It is surprising in many ways.
CSL was Irish. I'd always thought of him as so quintessentially English. His dad was a solicitor. He went to prep school and followed his elder brother to Malvern College. But whilst Warren played games and loved Malvern, 'Jack' (Clive, CS) was bookish and hated it; he was bullied and his dad took him away and put him in a crammer with a weird headteacher. Neither the law nor the military appealed so he went to Oxford (enjoying skinny dipping at Parson's Pleasure) even though he couldn't pass the maths entrance exam; he left early on to join the army to fight in WWI (when he went back to Oxford was allowed to continue despite the continuing problem with Maths because of a special rule allowing ex-soldiers to join). He was injured in WWI and carried a piece of shrapnel in his chest for twenty years.
About this time is a mysterious period. He was staying with a 'chum' and his mother and something happens about which he never later talked and excised it from his autobiography. One presumes that he fell in love with the chum's mother, Mrs Moore. After all, his own mother had died when he was young. CSL's chum then died and when CSL went back up to Oxford he took Mrs Moore and her daughter Maureen with him to Oxford, renting a small house which; he moved into after his first year when he moved out of college. This was a secret from his father, who gave CSL an allowance. It made CSL poor in both money and time because she was a demanding woman. But she lived with him until she died. Did they have sex? We aren't told.
He started writing poems and studying philosophy; when he became a lecturer he started teaching English Lit. He soon gained a fellowship. Then the atheist was converted to (quite high and rather fundamental) Christianity. His first published work being poems, and his second, the Allegory of Love, about Mediaeval Literature, he now started writing Christian books. He became famous for a best-selling trilogy of science fiction books (veiled Christian myth) called Out of the Silent Planet. Then he hit the big time with the Screwtape Letters (letters from a senior to a junior devil advising how to entrap souls). He was a hit on the BBC Home Service radio giving talks about Christianity and wrote about The Problem of Pain. Then, in under two years, he wrote the seven Narnia books, again Christian allegories. He was now immensely famous but still a don who drank beer with his friend J R R Tolkien (of Hobbit and Lord of the Rings fame) at the Eagle and Child which they renamed the Bird and Baby.
His pupils included Roger Lancelyn Green and (one of his first pupils) John Betjeman.
He had a dog who, when old, didn't like eating whilst being watched so CSL would walk down the street throwing food over his shoulder. He referred to this as the Orpheus method of feeding because, if he looked round, the dog "would give him a fierce look and ignore the food" (p 123)
Oxford never offered him a professorship so at the age of 56 he accepted a Chair at Cambridge though he still lived most of the time in Oxford, taking the train on Tuesdays (presumably he went by the line that still runs past my house, although the Oxford to Milton Keynes and the Bedford to Cambridge sections have been closed).
Mr Moore died in 1951, when he was 53. Five years later he met and married an American divorcee and acquired two step sons, she died four years later from cancer and he went the same way three years after that. He died on the same day as Aldous Huxley and President Kennedy.
Moments of liminality:
- On reading Out of the Silent Planet:
- Dorothy L Sayers said of a fried "some phrase clicked in his mind" (p 165)
- Roger Lancelyn Green said a "realized in a blinding flash" (p 165)
- Doors in Narnia:
- The wardrobe (of course)
- The door Aslan draws in the air near the end of Prince Caspian
- The stable door in The Last Battle
There is a brazen head mention re Friars Bacon and Bungay on p 174
CSL quotes, quoted in this book:
- "How I love kettles"
- Your best friend is you alter ego who shares "all your most secret delights". Your second friend is your "anti-self" who shares each delight but approaches each one form the opposite direction.
- We can no more meet God than Hamlet can meet Shakespeare (p 102)
- Joy and delight are "given to us to lead us into the world of the Spirit as sexual rapture is there to lead to offspring and family life." (p 120)
- To achieve 'otherness' "you must go into another dimension" (p 123)
- "Technology is per se neutral but a race devoted to the increase of its own power by technology with complete indifference to ethics does seem to me a cancer in the universe." (p 173)
- God does just permit pain and suffering; he permits some people to inflict pain and suffering on others. Pain is "God's megaphone" (p 187)
- Is Aslan safe? "'Course he isn't safe. But he's good." (p 189)
- On Satan: "In the midst of a world of light and love, of song and feast and dance, he could finds nothing more interesting than his own prestige." (p 194)
- "The safest road to Hell is the gradual one - the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts." (p 195)
- "We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy has been offered us." (p 203) "We are far too easily pleased" (p 204)
- If Christianity is true then some of the people we live among will go to heaven. Look around. (p 204)
- Damned souls leave "man-shaped stains on the brightness of the air." (p 222) This is a quote from The Great Divorce.
This is a brilliant and brilliantly written book. I disagree with so many things in CSL's life but at the end of the day he was a truly original thinker and this book has challenged me and made me think. April 2016; 308 pages