altC. S. Lewis: A Biography by Roger Lancelyn Green and Walter Hooper (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1974)

I'm already convinced I made the right decision to begin my C. S. Lewis "retrospective" with biography. Learning about an author's personal life may not be the best introduction to his works, but when I'm facing a list of nearly 50 books that range from those I haven't yet read (e.g. The Discarded Image) to those I've read literally dozens of times (e.g. the Narnia books), it's probably a good idea to remind myself of the man behind the words.

I can recommend this biography without qualification, even though there were one or two spots that annoyed me, such as when the authors accuse Lewis of exaggerating the horrors of one of his childhood schools. "Oh, come on; it isn't that bad" are harsh words for a sufferer to bear. Lewis was safely dead ten years before the book was published, but I'm sure he heard similar comments in his lifetime.

What struck me most about Lewis this time was how brilliant he really was, from his earliest days. The sheer volume of his reading is phenomenal, and it seems he forgot nothing. He read adult books as a child and children's books as an adult, enjoying them strictly on their merits. He suffered greatly in the normal British educational system, but absolutely thrived in his two and a half years, beginning at age 14, with a private tutor (William T. Kirkpatrick) who would have terrified most children. "Some boys would not have liked it [but] to me it was red beef and strong beer."

"If ever a man came near to being a purely logical entity, that man was Kirk*", Lewis decided, and his own acutely logical mind was to a great extent formed and sharpened by Kirkpatrick's. Kirkpatrick's outstanding conviction was that language was given to man solely for the purpose of communicating or discovering truth. The general banalities and "small-talk" of most people did not enter into his calculations. "The most casual remark was taken as a summons to disputation." To a mere "torrent of verbiage" he would cry "Stop!", not from impatience, but because it was leading nowhere. More sensible observations might be interrupted by "Excuse!", ushering in some parenthetical comment. Full approval would be encouraged by "I hear you"—but usually followed by refutation:  "Had I read this? Had I studied that? Had I any statistical evidence? And so to the almost inevitable conclusion: 'Do you not see then that you had no right...' "

Lewis arrived ... on Saturday, 19 September 1914, and two days later he was flung straight into Homer, of whom he had never read a word, nor had any introduction to the Epic dialect, having only studied the straight Attic of Xenophon and the dramatists. Kirkpatrick's method was to read aloud twenty lines or so of the Greek, translate, with a few comments and explanations for another hundred lines, and then leave his pupil to go over it with the aid of a lexicon, and make sense of as much of it as he could. It worked with Lewis, who had no difficulty in memorizing every word as he looked up its meaning. Kirkpatrick at this stage seemed to value speed more than absolute accuracy, and Lewis soon found himself understanding what he read without translating it, beginning to think in Greek.

Of Lewis, his tutor said,

He was born with the literary temperament and we have to face that fact with all it implies. This is not a case of early precocity showing itself in rapid assimilation of knowledge and followed by subsequent indifference or torpor. ... It is the maturity and originality of his literary judgements which is so unusual and surprising. By an unerring instinct he detects first rate quality in literary workmanship, and the second rate does not interest him in any way. ... [He] has a sort of genius for translating. ... He has read more classics in the time than any boy I ever had, and that too very carefully and exactly. In Homer his achievement is unique. ... In the Sophoclean drama, which attains a high level in poetic expression ... he could beat me easily in the happy choice of words and phrases. ... He is the most brilliant translator of Greek plays I have ever met.

With that as background, consider how near Lewis and Oxford University—with which he had fallen in love at first sight—came to missing out on each other. Without trying to understand and explain the British university system, I can boil it down to this: Lewis was accepted to Oxford pending the successful completion of a particular examination. In this, the brilliant student failed the mathematics portion. He was admitted anyway, because he had volunteered for Army service (World War I) and he went through the Officers' Training Corps there. The theory was that he would be working on algebra (his downfall) as he could and would re-take the exam after his service ended. He tried, but never mastered the subject well enough to pass the exam. Fortunately for all of us, after the war veterans were specifically exempted from the need to pass that exam. "Otherwise," Lewis observed, "I should have had to abandon the idea of going to Oxford."

I shudder at the close call, and while I have difficulty fathoming the idea that someone so intelligent, skillful, and hard-working could fail to understand algebra, I offer this story as encouragement to those who may find themselves struggling now that so many high schools have made the subject a requirement for graduation. You can be brilliant and successful without algebra! I just hope you don't have to fight a war to get where you want to go, and that you will be able to afford an assistant to help you with the math of daily life. Algebra was not Lewis's only problem: He never managed to grasp the difference between gross and net profit when it came to his book sales, and had to be saved from dire financial straits by friends who set up a system whereby he could be exceedingly generous to others without going bankrupt himself.

If you are new to the works of C. S. Lewis, his own writings are the place to start. I would suggest beginning with either the Narnia books or Mere Christianity, depending on your temperament. But if you're interested in learning more about the brilliant, complex, surprising person behind all the books, Green & Hooper's book is a good bet.

*Some would say Spock, not Kirk, but that's another story.

Posted by sursumcorda on Saturday, November 17, 2018 at 8:02 am | Edit
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Huh. I learned something about Green, too.

Posted by dstb on Monday, November 19, 2018 at 8:40 am
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