Jack: A Celebration Of The Life & Work Of C.S. Lewis, Nov. 29, 1898-Nov. 22, 1963
Mike Foster, retired Illinois Central College professor of English and journalism, independent scholar:
“I first encountered C.S. Lewis at age 13 when I bought a copy of Out of the Silent Planet at a used book store on Hamilton Boulevard near Main Street in downtown Peoria.
I was going through my sci-fi phase, which comes to young boys right between building plastic model airplanes and customized cars and the discovery that girls are, uh, cute.
So I liked that book but I found its sequel Perelandra to be a bit of a slog. I’m not sure that I finished it that time.
Lewis remained un-revisited until 1969 during my first year of marriage to Jo and graduate school at Marquette when I read Mere Christianity. There, his superb similes and lucid logic brought me back to the Catholicism that I had drifted away from three years earlier.
Eventually I read all of his fiction and most all of his non-fiction. Like Lewis’ great and good friend J.R.R. Tolkien, I had little sympathy for the Narnia chronicles, which seemed to be artless pastiches. I was only able to finish them when I followed the advice of Dr. Chris Mitchell (RIP) of Wheaton College’s Wade Center and read them in the order of their interior chronology beginning with The Magician’s Nephew. I’ve felt no desire to re-read them, nor did I share them with my two daughters.
But I did find two of his novels worth teaching in the fantasy literature class I taught at Illinois Central College from 1974 until I retired in 2005. More about those two is interleaved below.
His letters are generous and fascinating. Like Tolkien’s younger brother Hilary, Lewis’ older brother Warnie was likewise a fine writer.
Moreover, some of Lewis poetry is splendid and so is most of his nonfiction. One title in particular, The Problem of Pain, looms large in my legend as I approach my 68th birthday Dec. 28.
He died Nov. 22, 1963, the same day and indeed the same hour as another and more famous Jack, Pres. John F. Kennedy, 50 years and 11 days ago.
I have been blessed by the friendship of two of Lewis’ younger friends, Colin Havard, the son of The Inklings Dr. Robert Havard , and George Sayer (RIP), author of the best Lewis biography, Jack.
Other friends I met because of Lewis and Tolkien speak up below.”
Laura Schmidt, archivist, the Marion E. Wade Center, Wheaton College, Wheaton, Illinois.
“Like so many others, I first discovered C.S. Lewis as a child by entering Narnia through the wardrobe door in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. I had seen the 1979 animated production and was read the book by my third-grade teacher in a public elementary school. Lewis inspired my imagination and added to my already fervent love of reading.
As I grew, Lewis’s writings continued to influence my life. I remember vividly reading Mere Christianity for the first time in high school and having questions of faith I’d struggled with answered in a clear and profound voice from the same author I’d learned to love as a child.
I continue to read and re-read Lewis’s works with delight. He always has something valuable to share, and his books remain fresh with each reading. I’m honored I get to share his works with others as well now with my position at The Marion E. Wade Center. What a joy! Happy birthday, Jack.”
Joe R. Christopher, author and scholar, Oklahoma:
“The first book I remember reading by Lewis was Out of the Silent Planet. I was in the garage behind my parents’ home in Bartlesville, Oklahoma, one hot summer afternoon. I read it between a SF novel by Heinlein and a SF novel by Asimov. When I read Lewis, I said to myself, “Hmm, this is certainly old-fashioned science fiction.” Later I came back to it.“
Books on Lewis: The Romances of Clive Staples Lewis (University Microfilms, 1970). C. S. Lewis: An Annotated Checklist of Writings about Him and his Works, with Joan K. Ostling (Kent State University Press, 1974). C. S. Lewis (Twayne, 1987), and some privately printed chapbooks.
“Perhaps because it ventures the least, Out Of the Silent Planet may the best of the Ransom trilogy. Indeed, the writing of it began as a wager of sorts with fellow Inkling J.R.R.Tolkien. Roused by reading David Lindsay’s Voyage to Arcturus and W. Olaf Stapleton’s First and Last Men, Lewis said to Tolkien, “We shall have to write books of the sort ourselves. Suppose you write a thriller that’s a time journey—you have such a strong sense of time—and I write one that’s a space-journey.”
If it’d been for stakes of a pint of Tetley’s best bitter, Tolkien bought. His first two chapters of “The Lost Road”, featuring a vaguely Lombardic widower father and his twelve-year-old son, were returned with discouraging words by Allen & Unwin, publishers of the rather successful The Hobbit, and the incomplete work would wait fifty years for posthumous publication as the fifth volume of The History of Middle- earth in 1987.
Lewis’ space travel tale of a Cambridge don shanghaied to Mars, however, was promptly published in 1938 by the third firm it was proferred to. Despite good reviews, the book did not begin to sell well until Lewis’ fame grew due to his radio talks on Christianity and the popularity of The Screwtape Letters.
It begins as Elwin Ransom, a vacationing philologist on a walking tour, meets a distraught woman and rescues her feeble-witted son from two men. In the first of the novel’s many unlikely coincidences, one of them is the cynical mocker Devine, an old school-fellow of Ransom’s, who introduces Weston, a burly bully of a physics professor. Thus the word and the world, language and science, are personified in these two, and the stage is set for their final confrontation.
Ransom frees the boy but is himself drugged and sapped, awaking in darkness and oppressive heat to find himself hijacked to Mars. The spacecraft conveying him there is laughably un-scientific, as 65 years of hindsight with real space travel demonstrates. The three men are naked, a curious touch, and bathed in warm sunlight.
The ship travels at speeds even physics flunkees know are impossible. They feast on tea, tinned meat, biscuits, butter, coffee, and whiskey. Air conservation is a convenient reason for Lewis to avoid writing dialogue. Weston’s spaceship might as well be Tinker Bell’s fairy dust, mere magic means to convey them to the Neverland of Malacandra, which men call Mars.
There Ransom escapes, and soon he encounters the first of the three species of Malacandra, the seal-like fisherfolk hrossa. Hyoi, the first he meets, kindly gives him a drink of something alcoholic at once, another bit of serendipity, and thus the first of Ransom’s close encounters begins.
As his friend Tolkien did with hobbit, elf, and dwarf, Lewis trifurcates the human personality with the species of Malacandra. The hrossa live simple but satisfying lives in aboriginal beehivish huts, with no arts except poetic chant and music. Through them he learns of the seroni, the gaunt Easter-Islandish creatures who are the intelligentisia of Malacandra, and the pfifltriggi, tapir-headed frog-bodied delvers and goldsmiths, rather like Tolkien’s dwarves, though the one Ransom encounters talks in a kind of pidgin that seems half Gollum and half Tonto.
Ransom learns, too, of eldila, or angels, and of Oyarsa: the proprietary God of this unfallen world. With remarkable economy, Lewis realizes this subcreated society in only 25 pages.
In one of the book’s great schoolboy moments halfway through, Ransom, who’d vomited from seasickness on his first boat ride with Hyoi, redeems himself with heroism, joining the spear-fishers, slaying the deadly but tasty hnakra, and embracing Hyoi in triumph:
“They were all hnau. They had stood shoulder to shoulder in the face of an enemy, and the shapes of their heads no longer mattered. And he, even Ransom, had come through it and had not been disgraced. He had grown up.”
At that very moment, an English rifle cracks; Hyoi is slain; the serpents Weston and Devine have come to trouble Paradise.
When Weston and Devine are captured and brought to trial before Oyarsa. Ransom must translate Weston’s megalomaniac chauvinistic rant, and the absurdity of the hyper-scientist’s self-defensive delusion is laid bare as Ransom struggles to convey his rationale: “Life is greater than any system of morality.”
The three are spared and banished back to Earth, Thulcandra, the silent—because ungodly—planet of the title, in a dangerous journey. In the last of the book’s boggling coincidences, Ransom not only makes it back to Earth but to England, crashing conveniently close to a pub. His final words are “A pint of bitter, please.”
Perelandra (1943) and That Hideous Strength (1945) have virtues that merit reading and re-reading. But this first and shortest Ransom story may be the best, solid with the strength of simplicity.”
