WASHINGTON, Sept. 19 (UPI) -- C.S. Lewis, the most popular Christian writer in the English language, was also a literary critic who warned readers to beware of what he called the "personal heresy."
A novel or a poem should be understood on its own, he would say. Sifting through an author's life for clues is just "gossip."
The new PBS documentary titled "The Magic Never Ends" is "gossip" of the most elevated kind.
The Crouse Entertainment Group and the Duncan Group have produced a fascinating hour-long look at the life and work of the Oxford don whose 38 books have never gone out of print and have sold more than 200 million copies to date.
The film had its Washington premier this week at a congressional screening.
Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan., said Lewis' books remain popular because they wrap eternal truths into the issues of the day. Producer Chip Duncan spoke of the "moral thread" running through Lewis' works, which still resonates because his characters -- like those in epics -- are always battling with their choices.
Although Lewis' disapproved of snooping for insights in an author's biography, "The Magic Never Ends" enriches our appreciation of this endlessly complex man.
"You'll never get to the bottom of him," J.R.R. Tolkien advised Lewis' biographer and longtime friend George Sayer. Ted Olsen, writing in the Winter 2000, issue of Christian History, said Lewis remained a surprise and a mystery even to Sayer.
The movie, visually lovely and aurally lush, gives us a feel for Lewis' world. "To see through Lewis' eyes is to see the universe almost as I think God sees it," said Walter Hooper, an American who assisted Lewis in England in the early 1960s.
"The Magic Never Ends" is especially useful to someone like the reviewer, who is aware of Lewis' reputation but has read little of his work. Renowned actor Ben Kingsley narrates.
The following outline of Lewis' life is derived from the documentary as well as other sources.
Four-year-old Clive Staples Lewis, the second son of a Protestant Belfast police-court lawyer, didn't like his first name. After his dog, Jacksie, was run over by one of the first cars in Ireland, he announced that he would answer only to that name, which was soon shortened to Jacks and then to Jack.
When Jack was only 9, he lost his mother to cancer. "He prayed and asked God to heal her, and of course she died," said Lyle Dorsett in the film. "And he believed at that time, God either isn't there, or if he's there, he's just cruel." Dorsett, a professor of evangelism at Wheaton College, Ill., is a Lewis scholar.
Albert Lewis never fully recovered from his wife's death and became increasingly estranged from his sons. Soon Jack was sent to boarding school.
In 1917, he took officer's training with Edward Courtnay Francis "Paddy" Moore. The two teenagers agreed that if one of them were killed, the survivor would care for the other's family. Lewis arrived in France, on his 19th birthday, Nov. 29, 1917. He was severely wounded on April 15, 1918. Paddy Moore was killed on the Western Front.
"The Magic Never Ends" deals delicately with the long and complicated relationship between Jack Lewis and his friend's mother, Janie King Moore (1873-1951). Dorsett interviewed Mrs. Moore's daughter, Maureen, who suspected a romantic involvement between the 21-year-old wounded veteran and the still attractive 47-year-old woman in the early phases. "Stranger things have happened," Dorsett told the filmmakers.
Lewis lived with the Moores from 1921 onward. In 1932, his brother, Warnie, retired from the army and joined the household.
In 1924, Lewis was a philosophy tutor at University College, Oxford, and in 1925 was elected a fellow of Magdalen College at that university, where he served as tutor in English language and literature until 1954.
He abandoned his atheism in 1929 and "admitted that God was God." He became a Christian during a long walk on a rainy autumn night in 1931 with J.R.R. Tolkien and Hugo Dyson. These scholars convinced Lewis that previous myths of "the dying god" were glimpses, or premonitions, of Jesus, who was authentic.
Dorsett pointed out that Lewis' fabulously successful works of Christian apologetics make people forget the excellence of his academic publications. For example, the volume on 16th century English literature that Lewis wrote for the Oxford History of English Literature has become a classic, Dorsett said.
Justice cannot be done to the full scope of Lewis' work in a review of this length. Many know him through the "Screwtape Letters" a satire in which an older demon instructs his nephew on the ways to win a young man to damnation. Others know his "Chronicles of Narnia" a seven-volume series of children's books of Christian allegory. In "Mere Christianity," a compendium of Lewis' World War II BBC radio broadcasts, he provided people of all denominations with the essentials of Christian theology.
Lewis was denied a full professorship at Oxford, and in 1954, accepted the chair of Medieval and Renaissance Literature at Cambridge.
In the 1993 feature film "Shadowlands," Anthony Hopkins played Lewis and Debra Winger played Joy Davidman Gresham, an American former communist of Jewish background who was led to Christianity through Lewis' work and eventually became his wife. As all films must, "Shadowlands" partly fictionalizes the lives of its historical characters, but experts disagree on the "truth" of the Lewis-Davidman relationship.
"The Magic Never Ends" gives credence to those who say that Lewis entered into a "registrar" marriage with Davidson, the mother of two boys, on April 23, 1956, to prevent her threatened deportation by British immigration authorities. Love came later, they say.
Shortly after the civil ceremony, Davidman was diagnosed with bone cancer. Her health failed, and -- her death thought to be imminent -- Lewis honored her desire for a Christian marriage. In December 1956, an Anglican priest officiated at a bedside ceremony. Davidman was sent home to die.
But her cancer went into extraordinary remission, and the couple lived as man and wife for more than three years. The disease returned early in 1960, and Joy died on July 13 of that year.
Lewis was crushed. He poured out his anguish in a book titled "A Grief Observed," published first in 1961 under a pseudonym because Lewis didn't want to appear self-pitying.
Lewis died on Nov. 22, 1963, a passing overshadowed by the assassination of John F. Kennedy.
In the film, the love and respect that Douglas Gresham, Davidman's son, felt for his stepfather comes through in everything he says. Nevertheless, Gresham admonished, "It's far more important to remember the Christ whom Jack was pointing to all the time in his works, even his works of fiction ... than to get too tied up in Jack the man."