Becoming C.S. Lewis: A Biography of Young Jack Lewis (1898-1918) by Harry Lee Poe. Crossway, 2019. Hardcover. 312pp.
The Making of C.S. Lewis: From Atheist to Apologist (1918-1945) by Harry Lee Poe. Crossway, 2021. Hardcover. 400pp.
The Completion of C.S. Lewis: From War to Joy (1945-1963) by Harry Lee Poe. Crossway, 2022. Hardcover. 416pp.
Harry Lee Poe is to be praised and thanked for this outstanding biographical achievement of over one thousand pages in three volumes on the life of C. S. Lewis. It is to date the most extensive study on the development of Lewis’s life, written with a synoptic eye toward the primary sources—the Lewis family papers, Warnie’s memoirs, Jack’s letters—many of which were unavailable to the earlier Lewis biographers, and largely remain unavailable to the general readership. In this trilogy, Poe unfolds Lewis’s life like an accordion: much of what is compacted in other biographies is here expanded at length and with distinction. Poe treats each stage of Lewis’ life with great attention to detail—so great, in fact, that when asked what I think about Lewis, I shall now have to reply, “which one?” The books are both lovely in form and laden in content with contributions to Lewis scholarship of varying degrees of importance. And yet the series is yet not without its blemishes, some of which are significant.
Becoming C. S. Lewis focuses on the early life and development of young “Jacksie,” and may be the most valuable of all three volumes. Poe fills a gap in Lewis scholarship by devoting extensive attention to this most impressionable phase of Lewis’s life. Where other biographies give less than forty pages to those first two decades, Poe devotes an entire volume, with lengthy sections on home life, Lewis’s (mostly terrible and horrifying) early education, the lasting influence of his tutor W. T. Kirkpatrick, and the early years of his friendship with Arthur Greeves. Poe argues that Lewis’s thought, sensibilities, and preferences were largely developed by the time he was sixteen, such that growth after this point is mostly comprised of quantitative rather than qualitative shifts, save some things like his early materialism, atheism, and prejudice against Americans (and the French!). Yet even these apparent sea changes, in Poe’s reading, don’t quite amount to such. Lewis became a persuaded materialist under Kirkpatrick, but always understood his later shift to belief in the supernatural–or “super material”–as merely the true outworking of the logic which Kirkpatrick taught him.
In keeping with his thesis, Poe argues that the books Lewis read from the medieval era, especially in the courtly love tradition, wove into Lewis the moral fiber of duty necessary for voluntary military duty in the Great War when the time came. He connects that same chivalric ideal, which he would have absorbed through such works as Malorie’s Le Morte de Arthur, to the pact he took with his friend in the war, Paddie Moore. The young men vowed that if one died and the other lived, then the living man would care for the other’s family. Paddie died, Lewis lived. Lewis went on to take care of Mrs. Janie Moore, with duty and through great difficulty, until her death thirty-three years later. The nature of Lewis’s relationship with Mrs. Moore has historically been a subject of controversy among Lewis’s biographers. Poe’s contribution is to read this relationship as not some odd or disconnected fact of Lewis’s life, but as a dutiful outworking of the chivalric ideal that he so loved about medieval literature: a sensibility that developed by the age of sixteen and which would mark the rest of Lewis’s life.
It is worth noting that, since the publication of Becoming, the Marion E. Wade Center posthumously released a redacted portion of a 2009 interview with Walter Hooper which reveals that Lewis’s relationship with Mrs. Moore was sexual in nature prior, and only prior, to his conversion. Hooper asked that this section of the interview not be released until after his death. Hooper died in December 2020, and the interview was released a year later in December 2021. Given what information Poe had to work with prior to this, he does a fine job surveying the various positions and suspicions espoused by the earlier biographers on the nature of the Lewis-Moore relationship. Making was published in June 2021, a few months before this landmark section of Hooper’s interview was released, and so Poe could not possibly have made reference to it. However, Completion was released in October 2022, almost a year after Hooper’s revelations–time enough, one would think, to make some last-minute changes to the text. Given the quality of the evidence–Hooper was Lewis’s personal secretary in his final years and was widely regarded as the greatest living Lewis scholar–one would expect Poe to address it, if only in an extended footnote. Poe, however, does not do so, and one wonders why. As a Lewis scholar, Poe would surely have known about the Hooper revelations. This missed opportunity would have filled out the portrait of the Lewis-Moore relationship, as well as the significance of Lewis’s conversion. It also would have served to strengthen Poe’s own primary thesis concerning the Lewis-Moore relationship, which highlights the influence of the chivalric ideal on Lewis’s more mature self. Lewis could have easily put Mrs. Moore out, but instead he chose “the chivalric ideal of service to a lady in need,” without any sexual favors. Hooper himself characterizes the care with which Lewis provided Moore as a “penance” for their regrettable affair.