Dr. Donald T. Williams, Tocoa, Georgia, Tocoas Falls College:
“I had been reading The Lord of the Rings as a high-school junior in 1968, and a friend said, ‘If you like Tolkien, you should check out his friend C. S. Lewis.’ So I went to the library and checked out the first Lewis book that fell into my hands: An Experiment in Criticism. I have never met anyone else for whom that was the first Lewis book. But it made so much sense that I had to keep going until I had read every word that Lewis published (and a few that he didn’t). If I can make any claim to being a Christian thinker of any use to the Kingdom at all, C. S. Lewis is largely to blame.
All my books show the marks of his influence for those who have the eyes to see, but three do in particular: Mere Humanity: G. K. Chesterton, C. S. Lewis, and J. R. R. Tolkien on the Human Condition (Nashville: Broadman, 2006), Inklings of Reality: Essays toward a Christian Philosophy of Letters (Lynchburg: Lantern Hollow Press, 2012), and Reflections from Plato’s Cave: Essays in Evangelical Philosophy (Lynchburg: Lantern Hollow Press, 2013).”
Janet Brennan Croft, New Brunswick, New Jersey.
Head of Access and Delivery Services
Rutgers University Libraries
“The first Lewis title I read was The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, which I ran across at about the same time I was discovering other great works of fantasy like The Prydain Cycle and The Hobbit – probably around [age] seven or eight.
I now find myself turning most frequently, though, to the literary essays in On Stories, but I also enjoy the sly wit of The Screwtape Letters.
Of his fiction, I feel his final novel Till We Have Faces is the best. Lewis’s logical thought processes and reasoned arguments are what appeal to me most directly. Even when I don’t agree with him, I feel challenged to frame my disagreements with equal clarity and lucidity.
My favorite book about Lewis, which I feel really brings out what I appreciate in him, is Michael Ward’s Planet Narnia: The Seven Heavens in the Imagination of C.S. Lewis, a fascinating revelation of the immense learning and deep structure behind Lewis’s writing.”
David Doughan, London, England,
“First Lewis title: The Screwtape Letters.
Best work: probably Till We Have Faces.
Overall: as a fiction writer, very variable (I’m not really a Narnia fan). As a theologian, even more so. As an English scholar: pretty good. As a correspondent: excellent!”
The final novel in Lewis’ so-called Ransom trilogy, That Hideous Strength, is the most carefully crafted and creatively complicated, arguably both the best and the worst, of the three.
Elwin Ransom, the philologist professor protagonist of 1938’s Out of the Silent Planet and 1943’s Perelandra, is not the focus here, first appearing half-way through, apotheosized into “Mr. Fisher-King,”
Instead, this story’s protagonists are Mark and Jane Studdock, a not-very-happily married couple of young scholars. Neither very good nor very bad people, they must soon perforce choose to be saved or be damned. In this bifurcated “modern fairy tale for grown-ups,” Lewis brilliantly records the progress of two pilgrims, one reluctantly benevolent, one all too eager to embrace perdition. True to faery tradition are sharp absolutes of good and evil. Ransom presides at the communal refuge St.-Anne’s-on-the-Hill, where Jane seeks sanctuary from her nightmare visions. Belbury, where Mark cravenly covets acceptance into the inner circle of N.I.C.E., the National Institute for Co-ordinated Experiments, demonstrates a godless pragmatic bureaucracy, a comfortably luxurious vestibule to hell.
Lewis shifts scenes between doubting Jane and vainglorious Mark. Even names reflect this dualism. Thus Mark meets the sadistic lesbian N.I.C.E. institutional police chief Fairy Hardcastle even as Jane encounters the quietly virtuous Grace Ironwood. The vivisection laboratories of Belbury contrast with the gardens and pigsties of St. Anne’s. Christian cheer and charity typify the latter; callous control and competition are N.I.C.E.’s fare. As his fellow Inkling J.R.R. Tolkien was doing at the same time with The Lord of the Rings, Lewis drives two discrete but parallel stories forward with a sure, steady hand.
Jane’s modern views and values must be overcome, while Mark’s lubricate his slide towards doom. Her disinclination to accept the advice of Ransom and others is darkly balanced by Mark’s feverish desire to be part of the N.I.C.E. coterie.
This novel’s Ransom bears scant resemblance to the hero of the first two simpler and shorter novels. Many, including daughter Priscilla Tolkien, have noted that the earlier Ransom resembles Tolkien, while this one seems more like the newest Inkling, Charles Williams, with his vision of “Logres” and his cultish following. Ransom was Lewis’ creation to use as he would, but this reincarnation of him as a suffering secular abbot may be too drastic a character revision. If Perelandra drew heavily Genesis’ Eden, Williams’ version of Arthurian legend is the taproot here, including the ambivalence about Merlin’s nature: good or evil? Both sides seek to find and claim him for their own, and he and the tramp mistaken for him give this novel its rare bursts of humor.
Lewis’ descriptive gift lavishly limns this tale with vivid visual detail. The first chapter, “Sale Of College Property,” hilariously spoofs how ennui can conceal malignance. Mark’s subtle slide shows how one’s soul can walk to damnation in small steps, spawned by pride, stung by slights, desperate to please. Yet he inspires sympathy; one hopes that he will find strength and not succumb.
Jane’s progress from prig to pilgrim likewise shows how goodness can creep up on an indifferent person a bit at a time.
While the first two novels had few characters, here the cast swells. St. Anne’s cynical old bachelor MacPhee, based on Lewis’ boyhood tutor W.T. Kirkpatrick, emerges as one of Lewis’ most vivid characters, as does the “rankly, even insolently sexed” Fairy Hardcastle. The title’s allusion to the Tower of Babel foretells the fate of the N.I.C.E., consummated in bloody fury at a banquet at Belbury. The final chapter, “Venus at St. Anne’s,” envisions an opposite rapturous moment, but, overwrought and overwritten, is more risible than redemptive.
In a 1954 letter to a reader, Lewis elucidates the Ransom trilogy, including the two reviewed earlier in this space:
“Behind my own stories there are no ‘facts’ at all, tho’ I hope there are truths. That is, they may be regarded as imaginative hypotheses believing what I believe to be theological truths. Silent Planet is in part an answer to the popular unbeliever’s objection: ‘In the light of modern astronomy how can you go on believing that God was incarnated on one petty planet of a minor star?’ Ans: perhaps it was the only one that needed redemption, the one lost sheep whom he went seeking, leaving the 99.
“Perelandra answers the view ‘By a Fall, don’t you mean only the inevitable finiteness & incompletion of Man?’ Ans: no, I don’t. I believe it resulted from a free act of sin & cd. have been avoided. If God created any other rational animals in some part of the universe, perhaps they did not fall…
“THS paints, under wholly fictional conditions, what I really believe about a certain type of modern scientific humanist planner. I don’t mean that such a man does obey devils and practices magic. I do say ‘Your ethics is such that if you cd. get diabolical aid you wd. have no scruples about using it.’
“I don’t of course mean that I started with these abstract ‘morals’ & invented the yarns to illustrate them. I could not work like that: stories begin, for me, simply with pictures coming into my head. But these are the thoughts that accompanied the writing.”(The Collected Letters of C.S. Lewis: Volume III, pp. 465-66)
Many of the ideas here, Lewis notes in his foreword, likewise appear in his The Abolition of Man. But the best way to preach, as the gospels show, is by story-telling. In this parable, two souls are saved from their selfish fates, one by accepting obedience, the other by refusing sacrilege. The novel ends just a moment before their reunion.
But readers may confidently trust that, in true fairy-tale tradition, they will live happily ever after.”
Douglas A. Anderson, editor of Tales Before Narnia (2008):
“Let me put in a plug for Lewis’s oft-maligned fragment “The Dark Tower” as one of his most intriguing writings. It shows the decided influence, as does Out of the Silent Planet, Perelandra, and The Screwtape Letters, of David Lindsay’s classic A Voyage to Arcturus, from which Lewis took the central idea of space travel being a spiritual journey.
In “The Dark Tower”, we get not space travel but time-travel, as Lewis’s characters learn of and deal with “Othertime” (a concept which is also referred to in Tolkien’s famous essay “Of Fairy-stories”). With this abandoned fragment, in which Lewis self-evidently brought in too many threads of story for even himself to see the way forward, we can find several intriguing ideas set up yet left unresolved.
