An excerpt from my general preface to the four volume reference set, C. S. Lewis: Life, Works, Legacy, Praeger Press, April, 2007.
Scholars and admirers alike have long sought a full-fledged, balanced bio-critical treatment of the life and works C. S. Lewis.
They, rightly, seek a treatise that does justice to his remarkably successful, multiple careers as a Christian apologist, science-fiction and fantasy writer, literary historian, poet, cultural critic, and historian of words. Such a book will be sympathetic without being sycophantic, incisive without being sensational, and comprehensive without being copious. It will illuminate his life and times, including his interesting friendships, his composing techniques, and, of course, his personal piety.
Above all, it will also help explain his enormous impact on contemporary Christianity, particularly in America, and it will set in appropriate historical context the important contribution his scholarship makes to literary culture and social and ethical discourse in philosophy and theology. Until such a book arrives, if it ever does, this current four-volume set will represent the most lucid, most dispassionate, well-informed, up-to-date, and comprehensive treatment of Lewis’s life, times, and legacy to have so far been produced, exemplifying the highest standards of historical research and employing the most responsible tools of interpretation.
It has been too typical of the variety of biographies now available on Lewis for their authors to range between two extremes: (1) works furtively focused on certain presumed negative personality traits and ambiguous relationships and incidents that obscure rather than illuminate Lewis’s faith and scholarship; or (2) works so enamored of Lewis that their work borders on or exceeds hagiography and offers page after page of redundant paraphrase of his putatively unique insights. The former, despite their protestations that they operate out of an objectivity missing in other treatments, or out of a respect and a healthy admiration for Lewis’s “literary accomplishments,” tend to be transparently premised on a rather tendentious amateur psychoanalysis and often programmatically dismiss Lewis’s readership in order to discredit his literary and theological judgments. The latter evince the effects of the worshipful homage, exhausting readers and convincing them that Lewis is readily reducible to a few doctrines, a few genres, and, perhaps, a few penchants. Even so, enough of Lewis’s enumerable strengths usually emerge even from these biographies to reward the Lewisian enthusiast or skeptical inquirer hungry for more informed assessment of his achievements, and his continuing impact.
It is the case, nevertheless, that the underlying theme of recent works, and among them I include biographies written by Britain’s A. N. Wilson and Australia’s Michael White, have been to “rescue” Lewis from the putative cult of his evangelical idolaters, particularly in America. It is these folks who, Wilson, for one, avers in his 1991 study of Lewis, desire to create a Lewis in their own image, one they can promote as a virginal, Bible-toting, nonsmoking, lemonade-drinking champion for Christ. But such a stance reflects a surprising naiveté about Lewis’s American readership and barely disguises its contempt for the esteem accorded Lewis’s scholarship, fiction, and apologetics in many diverse circles.
One aim of this present reference work is thus to correct such stereotypes of both Lewis and his readership. To accomplish this, and many more worthy goals, one must offer a thorough-going, well-researched, yet also theologically sensitive treatment of Lewis’s life and times that takes into consideration not only his tumultuous upbringing but also his mature development, his successes and failures, his blind spots and prescience, his trek into and impact on both “Jerusalem and Athens” (i.e., religion and philosophy), and, the essential perspective discerning readers need to understand the key people and relationships in his life.
Consequently, assembled for this volume are contributions from the finest C. S. Lewis scholars from North America and Europe. Their essays, one and all, have been solicited to be expansive, comprehensive, informed, and self-contained prose works that contextualize each respective topic historically and deliver expository clarity to its reader. As one considers the Table of Contents, he or she will realize that the essays fall into four volumes slated to emphasize four distinctive areas of Lewis’s life and work.
Volume 1, C. S. Lewis: An Examined Life, is explicitly biographical in its orientation and scope. Lewis’s early life, collegiate days, military service, friendships, achievements, and ongoing impact are set in historical context, starting from his Belfast birth in 1898 to his auspicious death on November 22, 1963, the day U. S. President John Kennedy was assassinated. New essays illuminate his relationships with J. R. R. Tolkien, Owen Barfield, and, his beloved wife, Joy Davidman Gresham.
Volume 2, C. S. Lewis: Fantasist, Mythmaker, and Poet, focuses on Lewis’s imaginative writing, foregrounding his achievements in fiction and poetry as one dimension of his notoriety and popularity worldwide. The provenance of his works and their significance in his times and ours are explored and defined capably.
Volume 3, C. S. Lewis: Apologist, Philosopher, and Theologian, draws attention to the celebrity Lewis received as a Christian thinker in his radio broadcasts and subsequent renown as a defender and translator of the Christian faith among skeptics and believer alike in postwar Britain and abroad. His well-known works such as Mere Christianity, Miracles, and Letters to Malcolm are given close readings and careful explication.
Finally, in Volume 4, C. S. Lewis: Scholar, Teacher, and Public Intellectual, Lewis’s lesser known vocations and publications are given careful consideration and examined for the models they may provide contemporary readers and academics for responsible scholarship. This set of essays helps assess Lewis’s ongoing legacy and offers an extensive annotated bibliography of secondary sources that can guide the apprentice scholar to worthy works that will further assist him or her in extending the insights this collection presents.