Elsewhere however, sprinkled throughout Becoming are interesting and brief connections between the insights of Lewis and Edgar Allen Poe. Harry Lee Poe is both a descendant and a biographer of the latter, so his eye for overlap here comes naturally. According to the author, both Poe and the young Lewis considered music to be the high point of aesthetics, being able to express something of beauty in a way that the other arts cannot. In poetry, for example, meter plays a role of adding a musical nature to the spoken word, saying what uncadenced words alone cannot. This is fruitful and interesting, and the author does not allow himself to get distracted from Lewisiana into Poeland.
Poe argues that Lewis’s early life experiences gave him the imaginative resources from which to draw for his later writings, contributing to their sense of realism. For example, Lewis’s mother grew ill and died of cancer before Lewis turned ten; this cannot be unrelated to Digory’s terminally ill mother in The Magician’s Nephew. Jack and Warnie grew very close to one another during this hard time; this seems to have given Lewis an insider’s perspective when he wrote Polly, Digory’s companion in his suffering, into the story. Poe says we have no record of Lewis crying in his garden as did Digory, but that it is no stretch to suppose that the scene may indeed resonate a chord in Lewis’s own personal memory. Poe is not here committing “the personal heresy”, fallaciously reducing Lewis’s work to the mere outworking of biography. The Narniad is not poor autobiography, but good fiction. Nevertheless, good fiction requires a sense of realism, which in turn requires imagination and some measure of personal experience, and Poe argues convincingly that this is what we find in Lewis.
The Making of C. S. Lewis contains several comical insights. We learn that “Lewis was a gifted misspeller of words…and could misspell words with ease in at least six different languages.” This rounds out the portrait of a man who took three separate first class honors degrees from Oxford, and acquired one of those degrees in only one year. We learn of Lewis’s relationship with J.R.R. Tolkien, who was not only a gifted fellow writer and scholar, but also an influential “politician” in their academic setting. For this, Lewis dubbed him “the Lord of the Strings.” We also learn that Lewis did indeed learn how to drive a car, contrary to all of Lewis scholarship at the time of this book’s publication. A small find, but a valuable one! Making contains one particularly comical episode involving C. S. Lewis with Mrs. Moore on a stakeout in a neighbor’s garden after midnight: pipe in mouth, stockings over boots, and mothballs in pocket. Want to know more? Take up and read.
On to more serious things: chapter eight of Making is very insightful regarding the making and ministry of Lewis the ethicist. Millions have read Lewis’s moral arguments in what came to be known as Mere Christianity, but Poe zeroes in on the original format of these talks: wartime broadcasts on Christianity from a layman to the British people during the bloodiest war in history. In doing so, the reader comes to understand more than just the original context of the talks: they come to understand the man behind the microphone. Having voyaged through Lewis’s life up this point, “from atheist to apologist,” we get the sense that the moral arguments of the broadcasts were first thorns in the materialist’s side before they were later arrows in the apologist’s quiver.
Poe also sheds light on a lesser-known detail of Lewis’s apologetic broadcasts during the war. Lewis recorded a broadcast not only for the nation of England, but also later for the nation of Iceland. The Iceland broadcast recording is not included in any of the previous biographies on Lewis and seems to have been all but entirely forgotten, until Poe’s biography. According to Poe, we do not know if the recording was ever aired to the nation, but can verify that the recordings were made with the intent to broadcast. Poe reveals that the reels were spun during the first week of May 1941. However, in July of the same year, Iceland was transferred from British to American supervision, being technically in the western hemisphere and falling under Monroe Doctrine. Did Lewis’s Iceland broadcast ever reach air? Lewis scholars are left, at present, to speculate. Poe provides large remnants of the previously-lost manuscript, transcribed from the one known recording to have survived (it contains Sides A and C, but not B and D), which he came to possess from an eBay auction after it was found in an Icelandic used book store in recent years. This is a major contribution of Poe’s trilogy.