These remain food for thought in any consideration of Lewis a writer of fantasy literature. “
Jan Noble Long, Wauwatosa, Wisconsin, retired executive assistant:
“I don’t have much to contribute. I first read CSL as an adult (Narnia). While I absolutely enjoyed that series then, I find I cannot re-read it. I’ve the same opinion of his other books. The Burrahobbits are going to read Till We Have Faces in 2015, so I’ll find out if I like that one better than the first time I read it. I doubt it.
My favorite story is when CSL returned to Christianity walking down the lane at Magdalen College with JRRT & Hugo Dyson. I would have liked to have overheard that conversation! We know the summary, but honestly, could you really imagine Hugo Dyson converting anyone to anything, much less Christianity?”
Jo Foster, Metamora, Illinois, retired academic librarian:
“The Ransom trilogy was probable the first Lewis that I read. It appealed to me in descending order, ie, Out of the Silent Planet, the best read and That Hideous Strength, the least.
I was most affected by Mere Christianity. I read it after reading Charles Colson’s Born Again because Colson said reading Mere Christianity was what led him on his path to conversion. I figured if any book could make that much of a change in one of the most despicable members of the Nixon administration who has been described as “the evil genius of an evil administration,” then there had to be something to it. For a while, I read it once every year or so. It made a huge difference in my life.
I am not that fond of Lewis’ fiction perhaps because the genre in not my cup of tea. C.S. Lewis is at his best for me when he is presenting a well-wrought logical presentation. His progression from one concept to the next is very clear and so satisfying to my cataloger’s brain.”
Simon Tolkien, California, retired London solicitor and criminal barrister, mystery and historical fiction author:
“I read the Narnia books when I was a kid. I have no interest in his apologetics.”
One of the prodigiously polymathic Lewis’ most popular non-fiction titles, The Problem of Pain deals with a subject no one wants to get to know too well.
“God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our consciences, but shouts in our pains: it is His megaphone to rouse a deaf world.”
Written on commission for the popular Christian Challenge Series during the first months after Britain’s entry into World War II in 1939, it was first read to and later dedicated to the Inklings, the famous fraternal critical circle, including regular attendees J.R.R. Tolkien and Dr. Robert Havard, who met weekly in Lewis’ rooms in Magdalen College, Oxford. Havard, Lewis’ friend and physician, also provided an appendix, a doctor’s-eye view of pain’s effects. Favorably reviewed when published in October, 1940, it was immediately a bestseller, reprinted twice that year and ten more times by 1943.
The painful part of the problem is, of course, why does pain have to exist at all? A Christian doctor friend once said, “What I don’t understand is why didn’t Jesus just go around healing everybody He could?”
Lewis deflects that question, stating that faith “creates, rather than solves, the problem of pain, for pain would be no problem unless, side by side with our daily experience of this painful world, we had received what we think a good reassurance that ultimate reality is righteous and loving.”
The book begins with a reasoned argument for Christianity, a faith that begins with the cruelest of deaths. He confronts the human evil that, from Pontius Pilate to Dick Cheney to today’s raft of villains both here and abroad, has approved the calculated horror of torture.
“It is men, not God, who have produced racks, whips, prisons, slavery, guns, bayonets, and bombs; it is by human avarice, or human stupidity, not by the churlishness of nature, that we have poverty and overwork.”
He extends his argument beyond humankind. George Sayer, in Jack, the finest Lewis biography, writes “the chapter on animal pain is delightful. In it, we see the Jack Lewis who loved and understood domestic animals. He regards the personality that tame animals seem to have as being largely a gift of man.”
Lewis puts it thus: “man was made to be the priest and even, in one sense, the Christ, of the animals—the mediator through whom they apprehend so much of the Divine splendour as their irrational nature allows…one of man’s functions [may be] to restore peace to the animal world.” Whimsically he adds: “if the worst came to the worst, a heaven for mosquitoes and a hell for men could very conveniently be combined.”
In his afterword, Dr. Havard, famous as Perelandra’s “Humphrey,” summarizes his medical observations in a final sentence that captures the spirit of this unflinching but reassuring book:
“Pain provides an opportunity for heroism; the opportunity is seized with surprising frequency.”
Suffering can redeem, Lewis declares: “No doubt Pain as God’s megaphone is a terrible instrument: it may lead to a final and unrepented rebellion. But it gives the only opportunity a bad man can have for amendment. It removes the veil; it plants the flag of truth within the fortress of a rebel soul.”
Pain’s benefaction is, for sufferers and spectators, “submission to the will of God, the compassion aroused, and the acts of mercy to which it leads.”
It disrupts the placid routine of everyday ease we crave, but nonetheless goodness prevails. “The settled happiness and security which we all desire, God withholds from us by the very nature of the world: but joy, pleasure and merriment He has scattered broadcast.”
These grace-filled whispers outshout pain’s megaphone.”
Jim Croegaert, retired hospital chaplain, Dove Award-winning singer and songwriter, Evanston, Illinois:
“The first thing I read by CSL was Mere Christianity. It was a tremendous eye-opener for me, as the force and creativity of his intellect was so unlike anything I had seen in the Evangelical milieu in which I was at the time trying to find my way. He was also less polemic and more “catholic” than other writers. He really became a mentor to me, and I eventually read everything he had written and published.
The character of the man comes through in all his writings, perhaps especially in his letters. I loved The Great Divorce and The Screwtape Letters but also of course his fiction. His finest work may have been his space trilogy – Out of the Silent Planet; Perelandra; That Hideous Strength. Though filled with symbolism, the trilogy is less allegorical than his Chronicles of Narnia, and contains, I think, some of his best, most imaginative writing, especially in Perelandra and That Hideous Strength. He grapples with evil, and with the reality of the spiritual battle in which we are engaged, in a profound and revelatory way. His later Till We Have Faces is also quite good, but not nearly as accessible.
I honestly think that Lewis is the most important Christian writer of his century. His capacity to distill theological truths and spiritual realities so that they could be understood by the average person, has been without equal. His grounding in the Church of England gave him a strong appreciation of the Sacraments and a genuine appreciation of the Catholicism of his friend, J.R.R. Tolkien, while his own evangelical type of conversion and of personal relationship with Christ provided an expansive legitimacy and credibility with the Protestant world as well.
But he always was able to appreciate and respect the intellectual and academic world in which he was likewise appreciated and respected (if with suspicion because of his very public faith and his non-academic writings), and he grappled with the unbelief of his time as few have. His concept of “chronological snobbery” – the idea that our own age is by definition superior to all those that preceded it – has shaped me immeasurably.
I am deeply indebted to him and profoundly grateful for his contribution to my life of faith, however imperfectly I have incorporated his teachings and insights.”
Colin Duriez, author, Keswick, Cumbria, England I live surrounded by mountains, a ten-minute walk from Derwent Water, a tranquil stretch of water near Keswick, in the Lake District National Park. The poet William Wordsworth was born fifteen miles away, lived for a while in Keswick, and settled in another valley nearby by another lake called Grasmere. Beatrix Potter drew upon the grounds of a nearby large house for Mr Macgregor’s garden for her Peter Rabbit story. Both Potter and Wordsworth were important to the growth of Lewis’s poetic mind.
It was during my final years at grammar school when I read Lewis’s Mere Christianity. I got hooked on his combination of powerful reasoning and vivid imagination, my interest being deepened by one of the other boys telling me the plot of Lewis’s science fiction. I decided to read everything I could find by Lewis, not knowing the range and extent of his writings. Through reading his autobiography Surprised By Joy, I discovered Tolkien (finding The Hobbit in a bookshop soon after) and then Charles Williams through some Americans when I started studying at Istanbul University in Turkey. Discovering the Inklings opened up an even wider world.
When asked which books I consider the best of Lewis, I find it difficult to answer, as so many have been important to me in different ways, even his collected letters. If a gun was held to my head I’d probably and very quickly say: best non-fiction, Miracles; best fictions, Perelandra, Till We Have Faces and The Chronicles of Narnia.
It is the combination that he spoke of as reason, Romanticism, and Christianity that underlay what first attracted me to Lewis, and it is that which marks most of his writings (he didn’t become a Christian believer until nearly half way through his life). The same combination is part of the secret which held together his group of friends called the Inklings, the complex group I’ve portrayed in my forthcoming book The Oxford Inklings: Lewis, Tolkien, and Their Circle (Oxford: Lion, 2015).
