Alister McGrath's biography of C. S. Lewis was highly anticipated. Its release earlier this year raised expectations that the definitive account of Lewis's life had finally arrived.
Very often, when encountering such hype, it pays to be skeptical. J. R. R. Tolkien, quoting G. K. Chesterton, once said that, "as soon as he heard that anything 'had come to stay, he knew that it would be very soon replaced—indeed be regarded as pitiably obsolete and shabby.'" When a biography comes along promising to set the record straight or provide a last word on some prominent public figure, it's easy enough for similar sentiments to arise.
Without a doubt, C. S. Lewis - A Life: Eccentric Genius, Reluctant Prophet has much to commend it to readers' attention. First, McGrath actually read Lewis thoroughly before setting out to write. One doubts whether A. N. Wilson, the British man of letters who wrote another well-known Lewis biography, ever thought to take this precaution. While Wilson goes down smoothly by virtue of his remarkable writing style, inaccuracies seem to appear on nearly every page. By comparison, McGrath leaves no doubt that he knows his subject. He did due preparation by reading everything Lewis wrote in chronological order. McGrath has a well-earned academic reputation, and it's meticulous endeavors of this sort that help explain why.
Second, McGrath helpfully brings his own biographical background to bear on the subject matter. Like Lewis, he is an Irish-born Oxford scholar, though of a different era. This pedigree gives McGrath a unique vantage point on Lewis's own experience as an Ulsterman living in an English academic environment.
Third, McGrath's own writing style is fluid and engaging. And finally, McGrath does uncover some information that's barely known even among Lewis scholars and aficionados. For example, Lewis's conversion to Christianity actually took place several months to a year later than the dates Lewis himself seems to suggest. The chronology of these events reveals how carefully McGrath pays attention to detail. (In this vein, he also brings to light the fact that Lewis nominated Tolkien for the Nobel Prize in literature.)
How much, though, do these (admittedly interesting) details really add to our understanding of Lewis? Certainly, their discovery serves the cause of achieving exact historical accuracy. But they don't count for much when it comes to grasping the big ideas at the heart of Lewis's copious writings. Lewis, at times, does not get his dates right. But that's no more important, in the grand scheme of things, than Einstein's occasional trouble with simple mathematics.
The Importance of Literary Form
So yes, there are strengths to McGrath's biography. But these do not outweigh the many weaknesses. Most troubling, there is a glaring lack of appreciation for how Lewis carefully selected literary genres to suit the material he wished to present.