C. S. Lewis would doubtless have scoffed at the idea of a reference book about himself, just as he disapproved of university courses devoted to modern authors, on the sensible ground that “helps” to reading them are not needed and come between the writer and his audience. Nonetheless, the many students and admirers of the great Christian apologist and literary scholar now are offered two thick compendia on his life and work. Each has its virtues and faults, and both are worthwhile investments - though not a substitute for the straight, unfiltered Lewis.
The Companion and Guide is the production of one man, who has devoted almost his entire adult lifetime to editing and writing about Lewis. The Readers’ Encyclopedia is a composite work whose contributors range from giants in the field to eager amateurs. Each contains a vast quantity of information about Lewis, and either is a good investment. They are, however, distinctly different, in some respects mutually hostile, works.
When he first met C. S. Lewis in June 1963, Walter Hooper was an American schoolteacher who had dropped out of studying for the Episcopal priesthood and never gotten started as a graduate student in literature. Instantly star-struck, he volunteered to help with secretarial chores. Within a few months Lewis was dead of a heart attack, and this 32-year-old foreigner, whose academic credentials consisted of a master’s degree in education and who had never published professionally on any Lewisian topic, improbably became the great man’s de facto literary executor. Within a year he had edited the first collected edition of Lewis’ poems, and he has worked at the same stand ever since. The double meaning of the present volume’s title is no accident. The book is a companion and guide to readers of Lewis’ work, but Lewis has also been, metaphorically, a lifetime companion and guide to Walter Hooper.
Companion and Guide weighs in at almost a thousand pages (twice the length of the Readers’ Encyclopedia). It leads off with a hundred page biography that may well be the best life of Lewis yet written (not that the competition is very formidable). The next and longest section discusses each of CSL’s books, with the inexplicable omission of The Allegory of Love, his seminal tome on courtly love and medieval poetry. Of greatest interest are the accounts of how the works came to be written, which draw on Lewis’ vast, incompletely published correspondence and on conversations with his large circle of friends. Also provided are epitomes, which are useful for reference but sometimes flabby, and haphazard excerpts from book reviews. The last feature calls attention to one of the Companion’s defects: Hooper is too much a Lewis partisan to pay much attention to detractors. The uniform, almost gushing, praise of the quotations is not representative of contemporary reaction to Lewis. It would be very surprising if smashing modern idols had made him popular among the high priests of idolatry.
Closely related to the discussions of the works are short essays on “Key Ideas”. Relatively long pieces summarize Lewis’ positions on such topics as “Imagination”, “Natural Law” and “Reason”. Shorter ones range from “Bulverism” to “Monarchy” to “Quiddity”. These rapid presentations of Lewis’ point of view, quoting liberally from his own words, are excellent as far as they go, but have little critical depth.
Next come a “Who’s Who” of people who were important to Lewis, a miscellaneous “What’s What” of places, organizations, concepts, terms and facts (“The Kilns”, “Oxford University Socratic Club”, “Anthroposophy”, “Don(s)”, “Stage Plays of the Chronicles of Narnia”) that relate to Lewis in some fashion, and an 84 page bibliography of everything by Lewis that had appeared in print through about 1996.
The strength of the Companion is the immense fund of information that it provides. Its weaknesses are the author’s uncritical devotion to his subject and the lacunae in those areas that don’t interest him. The academic side of Lewis’ career, in particular, is underdeveloped. One finds little about the controversy over the Oxford English curriculum, in which Lewis played a prominent role. Likewise missing or scantily noticed are some of his most significant scholarly works, not only The Allegory of Love, but also important essays like “What Chaucer Really Did to Il Filostrato”, “Donne and Seventeenth Century Love Poetry” and “The Fifteenth-Century Heroic Line”.
The Readers’ Encyclopedia contains articles by 44 contributors with a wide range of backgrounds, though the great majority appear to be evangelical Christians of one sort or another, which may reflect who were willing and available to contribute rather than any intention of the editors. The most striking absentee is Walter Hooper, an omission that is, as the saying goes, not accidental.
