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Published: Sunday, 12/4/2005

Lewis bio will appeal most to his fans

BY JACK LESSENBERRY

JACK'S LIFE: THE LIFE STORY OF C.S. LEWIS. By Douglas Gresham. Broadman & Holman Publishers. 167 pages; includes DVD. $16.99.

With the opening of the Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, the long-awaited new Disney movie, there is bound to be a new wave of interest in C.S. Lewis, the complex literary intellectual who wrote the children's book on which it is based.

C.S. Lewis was, indeed, fascinating. More than any other man in the 20th century, he wrote books on Christianity designed to appeal to the intelligent and the intellectual.

Long an obscure professor of Renaissance literature, he became an international celebrity in the 1950s for a series of those brilliantly written little books.

People who wouldn't have dreamt of picking up a tract by Billy Graham or even Bishop Fulton J. Sheen read C.S. Lewis. His Screwtape Letters was perhaps his most famous book for adults, followed by Mere Christianity.

He also wrote a science-fiction trilogy for grown-ups. But the seven Narnia books have remained intensely popular with children, and with the adults who have read them to their kids, with the exception of those who regarded them as thinly veiled Christian propaganda, as indeed, on one level, they are.

In my book, their author is, however, even more interesting than his work. A bookish boy whose mother died when he was 9, he went through the horrors of World War I, and was badly injured when his best friend was blown to pieces in front of him. Afterward, he moved in with the dead man's mother, one Mrs. Janie Moore, who by all accounts seems to have been a nasty, demented woman. (Although many of his friends and his alcoholic brother thought they once had been lovers.)

At some point in the 1930s Lewis, who had been an atheist, was converted to Christianity, purely, he said, by rational deduction.

Later, he wrote the Narnia books at the same time his good friend J.R.R. Tolkien was working on the Lord of the Rings, and the men would read out chapters to their literary circle.

Not until Mrs. Moore died in 1951 did Lewis allow himself to fall in love, with a divorced Jewish American woman who had incurable cancer. She soon died, leaving him with two stepsons, one of whom is the author of this book. He died less than three years later as well.

Toward the end of his life, Lewis worried that he was being made too much of, and said he hoped that the newspapers wouldn't overdo it when he died. In a stunning bit of irony, he got his wish; he died of a multitude of ailments on Nov. 22, 1963 - the same day President John F. Kennedy was assassinated.

There is more than enough material here for a battery of psychoanalysts and literary and religious historians. Alas, the present small book is more in the class of hagiography. What is faintly creepy is that the author, probably unconsciously, apes C.S. Lewis' writing style in this book.

This book will be appreciated most by anyone who is already a devoted Lewis devotee. For adults who want a more balanced biography, Walter Hooper and, especially, A.N. Wilson have written far better ones.

Jack Lessenberry is The Blade's ombudsman.



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