I started writing on first Tolkien and then C.S. Lewis while a student, one article on Tolkien being written in Switzerland during the two years I studied in Turkey, and published in California during the hippie era (where my linking of Tolkien, Mr Bilbo Baggins, and Leonardo da Vinci, went down a treat). This was followed by a magazine series in six monthly parts on C.S. Lewis in England (bringing in his friends Tolkien and the Inklings).
Here are some of my published books and articles in which C.S. Lewis is particularly featured:
The C.S. Lewis Handbook. Monarch: Eastbourne, 1990; Baker Book House: Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1990.
The C.S. Lewis Encyclopedia. Crossway Books: Wheaton, Illinois and SPCK: London, 2000.
The Inklings Handbook: The lives, thought and writins of C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, Charles Williams, Owen Barfield and their friends (London: Azure, 2001).
Tolkien and C. S. Lewis: The Gift of Friendship (Mahwah, NJ: The Paulist Press, 2003).
A Field Guide to Narnia (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2004).
The C. S. Lewis Chronicles: The Indispensable Biography of the Creator of Narnia Full of Little-Known Facts, Events and Miscellany (New York: BlueBridge, 2005).
C.S. Lewis: A Biography of Friendship (Oxford: Lion, 2013).
The A-Z of C.S. Lewis (Oxford: Lion, 2013).
The Oxford Inklings: Lewis, Tolkien, and Their Circle (Oxford: Lion), February 2015.
Bedeviled: Lewis, Tolkien, and the Shadow of Evil (Downers Grove, Illinois: IVP Books), May 2015.”
“Poems by C. S. Lewis; edited by Walter Hooper, first reviewed for Gilbert, the American Chesterton Society magazine.
Perhaps none of Chesterton’s cheerleaders were more influential than C.S. Lewis, who championed Chesterton fluently and frequently throughout his career as a literary critic, fantasy novelist, and Christian apologist.
Surprised by Joy, Lewis’ intellectual autobiography, describes how his first encounter with Chesterton’s essays in 1918, when he was 19 in army hospital in France, conquered him despite “my pessimism, my atheism, and my hatred of sentiment.”
In 1996, George Sayer, author of the best Lewis biography, Jack, told me that Lewis “admired Chesterton immensely and often spoke of him. He owed a great deal to Orthodoxy and The Everlasting Man. He thought there was some great poetry.”
Unsurprisingly, then, the cadences and content of the verse in this collection, published in 1964, a year after Lewis’ death, sometimes evoke the rhythms and rationales of the Bard of Beaconsfield, especially the poems in “A Backward Glance,” the second section.
The sarcastic “Evolutionary Hymn,” “Prelude to Space,” and “Science-Fiction Cradlesong” (“From prison, in a prison, we fly; There’s no way into the sky.”) manifest mistrust of modernism. Lewis upbraids sex-obsessed biographers and critics in “Odora Canum Vis”:
As those who’ve seen no lions must revere
A bull for Pan’s fortissimo, or those
Who never tasted wine will value beer
Too highly, so the smut-hound, since he knows
Neither God, hunger, thought, nor battle, must
Of course hold disproportioned views on lust.
Less curmudgeonly and more creative is “The Future of Forestry,” which begins:
How will the legend of the age of trees,
Feel, when the last tree falls in England?
When the concrete spreads and the town conquers
The country’s heart; when contraceptive
Tarmac’s laid where farm has faded,
Tramline flows where slept a hamlet,
And shop-fronts, blazing without a stop from
Dover to Wrath, have glazed us over?
Simplest tales will then bewilder
The questioning children, ‘What was a chestnut?
Say what it means to climb a Beanstalk.
Tell me, grandfather, what an elm is.
What was Autumn? They never taught us.’
Later poems have a sharp sadness, a penitential pain, like “Joys That Sting” or “Relapse”:
Out of the wound we pluck
The shrapnel. Thorns we squeeze
Out of the hand. Even poison forth we suck
And after pain have ease.
But images that grow
Within the soul have life
Like cancer and, often cut, live on below,
The deepest of the knife.
The dozen charming lines of “The Nativity” have Lewis seeing himself in the beasts witnessing Christ’s birth:
Among the sheep (I like a sheep have strayed)
I watch the manger where my Lord is laid;
Oh that my baa-ing nature would win thence
Some wooly innocence!
At book’s end, Lewis’ poetry scales heights and plumbs depths that suggest his experience of the surprising love and sad loss of Joy Davidman Lewis, his late-life wife. “Love’s As Warm As Tears,” “Five Sonnets,” “The Apologist’s Evening Prayer,” and “After Prayers, Lie Cold” have a soft stoicism that brightens, rather than dims, the heartbreak they chronicle.
The seventeen fragmentary “Epigrams And Epitaphs” that comprise this volume’s last five pages are candles flickering in the de profundis darkness:
She was beautifully, delicately made
So small, so unafraid
Till the bomb came.
Bombs are the same,
Beautifully, delicately made.
No, the world will not break,
Time will not stop.
Do not for the dregs mistake
The first bitter drop
When first the collar galls
Tired horses know
Stable’s not near. Still falls
The whip. There’s far to go.
These bereft final poems may be Lewis’ best. As with love and grace, with poetry, it’s far, far better late than never.”
Dr. Adam Schwartz, Front Royal, Virginia, professor of history, author of The Third Soring, Christendom College:
“The Great Divorce and The Screwtape Letters were the first Lewis books as assigned works in moral theology class at Marquette University. My father [Dr. Joseph Schwartz, RIP] had read Narnia to me when I was six, though.
His best? The Abolition of Man. Another reason to grieve Chris Mitchell’s untimely death, as his annotated edition would have shown why it is the best. Lewis’ finest fiction is That Hideous Strength.
He was a profound thinker who was aware of the deepest cultural currents of his day and how Christianity could respond effectively to them, as well as a pioneer of modern fantasy.
For my more considered thoughts on Lewis, see http://www.kirkcenter.org/index.php/bookman/article/a-rare-specimen/ “
“The works of C.S. Lewis have impacted the world in a profound manner. The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe captured my imagination and that of the third graders I read it to each year. My sons Brandon and Grant and I traveled to Narnia in our imagination as well. We read the book with great interest, and we were delighted when the movie was available. We enjoyed an older PBS VHS version and the newer DVD, Walt Disney/Walden Media version of the nove,l through the years.
While working with student teachers at Illinois State University, one of my teacher candidates created a unit surrounding the characters and settings from the The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe. One of the students’ projects was to create islands of sketches of the professor’s home, the wardrobe, lamppost, the beaver’s home, Tumnus’ cave, the stone table, and the Witch’s Castle in a large mural. The children’s sketches provided sound evidence that they had been transported to the world of Narnia by the reading and discussion of the novel.
The power of Lewis’ words to enliven the imagination is formidable. Prince Caspian provided hours of reading pleasure as we returned to Narnia in print and read this novel several times. The magic of Narnia beaconed us to return. The PBS video of Prince Caspian brought the book to life with enough of a jolt that it was fun to refer to the characters and their choices of perception of their magical existence when we encountered attitudes in our own home. The imagery is unforgettable. The fact that these fantasy novels gave food for thought about our views of behavioral choices made them great counseling videos on some levels besides great fun.
He definitely provided an awakening of fantasy characters and places in the Narnia Tales. The Narnia list is long: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader and The Silver Chair were two more of the Narnia tales that I visited briefly through the years.
Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters provided more fantasy but in relationship to the accuser’s plan to screw man out of his best destiny in the real world. Part of the setting is in an office in Hell. It has been noted that people have been made to squirm by the self-recognition that may occur from reading this novel. One of his most successful works commercially,
The Screwtape Letters was made into a long-running Broadway play and a movie. This novel worked to inspire man to choose Life and not Death.
In stark contrast, Mere Christianity provides clarity about his own personal journey to faith in a God that passionately desires a relationship with his creation.
“Apparently this Oxford don and Cambridge professor is going to be around for a long time; he called himself a dinosaur but he seems to speak to people where they are,” said his first biographer Chad Walsh in The Washington Post Book World,
The fact that C.S. Lewis was such a deep thinker, who provided sound evidence, has helped to persuade multitudes of individuals to open their minds, souls and lives up to the greatest adventure available to any human; walking with their creator through the power of His son, Jesus.”
