Wednesday, 17 September 2008

In the footsteps of C.S. Lewis in Oxford

Taking a tour of Oxford is like taking a tour of the life of C.S. Lewis - and vice versa. That is because there are just so many places in Oxford that are associated with C.S. Lewis. I thoroughly enjoyed taking such a tour with some friends last Saturday and would like to share the experience with you...

C.S. Lewis was born on 29 November 1898 in Northern Ireland. He first came to Oxford at the age of 18 for the purpose of studying at the university. In his book Surprised by Joy, C.S. Lewis writes about his arrival in Oxford:

My first taste of Oxford was comical enough. I had made no arrangements about quarters and, having no more luggage than I could carry in my hand, I sallied out of the railway station on foot to find either a lodging-house or a cheap hotel; all agog for "dreaming spires" and "last enchantments." My first disappointment at what I saw could be dealt with. Towns always show their worst face to the railway. But as I walked on and on I became more bewildered. Could this succession of mean shops really be Oxford? But I still went on, always expecting the next turn to reveal the beauties, and reflecting that it was a much larger town than I had been led to suppose.

Only when it became obvious that there was very little town left ahead of me, that I was in fact getting to open country, did I turn round and look. There behind me, far away, never more beautiful since, was the fabled cluster of spires and towers. I had come out of the station on the wrong side and been all this time walking into what was even then the mean and sprawling suburb of Botley. I did not see to what extent this little adventure was an allegory of my whole life. I merely walked back to the station, somewhat footsore, took a hansom, and asked to be driven to "some place where I can get rooms for a week, please."

The method, which I should now think hazardous, was a complete success, and I was soon at tea in comfortable surroundings. The house is still there, the first on the right as you turn into Mansfield Road out of Holywell.

Here is a photo of the house where Lewis spent his first night in Oxford:

On 26 April 1917, Lewis - a convinced atheist - began his undergraduate studies at University College, where more than a century earlier, the poet Shelley (perhaps the most famous student of University College) had been expelled for atheism. However, as World War I was raging, Lewis volunteered to join the army and was deployed in France where he was wounded in battle and had to return to England. Following the war, Lewis resumed his studies at University College where he received various degrees in classical and English literature and philosophy. (University College is pictured below.)

On 20 May 1925, C.S. Lewis became a tutor in English language and literature at Magdalen College, a position which he held for 29 years. Below are some photos from my first visit to Magdalen College last week:

Lewis' rooms at Magdalen College were in the "New" Building, that is the one that was built in 1735:

His rooms are still identified today by red flowers in the window sills:

It was in these rooms in 1929 that C.S. Lewis converted to a theistic belief in God. He writes about that experience in Surprised by Joy:

You must picture me alone in that room in Magdalen, night after night, feeling, whenever my mind lifted even for a second from my work, the steady, unrelenting approach of Him whom I so earnestly desired not to meet. That which I greatly feared had at last come upon me. In the Trinity Term of 1929 I gave in, and admitted that God was God, and knelt and prayed: perhaps, that night, the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England.

The video clip below sheds more light on C.S. Lewis' struggle with atheism and how he came to admit the existence of God:

However, his new-found faith in God was merely a theistic belief in the existence of God and not yet a belief and faith in Jesus Christ. C.S. Lewis' friends Hugo Dyson and J.R.R. Tolkien (author of The Lord of the Rings) played an important role in leading Lewis to Christ. On the night of 19-20 September 1931, these three friends went for a walk just outside the college along Addison's Walk (pictured below).

While they were walking, they discussed religion and mythology (quoted from They Stand Together: The Letters of C.S. Lewis to Arthur Geeves):

He [Hugo Dyson] stayed the night with me in College... Tolkien came too, and did not leave till 3 in the morning... We began (in Addison's Walk just after dinner) on metaphor and myth - interrupted by a rush of wind which came so suddenly on the still warm evening and sent so many leaves pattering down that we thought it was raining.... We continued on Christianity: a good long satisfying talk in which I learned a lot....

Now what Dyson and Tolkien showed me was this: that if I met the idea of sacrifice in a Pagan story I didn't mind it at all: and again, that if I met the idea of god sacrificing himself to himself.... I liked it very much... provided I met it anywhere except in the Gospels... Now the story of Christ is simply a true myth: a myth working on us in the same way as the others, but with tremendous difference that it really happened.... Does this amount to a belief in Christianity? At any rate I am now certain (a) that this Christian story is to be approached, in a sense, as I approach the other myths; (b) that it is the most important and full of meaning. I am also nearly sure that it happened....

