Literary societies are book clubs on steroids, and if that sounds like your idea of a good time then you’ll soon find yourself caught up in C.S. Lewis and His Circle, a collection of essays and memoirs from members of the prestigious Oxford C.S. Lewis Society. Through this collection, readers can immerse themselves in Lewis’ world and learn more about the beloved author of classics such as The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe and Out of the Silent Planet. Here, Roger White, the book’s editor, shares seven surprising discoveries about Lewis that average readers may not know.
Before the internet and social media, how did book lovers come together to talk about favorite titles and beloved authors? One avenue was the literary society, a kind of reading group or book club with a dedicated focus and an enthusiastic commitment to learning.
In C. S. Lewis and His Circle, readers are welcomed into the Oxford C.S. Lewis Society, a literary society that has been promoting conversation and reflection on the life and work of C. S. Lewis for over 30 years. Each week Society members gather to engage on topics related to Lewis and his literary peers, and invite speakers to bring new ideas and perspectives into their lively discussions. Here are a few of the surprising and amusing discoveries found in this collection:
1) The Chronicles of Narnia began with a single picture
The image was of a faun carrying an umbrella and parcels through a snowy wood. Walter Hooper, C. S. Lewis’ secretary, friend, literary executor, and biographer, tells how the Chronicle stories evolved from this single curious picture. Although the Narnia tales were not written in chronological order, published in the sequence they were composed, nor particularly liked by a few of Lewis’ close friends, the seven volumes remain one of the most beloved children’s stories of all time.
2) The former Archbishop of Canterbury finds That Hideous Strength to be deeply flawed
Rowan Williams—who some will remember as presiding over Prince William and Kate Middleton’s wedding—reassesses one of Lewis’ Space Trilogy books considering its superficial virtues and vices, addressing its deeper weaknesses and major strengths, but still recommending it favorably in spite of its failings as one of Lewis’ most interesting and challenging books. He concludes that it serves (using a phrase from Lewis) as a “mouthwash for the imagination.”
3) Lewis rewrote a chapter of Miracles after a debate with Elizabeth Anscombe
Anscombe, a leading 20th century philosopher, and Lewis published their ongoing exchange following an initial encounter in 1948. Later in an introduction to her book, Metaphysics and the Philosophy of Mind (1981), Anscombe briefly acknowledges the “honesty and seriousness” shown in Lewis’ revision, but here for the first time she more fully addresses her thoughts on Lewis’ new chapter and his attending arguments. The dispute between these two has led to much speculation regarding the effect it had on Lewis’ career.
4) Peter Bide sets the record straight about C.S. Lewis’ biopic
Bide recounts the story portrayed in the movie, Shadowlands featuring Anthony Hopkins and Debra Winger as C. S. Lewis and Joy Davidman. He describes his role in the remarkable healing of a boy occurring in a nearby parish, Lewis’ invitation to pray for his wife, Joy, her subsequent three-year remission from cancer, and the ecclesiastical predicament following the hospital ceremony where Lewis marries her for a second time.
5) If asked to play Scrabble with C. S. Lewis and his wife, Joy, always inquire in what language the game will proceed: English, Latin, or Anglo-Saxon.
That was a concern faced by Reverend Ronald Head, Vicar of Holy Trinity Church, Headington Quarry where Lewis, his wife, and brother attended. During home visits with the Lewises not only was there serious and extraordinary theological discussion, there was also lightheartedness, plenty of tea, and rousing piano duets with Joy.
6) W. H. Auden was significantly shaped by writings from this literary group surrounding C. S. Lewis
The famed 20th century writer and poet studied at Oxford under Nevill Coghill, attended lectures given by J. R. R. Tolkien and Charles Williams, and shared a deep sense of quest with C. S. Lewis. He was one of the first high profile writers to enthusiastically endorse J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, which turned out to be a great encouragement to Tolkien.
7) There is much to learn from the relationships in Lewis’ circle
Whether reading Owen Barfield as he compares and contrasts himself with C. S. Lewis, or following John Wain as he fondly reminisces about Lewis’ brother Warren and recalls the Irishness of Nevill Coghill and C. S. Lewis, it is evident in these firsthand accounts by original Inklings the vibrant, shared appreciation for ideas that characterized the members of this group as well as their celebration of the life of the mind.
Roger White is curator of the Inklings Special Collection for the University Libraries as well as Professor of Ministry for the Seminary at Azusa Pacific University in Azusa, California. Along with Judith Wolfe and Brendan N. Wolfe, he is the editor of C.S. Lewis and His Circle (Oxford University Press, July 2015).