“That Most Unselfish Man”: George Sayer: Pupil, Biographer, and Friend of Inklings
George Sayer is a superb example of one of the greatest blessings of an academic life: a student who becomes, in time, a good friend. His 1988 biography of C.S. Lewis, Jack, is rightfully respected as the best of the many recollections of Lewis’ life, a final act of loyalty and love. He likewise was a friend of J.R.R. Tolkien, and it was his encouragement that led Tolkien to resubmit The Lord of the Rings for publication when Tolkien had despaired of ever seeing it in print.
A sometime Inkling, he was, in Lewis’ apt description, “that most unselfish man.” No fewer than thirty letters in The Collected Letters of C.S. Lewis Volume III attest to his generosity and the affection Lewis felt for him. Like many a man blessed with great teachers, he became a remarkable teacher himself. None of those who met him will ever forget him.
George Sydney Benedict Sayer was born June 1, 1914, in Bradfield, Berkshire, the son of an irrigation engineer He first met Lewis and Tolkien during Michaelmas term at Magdalen College, Oxford, in 1933. His preface to Jack described his first encounter with Tolkien, “a neat grey-haired man with a pipe in his mouth and a puckish face” waiting outside Lewis’ rooms in New Buildings 3.
Lewis, he wrote, was “a heavily built man who looked about forty, with a fleshy oval face and a ruddy complexion. His black hair had retreated from his forehead which made him especially imposing.”
Lewis asked Sayer to name poets he admired and enjoyed. Citing G.K Chesterton, George began quoting The Ballad of the White Horse from memory:
“‘The great Gaels of Ireland/ Are the men that God made mad’
“I got no further on my own, for with gusto and a glowing face he declaimed the next lines with me.
‘For all their wars are merry/ And all their songs are sad.’ When Sayer emerged, Tolkien spoke:
‘How did you get on?’ he asked.
‘I think rather well. I think he will be an interesting tutor.’
‘Interesting? Yes. He is certainly that. You’ll never get to the bottom of him’.” (Jack, xv-xvii)
C.S. Lewis’ latter-day secretary Walter Hooper, who had urged Sayer to write Jack, wrote that ‘[d]uring his third year at Oxford he realized that Lewis was a Christian, and in his own search for truth he was led to the Catholic Church. He took his BA in 1938 and his MA in 1947. Over time his friendship with Lewis led him to became friends with [Lewis’ older brother] Warnie Lewis, [Lewis ‘adopted’ mother] Mrs. Janie Moore, and [her daughter] Maureen Moore as well”
(C.S. Lewis: A Companion and Guide, 723)
Sayer’s converted in 1935. Hooper suggests that “it was almost certainly Sayer that Lewis wrote to Dom Bede Griffiths about in his letter of 8 January 1936:
“Neo-scholasticism has become such a fashion among ignorant undergrads that I am sick of the sound of it. A man who was an atheist two terms ago and admitted into your Church last term, and who had never read a word of philosophy, comes to me urging me to read the Summa and offering me a copy!” (C.S Lewis Collected Letters Volume III, 1708-09)
Hardly an “ignorant undergrad,” Sayer was one of the few pupils Lewis invited to the Kilns.
After earning his Oxford BA, Sayer wrote two unpublished novels. In Germany, he translated two theological treatises into English. His German skills led to his captaincy in Army Intelligence during World War II. Then he returned to his old school, Malvern College, to teach.
Julian Roskans’ Guardian obituary stated that “It was in the form room at Malvern College that George Sayer…made the greatest impact. He had a challenging and arresting manner of teaching, which allowed for no sitting on the fence. He exacted from his classes the very highest standards, all the time encouraging individual expression and interpretation. He guided pupils towards sensitive and thoughtful enjoyment of literature.
“Never conventional, he always said what he believed. He was renowned for his kindness and sympathy, the sobriquet ‘avuncular’ being most commonly employed by staff and pupils alike.
“[Popular British TV University Challenge moderator] Jeremy Paxman was a college pupil from 1964 until 1968. He would not have been alone in describing George as ‘the most wonderful, inspirational teacher … a profoundly decent and compassionate man … the sort of teacher you dream of having…”
After World War II , Sayer began teaching English at Malvern College in 1945, becoming senior English master in 1949. After 33 years there, where Warren Lewis had matriculated and C.S. Lewis had studied one year, he retired as head of English in 1974 and served as college librarian until 1978.
Roskans’ obituary continues:
“Teaching aside, George had a vital part to play in the re-establishment of artistic and academic standards at the college that had inevitably suffered in the hectic last years of the war. He certainly left a lasting legacy by founding the college wine society.
“While in Malvern, George often had the pleasure of entertaining Lewis, by now a close friend. The two delighted in walking the Malvern hills, discussing literature and mutual friends, such as Tolkien. On his return visits to Oxford, George sometimes went to meetings of the Inklings, a gathering of friends, most of them teachers and many of them creative writers and lovers of imaginative literature. After Lewis’s death, he was made a trustee of the writer’s estate…”
George’s first wife, Moira Casey, married in 1940, died of cancer in 1977. He then married Margaret Cronin, who survives him, in 1983, “and much enjoyed being stepfather to her children, who loved Lewis’s Narnia stories. Their shared hobbies included gardening, reading and Mozart.”
This Mythcon gave me once again an occasion to retrieve Jack from our best bookcase, an act of actual grace, as Catholics term it. That re-reading led to the writing of an appreciation essay which will be published in the next edition of Gilbert, the American Chesterton Society’s magazine. While Sayer’s affection for and admiration of Lewis illuminate his biography, Jack is no hagiography canonizing St. Lewis. Frank and forthright, with a few exceptions, Sayer shares first-hand knowledge earned over thirty years of companionship.
“I have never known a man more open about his private life,” Sayer wrote in “Jack on Holiday” in James T. Como’s 1979 collection C.S. Lewis at the Breakfast Table, and other reminiscences. On their walks together during Lewis’ visits to Malvern, “[h]e spoke about his personal temptations, his spiritual difficulties, and worries about other people. He spoke about Mrs. Moore, who was ailing in mind and body…[his alcoholic brother] Warnie was the most constant and long-lasting of his anxieties because [Lewis said] ‘he is not merely my brother, but my greatest friend.’ He spoke of his relationship with Joy Davidman, ‘an odd but very intelligent person. I am not sure if I like her and pretty sure you wouldn’t.’”
Jack is an intimate and insightful cradle-to-grave account of Lewis’ life covering his childhood, his post-war period of poverty, his successful Oxford career, his conversion to Christianity, his emergence as a writer and speaker, his creative camaraderie with Tolkien and others, his life both in college and without, and his surprised-by-Joy late-life marriage, depicted with comprehensive compassion by an eyewitness, one of the best of Lewis’ many friends.
Drawing on the Lewis family papers and Warnie Lewis’ million-word diary in Wheaton College’s Wade collection, Sayer begins with family background and description of the earliest years of Clive Staples Lewis, born in Belfast on Nov. 29, 1898. At age four, he declared that his name was “Jacksie” and thus Jack he was ever after. Both parents were avid readers, a good habit passed along to the next generation. His father Albert was an attorney with comically conservative ways, happiest in his office routine. His mother Flora feared Ulster’s rainy climate would damage her two sons’ health. Sayer sketches a peaceful semi-solitary childhood where Jack and Warren, three years his elder, were inadvertently blessed by confinement at the first sign of rain, begetting a vivid imaginative life inside Little Lea, their Belfast home. Here the Boxen stories Jack created were the earliest manifestation of his mythopoeic gift.
Flora died in 1908, six months after cancer was diagnosed; Jack was nine. Sayer sympathetically summarizes the shocking effect of this loss on Jack. Soon thereafter he was sent off to boarding school in England, whose horrors he depicted in seven chapters in his autobiographical Surprised by Joy; the shock of the Great War and the wounds he suffered merited only a fraction of that.
Fortunately, Albert turned to his old schoolmaster, W.T. Kirkpatrick, and so his unhappy son was sent off for home schooling with Kirkpatrick, later immortalized as MacPhee in That Hideous Strength. Lewis thrived, and his love of argument can be traced to that tutelage.
