“Please don’t gush,” I was told as I set to write my first paper on the work of C.S. Lewis. I’m sure Oxford has seen many wide-eyed, all-too-vocal Americans awed at the books and town of their favorite author. I held my tongue and curbed my pen, but as I entered the realm of the man whose stories shaped my childhood, it was hard not to slip into amazement.
The honored presence of Lewis, for those keen to notice, is everywhere in Oxford. He peers out from a portrait in the Eagle and Child where the Inklings are memorialized in a wall of old photos. He is discussed and debated at Tuesday night societies. His home is a short bus ride from the city center, and one may visit the very study where he composed the Narnia books. I even spotted his name in a Bodleian exhibit of medieval literature where a book of Old English poetry from his own library was on display, opened to a page of his meticulous notes. I knelt down so I could see right into the glass case and read those tiny lines of literary brilliance. I rose and sighed at the sheer amount of knowledge those lines reflected. The man basically footnoted his own footnotes.
My formal study of his life for one tutorial only deepened my admiration. At Oxford, where it takes hard work and excellent grades to get a “first class” degree in even one subject (equal to a summa cum laude designation in the U.S.), Lewis took three “firsts” in difficult subjects: Philosophy, English Literature, and Classics. He read and wrote in numerous languages, including Greek, Latin, German, and French, and like the scholars of old, carried out entire correspondences in Latin alone. My stock of awe was increased by the accounts I heard of his excellent philosophical conversation at high table, his vast knowledge of literature, his ability to quote from various classics, and his fearless confidence in debate. I didn’t gush but I was awed. Overawed.
My curiosity then, was quite piqued as I began to hear accounts of Lewis from those who actually knew him and encountered one unlikely word again and again: humility. Lewis, it seems, who went by the name “Jack,” offered a humorous, kindly, and decidedly humble face to the world.
I heard these accounts of Lewis at the Oxford C.S. Lewis society. Becoming a member of that lovely group and hearing the weekly talks was one of the great treats of my time in England. My education in Lewis began with a talk by Walter Hooper, Lewis’s secretary at the time of his death. Hooper told us of Lewis’s dedication in answering almost every letter he received; answering children’s questions about Narnia, offering advice or book recommendations to curious students, extending hope and prayer to those in doubt. Lewis, he mentioned, also quietly funneled may of the proceeds from his apologetics books into a fund for the poor.
At another meeting, we heard from Bishop Simon Barrington-Ward, chaplain of Magdelene College, Cambridge, when Lewis taught there. He described long conversations with the kind, hearty Lewis, and told us of Lewis’s almost childlike capacity for wonder at the natural world. Most memorably, he told us of the deep peace, something almost like light, that he found in Lewis’s presence near the end of his life. Like the peace that comes after a battle won, he said, Lewis’s calm came from the grief he knew and the doubt he overcame after the death of his beloved wife, Joy.
The last account of Lewis I heard was from Laurence Harwood, Lewis’s godson. He read us excerpts from delightful letters, full of whimsy and humorous advice, that Lewis wrote to Harwood when he was a boy. But the best letter was one that Lewis sent when Harwood lost an academic prospect in his late teens. The way Lewis wove both compassion and challenge into that letter, comforting a disappointed young man, yet showing him countless new possibilities gives insight into the deep, prayerful care Lewis brought to his relationships.
The common point to all these talks was the mention, at some point in the evening, of the kindness and humility that marked Jack’s life. Always, always, that one idea surfaced and with it, a host of small details adding up to a life of startling humility. As I heard these accounts, I began to wonder if it was, in part, a humble heart that gave him the ability to write so clearly to the heart needs of his generation, and those to come. For though his brilliance is undeniable, it is the comradely tone, the childlike love of story, the struggle with sin so compassionately described that wins him readers again and again.
As I pondered this, I remembered an anecdote that I’d read, or heard (I can’t remember which) of a conversation that Lewis had with Walter Hooper, his secretary at the time of his death. One day, as they sorted through letters, they were discussing the knights of the Round Table who went out in search of fame, glory, and “worship.” Surrounded by letters to Lewis from dozens of smitten readers, Hooper was struck by the similarity of Lewis’s fame to those of the knights and asked the hard question: was Lewis was aware of the fame he garnered and did he have to resist the desire for worship? “Every day,” was the gist of Lewis’s quiet answer.
In the daily prayer book I use, the morning prayer has a line that has come to my mind over and over as I consider the life and legacy of C.S. Lewis:
“Christ this day be within and without me, lowly and meek, yet all powerful.”
This is the power I see in the life and writing of C.S. Lewis. Christ in his startling genius, Christ powerful in the written and spoken words of a highly-trained mind. Educated, gifted in the art of rational thought, he had in addition the full blown beauty of a vivid imagination informing his view of reality and the way he described it. He was one of the best read and best educated men of his times, able to debate and converse with the experts in his fields. Yet he used this gift not to “gain worship” but to speak Christ into the world, to tell him into stories that shape us still, to defend him against the unbelief of his age.
Yet his power was also that of Christ, meek and lowly, the servant of all who yearn and seek and need. Comforter of widows, writer of letters to the hopeless or confused, giver, helper, Lewis lived a live of private integrity that gave an unshakeable foundation to his presentation of Christian truth to the world. When I look at his continuing popularity I think it must be in part because the life he lived embodied and enfleshed the truth to which he called other people. And that is a model of life, belief, artistry, and influence that any writer, any academic, anyone with a hope of shaping the world should follow. I came away from my study of his life with a model for what I hope to become. Lewis, I saw unabashedly, is my hero.
Oh dear, I think I just gushed.
Sarah Clarkson is the author of several books including the best-selling The Life-giving Home, which she co-authored with her mother, Sally Clarkson. Sarah is currently studying literature at Oxford University where she's not only a brilliant thinker and writer, but is also the president of the C. S. Lewis Society.