In many ways Alister McGrath is the ideal person to write on C.S. Lewis. They were both committed atheists in their teens, both experienced notable conversions to Christianity and have both worked as Oxbridge academics whilst pursuing highly visible careers as apologists in the media. McGrath has previously written an acclaimed biography of Lewis, subtitled Eccentric Genius, Reluctant Prophet, guaranteeing his ability to move easily and thoughtfully through the textual traces. All of this makes it rather surprising that Deep Magic, Dragons and Talking Mice reads as a curiously unsatisfying book.
McGrath is clear from the beginning that this is not going to be a study of Lewis’ works, or an account of his life. He explains that it came out of his experience of talking to a group of students who were uninterested in exploring themes and texts, and instead “wanted to learn from Lewis, not about him”, seeing the writer as “a big name, a role model” whose thoughts on “the big questions of life” would “help them sort themselves out” (x). Perhaps reflecting the particular position Lewis holds in US Christianity, this book was first published on the other side of the Atlantic under the title If I Had Lunch With Lewis, which avoids the slight echo of Alain de Botton in the British title but also focuses on the book’s concern with talking rather than reading.
There’s a particular problem with writing about people who were famous talkers, of course. Isaiah Berlin, Socrates, Samuel Johnson – even Julian Morrow – all sometimes fail to come off the page with the energy and fascination which their chroniclers assure us drew everyone to them. Humphrey Carpenter’s unusual biography of The Inklings demonstrates both the potential and the limitations of one approach, in the chapter where he reconstructs a conversation which the group might have had on a representative night, with occasional parenthetical comments explaining why individual members might have said things. McGrath avoids “imaginary dialogue” – noting that “one thing our imagined meetings with Lewis cannot convey is Lewis’ voice” – in favour of providing “accurate summaries of Lewis’ ideas, spiced up with some of his better phrases and quotes, to draw readers into his way of thinking” (85, xiv). Though McGrath asserts that eventually readers will have to go to Lewis’ writings themselves, the present book is framed as a set of conversations: “let’s pretend that we plan to meet Lewis regularly to talk about things”, “we could think of them as lunches at a local Oxford pub. Or perhaps as tutorials, in which some of the great questions of life are opened up for discussion and debate” (xiv, xii).
This approach allows McGrath to choose what he considers the most significant themes in Lewis’ thinking, and to flit between analogies, biographical details, quotations from letters, and his own paraphrases in order to draw out what Lewis has to say to the modern reader. It creates an ideal set of meetings, hedged about with the images of mid-century Oxford which will be as fantastically attractive for many readers as the trappings of Narnia, and offering brief settings like “It’s our final imagined meeting with Lewis on a cold and misty day in December, at the end of Oxford’s first teaching term”, “and with those words, Lewis would leave us, putting on his hat and coat”, “let’s image that we are comfortably seated in the shabby old armchair in Lewis’ room in Magdalen”, “by now the kettle has boiled and Lewis has made the tea” or quick sketches such as:
But perhaps the first thing Lewis might emphasize is that meaning matters. Maybe Lewis would have thumped the lunch table to emphasize his point, causing the crockery to shudder. We might be taken aback. Weren’t we the ones meant to be asking the questions? Yet Lewis is challenging us!
(153, 169, 135 1.)
This is the book’s strength, but also its weakness, I think. These meetings, arranged like salons with given topics for conversation (“Friendship”, “Education”, “the Problem of Pain”), tend to decouple the discussions from the specificities of how and where these ideas were expressed. McGrath does a lot of work to turn the themes of a self-help book into an real engagement with Lewis’ thought – his Lewis is likely to suggest that a question has been wrongly phrased, or should be approached in another way – but the format tends towards wrapping the theme up by the end of the chapter and providing some sort of answer. For me, Deep Magic, Dragons and Talking Mice is at once too close to an idealised moment in the life of its historical subject and too far from the writings from which the reader is supposed to be learning.
A tiny quibble about the format points to this larger issue. The reader is meeting Lewis once a week to talk about the great questions of life, a form of “tutorial” on the real issues of existence. It may seem irrelevant to point out that Lewis’ tutorials were not held on themes like Friendship or Christian Hope, but rather on the details of medieval poetry such as Beowulf or Gawain and the Green Knight. But this quibble gets to the heart of what feels tricky about the book, highlighting the fact that Lewis’ own thought was hammered out through engagement with literature and other writing from the distant past. Presenting him as a character to answer great life questions feels like thinning his thought down, and holding him apart from the great ongoing conversation of which he was a part. McGrath does suggest that Lewis’ value includes his abilities as a guide to the “great tradition” of Christian thought, who expresses it in “a winsome and palatable way”, but most of the book does not develop this notion (128).
Deep Magic, Dragons and Talking Mice provides an overview of Lewis’ ideas on a series of topics, mixed with biographical material and quotations. It addresses a very particular reader, who wants to know what Lewis would have to say to them about their questions, and leaves aside the questions of historical understanding and textual study which might arise for other readers. I must admit it did not send me back to read Lewis’ works, as might have been hoped, but it may well do that for a lot of its audience.