Poe makes his first serious mistake in the trilogy not regarding Lewis, but Tolkien. Unfortunately, Poe follows Humphrey Carpenter in describing Tolkien as having “little knowledge of English literature after 1400,” and that “he did not care for much written after 1066.” This simply is not so. Holly Ordway has utterly debunked this widely believed claim in her work, Tolkien’s Modern Reading: Middle Earth Beyond the Middle Ages. Ordway’s book was published only five months before this second volume in Poe’s trilogy–admittedly not much time to allow for correcting manuscripts. But Ordway had been researching, writing, and speaking on the subject for seven years beforehand. Given Poe’s status as an Inklings scholar, he simply should have known better.
Poe does later interact with Ordway’s book in the third and final part of the series, The Completion of C. S. Lewis. However, his treatment of Ordway is insubstantial. He does not revise his perspective of Tolkien as other major Inklings scholars have done in view of Ordway’s work. Instead, he verges on an equivocation fallacy, taking Ordway’s limited sense of “modern” for her study, meaning “works of fiction, poetry and drama published after 1850 in English,” and then going on to use “modern” in a more cultural, ideological sense. Poe remarks that the two hundred volumes of modern literature (in Ordway’s sense) that Ordway has confirmed Tolkien to have owned, read, and even gifted, are not significant in number. On the contrary, Ordway’s findings render Poe’s claim falsified, as well as suggest wide modern reading on Tolkien’s part. Indeed, what would we find if we were to extend Ordway’s study from Chaucer to Wordsworth? Likely many more than the two hundred volumes Ordway’s study has confirmed. It is a false claim that Tolkien read very little literature after Chaucer, and it is high time that we stop making it.
One other error on Poe’s part arises in his treatment of The Abolition of Man. Poe shortly describes the Tao as “the idea . . . that some things are true and some things are false.” This is near the mark, but is not quite right and muddles Lewis’s meaning of the term. Lewis defines the Tao as “the doctrine of objective value” (emphasis added). We can take Lewis’s own focus of argument as an interpretive guide as to what he means be “value.” He begins with objective aesthetics (a waterfall as sublime) and comes to focus his argument heavily in lectures two and three on moral facthood. The Tao therefore does not especially deal with mere facthood as such, but particularly with moral and aesthetic facts. This may sound like quibbling over small potatoes, but this is at the definitional heart of one of the greatest books of the twentieth century.
More positively, Making is particularly illuminating in putting Lewis’s prolific writing stints of the late thirties and early forties on a highly detailed timeline. On this timeline, we see that one of Lewis’s main focuses of study between 1940 and 1942 was Milton’s Paradise Lost, a key theme of which is temptation. During this time, Lewis wrote his Preface to Paradise Lost, as well as Peralandra and The Screwtape Letters, both of which also heavily treat temptation. Also during this timeframe, Charles Williams delivered his famous lectures on Milton’s epic at Oxford, which Lewis lauded as “the most important thing that has happened in the Divinity Schools for a hundred years, and is likely to happen for the next hundred.” Poe’s presentation and analysis here are conclusive: the evidence for the influence of Paradise Lost on the works Lewis produced during this time is unsubvertible.
In the final volume of the trilogy, Poe sheds light on the last eighteen years of Lewis’s life. We learn of his transition from Oxford to Cambridge, of some friendships that rose and fell, and of his marriage to Joy Davidman. We read of the difficulties Lewis faced as a writer, being a caretaker for Mrs. Moore for some thirty years, and later in his life taking care of his alcoholic brother. Trading one dependent for another, little time passed after Mrs. Moore’s death before Lewis began caring for Joy and her two sons. Joy soon developed cancer, and one of Joy’s sons was later certified insane. We see that Lewis knew no writer’s ivory tower. He was a dutiful caretaker of more than one individual, and seems to have nearly always had at least one needy person in his care from the time of his early twenties to the end of his life. It is remarkable that Lewis was as prolific and profound an author as he was considering these weighty facts.
There is a potential deficit in Poe’s treatment of Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia and related scholarship. He deems Michael Ward’s thesis in Planet Narnia as “probably not true.” Poe is a Lewis scholar in his own right, and need not agree with Ward’s thesis. However, Ward has so thoroughly established himself in Lewis scholarship that the burden of proof regarding the thesis of Planet Narnia lies on those who wish to disprove it. Poe’s four pages devoted to the task do not rise to the occasion. Poe mischaracterizes Planet Narnia, accusing Ward of merely allegorizing the Chronicles. In doing so, Poe fails to acknowledge a basic distinction in Ward’s argument and in literature more generally: the distinction between mere allegory and the use of literary symbolism. Ward argues that Lewis used the medieval planets symbolically in The Chronicles of Narnia to create a peculiarly Christological atmosphere in each Chronicle: the logos “Enjoyed” behind the logos “Contemplated.”
