Deep Magic, Dragons & Talking Mice by Alister McGrath is an engaging introduction to the life and writings of C.S. Lewis. As the title suggests, the book discusses the Narnia series, but also goes beyond this, giving readers a broad sweep of Lewis’ thought and interweaving it with the events of his life. Lewis was no ivory tower thinker, and his ideas are deeply connected with his life experiences—his childhood, academic pursuits, experience of war, friendships, loves, and losses.
McGrath is well qualified to write this book—he has been reading Lewis for 40 years, and published a substantial biography of him in 2013. He is convinced that Lewis is as much worth reading today as ever, and this book encourages people to take a closer look.
The book is divided thematically into eight sections. The first theme addressed is the meaning of life. McGrath explains how Lewis shifted from the atheism of a ‘glib and shallow rationalism’ (p8) to Christianity as he became convinced that the latter made more sense of the world and was much more satisfying intellectually, imaginatively, and emotionally.
The next section looks at the significant relationships in Lewis’s life, including Tolkien and the other Inklings, and his reflections on love and friendship.
Stories, Narnia, and Aslan are the focus of the next two sections, and these were a highlight for me as someone who is more familiar with Lewis’s non-fiction than his fiction. McGrath takes us beyond the simplistic ‘Aslan is Jesus’ understanding, and explains what Lewis is doing in the Narnia series. I had been aware that The Magician’s Nephew, The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe, and The Last Battle imaginatively portrayed the major events of the Christian narrative (respectively: creation and fall; atonement; and eschatology). But it was new to me that the other four stories in the series, set between redemption and the new creation, are explorations of ‘the life of faith, lived in the tension between the past and future comings of Aslan’, where Aslan is ‘at one and the same time an object of memory and hope’ (p57). These insights into Lewis’s enterprise have given me new eyes as I’ve begun reading The Silver Chair to my son. (It has also meant that I have to restrain myself from interrupting the story to explain to him the significance of this or that paragraph!)
The remaining sections give us an overview of Lewis’s ideas about apologetics, morality and education, suffering and grief, joy, and hope. Each of these whets the appetite for more. It is the nature of an overview to leave out details, and McGrath frequently mentions things in passing that leave you wanting to know more. (For instance, how exactly did Lewis’s science fiction trilogy respond to H.G. Wells’ promotion of eugenics?) However there is more than enough covered in Deep Magic, and in enough detail, to make it an overview well worth reading in its own right, as well as a helpful guide to which areas of Lewis’s writing one might like to explore next.
Deep Magic is an easy read. Like Lewis himself, McGrath is adept at presenting sophisticated ideas clearly and simply. The only (very minor) irritation was the framing of the sections as ‘conversations’ with Lewis, which was inconsistently applied, and did not really add anything to the presentation.
The subtitle, How reading CS Lewis can change your life, is not a marketer’s exaggeration. Countless people have had their lives changed by Lewis: their thinking deepened, faith strengthened, imaginations expanded, and for many, their hearts turned to God. If you are not familiar with Lewis’s thought—or only familiar with part of it—I recommend Deep Magic, Dragons, & Talking Mice as well worth a read.
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