Review of C.S. Lewis: A Life by Alister E. McGrath

January 2, 2014 by · 1 Comment
Filed under: Reviews 

SFFaudio Review

Cover of C.S. Lewis: A Life by Alister E. McGrath

C.S. Lewis – A Life: Eccentric Genius and Reluctant Prophet
By Alister E. McGrath; Read by Robin Sachs
13 hours 56 minutes [UNABRIDGED]
Publisher: Oasis Audio
Published: 2013
Themes: / biography / religion / fantasy / medieval literature

Before setting out on this review, I must apologize for the liberal use of the first-person pronoun, which I normally use sparingly. This book intersects my personal and professional interests at several points, so I’m not even going to attempt an objective, impartial review, if such a thing is even possible. I am, as Lewis was, a student of medieval literature, though I can only dream of reaching his depth of knowledge and scope of imagination in this field. Furthermore, I undertook part of my studies at Oxford University, which was home to Lewis for much of his life. The City of Dreaming Spires, as Matthew Arnold called it, exerted a profound influence on Lewis’s life and work, and having walked its winding cobbled streets and ancient quadrangles it’s easy to understand why. Last, but certainly not least, Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia had a profound impact on my intellectual and imaginative development as a child. In this I suspect I’m not alone, and I hope this review will encourage readers to learn more about the life and mind behind one of the wellsprings of modern fantasy.

Before discussing the biography itself, I should say something of its author. Though currently Professor of Theology at King’s College, London, McGrath’s previous post was in Oxford, where I had heard his name spoken with a great deal of respect while I was there. The biography lists ever so slightly in the direction of Christianity, reflecting its author’s background in theology and apologetics, but on the whole it’s a balanced work firmly grounded in scholarly research of Lewis’s works and correspondence. The biography, of course, deals extensively with Lewis’s religious and spiritual development so central in his life and work, but the work by no means white-washes Lewis’s life or even his faith. This audio recording is preceded by an interview with McGrath, whose calm, measured voice assures us as listeners that we’re chosen a trustworthy guide down the path of Lewis’s life.

Like most biographers, McGrath takes a strictly chronological approach, with very few detours either to backtrack or to foreshadow. The narrative takes us through Lewis’s birth and childhood in Northern Ireland, through his lengthy tenure at Osxford University, to his final years as Professor of Medieval and Renaissance English at Cambridge. The biography strikes a delicate balance between Lewis’s rich inner life as reflected in his writings and his sometimes tumultuous outer. In the former case, McGrath devotes considerable space to Lewis’s conversion experience and subsequent development of his spirituality. As an academic, I was also pleased that Lewis’s scholarly works, notably on Edmund Spender’s Faerie Queene and Milton’s Paradise Lost, receive some attention. In regards to Lewis’s personal life, the biography charts Lewis’s many professional disappointments resulting from his popular religious work and the rift that formed between Lewis and other Oxford academics. Lewis’s relationships also receive some attention, in particular his long-running peculiar arrangement with the older Mrs. Moore and his controversial marriage to Joy Davidman. Of course, there is significant interplay between Lewis’s inner and outer lives, and McGrath expertly weaves these strands together to illustrate how one sometimes influenced the other. The book concludes by reflecting on the rise of Lewis’s reputation in various circles, religious and popular, after his death in 1963.

Two whole chapters are dedicated to Lewis’s development of The Chronicles of Narnia. McGrath packs a lot of material into these relatively few pages, from Narnia’s inception in Lewis’s mind, to the debate over the proper reading order of the books (Lewis’s ordering, order of publication, or internal chronology), to the works’ modern reception, especially Philip Pullman’s criticism. This section also manages to delve a little deeper, too, highlighting the philosophical and theological underpinnings of this imaginative, not imaginary, world. McGrath deals with the question of whether Narnia is an allegory, and also links the work to Plato’s Republic and the allegory of shadows in the cave. Obviously this is a lot of topics to cram into so little space, and I would have liked a more thorough treatment, but to be fair this is a biography, not a work of literary criticism. McGrath has promised a fuller, more scholarly edition of this book in the near future, which will likely feature copious footnotes providing a wonderful paper trail for the Narnia enthusiast eager to learn more. SFFaudio readers should also note that Lewis’s lesser-known Space Trilogy also receives brief treatment in this biography.

Though built on academic bedrock, C.S. Lewis: A Life is written in a lively, accessible style. McGrath uses Lewis’s own words, or the words of his associates, when possible, which imbues the book with a sense of immediacy and authenticity to the work. I sometimes felt as though I were in the room with Lewis, Tolkien, and the other Inklings as they discussed important religious, mythological, and literary matters. Like Lewis himself, McGrath also has a way of explaining complex intellectual and theological matters in a way that an average reader like me can understand. This is, in my view, the hallmark of any solid intellectual or literary biography. My only criticism of the book, and it’s a trifling one, is that McGrath hardly even alludes to any sexual relations between Lewis and Mrs. Moore, or later between Lewis and Joy Davidman, even though it’s obvious there was some sort of sexual element to these relationships. Perhaps McGrath found this matter distasteful, or thought the book’s Christian readers would. In any case, this omission is to me the one glaring lacuna in an otherwise thorough life story.