If Poe is right and Ward wrong, then not so much is lost for Poe here. However, if Ward is correct that Lewis accomplished in The Chronicles of Narnia an intricate literary feat which no other major modern work of literature has done, then Poe’s trilogy suffers an unfortunate deficit in its treatment of Narnia: a backwards trajectory in Lewis scholarship. The current consensus in Lewis scholarship suggests the latter rather than the former is true.
This notwithstanding, Completion does a fine job bringing the series to a conclusion. The reader cannot help but feel the pangs of sorrow as Lewis endures the slow, sad death of his wife, Joy, only later to die his own untimely death in 1963, one week before his sixty-fifth birthday. In a biography of this length and detail on so great a man, one cannot but grow to love him. As Lewis himself wrote in these twilight years of his life, “Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken.” I expected to enjoy this final volume dealing with the last days of Lewis, but I did not expect it to break my heart as well.
Poe’s trilogy as a whole is a very thorough introduction to the person of C. S. Lewis, especially as it relates to his development as a man over a lifetime. Its merits are many, far more than can be covered here. It is sprinkled with helpful introductory remarks on the literary works in the vast and diverse canon of Lewis, including his lesser-known works of poetry (e.g. Dymer) and literary criticism (e.g. The Allegory of Love and English Literature in the Sixteenth Century) that are closer to the heart of the man and canon than even his more popular works. Despite some disappointing and not insignificant missteps in its engagement with other leading Lewis scholars, this is an excellent biographical trilogy that serves to illuminate the person and works of C. S. Lewis, especially as it relates to the development of the man overtime. Poe leaves no stone unturned, save perhaps those which remain un-mossed in the heavens, not yet becoming “the cinder of sidereal fire.”
Michael Oppizzi is an independent educator, entrepreneur and writer living with his wife and sons in Knoxville, TN. His major research interests include C. S. Lewis, theological aesthetics, imaginative apologetics, and the use of small-scale, organic farming as a profitable enterprise to create financial and political freedom for the private school. He took his M.A. in Cultural Apologetics from Houston Christian University, writing his thesis on Till We Have Faces under Lewis scholar Michael Ward.
Water Hooper, “Walter Hooper Interview”, Off the Shelf, Blog of the Marion E. Wade Center, accessed September 13 2023, https://wadecenterblog.wordpress.com/2021/12/08/walter-hooper-interview/. Hooper’s revelations, it must be said, rely entirely on a report from Owen Barfield. Poe notes on p.182 of Making that Barfield claimed to know little to nothing about Lewis’ relationship with Mrs. Moore, so we may wonder how much credence to give the report. However, it seems incredibly unlikely that Barfield would fabricate this highly sensitive information, or divulge it to Hooper without certainty. It seems most sensible to assume that his protestations of ignorance were made either prior to his finding out, or were an exercise in discretion. ↑
Poe, Becoming C.S. Lewis: A Biography of Young Jack Lewis (1898-1918) (Wheaton: Crossway, 2019), 257. ↑
Poe, Becoming, 208. ↑
Poe, The Making of C.S. Lewis: From Atheist to Apologist (1918-1945) (Wheaton: Crossway, 2021), 298. ↑
Poe, The Completion of C.S. Lewis: From War to Joy (1945-1963) (Wheaton: Crossway, 2022), 194. ↑
Poe, Making, 184. ↑
Poe, Making, 112-113. ↑
Poe, Making, 242-250. ↑
Poe, Making, 250. ↑
Holly Ordway, Tolkien’s Modern Reading: Middle Earth Beyond the Middle Ages (Park Ridge: Word on Fire Academic, 2021), 27. ↑
Poe, Completion, 307. ↑
Poe, Making, 287. ↑
C. S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man (New York: Harper Collins, 2001), 18. ↑
Diana Pavlac Glyer, The Company They Keep: C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien as Writers in Community (Kent: The Kent State University Press, 2007), 51. ↑
C. S. Lewis, The Four Loves (Orlando: Harvest, 1988), 121. ↑
C. S. Lewis, Miracles (New York: Macmillan, 1947), 9. ↑