CS Lewis's Chronicles of Narnia, a series of seven fantasy novels, are known for their strong, Christian message; they are considered to be the essence of English middle-class values. So it often surprises readers to discover that Lewis was Irish and kept a connection with the country even when based in England; that he was an atheist for much of his early life; and that he had an interest in sado-masochism, signing letters Philomastix ("lover of the whip"), and reading the Marquis de Sade. Once at Oxford, while drunk, he went around begging people to let him whip them for a shilling.
This fine, donnish biography, however, generally eschews the spicier details, and concentrates on presenting a broadly sympathetic view of the man, the Christian apologist, and the scholar.
Alister McGrath read Lewis's writings in order of their composition, which lends him insight into their deeper structures, particularly with regard to his conversion to Christianity (apparently on a journey to Whipsnade Zoo) and his understanding of medieval literature and imagery.
Clive Staples Lewis was born to a Protestant solicitor in Belfast. The Irish landscape formed him, so did the hours he spent wandering the book-lined corridors of his family house.
The young Lewis was solitary, the death of his mother precipitated a crisis which would have far-reaching psychological consequences. Packed off to various schools in England, which he hated virulently, he only found stability when he was privately tutored by an old schoolmaster. Here Lewis developed the Socratic method of thinking which would serve him well.
Oxford beckoned, but World War One intervened. McGrath notes how curious it was that Lewis seemed unmarked by his experiences in the trenches. He even referred to his time at Malvern (his school in Worcestershire) as being worse. Slightly frustratingly, McGrath doesn't explore this, particularly with regard to the fact that Lewis was a man who practised deceptions upon those close to him.
Perhaps the greatest of these was his relationship with Mrs Moore, a woman old enough to be his mother, with whom he lived when an undergraduate. He never told his father about her; he let acquaintances believe he lodged with his "old mother".
A question mark hangs over the exact nature of their "friendship", but it seems clear that Lewis saw in her a way for him to lead a settled family life. He viewed such tasks as fetching margarine and retrieving lost purses as examples of courtly love.
Lewis struggled to find a position, even after he'd got a first in classics and had taken another year of English; he battled with writing a now unread epic poem; it was only with the publication of his Screwtape Letters, and some wartime broadcasts defending Christianity, that he began to gain success.
The downside was that the Oxford establishment turned against him. Mrs Moore was no help, becoming increasingly fractious and demanding. His brother, Warnie, who'd moved in with the odd couple, was an alcoholic who needed considerable attention.
There was some respite in Lewis's friendship with JRR Tolkien and the Inklings (all of them British, male, Christian, and associated with Oxford University, who met weekly to discuss imaginative literature). But they were a more disparate, ad-hoc group than usually imagined.
Tolkien, older than Lewis, began to feel that he was being displaced in Lewis's affections, and even that Lewis had unconsciously taken some of his ideas. Lewis, however, remained a firm believer in Tolkien, suggesting him for the Nobel Prize.
McGrath is a clear-eyed, learned companion. His analysis of the Narnia books is illuminating. He points out that they are not simple allegories, in which the lion Aslan is Jesus; but instead are "supposals", in which Lewis imagined what God incarnate would be in a world like Narnia.
He details recent scholarship which uncovers the influence of the planets on the structure of the Narnian septet – so for instance Mars is the presiding deity over Prince Caspian, in both his martial and (surprisingly) vegetative aspects. Mars, it appears, was also a god of burgeoning trees: forests loom large in that novel as well as wars.
This is a finely balanced book, which allows Lewis's works to speak for themselves without drawing crude parallels with his life, something that Lewis himself would have admired. And it leaves the reader marvelling at the joy and wonder that inhabit the Narnia books: that enchanted glimpse into something beautiful and eternal.