Monday, September 05, 2022

The Completion of CS Lewis

I am listening to William O'Flaherty interview Hal Poe about volume III of his biography, The Completion of CS Lewis, covering the years from 1945 until his death in 1963. I have not bothered much with biographies of Lewis after having read a few, and I assumed - on the basis of no information whatsoever - that this lengthy treatment by Poe was going to be mere tedious detail about things I already knew. There are some OCD tendencies about scholars of any topic or person. This does not seem to be the case after all and I have already learned a few things in less than an hour. I had not realised that he had developed good literary friendships in his ten years at Cambridge.  Those are largely unrecorded because those scholars did not produce any material popular with the general public and are thus not remarked on by other biographers. Yet they were important to Jack, and he was in many ways more comfortable there than Oxford, with which he is more closely associated.

Other biographers and commenters stress  he was passed over for promotion at Oxford because he was resented for both his popularity and his Christianity, despite his outstanding scholarship. Poe identifies that this is also because he did not fit well with the toxic, vindictive, bullying atmosphere in academia, as he was comfortable in disputation and stood up for ideas and people no matter who he was engaging with. Tolkien kept a lower profile in general, particularly in controversial matters. The last of the committees that passed over Lewis for a chair claimed that his scholarship was not that notable.  Poe's take is that nothing they have written remains unless one seeks it out in archives, while Lewis's The Allegory of Love, written before he was much know for his Christian beliefs or had any popular audience, remains in print and assigned at the graduate level. A Preface to Paradise Lost also remains in print and scholars even now find themselves obliged to engage with it decades later. The usual life of an academic book is less than five years. Perhaps least-known but of continuing importance is English Literature in the Sixteenth Century Excluding Drama, volume five of The Oxford History of English Literature (still in reprint). His scholarship turns out to have been not only excellent with regards to the expectations for holding a chair, but to be one of the very few of 20th C scholars of English letters that is still read all these days, even by people indifferent or even disdainful of his faith.

Yet he had locked horns with most of them in his career, seldom about Christianity but often about Oxford politics or literary subjects. That may have been the more prominent reason for their enmity.

I was also pleased to learn that Lewis did not like Pauline Baynes' illustrations for Narnia, though he thought she had learned enough by the last two volumes to be passable.  I have never liked them and have tried to make my peace with them by noting that they do seem to be modern echoes of medieval illustration such as tapestries, and remembering that I have little artistic sensibility myself and am in no position to judge.

Perhaps I will run into one or the other of O'Flaherty or Poe beginning Wednesday.

1 comment:

james said...

He didn't like the illustrations? I'd not have guessed. I didn't dislike them, though somehow the characters in the book seemed older than the children in the illustrations in LWaW.

I looked up illustrations for Narnia, and apparently at least the cover illustrations varied somewhat. And I can see why he might have complained (page 10 of that document)--anatomy is a bit off here and there.

But I wonder who else might have done them. Wyeth (had he been alive) might have done some very good villains and battles, but he didn't seem to convey joy or innocence very well, and the story needs both.