis?
Good Introduction to Lewis Mar 3, 2007
I'm no Lewis scholar but I am a thoughtful reader. Despite the fact that any biography can always be somehow better, I think Jacobs has done a fair job. As one who has read a decent bit of Lewis' work with little biographical background, this gave me a good sketch of his life. I'm sure others will disagree with various details but you have to start somewhere if you want to enter the discussion. Give it a go!
At the pub with Inklings. Jan 19, 2007
Does the world need another biography of C. S. Lewis? Probably not. Jacobs admits even that he did not need to write one -- it was his agent's fault. Still, he does a generally excellent job in this book. As another life-long reader of Lewis, who had already read several biographies and almost everything by Lewis several times over, I learned quite a bit from this biography. Having sampled several Lewis biographies, like a fan of Hamlet who waits impatiently for Polonius to appear on stage, one gets to like and enjoy reading about other characters just as much -- Lewis' brother, Warnie (who wrote at least one pretty good book, too), the dramatic character he married, and all those incredibly bright friends he hung around with and swilled beer. (A reprise, perhaps, of Chesterton's friendships with Shaw & Wells etc.)
What I really liked about this book was the good sense Jacobs brings to the project, and his own deep reading in many of the works and people that inspired Lewis. He swerves nimbly around the road-blocks that tumbled Wilson. True, he might have consulted Sayer. But he more than makes up for the occasional error in judgement or lapse in biographical expertise by offering frequent insight into dozens of works that were so much a part of Lewis' thought world. One gets the feeling that Lewis would have enjoyed talking with Jacobs.
Jacobs is careful to maintain a critical distance from his subject, (some fail here) though he obviously admires him much, which keeps the book from becoming cloying. One area I did not think that worked was the rather tiresome pages in which he takes Lewis to task for (essentially) failing to conform to 21st Century orthodoxy on sexual equality. Some of us (like Lewis) go to the books of another era precisely to take a break from the stale pieties of our own. And it is ludicrous to identify Orual with Minto -- could any two women be less alike? -- Jacobs almost lapses into cheap psychobabble here. But if a writer sheds important light on a subject, and does so with style, I am inclined to forgive him a few such lapses.
An obviously well-informed reviewer below finds more to complain about. I agree the title is a bit deceptive: the book is only occasionally about Narnia. I didn't think Jacobs was that far off, or negative, on the later Tolkien relationship. Nobody can know everything. Jacobs knows a lot, and pours much careful thought into this biography. It's also a pleasure to read.
Good book but a little Dry Jan 14, 2007
CS Lewis was a fascinating Christian apologist in the 20th Century, who made his mark as a philosopher, teacher, and children's author. He is first and foremost a Christian, and it is from this perspective that Christian biographer Alan Jacobs examines him. The focus is on how Lewis's beliefs are reflected in his writing, and how his relationships influenced his character. I bought it to learn more about the reasons behind Lewis's Narnia books, and found it to be suitable for this. It is not a highly engaging read, being rather scholarly, but Mr. Jacobs has done superb research and the book is an important piece of work for anyone who wants to learn more about CS Lewis and his motivations. Three and a half stars.
I thought long and hard . . . Jan 7, 2007
. . . about this review -- and really wanted to give this book a fourth star. I just could not bring myself to do so, however!
First, I want to thank the publisher of "The Narnian" for the complimentary copy sent to me.
I, myself, have been a serious student of Lewis, having began reading his works more than 30 years ago (and an even more serious student of Tolkien, having begun reading HIS works more than 26 years ago.) I have given lectures and presented papers on the subject, and include a great deal of both Lewis and Tolkien in the classes I teach. I will probably be using this book as a secondary -- "SECONDARY" -- reference work in some of my classes. To this reviewer, it fails as a primary source.
"The Narnian" was presented as a "literary" biography. As such, I expected a great deal more literary criticism than actually appeared in the book.
"The Narnian", it is to be presumed, was supposed to place Lewis within the context of his great fictional creation -- the land of Narnia. Unfortunately, this was not the case.
The author, in his introduction, suggests that he will pass over much material which one might find in a traditional biography in order to concentrate on more literary concerns. Whether he succeeded in concentrating on literary concerns is for the reader to decide -- but he DID include most of the pertinent biographical information of Lewis' life -- the enormous majority of it having been presented elsewhere.
