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Archive for October, 2011

Wynyard School, domain of the insane Robert Capron

The Inklings have gone, and the house is quiet.  We had a few nice stories tonight, particularly a Civil War short story from Ronnie in which the dialog was excellent, and it brought on a good discussion.  Rachel read more of “Death’s Goddaughter,” and we sampled another chapter of Lisa’s book.  Washed it down with Monty Python.

On to a bit of Lewis.  Tonight I read through Jack’s arrival at Robert Capron’s Wynyard school, where he went with Warnie after his mother’s death, and his reactions to the very high church they attended while there.  For those unaware, Capron (called “Oldie” in Surprised by Joy) was an insane headmaster who ran a dwindling establishment with a paranoid, iron first.  Lewis later described some of the “punishments” that were inflicted on students for even the slightest perceived breech of the many written and (more often) unwritten rules as tantamount to torture.

In the opening letter (LP III: 140) written on 19? September 1908, Jack seems willing to give the place a fair chance.  Though he does call Capron “eccentric,” he things that he “will be able to get on” with him, and even states that he things he “shall like this place.”

His next letter (LPIII:  147) on 29 September is quite different in tone.  He tells his father about Capron accusing Warnie of breaking a rule that no one had ever heard of (he failed to bring his jam to tea) and Jack almost pleads for them to be allowed to return home early.  “We simply cannot wait in this hole till the end of term.” (emphasis in the original)

Jack’s response to the church they were required to attend is interesting to me, not least because I am, like him, a low churchman who only later was exposed to a high liturgy.  I grew up United Methodist and Baptist, and we now attend an Anglican (Reformed Episcopal) Church that uses the 1928 prayer book and much of the serious liturgy.

In his letter to his father marked 3 October (LP III 149), Jack is wary, disgusted, and indignant at being forced to attend “so frightfully high [a] church that it might as well be Roman Catholic.”  In Walter Hooper’s editorial comments that follow, he excerpts from a small diary Lewis kept at the time where he expressed his feelings in no uncertain terms.  He called it a “kind of church abhorred by respectful Irish Protestants.”  Those around him were “Romish hypocrites and English liars.”

Later, in Surprised by Joy, he remembered it more kindly.  Though he understood that he clearly responded very negatively on the surface, he also credits that church for introducing him first to the real doctrines of Christianity “taught by men who obviously believed them.”  In that sense, that small, church filled with “hypocrites” and “liars” became the original basis of Jack’s faith.  I wonder if any thoughts connected to it crossed his mind years later, as he was being dragged back to faith, kicking and screaming, in Warnie’s sidecar on the way to the Whipsnade Zoo?

More to do tomorrow than I have hours in the day for, so I probably won’t be able to pick this back up until Monday.

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Flora Lewis, Jack's mother

For today’s reading, I decided to take another small bite:  A few letters from 1906 to 1908.  These are the last few that were written while Jack’s mother, Flora, was still alive.  It is a logical place to stop anyway, since the next in the series are sent from Wynyard School, and that marks a notable change in his life experience.

These letters include LP III: 79, 80, 82, and 105.  79, 80, and 105 are to Warnie (his brother) and 82 is to his father, Albert.

In 79, which was written on 18 May 1907, I’m immediately struck by the significant increase in spelling and punctuation errors I see.  Whereas two years before, his letter was very well and clearly composed, this one abounds with errors that one might well expect from a younger writer:  “onley” (only); “seteled” (settled); “wont” (won’t); “adia” (idea); “wight” (white); etc.

It is also notable that he mentions to Warnie that he is already composing his first play.

80 is notable for a brief history of “Mouse-land” in which Lewis gives Warnie a time-line breakdown of that country’s ages and kings from 55 BC until the ascendancy of King Bunny in 1377.  Again, an interesting level of detail.  At this point I wonder if Lewis ever considered studying history.  I know that my own interest in “real” history was spurred on by the “creative” history I read as a child.  I’ll keep an eye out for hints that might provide some evidence as opposed to mere speculation.

82 is a brief postcard that Jack sent Albert while he was away on holiday, and I notice that by 105 (Jack telling Warnie of his visit to “chains memorial” lighthouse in Larne Harbor) that Jack’s grammar and spelling have improved again and are back close to what I saw in the letter from 1905.  He also mentions the illness that eventually kills his mother for the first time.

Of course, these few letters are hardly grounds to form absolute opinions, but I think there might be two likely causes for the fluctuation in Jack’s spelling and grammar:

  • He had help on  the 1905 letter.  Perhaps it implies that Flora or his governess was working with him, maybe even using the letter to Warnie as a writing project.  The later letters may not have benefited from their ministrations.
  • He took more care with that letter than he did with the others for some reason.  Perhaps he wanted to impress Warnie with his first letter and later got sloppier when it didn’t seem to matter as much.
I also note that Lewis was homeschooled in the classical method during this whole period.  Food for thought.
Not sure if I’ll be able to blog again before Monday.  We have our own Inklings writers group tomorrow and a busy Saturday.  I have to find time to put more wood up for the winter too.  Sundays I don’t intend to blog.  Hopefully an opportunity will present itself.