Earlier, Kirkpatrick had also rescued Warren, who, was “unwilling to face the realities of school life, just as later he was unwilling to face the realities of life in the army. His escape was to indulge in the fantasy of being ‘a bit of a lad,’ a cynical character addicted to drinking, rule-breaking, and so on. Later on it took the form of living the life of an officer and gentleman, and in being a snob and in fantasy an aristocrat of the grand era of Louis XIV.” (Jack, 34) Caught once too often smoking, Warnie was sent down at the end of spring term, 1913. Kirkpatrick suggested an army career for Warnie, since “neither brains no industry were necessary” (35) and successfully coached him for Sandhurst and thus his career, culminating in his retirement as a Major in December. 1932. He and Jack pooled finances to buy the Kilns in 1930, and Warnie lived there until his death in 1973.
As Lewis does himself in Surprised by Joy, Sayer traces young Jack’s early love of “Northernness” as a powerful influence. This passion was awakened during Jack’s two years at Cherbourg school by the discovery of a periodical reviewing Margaret Armour’s Siegfried and the Twilight of the Gods which included an Arthur Rackham illustration of Siegfried “gazing in wonder and astonishment at the sleeping Brunnhilde. He has cut off her breastplate and is gazing at her naked breasts” (36)
Longfellow’s translation of Tegner’s Drupa with the lines “I heard a voice that cried,/ Balder the beautiful / Is dead, is dead–” came next, and not long thereafter the discovery of Richard Wagner’s Ring cycle and obtaining his own copy of the Armour book with Rackham’s plates.
“He hid his imaginative life from others…The self he showed to his contemporaries was that of the witty, blasphemous, and sex-obsessed schoolboy.” (38)
His miserable year at Malvern in 1913-1914 led to his two and a half years of study with Kirkpatrick, “the most peaceful time of his life,” Sayer writes. “His freedom at this time from emotional, academic, literary, and monetary pressures enabled him to discover his own tastes, the daily routine he liked to follow, the sort of friends he wanted to have, and the books he most enjoyed reading.” (47). Here he was first exposed to Spenser’s Faerie Queen and Phillip Sidney’s Arcadia, lifetime favorites and subject of his best critical work. Swinburne, Morris, Bunyan, the Romantics he also enjoyed. He began writing his own poetry inspired by these. He learned to read Italian and French. Above all, he became, like Kirkpatrick, a stern rationalist. When the time came for him to go to Oxford, he was ready. He arrived at University College April 26, 1917.
But the Great War was on. One whole quad of the college was occupied by wounded soldiers. The dean declined to map a course of study for him because he was fated for full-time tuition in the Officer’s Training Corps. After four weeks of that, he perforce left his college and joined a cadet battalion. In a “cheerless little cell at Keble College,” his roommate was a “good fellow…a little too childish for real companionship…a very decent sort of man.” (69) This was Paddy Moore as Jack described him to his father.
Soon came Lewis’ fateful meeting with Paddy’s mother Janie Moore. He was 18 and she was 45. Janie King Askins Moore was estranged from her husband in Ireland. She was staying in Oxford with her daughter Maureen, 11, in order to see as much of her son as she could before he was sent to the front. With characteristic generosity, she invited his friends to enjoy her homely hospitality. Sayer writes: “For Jack, who had lost his mother when he was a child and was, in addition, homesick for Ireland, it must have been a great pleasure to meet an Irish woman who would ‘mother’ him.” (71) Eventually Jack and Paddy made a sentimental vow, each man promising that should one of them be killed, the survivor would look after the other’s sole parent.
On April 15, 1918, three months and a week after his arrival in the trenches, Lewis was wounded by friendly fire, a shell that fell short and hit the man next to him; the man standing on the other side of Lewis likewise died of his wounds. In hospital, Lewis learned that Paddy Moore was missing; later it was confirmed that he had been killed in action. Jack and Mrs. Moore would live together until her death in 1951.
“Some of those who have written about C.S. Lewis regard his living with Mrs. Moore and Maureen as odd, even sinister,” Sayer writes. “That was not the view of those of us who visited the Kilns in the thirties. There she was, a rather stately lady, sitting at the tea table. ‘Mother, may I introduce Mr. Sayer, a pupil of mine’ is what he would say. I thought it completely normal in those days that a woman, probably a widow, would make a home for a young bachelor. We had no difficulty accepting her, even when we came to realize she was not his mother…But if the relationship were innocent, why was Jack so secretive about it? Certainly, he did not want to worry Albert…Probably, too, Mrs. Moore had asked him not to tell anyone about it and he had given his word. If Mr. Moore found out about Jack and thought that Jack and his wife were living together, he would have had grounds to divorce her and would not have owed her a cent. (In fact, she wanted a divorce, but he would not agree. This made it impossible to have a fair share of his income and obliged her to live in near poverty.)” (89)
Warnie’s antipathy to Mrs. Moore once he joined the household at the Kilns was expressed in his memoir of his brother appended to his 1966 edition of The Letters of C.S. Lewis. Sayer reports that “Of all the people who knew Mrs. Moore, Warren seems to be the only one who disliked her.” (89) He rejects Warnie’s view that she was a negative influence on Lewis’ career. “[Jack] said in conversation with me that she did him a great deal of good. ‘She was generous and taught me to be generous, too.’” (89)
“Were they lovers?” Sayer asks. “Although she was twenty-six years older than Jack, she was still a handsome woman, and he was certainly infatuated with her…It seems most likely he was bound to her by the promise he had given Paddy and that his promise was influenced by his love for her as a second mother.” (89)
Here a confidant’s discretion trumps objectivity. Sayer quotes others but reserves comment. While he is circumspect about the relationship between Jack and Janie Moore here and elsewhere in his writings, privately he confided that Mrs. Moore’s daughter Maureen had confirmed it had been a sexual relationship. He likewise confided that he wished that he’d done some things differently in Jack, addressing the faults of Lewis’ books more directly, for one. But in the end, his charity and gentility, or perhaps his publisher’s wishes, trumped that.
Still, he was not one to beatify his friend. In his 1978 presentation to a convocation of students, faculty, and conference attendees at Wheaton College, Sayer said at one point that for a long time, as he notes in Jack, Lewis was troubled by guilt about masturbation. Sharing the stage with Sayer, Wade Collection founder and director Prof. Clyde Kilby, bless his memory, looked as if he wished he had a Ring conferring invisibility to don at that moment.
Until his appointment to the Magdalen College fellowship in 1925, Sayer relates that Jack lived in near-poverty. “His only personal luxuries were beer, whiskey, and tobacco, the first and last of which he regarded almost as necessities. He never seems to have owned a watch or a good fountain pen.” (107).
Sayer weaves astute commentary on Lewis’ writings throughout this biography, and although he later stated he wished he had expanded these, his critiques of Lewis show that he was indeed a masterful reader of literature. He shares details on the composition of many works. As one example, he outlines Joy’s influence on Lewis’ final novel, Till We Have Faces, concluding: “Similarly we can be helped, as perhaps Jack and Joy were, toward self-knowledge and the nature of love by meditating on the book. Perhaps Jack, through writing it, liberated himself from painful obsessions, confusions, and inhibitions. It was a preparation for a complete and successful marriage.” (236) Time and again Sayer does what a good literary biographer should: he makes the reader want to read and reread the author he discusses.
Chapter 12, “Pilgrim’s Regress,” recounts Lewis’ conversion to Christianity, “a slow steady convalescence from a deep-seated spiritual illness of long standing,” as Warren described it. Reversing negative attitudes toward faith he’d formed in boyhood took five years, from 1926 with his newfound “belief in a nebulous power outside himself, to 1931, when he became a believer in Christ.” (129) Sayer’s description of the crucial Sept. 19-20, 1931 late-night stroll with Tolkien and Hugo Dyson on Addison’s Walk along the Cherwell at Magdalen is one of the best accounts of that momentous event.
“Jack said that he loved reading and talking about myths, but that he could not regard them as being at all true. Tolkien’s view was radically different. He said that myths originate in God, that they preserve something of God’s truth. Furthermore, in presenting a myth, in writing stories full of mythical creatures”—what we here call mythopoeia—“one may be doing God’s work. As Tolkien talked, there came a mysterious rush of wind through the trees that Jack felt to be a message from the deity, although his reason told him not to be carried away. Tolkien went on to explain that the Christian story was a myth invented by a God who was real, a God whose dying could transform those who believed in him. If Jack wanted to find the relevance of the story to his own life, he must plunge in.” (134)
On Sept. 22, the conversion was completed as Jack rode in the sidecar of Warren’s motorcycle in the way to Whipsnade Zoo. “‘When we set out I did not believe that Jesus Christ was the Son of God,’ Jack wrote, ‘and when we reached the zoo I did.’” (135)
Summary is otiose, and time forbids reading this whole chapter aloud, as it deserves. One line reveals much: “[Lewis] never merely thought ideas; he also felt them.” (130)
Like Tolkien and fellow Inkling Dr. Robert Havard, Sayer had hoped that Jack would convert to Roman Catholicism. But whether it was what Tolkien called “the Ulsterior Motive” or what Lewis gave Sayer as the reasons for non-conversion—“your heresies” of devotion to Mary and papal infallibility—that conversion never happened. Still, the two men were both Christians and that informed their times together.
