“The C.S. Lewis Chronicles,” by Colin Duriez

C S Lewis Chronicles The C.S. Lewis Chronicles: The Indispensible Biography of the Creator of Narnia Full of Little-Known Facts, Events and Miscellany; a biography by Colin Duriez. BlueBridge Books, 298 pp$14.95 paperback. ISBN: 0-974-24058-3

A review by George W. Tuma

Most biographers have generally followed Dryden’s dictum in 1683 that a biography presents the “history of particular men’s lives.” Furthermore, the biographer usually sets forth the history of the individual so that a unified interpretation of the person’s life is made available to the reader. Colin Duriez, however, in his biography of C.S. Lewis clearly views the term “biography” in a rather different fashion than does, for example, A.N. Wilson in his biography of Lewis. First, Duriez not only records the life history of C.S. Lewis as a “particular man” but also places it in a broad twentieth-century historical context. Thus, he structures his biography of Lewis in terms of a calendrical account of Lewis’s life, which includes nearly exhaustive information concerning his life and his writings on a day by day, month by month, and year by year basis, e.g., “Lewis spends a long morning exploring the secondhand bookshops of Charing Cross Road” (10 March 1917); “Warren [Lewis] begins a six month Economics course at London University” (4 October 1926); “The household dog, Bruce, dies in his dotage, to the relief of the Lewis brothers” (17 January 1950); “Lewis completes his last tutorial at Magdalen College, Oxford” (3 December 1954); and it also involves the chronological listing of innumerable details about current historical events, e.g., the date of the Second Hague Peace Conference (1907), the date of the abdication of Kaiser Wilhelm II (9 November 1918), the discovery of the process of splitting the atom by the German physicist Otto Hahn (January 1939). (Unfortunately, Duriez does not include any formal bibliography, which would have provided the sources for his biographical information concerning Lewis. It would have done much to answer the question “Where do all these facts come from?” And there are a lot of facts.)

Clearly, given the absence of an ongoing narrative interpretation of Lewis’s life, as is customary in most biographies, Duriez’s revision of the standard format for biographies forces the reader to reflect carefully and thoughtfully upon pertinent information concerning Lewis’s life, including various historical events that occurred during his lifetime. Then, at this point, it is possible for a reading of Lewis’s life and writings to result after the appropriate connections and inferences have been made. Curiously, Duriez’s approach to biography closely approximates Walter Benjamin’s ideal critical method with respect to his work on German tragedy. Hannah Arendt, in her introduction to Walter Benjamin: Illuminations, states that when Benjamin

. . . was working on his study of German tragedy, he boasted of a collection of “over 600 quotations very systematically and clearly arranged”; like the later notebooks, this collection was not an accumulation of excerpts intended to facilitate the writing of the study but constituted the main work, with the writing as something secondary. The main work consisted in tearing fragments out of their context and arranging them afresh in such a way that they illustrated one another and were able to prove their raison d’etre in a free-floating state, as it were. It definitely was a sort of surrealistic montage. Benjamin’s ideal [was to] produce a “work consisting entirely of quotations, one that was mounted so masterfully that it could dispense with any accompanying text . . . ”

In this sense, Duriez’s biography of Lewis may be viewed as “a sort of surrealistic montage,” or “a work consisting entirely” of biographical details and contemporary historical facts that is able to “dispense with any accompanying” biographical narrative which only each reader can construct. But multiple biographical narratives derived from the same sources may be in keeping with the subjective nature of a post-modern age.

Duriez’s biography of Lewis is referred to on the book cover as “a biography like no other . . . [and it] provides invaluable and detailed insight into Lewis’s remarkable personal, creative, spiritual and intellectual life and legacy.” But the reader should be prepared for much hard work if a unified interpretation of Lewis’s life and his work is desired rather than a collection of historical facts and biographical details. Brian Sibley reiterates these thoughts in his Foreword to The C.S. Lewis Chronicles:

But what if it were possible to reconstruct a life, not with the benefit of hindsight but by following a person’s growth and development–day-by-day; year-in, year-out–setting down the life-patterning events as they took place, from the cradle to the grave, and placing them within the context of the comings and goings and dramas being enacted on the wider stage of the world? Then might not a new and compelling portrait emerge from the process?

A “new and compelling portrait” of Lewis does emerge from Duriez’s biography, but it will obviously be different for each reader. And this perhaps is what Lewis would have preferred. To paraphrase the inscription on Lewis’s tombstone, readers of The C.S. Lewis Chronicles “must endure their going hence.” But the results may be remarkable.

About this Reviewer:

George W. Tuma is Professor of English at San Francisco State University where his teaching is focused primarily on medieval literature, e.g., Arthurian romance, Chaucer, fourteenth-century protest literature, English medieval romances, medieval allegory, and medieval courtly love. In addition, he teaches courses in Sherlock Holmes, fairy tales, J.R.R. Tolkien, the Bible as literature, and science fiction and fantasy. His book on the English mystics, The English Mystics: A Comparative Analysis was published by the University of Salzburg Press in 1978. He is co-editor, with Dr. Dinah Hazell, of Medieval Forum, an electronic journal devoted to medieval literature, which is sponsored by the English department at SFSU. Professor Tuma, who is also an Episcopal priest, has learned much from the critical and popular work of C.S. Lewis, but especially from Lewis’s friend and colleague for many years, J.R.R. Tolkien. In fact, some time ago he taught a course entitled “Theology, Romance, and Fantasy” that dealt with Lewis’s interplanetary trilogy, Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, and various novels by Charles Williams.

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