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From the September, 2001 issue of Touchstone


Fascinating Lewis by Dale Nelson

Fascinating Lewis

We Remember C. S. Lewis
edited by David Graham
Nashville: Broadman and Holman, 2001
(162 pages; $12.99, paper)

reviewed by Dale Nelson

A C. S. Lewis who had real failings, as well as the generous Lewis, the wise Lewis, and the popular wartime broadcasting Lewis, appears in this book of biographical vignettes. Graham has succeeded in giving us a varied, and sometimes enlightening, compilation. Despite the title, the book also includes a few pieces by people, such as Philip Yancey and Charles Colson, who never met Lewis.

Joan O’Hare was a working-class girl, embarrassed by her North Country accent, who became one of Lewis’s first woman students (Oxford, 1941). Her winsome account contradicts the assertions of Lewis’s misogyny that one sometimes encounters. Lewis’s end of term report, she writes, was the most perceptive one she received, and she credits Lewis with enhancing her tolerance of human foibles, which was very important to her as someone who went into social work. Patricia M. Hunt, however, recalls Lewis as “polite,” “distant,” and “quiet.” Novelist Penelope Fitzgerald remembers Lewis as an arresting Oxford lecturer on Spenser: “C. S. L. says forget courtly Spenser dreamy Spenser—think of rustic Spenser English Spenser homely Spenser, kindled lust, worldly muck, bagpipes, goat milking.”

Lewis’s erstwhile pupil Claude Rawson confirms the “bullying” Lewis—but also the generous Lewis. Lewis’s friend George Sayer, author of the excellent Lewis biography called Jack, provides a review of A. N. Wilson’s book on Lewis, appreciating the novelistic touches but pronouncing its portrait “almost unrecognizable.” Daniel Morris gives us a Boswellian account of a classic conversation in a pub, recounting Lewis’s secondhand but very interesting narrative about a friend’s premonitory dream—which enabled her to escape an accident that could have been fatal. Like his friend Tolkien, Lewis was interested in J. W. Dunne’s now almost-forgotten An Experiment with Time, a book on dreams as extrasensory knowledge.

Hugh Sinclair remembers Lewis as a “disastrous” vice president at Magdalen College, Oxford, trying to placate the patriarch of Pskov, who insisted on a promised dinner for which, due to Lewis’s error, he had arrived too late. At last, Lewis had to accompany the disgruntled hierarch to the Eastgate Hotel.

I skipped about in We Remember C. S. Lewis and so didn’t read Roger Poole’s blandly titled “Lewis Lecturing” till I was almost done with the book. Up till then I’d found the book a pleasant enough contribution to the biographical literature on Lewis—but before I’d even finished Poole’s essay, I rushed to a photocopy machine to make 10 copies for friends and colleagues.

Poole provides a vivid, though concise, impression of Lewis’s passionately attentive reading of Spenser, of how Lewis disdained to accommodate the indifferent student, but invited “those to whom literature mattered” to read along with him, reading the Faerie Queene as if for the first time, creating an “electrifying” experience. But because this kind of reading cannot be quantified and does not mesh with the ideas of those who perceive reading as a readily transferable “skill,” it is incompatible with the prevalent “modular” approach to English in today’s university “supermarket.” This essay ought to be read, passed around, and discussed by many people in the humanities. Perhaps there are, here and there, even a few university administrators who would give it a hearing.

The two other pieces that most pleased me were by Lewis’s gardener of 34 years, Fred Paxford, and James Houston of Regent College in Vancouver.

Paxford’s memories are intimate and moving. He saw Lewis in the environment of the Kilns, the house on nine acres, five of which were wooded and in which rabbits and even a badger might be observed. Paxford recounts some “country jokes” and anecdotes that Lewis liked to hear, e.g., about the boastful bartender who claimed that his binoculars brought Sunday worshipers, three miles away, so close that you could hear them singing.

James Houston resided for several years with Nicholas Zernov, lecturer on Eastern Orthodox Culture at Oxford. Houston, the “low-church Evangelical,” and Zernov, author of books on Orthodoxy for Western readers, made quite a pair. Houston expresses more of the “shame” of being a conservative Christian at Oxford than one usually encounters in Lewisian reminiscences—and also his sense of the social cost of being a public Christian that Lewis must have had to pay. People who have read Humphrey Carpenter’s The Inklings and sighed over the dreaming spires ought to ponder Houston’s words about the inhibited and emotionally deprived denizens of Oxford’s “very unreal world”—men derisive of biblical religious faith, and wounded by the distance from their parents they had endured from boyhood.

This book is by no means a bottom-of-the-barrel production, but a good companion to James Como’s C. S. Lewis at the Breakfast Table.  

Dale Nelson is associate professor of English at Mayville State University in Mayville, North Dakota.

“Fascinating Lewis” first appeared in the September 2001 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.

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