Robin Sachs’s stately narration lends the perfect air of British respectability to the audio edition. His pronunciation of some of the book’s more arcane linguistic and literary terms are, for the most part, spot on. As mentioned earlier, the inclusion of an interview with Alister McGrath, is a welcome addition, and provides additional insights into an already insightful work. Another minor quibble: I feel the interview should have been included at the end of the audiobook, rather than the beginning. I prefer to go into a book unbiased by the author’s later thoughts on the book. Again, though, this quibble is very minor. What does conclude the audiobook, however, is an amazing recording of Lewis at his deep-timbres lecturing finest.

There are certainly many other windows into the lives of C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and the other Inklings. Despite the influence of these authors on my own life, I have to admit I have not read most of these other works. So I’m very glad that one of the first I’ve read has proved to be such an enlightening and entertaining journey, (mostly) free from the partisanship and polarity that plague some biographies of relatively recent figures. I can’t think of many readers who wouldn’t benefit from or at least be entertained by Alister McGrath’s C.S. Lewis: A Life.

Posted by Seth Wilson

New Releases: Jonathan Stroud, Dean Koontz, Peter Straub, Star Wars, Robert B. Parker, S.J. Parris

February 1, 2010 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Aural Noir, New Releases 

New Releases

Here’s a batch of new releases!

We talked about the first two on the latest SFFaudio Podcast. Of the others that are forthcoming it is the length of Robert B. Parker’s novel Split Images that has me most excited. A new novel that’s just 4 CDs long but still UNABRIDGED? That’s terrific! Meanwhile Heresy, a new historical murder mystery written under a pseudonym, sounds very interesting. Random House is releasing the unabridged version only as a digital download. We can probably see that on audible.com later this month.

BRILLIANCE AUDIO - The Eyes Of Darkness by Dean KoontzThe Eyes Of Darkness
By Dean Koontz; Read by Tanya Eby
8 CDs – Approx. 10 Hours [UNABRIDGED]
Publisher: Brilliance Audio
Published: January 3, 2010
ISBN: 1441817166
A year had passed since little Danny’s death – a year since his mother began the painful process of acceptance. But Tina Evans could have sworn she just saw her Danny in a stranger’s car…then she dreamed that Danny was alive. And when she awoke, she found a message waiting for her in Danny’s bedroom – two disturbing words scrawled on his chalkboard: NOT DEAD. Was this someone’s grim joke? Her mind playing tricks on her? Or something…more? For Tina Evans, it was a mystery she couldn’t escape. An obsession that would lead her from the bright lights of Las Vegas to the cold shadows of the High Sierras. A terrible secret seen only by…The Eyes of Darkness.

RANDOM HOUSE AUDIO - Heroes Of The Valley by Jonathan StroudHeroes Of The Valley
By Jonathan Stroud; Read by David Thorn
CDs – [UNABRIDGED]
Publisher: Random House Audio
Published: January 27, 2009
ISBN: 9780739382202

Halli Sveinsson has grown up in the House of Svein, hearing the legends of the heroes as all his forefathers did. Theirs is a peaceful society, where the violence of the past has been outlawed and disputes are settled by the Council. But young Halli has never quite seemed to fit in with the others. For starters, he is neither handsome nor tall, like his siblings. He’s stumpy and swarthy, with a quick mind and an aptitude for getting into trouble. Bored with everyday chores and sheepherding, he can’t help playing practical jokes on everyone, from Eyjolf, the old servant, to his brother and sister. But when he plays a trick on Ragnar of the House of Hakon, he goes too far, setting in motion a chain of events that will forever alter his destiny. Because of it, Halli will have to leave home and go on a hero’s quest. Along the way, he will encounter highway robbers, terrifying monsters, and a girl who may be as fearless as he is. In the end he will discover the truth about the legends, his family, and himself.