Jack is likewise remarkable for more literally pedestrian stories, such as descriptions of Lewis’ visits and their hikes together in the Malvern Hills. He notes that while Jack washed thoroughly, “[h]e rarely had a bath when staying with me, and I think less often still at the Kilns.” (207).
On April 2, 1954, Lewis sent Sayer a combined letter of regrets and invitation. “Now, look. By bad luck Mrs. Gresham (our queer, Jewish, ex-Communist, American) and her two boys will be here all next week. So we can’t come and dine. But cd. you come in on the Tue. or Wed. and meet at the Eastgate at 11 for an hour or more’s talk? She’s a queer fish and I’m not sure she is either your or Moira’s cup of tea (she is at any rate, not a Bore). But it would be a very bright spot for W. and me. Do.” (Letters, 450) Sayer shows how Joy offended Moira once and he relates his attempts to dissuade Lewis from a civil service wedding for a marriage-in-name only. But he was won over.
Joy Gresham changed Lewis for the better, in his view. Visiting the Kilns in 1958, “I was struck by the new paint on the house, the neater appearance of the garden, and the flowers…Her conversation was sensible and practical, not witty, but often direct and abrasive. ‘Tell me, isn’t it less like a tenement in the South Bronx?’ she asked. ‘Tell him he won’t go broke.’” (228) “There was some good-humored banter, an art at which Joy could be nearly as proficient as Jack. But what impressed me most about their marriage was its natural quality. There was no striving to be something they were not, to be clever or even good. They just were. They accepted each other simply, naturally, without fret or fuss. They were kind to each other.” (229)
Joy died on July 11, 1960. Sayer eulogizes her thus: “Few marriages were more Christian…Jack felt that he had achieved full manhood and maturity only through marriage. In living with Joy, he was being himself…With her, he was free from self-doubt or introspection. He could speak ideas just as they arose and receive back from her answers or arguments that would stimulate still more interesting ideas in his mind. They were a most blessed and richly gifted pair.” (232-33).
Lewis’ own years were numbered. Sayer writes, “Even in his thirties, Jack was in the habit of passing water far more frequently than most men. He thought the reason was the large amount of beer and tea he drank …Even his friend and doctor, Humphrey Havard, did not suspect a problem.” (244-45).
But in June, 1961, Lewis begin have difficulty with urination. A seriously enlarged prostate was diagnosed. His surgeon determined that Jack was not fit for surgery. His kidneys were infected, predicating toxemia and cardiac irregularities. “He never lost his sense of humor,” Sayer says. (245). Nor, alas, did he adhere to his doctor’s recommendation of a low-protein diet and a cessation of his addictions to tea and tobacco.
Sayer’s visit to the hospitalized Lewis in July, 1963, four months before his death, is sadly touching:
“I found him standing up nervously…wearing pajamas and a dressing gown. He walked forward, clutched me, and said, ‘Thank God, a friend. You see a dying man. For God’s sake, and as you value our friendship, go and get me some cigarettes.’…I did as he asked, intending to give him only one cigarette out of the pack. He smoked it greedily, inhaling deeply.” (Jack, 247-48). Privately, Sayer implied that he had given Lewis more than that single smoke.
Sayer volunteered to go to Ireland, where Warnie was hospitalized at Our Lady of Lourdes in Drogheda after one of his binges, to fetch him home. He was unsuccessful; Warnie was deemed unfit to travel, although he finally returned after Walter Hooper went back to the United States in late September.
Sayer visited Jack at the Kilns one last time in mid-November. “I think he had gotten up especially to have lunch with me and found it a great strain. His face was ominously puffy. He longer smoked, but several times helped himself to some boiled sweets that were on the table. After lunch, he fell asleep and I tiptoed quietly away. That was the last time I saw him.” (251). On Nov. 18, Lewis was well enough to be driven to the Lamb for what would be the last Monday morning Inklings meeting of his life.
C.S. Lewis died on Nov. 22, 1963, at nearly the same hour as another famous Jack, Pres. John F. Kennedy. Sayer’s book ends with his account of the funeral at Headington Quarry Church Nov. 26. Tolkien, Owen Barfield, Joy’s sons Douglas and David Gresham, Colin Hardie, and Maureen and her husband Leonard Blake, attended, among others. “Warren was not there. He could not bear [it]…He escaped in his usual way, lying in bed all that day, more or less unconscious. In the absence of any blood relation, Maureen, David, and Douglas followed the coffin out of the church.
“We clustered around to see the coffin lowered into the grave. It was the sort of day Jack would have appreciated, cold and sunlit. It was also very still. A lighted candle was placed on the coffin and its flame did not flicker. For more than one of us, that clear, bright candle seemed to symbolize Jack. He had been the light of our lives, ever steadfast in friendship. Yet, most of all, the candle symbolized his unflagging pursuit of illumination.” (251-52)
In both his “Afterword” published in the second edition of Jack and his essay “C.S. Lewis and Adultery,” included in We Remember C.S. Lewis edited by David Graham in 2001, Sayer criticizes A.N. Wilson’s controversial 1990 biography of Lewis. In the latter piece, Sayer wrote: “Unfortunately, it is seriously flawed, and in one vital respect wrong-headed, That is his view that Lewis and Joy had sexual intercourse before the Christian marriage that took place in the hospital” Sayer refutes this, citing Lewis’ remarks to him and two other Inklings, Dr. Havard and Warnie. He adds this evaluation of Wilson’s depiction of Lewis: “I, who knew Lewis for twenty-nine years, as pupil and then as a friend, find it at times almost unrecognizable. He is presented as a rather unhappy, guilt-ridden creature, obsessed with sadomasochistic fantasies, who often sought relief from his inner conflicts and uncertainties in an overly dogmatic faith, in bullying argument, and, at times, even in deep drinking and bawdy thought.” Sayer rejects this view.
Like all who knew him, I remember George Sayer as a kind, witty, and generous man . I had first met him at Wheaton College in 1978, when I thanked him for his 1952 home tape recordings of Tolkien. I played these recordings a bit at a time for my Illinois Central College Tolkien class from its 1978 inception until my 2005 retirement. Due to CD technology, one can now hear the occasional lorry passing outside and the clink of glasses. The beguiling power of this recording of Tolkien’s reading is George’s great gift to spoken literature. Tolkien later bought a tape recorder of his own and used it to record his sequel to “The Battle of Maldon,” “The Homecoming of Beorthnoth Beorthelm’s Son.”
George and I next met at the Tolkien Centenary at Keble College, Oxford, in 1992. Walking back from posting a card home to my family, I encountered George, who had just delivered his memoir talk on Tolkien to the conferees, walking by himself on Parks Road. I said the friendliest greeting I know—“I very much enjoyed your talk. May I buy you a drink?” He assented with that unforgettably genial smile and we crossed over to the Keble College bar. Only when we were nearly there did he say, “Oh! I forgot my wife!” But he added that she would know where to find him. Indeed she did. He bought me a pint after the one I’d bought him, then invited me to join them for dinner in the Keble dining hall. She and George were witty and well-matched. We exchanged addresses. I wrote in my journal: “A day to be marked with a white stone.”
Two years later, when I visited Oxford with my wife Jo, I telephoned him from the Randolph Hotel. To my delighted surprise, he invited us over for dinner.
George picked us up at Malvern Link and showed us around. We visited Malvern College, Malvern Priory, with its Green Man amid the saints’ bas-reliefs, and a favorite Inklings pub, the Unicorn, whose overloud jukebox Aretha Franklin forced us to exit un-pinted. Sayer shared with Lewis, Tolkien, and all sensible folks a mislike of jukeboxes in pubs.