There were some things I learned from this book, much to my delight.
1) I was greatly interested to learn more of the background behind "The Abolition of Man" -- a text I require for my Introduction to Theology students. I will be substantially adding to my lecture notes thanks to what I learned.
2) I was greatly interested to learn of the background behind Lewis' debating partner with regard to "Miracles". I was under the impression that she was an atheist -- and was intrigued to learn that she was a practicing Catholic.
3) I was greatly interested to learn of the long correspondence between Lewis and an Italian priest -- now up for Canonization! I'm sure that Lewis must be pleased!
This being said, there were some significant detrations to this book, which prevent me from giving it a higher rating.
1) I'm uncomfortable with the author's use of previous biography. The biography of Lewis used most often, is A.N. Wilson's biography -- arguably the worst of the three most often cited. In the Introduction, the author praises the work of Walter Hooper (another major detraction for me) but the work by Green and Hooper is hardly mentioned. The best of the biographies -- "Jack" by George Sayer (who knew Lewis well for 29 years) is never mentioned -- and Sayer himself is only mentioned a couple of times in passing. In other words, the biography of the man who knew Lewis the best and the longest, is the biography which is ignored.
2) The author gets the relationship between CS Lewis and JRR Tolkien just plain wrong. It is fashionable these days to suggest that the friendship between these two men "crashed and burned" beyond repair -- and this is just not the case. Yes, their friendship went through several stages -- and had cooled off considerably toward the end of Lewis' life, but the author uses terms like "diseased" and suggests that the friendship ended completely upon Lewis' marriage. This is just not factually correct. Tolkien was, indeed, hurt and disapproving of Lewis' marriage -- but Tolkien's wife and Joy actually became good friends. Tolkien considered Lewis' death to be an "axe blow at the roots" and was one of the few present at the funeral.
3) In "The Abolition of Man", Lewis criticized the authors of "The Green Book" for engaging in amateur philosophy -- when they were supposed to be teaching English grammar. I submit that the author of "The Narnian" engaged in amateur pyschoanalysis when he was supposed to be providing literary criticism. I found his analysis of the relationship between Joy and Lewis to be tedious at best and condescending at worst. This is an especially egregious example of where the author should have consulted George Sayer's writings. Sayer was present at the very first meeting between Joy and Lewis, and was probably closer to the situation than any other of Lewis' friends.
4) Readers of my other reviews on Lewis will recall that I am particularly suspicious of Walter Hooper and strongly question the authenticity of some of what has been published by Hooper under Lewis' name. Indeed, over the past 20 years, much has been written on both sides of this debate. Questions of authenticity were raised only once in this book -- and dismissed with a sentence -- and without naming Hooper's chief detractor. Katherine Lindskoog's contributions to the study of Lewis and his writings should have at least been mentioned.
5) There are several instances in which careless factual errors are made -- errors which any reader of "The Chronicles of Narnia" will quickly pick up. For someone, like the author, who has spend a quarter-century studying Lewis, this sloppiness is inexcusable.
So there it is: a reasonably good effort, which I have praised when appropriate -- but also with significant flaws which seriously detract from the overall effort.
Accessible and Rigorous Sep 30, 2006
Alan Jacobs is an English professor at Wheaton College, home of the Wade center, the largest collection of original Lewis writings and extant works in the world (as well as the inspirational wardrobe and Lewis' Beer mug). It shows. It becomes obvious early on in this text that he is intimately familiar with Lewis's writings and letters. It is robust and well documented while being readable and interesting and well worth the pages. I brought it with me on a recent visit to Oxford and found it made the university come alive with the formidable specters of Lewis, Tolkein and Charles Williams.
A couple of other thoughts:
-This is, without a doubt, a sympathetic biography (a friend of mine called it `gushing') and Jacobs sticks up for Lewis against all his detractors. But he also deals plainly with less savory his subjects life (the nature of his relationship with Minto and his falling out with Tolkein) and in all is an able biographer. -There is some repetition of letters and quotes. I this found helpful rather than redundant as different stages of his life and thought were tied together, but it is worth noting.