I am not sure why but I was not expecting to like Harry Lee Poe’s biographical trilogy on C. S. Lewis: Becoming C.S. Lewis, The Making of C.S. Lewis, and The Complete C.S. Lewis. It likely has something to do with the scope of the thing just looking daunting. Or with my growing concern with most recent biographies showing more interest in Lewis’ flaws than enjoying the man himself. And at first I did struggle but quickly began to enjoy and ultimately enjoy and deeply appreciate the work.
The books are nearly exhaustive. Owing to the length of the work it was always a surprise to realize what had been left out. Generally little anecdotes but nothing is lost by the omissions. Poe seems to think there is enough Lewis to go around so he generously leaves things for other biographies to remain interesting with. The books are at their best when Poe is bringing to light new material that had hither to been unavailable or ignored. The first volume, Becoming C.S. Lewis, is a bit of a slog but not for Poe’s lack of writing ability. The reason is simply that young Lewis was, in his own words, “A prig.” But Poe insists, and by the end of the entire series you appreciate him for doing so, that the formative years are essential to suffer understand in order to fully enjoy the man we love. Lewis himself said so and focused his own autobiography largely on these years. Poe humanizes the young Lewis without indulging in the tabloid like reading into letters and journal entries in order to excite the specter of scandal. Which leads to the second trait of the series I appreciated.
Poe does admirable work debunking recent Lewis myths, largely postulated by A.N. Wilson. Unfortunately, while it would appear the damage is done and Wilson fans are more than happy to perpetuate the slanders* Poe does yeoman’s work in putting theses absurd speculations to death. He does not touch on the Lindskoog absurdity, which surprised me but was probably for the best to continue to let her and her bizarre theories fade into the ether.
A real delight was Poe’s discovery of a lost recording of Lewis sent to Iceland during the British invasion, before control was handed over to the Americans. A delightful find that I hope will be digitized and uploaded to the internet for further listening. Poe wonderfully notes every example of Lewis’ recorded voice along with pointing to other sources and materials that can be accessed by the armature Lewis scholar. It was a real pleasure to find resources that I hither to had been ignorant of and my gratitude is enormous.
While generous to Papist, among other beliefs, Poe is unreservedly Protestant and it shows which was a real pleasure. This brings a clarity to the work criticizing where it is helpful Romansh or Anthroposophist or the occultic beliefs that surrounded Lewis and caused frustrations. This kind of writing is especially clear in contrast to the rapturous way Papism is described by the Zaleski’s in The Fellowship: The Literary Lives of the Inklings.
If there is a weak spot it is that not many of the people jump off the pages. One of the reasons I have such great attachment to Jack by George Sayers is the it conveys the feel of the man. The only character that can not seem but to jump off of the pages of Poe’s work is the old battle ax of Mrs. Moore. And quite frankly it would be hard for her not to do so in any work. Tolkien is more rounded than any other Lewis biographies and that is a feat in itself. While a genius in his own right, Tolkien was not a particularly colorful personality. Poe does a good job of displaying the sometimes odd juxtaposition of Tolkien’s pride and unassuming presence. more blame is put on Tolkien’s work on straining the friendship with fantasy purism and resentment over Lewis’ success than other biographies which usually blame Joy Davidman and Lewis keeping their marriage a secret.
Second the books can be hard to follow on occasion. In order to make a larger point on a topic Poe will cover expanded periods of time but then the next section will “reset” to a year or so prior. This has the effect of occasionally being disorienting. It happens regularly enough to be a feature which effects the natural flow of the text.
Those two minor criticism aside should not be enough to deter anyone from buying and being throughly educated and edified by the trilogy. While the start was slow going for me they picked up and moved along and a solid pace, never becoming dull.
*At the month of this publishing Trevin Wax of TGC (naturally) repeated the lies in a banal article.
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