At his home, across the road from the erstwhile estate of the “Pomp and Circumstance” composer Edward Elgar, he poured us amontillado, bade me sit down on the couch, and said, “That is just where Tolkien was sitting when I made those tapes you use in your Tolkien class.” And I thought Cool!
He produced several books from Lewis’ personal library. One was Irene Iddesleigh, the notoriously bad 1898 novel by Amanda McKittrick Ros. The Inklings sometimes amused themselves by seeing who could read from it longest without laughing at its lamentably florid and prolix prose. I lasted about one paragraph. Another was a collection of the poems of Coventry Patmore; Lewis’ copious notes on the endpapers and in the text testified to his admiration of that now nigh-forgotten poet.
At lunch, the conversation with Margaret and him was catholic in the literal sense, beginning with the question of national health funding for artificial insemination of lesbians in the UK armed forces and moving to Tom Bombadil as a nature god and the raising and butchering one’s own meat—they were vegetarians, we were not–to, of course, Tolkien and the Lewis brothers.
We shared admiration of W.H. Lewis’ writing and I will always cherish his recollections of Warnie. Especially poignant was Warnie’s refusal of Sayer’s offer to treat him to a first trip to Versailles, the focus of his brilliant French histories of the era of Louis XIV, the Sun King, because, as George recalled, the Major felt Versailles would not live up to his image of it. George had hoped to write a biography of Warnie, but never did.
At the end of that long, lively lunch—Margaret’s table was grand as the Old Took’s—I thanked him for his cordiality to a couple of Midwestern Yanks, and he said something unforgettable:
“I don’t much like America, but I find that I do like Americans.”
The food and wines were superb, as they were again on our second visit two years later, when George gave me with some valuable insights on G.K. Chesterton’s influence on Tolkien.
In 1996, while working on a paper on that topic, I wrote Sayer asking if he had any recollections of Tolkien’s views on Chesterton. He responded that he could not think of anything at the moment. However, he continued, if we would once again visit him for lunch during our upcoming return to Oxford, perhaps “my memories will revive.” Indeed they did. Over sherry before lunch, Sayer first said he could not recall anything Tolkien said about Chesterton. “I’m afraid I rather brought you here under false pretenses,” he said. He added that Tolkien was typically less likely to praise other writers than Lewis was. Lewis, he said, “admired Chesterton immensely and often spoke of him. He owed a great deal to Orthodoxy and The Everlasting Man. He thought there was some great poetry.”
Perhaps Tolkien did, too. Sayer’s revived memory revealed that Tolkien knew a number of the poems from Chesterton’s The Flying Inn by heart, including “The Song of the Quoodle,” “The Song Against Grocers,” and the famous refrain, “The reeling English drunkard made the rolling English road.” Tolkien was also quite fond of reciting “The Battle of Lepanto,” a fact which Tolkien’s daughter Priscilla confirmed.
Both times we brought chocolates for dessert and the best bottle of French wine we could find at the Oddbins on the Broad in Oxford. We enjoyed the former together; they banked the latter in their thousand-bottle cellar.
We left on the train back to Oxford both times feeling that these, too, were indeed days to be marked with a white stone. So they have proved to be. The generosity, the cheer, and the lore and laughter we shared have warmed us with every recollection. He was, as Lewis said, a “most unselfish man.”
Only five days before his death, I first wrote about George, for a feature article celebrating the 50th anniversary of The Return of the King. The essay recounted George’s role in the publication of the The Lord of the Rings. Quoting from it:
“In August, 1952, fourteen years after it was begun, The Lord of the Rings seemed doomed.
“Tolkien’s long labor on “the new Hobbit” elicited rejection and, consequently, dejection. He’d abandoned hope it would ever be printed.
“Tape saved it.
“C.S. Lewis, Tolkien’s friend, had loaned the typescript tale to George Sayer, a former pupil. Sayer and his wife Moira read it with enthusiastic admiration and invited Tolkien over to Malvern to retrieve the manuscript and stay for a few days of hobbitish picnicking, pubbing, and gardening before Michaelmas term.
“For evening amusement, Sayer produced a tape recorder, the first Tolkien had seen. After exorcising the machine by recording the Lord’s Prayer in Gothic, he taped some of the book’s poems.
“‘The more he recorded, the more he enjoyed recording,’ wrote Sayer. The riddle scene from The Hobbit followed. “I then asked him to record what he thought one of the best pieces of prose in The Lord of the Rings and he recorded [the last] part of ‘The Ride of the Rohirrim.’
“‘Surely you know that’s really good,’ Sayer told him. Tolkien agreed. With Sayer’s encouragement, he resubmitted it to publisher Rayner Unwin, who, in 1937 at age ten, had recommended The Hobbit for publication. Unwin believed The Lord of the Rings was a work of genius but uncertain of success. He risked it anyway, releasing it as three volumes not inexpensively priced 21 shillings each.
“The rest is literary history.”
Although George wrote much more about Lewis than about Tolkien, his charming and cogent “Recollections of J.R.R. Tolkien,” reprinted as the opening essay in Joseph Pearce’s 2001 collection Tolkien: A Celebration, is the paper he presented at the Tolkien Centenary. As an undergraduate, Sayer writes that had been encouraged to attend Tolkien’s lectures by Lewis, who called Tolkien “an inspired speaker of footnotes.”
Sayer recalls walking trips with Tolkien and the Lewis brothers 13 years later, describing the former’s knowledge of historical lore about the flowers and herbs the Lewises strode hastily past. A Catholic convert himself, he reveals that Tolkien thought “hatred of Catholics was common in Britain…his wife, Edith, was turned out of her guardian’s house when she was received into the Church.” (13).
Vignettes of Tolkien playing as Thomas the Tank Engine during Sayer’s last visit with him round out this dulcet memoir: “This love for children and delight in childlike play was yet another thing that contributed to his wholeness as a man and the success of his books…Without a liking for the homely and domestic, he could not have written The Hobbit, or invented Frodo or Sam Gamgee” (16).
George Sayer died Oct. 20, 2005, in Malvern. He was 91.
After his death, Margaret Sayer wrote me:
“Thank you for your kindly and warm letter of condolence and its tribute to George.
“He was a very special person and I feel honored to have been married to him.
“His last years were very sad. He had lost a great deal of his mind, and he was physically severely disabled. His final end was a merciful release.”
Chris Mitchell and Marjorie Mead of Wheaton College’s Wade Center had kept me informed of news of the Sayers since 1996, though it was I who broke the news of his passing to them on All Hallows’ Eve morning, Oct. 31, 2005. On All Saints’ Day on the telephone, we shared both our grief at his death and our joy of having shared in his life.
Marj Mead wrote:
“Since the earliest days of the Wade Center, George Sayer has been a very special friend to Wheaton College. But more than that, he and his wife Margaret have been dear personal friends, and it is difficult to say just how much I grieve his death. Because of George and Margaret’s warm hospitality, Malvern became almost a second home for me and my family. George was a kind, generous and loving friend. We miss him very much.”
Chris Mitchell, the director of the Wade Center, said:
“It was my pleasure to be the recipient of George and Margaret Sayer’s hospitality on numerous occasions. My memories of the first weekend I stayed with them on Alexandra Street are still warm and vivid. Conversation was always enriching, often challenging, wonderfully peppered with humor and good fun, and full of affection. …On one particular sunny summer afternoon, George talked me through the reading syllabus Lewis had him work through during his student days at Oxford. A teacher of English literature himself, he took the liberty to supplement the list with his own suggestions. Those were hours…I will never forget.
“The last time I saw George he was reading. Although he no longer remembered me, we talked of the book, admired the roses which grew outside his window, and enjoyed the thought of just being together. [It was a] final moment of privilege.”
After 1996, I never saw him again. But I will never forget him. I hope you know George Sayer better now and are enriched by that knowledge, as I was. We are all privileged to have met George, if only in his writing and the wonderful recordings of Tolkien still available through HarperCollins Audio.
Besides articles collected in various works on Lewis and Tolkien, he will be best known and longest remembered for Jack. Perhaps Tolkien was right and no one will ever get to the bottom of C.S. Lewis. But of all the biographers, Sayer comes closest.
First student, then fellow Christian and fellow literature teacher, and most finally a friend, George Sayer shared this simple secret with J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S.Lewis: Teaching and friendship are kindred forms of love.