The Completion of C. S. Lewis by Harry Lee Poe

Charles Malcolm Wingard

The Completion of C. S. Lewis: From War to Joy (1945-1963), by Harry Lee Poe. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2022, 413 pages, $34.16, cloth.

Sometimes work forces me to read. Lectures and sermons must be prepared, and reading is indispensable to the process. Whether I find the reading especially enjoyable or not, the commentaries and theological books and articles must be attended to.

But apart from work, I read mostly for pleasure, and Harry Lee Poe’s three-volume biography of Lewis has been for me sheer pleasure. In addition to surveying the life of one of the twentieth century’s great writers and formidable Christian apologists, I have had opportunity during the past year to read for the first time several of Lewis’s books. Others I reread, some for a third or fourth time. I sympathize with Lewis’s words to a friend: “You really lose a lot by never reading books again” (303).

The Completion of C. S. Lewis surveys the final eighteen years of Lewis’s life. The author’s literary output was impressive. Among the titles published during this period were The Chronicles of Narnia (1950–56), Surprised by Joy: The Shape of My Early Life (1955), Till We Have Faces (1956), A Grief Observed (1961), Reflections on the Psalms (1958), and The Four Loves (1960). Numerous articles were later collected and published in several volumes, including God in the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics (1970). Poe provides concise information about the books and articles, placing them in the context of Lewis’s unfolding life and the broader world of English literature. The circumstances of Lewis’s transition from Oxford to Cambridge are thoroughly reviewed.

Friendships, old and new, continued to play a critical role in his life. A special relationship developed with poet Ruth Pitter. There were both personal meetings and lengthy correspondence. Her pilgrimage to the Christian faith came, she said, “by the pull of C. S. Lewis and the push of misery” (102). She wrote to a friend, “I do delight in him” (166). So serious was the relationship that at least the possibility of marriage occurred to Lewis (225). I was amused to read that the relationship progressed for seven years before the pair spoke to each other on a first name basis (181). Lewis clung to courtly manners that the world around him was rapidly shedding.

Lewis’s life was powerfully molded by a lifetime of suffering. His mother’s death at an early age, World War I injuries, and tensions with his father shaped his early life.

As the years passed, Lewis’s suffering compounded as he encountered new types of adversity. The experiences contributed to what his biographer calls “the completion of C. S. Lewis.”

Along with his fellow countrymen, Lewis endured the nearly decade-long shortage of food and basic commodities in post-World War II Britain. For Americans of the boomer generation and younger, it is difficult to imagine the hardships that pummeled the nation after victory was secured. Lewis’s burden was eased by the kindness of admirers in the United States who sent to him hard-to-find goods. Over time his low view of Americans gave way to a profound appreciation for their care, support, and friendship.

The austerity programs imposed by the post-war Labour government may have displeased Lewis, but they failed to rob him of his humor. Poe notes that “when England had a beautiful May for the first time in many years, Lewis cynically remarked that the government had not yet found a way to ration the sunlight” (37).

Other of Lewis’s trials were relational and acutely painful. Until her death in 1951, Lewis continued to care for Janie Moore—a quarter century his senior—and the mother of a friend and fellow soldier, Paddy Moore. During World War I, each young man had promised to care for the other’s parent should he not survive the war. Paddy did not, and Lewis kept his word. For more than three decades he struggled to support a woman whose “worrying, jealous, exacting, and angry disposition” only worsened as the years passed (159). I could not help but think of the godly man of whom David wrote in Psalm 15, the man “that sweareth to his own hurt, and changeth not.” Medieval codes of chivalry were not merely the subject of his studies. They were one of the influences that molded him into the man he became.

Lewis was no stranger to familial suffering. A flourishing romantic love and marriage came to Lewis late in life. His union with Joy Davidman Gresham brought with it unanticipated happiness as well as the intense heartache that accompanied her lengthy illness and death. A depressed and alcoholic brother and a troubled stepson were recipients of Lewis’s compassionate solicitude.

Controversy plagued Lewis at Oxford; he was never at home with political intrigue. His popular books, energetic personality, and religious devotion made him unpopular with many of his colleagues. Even his close friend and fellow faculty member and Inkling, J.R.R. Tolkien, objected to the attention Lewis gave to theology, a subject for which he had no formal academic training or credentials (52). When he was denied a prestigious English professorship that was given instead to Lord David Cecil, Cecil observed that although Lewis was the eminent member of the English faculty, “his forceful manner combined with his equally forceful piety [made him] unpopular with a prim and agnostic electorate” (74–75).

Concurrent stresses could be overwhelming. Tolkien’s sharp criticism of The Narnian Chronicles hurt, as did that of two friends, to whose daughter Lewis intended to dedicate The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. The parents objected to the whole notion of children trapped in a wardrobe and furs stripped from the carcasses of helpless animals. The unfortunate recipe of a heavy workload, caring for his brother and Janie Moore, and friends’ criticism of his books led to his collapse and hospitalization (46–47).

Poor lifestyle choices culminated in steep physical decline in Lewis’s later years. Long walks, once a cherished routine, were no longer possible. But Lewis did not lose heart, bearing in mind that “mercifully the desire goes when the power goes” (260).

In his final chapter, one might think that Poe has moved from biographer to spiritual instructor. If so, I am grateful. He revisits several hardships and heartaches that Lewis experienced during his life. When considered together over the course of his life of nearly sixty-five years, these should be viewed not as obstacles to faith but part of a process begun in faith and sustained by faith and finding full fruition in the mature faith of a complete man. Poe concludes, “Some will say that it was a tragedy for Lewis to have died so young. I think it remarkable that he became complete so young” (352).

Regarding Lewis, Helen Gardner wrote, “It was impossible to be indifferent to him” (75). And I am not. His books have enriched my life for more than four decades. Nor am I indifferent to Poe’s three-volume biography. It serves as a splendid introduction to the man behind the books.

Charles Malcolm Wingard is senior pastor of the First Presbyterian Church of Yazoo City, Mississippi (PCA), and professor of pastoral theology at Reformed Theological Seminary in Jackson, Mississippi. Ordained Servant Online, December 2022.

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