Lewis, C. S. The Collected Letters of C. S. Lewis Walter Hooper, ed.(San Francisco:  Harper San Francisco, 2004), 3-5.

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"Jack" Lewis as a child

I picked a sorry time to start a blog.  I’m approaching the busiest point of an already unreasonably busy semester.  But hey, I need to start some time, so I’ll start slowly; just a couple of short letters to get the ball rolling.

The 1905 letter is the very first that Jack wrote to Warnie, and is the first contained in the published collected letters.  Warnie is away at Wynyard School and Jack is about eight years old.  Jack is talking about the adventures of his canary and some Halloween celebrations.  One point that I found interesting is how plain and straightforward his language is.  He’s reporting on events truly and completely, even if some of the evens must have been exciting (the fireworks) or even terrifying (his dog going into spasms and foaming at the mouth).  Everything is told in plain, straightforward style.

The second letter is shorter, and is full of news from Jack’s imaginary world of Boxen.  I know that Jack later said that Boxen was a rather dry, unmagical place, but I must say that I find his level of detail in demography and political intrigue to be a bit mind blowing.  A short quote speaks for itself:

The colonists (who are of course the war party) are in a bad way:  they scarecly leave their houses because of the mobs.  In Tararo the Prussians and the Boxonians are at fearful odds against each other and the natives.

A couple of things strike me about these two letters.

  • First, I find it ironic (and scary) that Lewis at eight years of age is writing more creatively and coherently than a significant number of my college students do at eighteen or even twenty.  I’d like to say that it was simply due to Lewis’s innate genius, but I’m afraid its probably not that simple….
  • Second, I’m amazed to see Lewis’s detailed knowledge of Boxen.  I know that we might be tempted to write that off quickly because, after all, it is his own imaginary world that therefore we should expect him to know quite a bit about it.  Then I remind myself that he’s only nine flippin’ years old!  How many modern nine year olds have you heard talking like that?

Of course, I wonder sometimes if that isn’t simply because we, as a civilization, haven’t simply become lazy in our thinking.  Coming up with that level of detail is  hard work for most of us, and we’d rather let someone else do it for us and then just present us with the results.  We certainly have become lazy in our writing.  Becoming a decent writer is difficult, and we want to be able to skip the practicing part and and expect instant gratification.  If we can’t have that, many of us just give up.  Quite sad really.

Ah well.
Lewis, C. S. The Collected Letters of C. S. Lewis Walter Hooper, ed.(San Francisco:  Harper San Francisco, 2004), 2-3.

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Welcome to my first attempt at a true blog–a sort of life journal with a specific purpose.  It is my goal to blog my way through the life of one of the Greats of Christian literature:  C. S. Lewis.

For the many with no clue who I am, I am an erstwhile historian with very broad interests.  After completing (and publishing)  a number of works on the American Civil War, I’ve decided to turn my attentions back to one of my first loves:  The life and philosophy of “Jack” Lewis.  I first encountered Lewis, of course, in the Chronicles of Narnia as a child.  As I grew older and my questions about life got deeper, Dr. Donald T. Williams of Toccoa Falls College (a serious Lewis scholar in his own right) introduced me to Lewis’s philosophical works.  Unlike many, I didn’t cut my teeth there on Mere Christianity or The Screwtape Letters.  It was  Miracles: A Preliminary Study that drew me in, particularly Lewis’s devastating critique of the intellectual underpinnings of naturalism.  (Properly framed, I still haven’t see a sufficient reply to him–and that includes Anscombe.)

To that end, I have begun to delve into the field of Lewis Studies.  I’ve been lucky to have been allowed to present several papers to one of the foremost societies dedicated to Inklings Studies:  The Mythopoeic Society, and to have been published twice in formal journals on the topic of how Lewis’s experiences in World War I may have influenced Narnia (once in The Lamp-post and only recently in  Mythlore itself).  I am very grateful to Don Williams, Janet Brennan Croft, and other members of the society for their help and guidance.

Which brings me to this new endeavor.  I intend to blog my way through Lewis’s life from start to finish  by looking at his primary sources.  I will start with the first volume of his published letters and proceed through them (with pauses to indulge various connected rabbit trails–i.e. All My Road Before Me) straight through to the end of his life.  I intend to use this blog to track my progress.  My purpose is two-fold:

First, to keep a log of what thoughts and insights I develop as I progress.

Second, to invite others to join me in my quest.  I hope that as time goes on, I might encounter other Mere Lewisians who can share their insights and, most importantly, keep me focused on my task.

And so thus I place the first, and always unread post up for everyone’s non-scrutiny.  Tomorrow I begin in earnest.

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