One disconcerting trend among conservative Christian readers of C. S. Lewis is how little they know of his work prior to declaring themselves to be Lewis fans. Many of the most ardent college age fans of Lewis have read little more than his Chronicles of Narnia and perhaps a few essays out of God in the Dock before declaring themselves official devotees of the man. Some more fervent readers may have taken in Surprised by Joy and perhaps some of the Space Trilogy.
Having read the majority of Lewis’s published work (I’m not done yet, though I have aspirations), I generally consider it a good thing that people like Lewis. However, the reasons people like Lewis are often less well developed than he or his work deserves. A superficial appreciation of Lewis also enables a simplistic understanding of the man, his context, and the warranted legacy of his work. Lewis deserves much more than deep appreciation for having a gospel-centric storyline in a series of children’s fantasy novels.
Along the way of editing the forthcoming volume, The Christian Mind of C. S. Lewis, I’ve had the opportunity to read a great deal of the scholarship on Lewis. Some of it is more fan-fiction than critical interaction, which is discouraging. There are a handful of people that really dislike Lewis or have a clear disdain for him, both personally and professionally. However, there are some people who carefully engage Lewis critically, as aficionados, but not as hagiographers.
James Como is a contributing author to the volume of essays I am editing (for full disclosure), whose work I have previously reviewed. Hi\s relatively early volume in Lewis studies, Branches to Heaven, is an excellent analysis of Lewis from someone who is both a fan and a critic of Lewis. His most recent critical introduction to C. S. Lewis is, in my mind, the best place for individuals beginning their interest in the study of Lewis beyond The Chronicles to gain a foothold.
C. S. Lewis: A Very Short Introduction is a volume in the rapidly growing series of short introductions by Oxford University Press. Every book in the series has several limiting attributes: they are short and they are introductory. For those decades deep into the study of Lewis, Como provides little new data. However, what Como does masterfully well is write a lively text that covers the life and work of Lewis fairly comprehensively. Having read so much in the past year on Lewis, there is no doubt in my mind that this will remain a central volume for those seeking to understand the enduring appeal of Lewis.
Como’s book is a combination biography and critique, so it is organized in a generally chronological fashion. Moving through each of the stages of Lewis’s life and work, the reader gets a good sense of what shaped Lewis, why he was writing on the subjects he did, and how his overall work fits together. Without psychoanalyzing Lewis’s works (which he would have hated), the book makes connections that help the reader understand the context of Lewis. An image of an integrated mind, well-steeped in the historical teaching of Scripture and classical culture emerges. This is, based on my own study, deeply accurate.
In addition to the central content of the book, which is excellent, Como has also provided a topically sorted list of books that influenced Lewis, are significant within Lewis studies, and are helpful to understanding more about the man and his works. With decades of engagement in scholarship related to Lewis and his own understanding of much of the classical literature, that “extra” information alone makes this book worth the price.
Como’s writing is accessible. This is the sort of book that can be read by a teenager studying Lewis to increase their interest, enhance their understanding, and point them deeper into the mind of C. S. Lewis. This is also the perfect book to use in a college-level course on the work of C. S. Lewis. It is reasonably prices, concise, and points the way to Lewis’s work, instead of drawing attention to itself.
NOTE: I received a gratis copy of this volume from the publisher with no expectation of a positive review.