Eight days later, while travelling in the sidecar of his brother's motorbike to Whipsnade Zoo, C.S. Lewis finally embraced Christianity, recognising that Jesus Christ was indeed the Son of God. Lewis' conversion to Christianity is explained in more detail in the following video clip:

After becoming a Christian, C.S. Lewis started attending the weekday morning prayer services in the chapel of Magdalen College:

On Wednesdays, C.S. Lewis would often attend the church of St. Peter's-in-the-East (now converted into the Teddy Hall Library) for Holy Communion:

In the early 1930s, an informal literary discussion group with the name of the "Inklings" was started, of which, among others, Lewis, Tolkien and Dyson were the most prominent members. This group also included atheists and the meetings were first held in Lewis' college rooms at Magdalen. From 1939 onwards, the Inklings started to meet regularly in "The Eagle and Child" pub (also called "Bird and Baby"):

According to C.S. Lewis' brother Warren, the Inklings had "no rules, officers, agendas, or formal elections" - it was simply a place to discuss and enjoy literary fiction. Below are photos of some memorabilia of the Inklings on display in the pub:

During World War II, the Eagle and Child often used to be full with American troops waiting for D-Day and so the Inklings would have to find another pub for their meetings. This was often "The White Horse" or "The King's Arms":

It was during World War II that C.S. Lewis preached what is probably his most famous sermon, "The Weight of Glory". The sermon was delivered in the University Church of St. Mary the Virgin:

In this sermon, Lewis talked about how the self-denial that Christ demands from His followers does not mean that a Christian cannot seek joy in this life. In fact, the Christian life is all about finding true and lasting joy, not in the pleasures that this world can give, but in Christ:

The New Testament has lots to say about self-denial, but not about self-denial as an end in itself. We are told to deny ourselves and to take up our crosses in order that we may follow Christ; and nearly every description of what we shall ultimately find if we do so contains an appeal to desire. If there lurks in most modern minds the notion that to desire our own good and earnestly to hope for the enjoyment of it is a bad thing, I submit that this notion has crept in from Kant and the Stoics and is no part of the Christian faith. Indeed, if we consider the unblushing promises of reward and the staggering nature of the rewards promised in the Gospels, it would seem that Our Lord finds our desires, not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.

Another church where C.S. Lewis was asked to preach is St. Aldate's:

C.S. Lewis first meeting with the poet T.S. Eliot was in the Mitre Inn:

It was probably not the most pleasant of meetings. Lewis had earlier remarked that he hated the modernist poetry of Eliot and opening statement on meeting Lewis was "You look a lot smaller in real life." It was only for the sake of a mutual friend that these two men met, but they seemed to get on better afterwards and even worked on a revision of the Psalms together in later years.

C.S. Lewis wrote his famous Chronicles of Narnia between 1949 and 1954. During this time, he also first met Joy Gresham. In the movie Shadowlands, this meeting is filmed in the Randolph Hotel. However, the meeting actually took place in the Eastgate Hotel (which also served as a meeting place for the Inklings):

If you are wondering who this "Joy Gresham" is, you should definitely watch the movie. It's a beautiful and true story about C.S. Lewis and Joy Gresham. You can watch the trailer below:

From 1929 until his death in 1963, C.S. Lewis lived in a house called "The Kilns" outside of Oxford. Today, this house is located in a suburb of Oxford in "Lewis Close":

This is where Lewis wrote the Narnia books. During World War II, Lewis opened his home to some children who were evacuated from London because of the bombing. If you are familiar with C.S. Lewis' classic Chronicles of Narnia - The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, you will undoubtedly notice the similarities to the four Pevensie children from London who come to stay at the professor's home during the war...

There is a lake close to the Kilns in an area which is now called the "C.S. Lewis Nature Reserve":

Lewis could see this lake and the surrounding area from his study window and was inspired by it as he wrote the Chronicles of Narnia. He also used to swim in this lake, as did the poet Shelley about 100 years earlier! Unfortunately, I was not able to go for a swim there last week... :-(

On Sundays, C.S. Lewis attended Holy Trinity Church, not too far from his home in the Kilns:

On the left side towards the back of the church, there is a small brass plaque that marks the spot where C.S. Lewis used to sit, and where I also took the opportunity to sit for a short while:

The church also has a special "Narnia window" which is dedicated to two children of the church who died at an early age:

When I visited the church, there was a poster at the back with a quote from C.S. Lewis' book Mere Christianity:

C.S. Lewis died on 22 November 1963 at the age of 64. He is buried in a grave in the churchyard of Holy Trinity Church:

There are a lot more places in Oxford associated with C.S. Lewis, which I did not mention. I would recommend you go for yourself to Oxford one day and enjoy this beautiful city that is so full of history. When I was in Oxford, I found this website of the C.S. Lewis Foundation to provide a good guide on C.S. Lewis in Oxford, as well as a booklet called The Oxford of J.R.R. Tolkien & C.S. Lewis, which can be bought at the tourist information.


Ann Garci said...

I love History so this quick snapshot of Oxford and CS Lewis was most enjoyable.

Thank you for allowing me to see Oxford through your eyes. I jotted down two of the books you mentioned as well as the movie. I plan on following up on those.

Looking forward to your next trips.

Anonymous said...

What a great post - I loved that one since I have been reading the NARNIA books as a kid and many more times after. Thanks for posting the thorough research.