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C.S. LEWIS: A Biography

By A.N. Wilson
Illustrated with Photographs
334 pages, $22.50
GILBERT: The Man Who Was Chesterton
By Michael Coren
Illustrated with photographs
Paragon House
304 pages, $22.95

LIKE THOSE great guardians of London's Guildhouse, Gog and Magog, two figures bestride the strange world of writing on Christian themes in English: Gilbert Keith Chesterton dominated the first half of the 20th century, and Clive Staples Lewis the second. One may think of the first as the Beaconsfield Boy, the second as the Belfast Bruiser.

They were very similar in some ways. Both were possessed by what William Titterton once called "heroic jollity." Both loved pubs and what was sold in pubs -- to the consternation of many of the Lewis' American followers.

Both were plagued by sadomasochistic fantasies. Apostles of masculine friendship, they were more at home with men than with women. Both concluded marriages not lacking in grotesquerie.

The road that led them to full Christianity was the road to fairyland, and especially the fairy tales of George MacDonald. In their deepest beings, Chesterton always stayed a child and Lewis a boy.

Since their respective deaths, both writers have spawned biographies like salmon milting in the mating season.

The latest assessment of Chesterton, Michael Coren's "Gilbert," is a run-of-the-mill secondary biography. It does, however, break new ground by setting the record uncompromisingly straight on the matter of Chesterton's unfortunate anti-Semitism.

It began as the routine prejudice of a pre-1915 Englishman of the upper middle class, then grew sharper when Chesterton hobnobbed with the brilliant bigot Bellac, only to be formally recanted later at the time of the Hitler atrocities.

Summing up Chesterton's literary achievement, Coren is on solid ground when he calls him "the paramount essayist of his era."

A.N. Wilson's "C.S. Lewis" is a masterpiece of its kind. Wilson is too modest when he subtitles his book "A Biography." Up to now, at least, it must be adjudged the biography.

The book brings the whole man before us with all his warts in evidence; the bonny Orangeman who did not care for the Orange cause; the "red-faced pork butcher in shabby tweeds," as one astounded clergyman described him; the "beer and Beowulf" Lewis roaring out Old English hero-poems in tavern and tutorial; the lover of bawdry and hater of hymns.

If his Oxford colleagues denied Lewis the Chair of Literature he so richly deserved, it was not only because they found his boisterous Christianity offensive. He was, as Wilson points out, an off-putting colleague -- one capable, with J.R.R. Tolkien's assistance, of disruptive mischief in the Common Room. Like Dr. Johnson, he argued to win. His bullying tactics in debate often breached academic good taste.

But it must be remembered that giants are not renowned for good manners; and Lewis was a giant of giants. An amazing proportion of the reading world has responded as his pupil Kenneth Tynan did, "to a recognizable and tangible greatness in the man."

The impact of this book upon the reader is bracingly astringent -- not iconoclastic at all, unless "iconoclastic" in a Lewisian sense. Oddly enough, this cards-on-the-table stance of Wilson's, far from diminishing Lewis' stature, helps to make him an even greater person than we knew.

This is why I acclaim it so highly, despite the fact that I find Wilson's critical estimates wide of the mark so often. He does badly on Lewis' Narnia stories and worse on the interplanetary trilogy. Only Lewis' own literary criticism, especially his massive book on 17th century English literature, gets high marks.

Tolkien once said something to the effect that Lewis was always "being had -- first it was Mrs. Moore, then it was Charles Williams and now it's that damned Joy Davidman."

However, Wilson gives Williams his due as a person, novelist and beneficent influence on Lewis. And as for Janie Moore -- the woman Lewis took care of and served for 30 years -- Wilson praises her generosity and thinks that, on the whole, she actually was good for Lewis' pedagogical and creative career.

Wilson pulls no punches in the matter of Joy Davidman's abrasive brashness, though -- she destroyed the Inklings' round table as indubitably as Mordred did the Arthurian one.

Wilson writes of Lewis' popularity and significance:

"This phenomenon can only be explained by the fact that his writings, while being self-consciously and deliberately at variance with the 20th century, are paradoxically in tune with the needs and concerns of our times...

"It is not the rational Lewis who makes this enormous appeal, the Lewis who lectured on medieval and Renaissance literature with such superb fluency and wide-ranging erudition to generations of English students. It is the Lewis who plumbed the irrational depths of childhood and religion who speaks to the present generation."