By November 11, 2009 0 Comments Read More →

You Don’t Know Jack

shadowlandsMy wife and I have been reading Shadowlands aloud the last few nights. Many of you know this work from the film featuring Anthony Hopkins and Deborah Winger, but William Nicholson’s play is about events late in the life of C. S. Lewis.

Lewis never liked “Clive Staples.” When he lost a beloved dog as a boy, he declared that henceforth he would be “Jacksie” (after the dog). That evolved into Jack, the name by which his friends knew him.

Most of us know Lewis for his Narnia adventures. In junior high school, I started a society of “Narnian Believers,” distinguished from the mundane masses who couldn’t believe in something like Narnia. At the time I hadn’t an inkling (wink wink, nudge nudge) of Lewis’s beliefs and how they were lurking in my favorite series, but I guess something was sinking through, because I demanded strict faith from my gang of NBs. (Yeah, I was that kind of geeky kid… imagine that).

magicians-nephewTo many, Lewis is most notable for the Christian apologetic theological works he penned. Shadowlands explores those beliefs, adding midlife romance and heartbreaking tragedy to the mix. In middle years, Lewis returned to Christianity and became famous for lectures and essays on his beliefs, particularly his acceptance of suffering in this world as a necessary herald of God’s larger plan.

Those beliefs faced a test when Lewis became involved, first through correspondence, with a married American, Joy Gresham (nee Davidson). Gresham came to England with her sons (only Douglas appears in Shadowlands, but there was a second son, David) while avoiding her abusive alcoholic husband. After Joy divorced, Joy and Jack married, at first to enable Gresham’s stay in England, then later, as their intellectual match bloomed, for love.

Unfortunately, Joy contracted cancer. After a bedside hospital marriage, Joy had a remission that allowed them a few years, but the disease returned. Shadowlands tells their beautiful but tragic tale, turning complex moral questions into a concrete story that’s easy to enter, hard to forget. The disease’s terrible toll tested Lewis, both the limits of his escape to fantasy worlds and his belief in the higher purpose of earthly suffering.

Small book groups could read Shadowlands aloud in a longer meeting, but many good books would also pair well in discussion of this quick read. Groups should consider a C. S. Lewis theme. Either the first of the Narnia books, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, or The Magician’s Nephew (which figures in the play and features a character who is a kind of stand-in for Lewis) would make fine choices.narnian

Lewis’s autobiography Surprised by Joy, or his exploration of his loss, A Grief Observed, are also apt. Both were written after Joy’s death in the four years that Lewis had left before a heart attack claimed his life. Or try Brian Sibley’s nonfiction account of the relationship in Through the Shadowlands or Lyle Dorsett’s biography of Joy Davidson called And God Came In

 There are many good Lewis biographies to choose from as well. Among the best are Douglas Gresham’s account of his father figure, Jack’s Life; George Sayer’s account of his long-time friend, Jack: A Life of C. S. Lewis; or Alan Jacobs’ The Narnian, which is probably the most balanced of the Lewis biographies. 

Whichever path your group takes through the Shadowlands, you should enjoy pondering the life and work of Lewis. It’s fascinating for those with religious beliefs, but shouldn’t be uncomfortable for the firmest of nonbelievers.

But I still expect you to believe in Narnia.

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About the Author:

Neil Hollands is an Adult Services Librarian at Williamsburg Regional Library in Virginia, where he specializes in readers’ advisory and collection development. He is the author of Read On . . . Fantasy Fiction (2007) and Fellowship in a Ring: a Guide for Science Fiction and Fantasy Book Groups (2009).

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