RANDOM HOUSE AUDIO - A Dark Matter by Peter StraubA Dark Matter
By Peter Straub; Read by Robertson Dean
12 CDs – Approx. 14 Hours 30 Minutes [UNABRIDGED]
Publisher: Random House Audio
Published: February 9, 2010
ISBN: 9780739322413
The incomparable master of horror and suspense returns with a powerful, brilliantly terrifying novel that redefines the genre in original and unexpected ways. The charismatic and cunning Spenser Mallon is a campus guru in the 1960s, attracting the devotion and demanding sexual favors of his young acolytes. After he invites his most fervent followers to attend a secret ritual in a local meadow, the only thing that remains is a gruesomely dismembered body—and the shattered souls of all who were present. Years later, one man attempts to understand what happened to his wife and to his friends by writing a book about this horrible night, and it’s through this process that they begin to examine the unspeakable events that have bound them in ways they cannot fathom, but that have haunted every one of them through their lives. As each of the old friends tries to come to grips with the darkness of the past, they find themselves face-to-face with the evil triggered so many years earlier. Unfolding through the individual stories of the fated group’s members, A Dark Matter is an electric, chilling, and unpredictable novel that will satisfy Peter Straub’s many ardent fans, and win him legions more.

RANDOM HOUSE AUDIO - Star Wars - Clone Wars - Gambit - StealthStar Wars: Clone Wars: Gambit: Stealth
By Karen Miller; Read by Jeff Gurner
10 CDs – Approx. 12 Hours [UNABRIDGED]
Publisher: Random House Audio
Published: February 23, 2010
ISBN: 9780739376898
The first installment of a two-book Obi-Wan Kenobi and Anakin Skywalker adventure, set against the backdrop of the Clone Wars! – Planet by planet, darkness creeps across the galaxy. Among warriors and generals, among ordinary beings living in far-flung worlds, the fear will not go away: We are losing this war… Anakin Skywalker feels it, too. The Separatist Alliance, with ruthlessness and treachery, is beating the Republic to every strategic target. But after a costly clash with General Grievous for the planet Kothlis, Anakin has a mission that will focus his anxious mind. Alongside Obi-Wan Kenobi, he is posing as a long-lost native of Lanteeb, an impoverished world on the Outer Rim. This seemingly unimportant planet has drawn the interest of the Seps—and Anakin and Obi-Wan soon discover the disturbing reason: A scientist enslaved by General Lok Durd is drawing on Lanteeb’s one natural resource for a devastating bioweapon. Now Anakin and Obi-Wan have entered the eye of a storm. Their presence has been exposed, Lok Durd’s plans unveiled, and a fight has begun for survival behind enemy lines—and a chance of winning a war that must be fought at any cost.

RANDOM HOUSE AUDIO - Heresy by S.J. ParrisHeresy
By S.J. Parris (aka Stephanie Merritt); Read by John Lee
5 CDs – Approx. 5 Hours [ABRIDGED]
Publisher: Random House Audio
Published: February 23, 2010
ISBN: 9780307714299
Masterfully blending true events with fiction, this blockbuster historical thriller delivers a page-turning murder mystery set on the sixteenth-century Oxford University campus. Giordano Bruno was a monk, poet, scientist, and magician on the run from the Roman Inquisition on charges of heresy for his belief that the Earth orbits the sun and that the universe is infinite. This alone could have got him burned at the stake, but he was also a student of occult philosophies and magic. In S. J. Parris’s gripping novel, Bruno’s pursuit of this rare knowledge brings him to London, where he is unexpectedly recruited by Queen Elizabeth I and is sent undercover to Oxford University on the pretext of a royal visitation. Officially Bruno is to take part in a debate on the Copernican theory of the universe; unofficially, he is to find out whatever he can about a Catholic plot to overthrow the queen. His mission is dramatically thrown off course by a series of grisly murders and a spirited and beautiful young woman. As Bruno begins to discover a pattern in these killings, he realizes that no one at Oxford is who he seems to be. Bruno must attempt to outwit a killer who appears obsessed with the boundary between truth and heresy. Like The Dante Club and The Alienist, this clever, sophisticated, exceptionally enjoyable novel is written with the unstoppable narrative propulsion and stylistic flair of the very best historical thrillers.

RANDOM HOUSE AUDIO - Split Images by Robert B. ParkerSplit Image (a Jesse Stone novel)
By Robert B. Parker; Read by James Naughton
4 CDs – Approx. 4 Hours [UNABRIDGED]
Publisher: Random House Audio
Published: February 23, 2010
ISBN: 9780739357484
The body in the trunk was just the beginning. Turns out the stiff was a foot soldier for local tough guy Reggie Galen, now enjoying a comfortable “retirement” with his beautiful wife, Rebecca, in the nicest part of Paradise. Living next door are Knocko Moynihan and his wife, Robbie, who also happens to be Rebecca’s twin. But what initially appears to be a low-level mob hit takes on new meaning when a high-ranking crime figure is found dead on Paradise Beach. Stressed by the case, his failed relationship with his ex-wife, and his ongoing battle with the bottle, Jesse needs something to keep him from spinning out of control. When private investigator Sunny Randall comes into town on a case, she asks for Jesse’s help. As their professional and personal relationships become intertwined, both Jesse and Sunny realize that they have much in common with both their victims and their suspects—and with each other.

Posted by Jesse Willis