In more than 400 pages, consisting of a 57-page biography followed by topical entries, the Encyclopedia covers the full scope of Lewis’ life, work and thought. The “work” draws the greatest attention. There are articles not only on the major books but also on virtually all of Lewis’ shorter pieces, including even letters to newspapers. In addition to summarizing content, most of the contributors consider its significance, respond to the views of critics or advance criticisms of their own. They may admire their subject, but this volume is not the production of a fan club.
Weighing the Encyclopedia against the Companion, the latter is heavier (almost twice as many pages), but the former is wider in scope, with more attention to CSL’s career as a scholar and more systematic coverage of his entire body of work. It makes room by treating topics more succinctly. Epitomes are shorter, there is less biographical detail, and quotations from the Lewis canon are less extensive. Unfortunately, one space saving idea was the omission of an index, the need for which is distinctly not obviated by simply by putting articles into alphabetical order.
Often both works are excellent, though many times in different ways. The Companion’s life of CSL’s close friend Owen Barfield tells much about the man but is rather imprecise on his ideas and how they influenced Lewis. The Encyclopedia’s fine article fills those gaps.
Elsewhere the Encyclopedia is clearly superior. The Companion’s discussions of An Experiment in Criticism and The Personal Heresy leave out the context in which Lewis developed his critical theories. The Encyclopedia gives him his place in the debates occasioned by the “New Criticism”.
The Companion has its innings, too. Its introductory biography is fuller and less given to unsupported psychological speculations. The Encyclopedia writer, curiously, accepts the conjectures of the anti-Christian polemicist A. N. Wilson on major issues (e. g., Lewis’ relationship with Mrs. Moore and the impact of his debate with Professor Anscombe), even while pointing out that Wilson in unreliable in detail and malicious in intent.
There are spots, inevitably, where both volumes are weak. Neither describes the substance of Professor G. E. M. Anscombe’s famous critique of Chapter III of Miracles or how Lewis amended the text to answer her criticisms. Those matters are surely of more lasting import than whether Lewis did or did not feel “defeated” after debating Anscombe.
They can also fail in different ways on the same topic. The Encyclopedia’s article on The Dark Tower, the controversial novel fragment published after Lewis’s death, is a one-sided diatribe in behalf of the theory that the work is a forgery. The Companion naturally does not allude to that allegation (as Walter Hooper is the accused forger), and it also says virtually nothing useful about the story. In fact, the uninspired plot summary is marked by omissions and mistakes. (The writer does not realize, for instance, that “Michael” is the given name of the protagonist, not of his Othertime double.)
Finally, there are a handful of this-can’t-be-real lapses. An Encyclopedia article begins, “C. S. Lewis followed traditional theological thinking of his time in presuming the Holy Spirit was the third person of the Trinity.” What a ripe example of the liberal historicizing that CSL so persistently combated! (I have little doubt that the contributor fully believes in the doctrine of the Trinity as taught in the Nicene Creed, but he falls without thinking into the patois of our time.)
In the current state of Lewis studies, where odium academicum runs strong, the appearance of rival guides is not, unhappily, much of a surprise. Also unsurprising are their divergent approaches to many of the controversies. Hooper’s volume serenely ignores accusations that a number of Lewis’ posthumously published works are spurious. The Encyclopedia treats the case as more or less proved, regurgitating the arguments of Kathryn Lindskoog without a trace of skepticism. Neither way of handling the matter is satisfactory.
Happily, the issues that set Lewis “professionals” at war with each other are of the most marginal importance to readers who are interested in Lewis primarily as a Christian apologist, literary critic, popular novelist or children’s storyteller. That audience will find much of value in whichever volume they buy and, when and if the subliminal clashes grow too noisy, they can always follow the sensible and profitable course of setting aside the commentary and picking up something by Lewis himself.