The other side of Shadowlands

The story of C S Lewis and Joy Davidman has been popularised in film and on stage, but Brian Sibley's "Shadowlands" biography conveys greater depths.

Joss Ackland played him on television; Nigel Hawthorne performed his character on London's West End stage; Anthony Hopkins starred in the movie version of his story. The immense popularity of these two-dimensional versions of the story forced Brian Sibley to change his subtitle for the latest edition of "Shadowlands" to - "The true story of C S Lewis and Joy Davidman". Jack Lewis, as his friends knew him, is even more of a star forty years after his death than he was in his much-acclaimed life. "Shadowlands" is not the book of the film, play or TV drama, but the original on which all three visual media based their scripts. But a book can handle more dimensions. The reader's mind can run along the parallel tracks of multiple viewpoints. If you want the monochrome version the film will do. If you want the full colour of these two lives and the way chance wove them into a complex synthesis of tragedy and joy, you need to read the book.

"Shadowlands" is a slim volume - less than 175 pages and small enough to slip into a jacket pocket - but its story touches the breadth of human emotion and the depth of tested faith. It tells the story of C S Lewis, renowned scholar, broadcaster, Christian apologist, poet, children's author, novelist and complex human being. It also expounds on Joy Davidman, the converted Jew, journalist, former Communist, poet, novelist, and wit, who enriched the output of one of our greatest Christian writers. "A Grief Observed" is one of C S Lewis' (justifiably) best selling books; an honest, heart-rending, deeply penetrating analysis of personal bereavement, which could never have been written if he had not met, loved, married, then lost this under-rated lady. In the film hers is the supporting role. In Jack Lewis' life she was his intelligent equal.

The "Shadowlands" book does something else that the visual media could not achieve. It quotes from Lewis's writings. The quotes are not long, but they are telling. They slip in just where they belong; enhancing the narrative and enlightening the man's teachings by setting them in the context of personal trials, discoveries, delights and devastations. We see how her life reinvigorated his and how experience challenged his beliefs and caused him to find doubt - the pruning-knife that cuts through to reveal genuine faith. This is not the faith of law and strict observance, but that of vibrant life and honest reason. Strict observance would have prevented this marriage of an ageing bachelor-academic to a divorced mother of two. Officially, the church did refuse to marry them, but hindsight shows their union to have been blessed by God to bear precious spiritual fruit.

The book tells both stories from birth and childhood to premature death, for neither lived long by today's healthy standards. It shows how these complex characters were formed and why their meeting moved from distant respect to complete integration. It explains why a self-sufficient academic who was also a highly successful speaker and author became dependent on a woman we might otherwise have never heard of. Joy Davidman was the other side of Jack's "Shadowlands", whose unexpected involvement scoured new depths in an outstanding channel of wisdom.

Joy and Jack's story has now been told around the world, touching millions of hearts and turning many to delve into the legacy of faith which he left in his books. The TV drama, the play and the film have done a great deal of good (and I enjoyed them). But, to capture the depths of this human story, you need to read "Shadowlands"

© Derrick Phillips - 2000