BOOK REVIEW: The Chronicles Of C.S. Lewis
The cover copy on Shawn Small’s newest book begins thus: “Imagine C.S. Lewis invites you into his home. He ushers you to a seat by the fire, fills his pipe, and begins to tell you the story of his life…” That is the journey Small undertakes in The Chronicles Of C.S. Lewis: An Exploration Of His Life Through His Own Words. Small is a clever and capable tour guide.
But it’s a challenging tour to guide. The book’s format is as exacting as it is intriguing. Each of the 74 chapters provides a brief snapshot from Lewis’s life and thought, followed by a summary of a related book. In some cases, this structure falls together naturally, as when Small discusses Lewis’s conversion that Lewis himself described in Surprised By Joy. At other times, the mash-up of biography and literary review is forced, as when Small praises The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe without connecting it to anything from Lewis’s experience. But once the reader settles into the pattern, there is much to admire in this book.
You get to know the works of C.S. Lewis better than ever before. In preparation for this book, Small read all 74 of the book-length works published by Lewis, and took four “pilgrimages” (his word) to Oxford and Belfast. It’s safe to say that most modern literate Christians have some familiarity with Lewis’s masterworks like Mere Christianity or The Chronicles Of Narnia. It’s equally safe to say that few are as familiar with the breadth of the Lewis canon as Small is. The book provides a sort-of “cheat sheet” for choosing which Lewis books to read next, what each is about, and where it fits into the diverse Lewis oeuvre.
But more helpfully, Chronicles helps the reader get to know Lewis himself, through his own words.
You visit Lewis's haunts: The Kilns, The Eagle and Child, Addison’s Walk, Magdalen College, even his private study complete with the fireplace and armchair you imagined when you read the cover copy. For these, the whimsical illustrations of Ross Lawhead are both helpful and enjoyable.
You appreciate Lewis’s imagination: from the imaginary land called Boxen he invented in boyhood collaboration with his brother Warren, to the Narnian creation for which he is most famous, you come to appreciate the sparkling depth of Lewis’s myth-making mind. Myth was at the center of Lewis’s imaginative journey. Myth was there in a book of Norse stories when he first met lifelong friend Arthur Greeves. Myth was in the shadows along Addison’s Walk when Lewis finally saw a pathway to embracing both story and reason.
You see Lewis’s virtue on display: his unyielding joy and playfulness despite the hardships of war, disease, and grief; his deep understanding of love that informed his lifestyle and his exploration of that topic in The Four Loves; his generosity with his money, his time, and even his marital status to help others.
You see Lewis’s remarkable, genre-busting capacity for thought. Lewis published works in science fiction, religious allegory, Christian apologetics, literary criticism, social commentary, narrative poetry, and autobiography. He was at once a professor of literature and a creator of myth, a textbook apologist and a poetic iconoclast.
It’s in these ways that Chronicles takes the reader inside Lewis’s spacious mind to present a journey worth remembering. In a personal, straightforward style, Shawn Small has written a landmark book about Lewis. Or, more precisely, and more wisely, Small has curated a journey through C.S. Lewis’s life and words that will be a delight to Lewis acolytes and neophytes alike. When you turn the last page in Chronicles, you feel exactly as you would expect to feel after that long, imagined conversation in the fire-crackling, pipe-smoky study at The Kilns: enlivened, challenged, delighted, and grateful for the legacy of C.S. Lewis.