Thursday, August 14, 2008

Foreword by Walter Hooper

Walter Hooper, former secretary to C. S. Lewis and Literary Advisor to the C. S. Lewis Estate, has written the following Foreword to The Professor of Narnia:

This is the perfect biography of C.S.Lewis for children. I like it so much that I’m going to go out on a limb and say something daring. If Lewis were alive I wonder what would happen if Will Vaus asked his opinion of it? First of all, Lewis would scold Will for not having chosen a more worthy subject. Secondly, after the scolding, I think Lewis would thank the author for giving him his rightful place in history – not as a writer of the early 21st Century, but an Irishman living in England during the first part of the 20th Century.

That is a very important difference. One of the key principles of Lewis’s years of teaching literary history was that it is essential that an author be placed in the actual historical context in which he lived. If you treat an author who lived a long time ago as if he were almost exactly like yourself – as if writing with a dip pen was much the same as using a computer and an Oxford College 550 years old almost the same as an American university 20 years old - the subject of your biography will be mainly imaginary.

And if the subject of the biography is imaginary, you learn nothing from the book. No. The right way, the honest way, is the one Lewis followed in his literary studies.

First of all, he believed that if a writer smudges over the differences between various periods he is causing us to be ‘disinherited’ of what we need, and want, to know.

Secondly, Lewis believed that to enjoy ‘full humanity’ we ought, so far as possible, to ‘become an Achaean chief while reading Homer, a medieval knight while reading Malory, and an Eighteenth-Century Londoner while reading Johnson. Only thus will you be able to judge the work “in the same spirit that its author writ” and to avoid chimerical criticism.’[1]

I’m not sure I’ve read a biography of Lewis in which this ideal has been realised as well as it is here. Dare I confess it? When I first picked it up I was afraid that if Will Vaus mentioned Lewis’s method of writing he would bewail the fact that Lewis did not have computers, E-mail, laser printers and the rest. I need not have feared. This author has more than done his ‘homework’ and there is a fine passage on page 12 explaining how Lewis wrote. Indeed, on almost every page there are descriptions of how things appeared to Lewis. I give Will Vaus as many stars as you like because the boys and girls who read this biography will not only know how Lewis spent his time, but will know in their bones what it felt like to be the man whose dreams of lions led to the creation of Narnia.

[1] C.S.Lewis, A Preface to Paradise Lost (London: Oxford University Press, 1942), ch. IX, p. 63.

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