Within each volume, essays fall into one of three distinct categories: (1) historical, fact-based treatment of eras, events, and personages in Lewis’s life; (2) expository and literary analysis of major Lewis works of imaginative literature, literary scholarship, and apologetics; (3) global essays that seek to introduce, elucidate, and unfold the connections between and among the genres, vocations, and respective receptions elicited by Lewis’s in his varied career.
In my original invitation letter, each essayist was told to trust his or her instincts as a scholar, and thus to be empowered to write the essay from the unique vantage point they represent from inside their discipline. Generally speaking, each kind of essay was thus written to accomplish the following:
The historical essays begin with a well-documented overview of their topic, foreshadowing the era, events, personages, etc., then proceed to a chronological treatment of the particulars, interspersed with connections, informed interpretations, contextualizations that illuminate the specific era covered as well as illuminating their relationships to other historical circumstances, publications, etc. When readers finish the essay, they should have at hand all the essential facts, accurately and chronologically marshaled, with a confident sense of the significance of this period, era, or relationship for Lewis’s life and work. Exposition and analysis essays focus on single works in the Lewis canon and offer the reader a comprehensive overview of the work, including coverage of its origins and place in Lewis’s life and times, its historical meaning and contemporary significance, its reception among readers, scholars, academics, critics, and a reflective judgment on its enduring influence or impact. The readers of theses essays will come away with a profound grasp of the value and impact of the work in itself and the reputation it creates. In cases where there may exist a range of opinions about or competing interpretations of the meaning or value of a work, the essayist articulates the varying points of view, weighing their cogency, and offering the reader an informed perspective. Global essays provide an introductory, broad contextual sweep of coverage over the main themes of an individual volume’s topic areas, one per volume, focusing on the four divisions enunciated for the project.
My general exhortation to all contributors was that they try as much as it is within their power to emulate C. S. Lewis in style and substance, practicing the kind of empathetic dialogue with the subject matter that is characteristic of his own prose and poetry— as he saw it: “Plenty of fact, reasoning as brief and clear as English sunshine . . .” No easy task! But I am pleased to say that each essay does its job well—and, in my view, Lewis would not be displeased.
I want to make the distinction as clear as possible between the four volumes published here and the typical “companion to” or “encyclopedia of” approach found in other treatments of Lewis’s life and work. We have not created a set of “nominalist” texts that focus on so many particulars that the “whole” is lost in the “parts.” Ours is not a “flip-through” set of texts in which “key words” drive the construction of essays and the experience of the reader—but one that features holistic essays that engross and educate earnest readers seeking an inclusive view of the essay’s topic area. While we enforced some general consistency of length and depth of coverage, there is no “false objectivity” or uniformity of prose style to be imposed.
No, by contrast, these essays are meant to have “personality,” and serve as “stand-alone” essays that reflect an invested, personal scholarship and whose learned opinion is based on deep acquaintance with their subject matter. As independent Lewis scholars, it is important that all were granted the freedom to interpret responsibly and offer informed judgments about value, effectiveness, and significance of components of his life, times, and works, and to follow the scholarly instincts and unique insights wherever they may have led. It may be that here and there two essays will cross boundaries, and offer a different point of view on a shared topic. This to be expected, and is not to be discouraged. Where there are controversial topics in Lewis scholarship, the task at hand was to “referee” the debate, explain the options, and gently lead us to the conclusions, if any, that best fit the facts.
The bibliography for each essay is intended to be as current as possible as we reached our publication deadline, and should reflect the span of scholarship that has emerged since Lewis’s 1963 death. But, there is a major and comprehensive bibliographic essay on Lewis scholarship included in volume four, and we direct the reader’s attention there. As in any reference set of this scope, there will be unavoidable overlap in coverage of events, people, theme, citation of works, etc., throughout the volumes, and I humbly submit this is one of its strengths.
Our contributors were attracted to this project because they saw that it offered C. S. Lewis scholars an opportunity to disseminate their work to a broader, popular audience and, consequently, offered them the potential to shape the ongoing public understanding of C. S. Lewis for a population of readers around the world for many decades. Those readers brought to C. S. Lewis through the increased visibility and popularity of The Chronicles of Narnia, will be especially enthused and rewarded by their sojourn in these pages.
Our common approach in writing and editing this set is “academic” in the sense that it relies on studies/research/corroborated knowledge and reflection on assigned topics, but it is also the case that we always kept our general audience in mind, avoiding as much as possible any insider jargon or technical language that tends to exclude general readers. (Of course, any well-founded disciplinary terms necessary to explain and/or exemplify the achievement of Lewis are introduced and explained in context.)
In the end, I am proud to say that our desire to present accurate and interesting information, wearing our scholarship firmly but lightly enough to invite entrance into fascinating, timely, and relevant subject matter about Lewis has been met. These essays were designed to reach, engage, and even enthrall educated and interested readers anxious to find out more about C. S. Lewis, including those who yet may not have any formal training in literary criticism or theology or apologetics per se. Indeed, these have always been Lewis’s most appreciative and attentive readers, and we are most pleased to have joined him in welcoming you here.
–Bruce L. Edwards, January, 2007.