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Archive for October, 2011

I’ve decided to spend some time looking carefully at the few surviving letters from Lewis’s time at Cherbourg.  It was a key time in his life, especially religiously, because though his intellect and imagination began to revive itself while he was there, serious damage was done to his faith also.  In fact, it was while he was here that he found himself “deliciously” lapsing into a warm haze of unbelief.  Therefore, I will devote at least one post to each of the few surviving letters from Cherbourg.  (I can’t keep that up for the rest of the project, of course, if I want to ever get it over with.)

This evening I’m going to take a step back and begin to work through Lewis’s account of his time there in Surprised By Joy for context.  His own explanation of his atheism could be turned into a decent academic paper in and of itself, so I don’t want to try to tackle it all at once. I’ll pick up with the letters again as soon as I can, frustrating though the delay might be.  I tend to get impatient, and I have to keep reminding myself that this project is the proverbial marathon for the sake of experience rather than a sprint to a particular publication deadline or conference presentation

Lewis referred to Cherbourg as “Chartres” in his autobiography, and he was only thirteen years old when he first arrived there with Warnie (who was attending nearby Malvern College).  It was, he said, the “classic” period of their school days and a key time in their maturation.  It certainly was key in his spiritual devolution:

The chronology of this disaster is a little vague, but I know for certain that it had not begun when I went there and that the process was complete very shortly after I left. (58-59)

Jack has already begun to pick up some of the habits he would regret later in life–smoking in particular–but he notes that his intellectual revival began in earnest.  In many ways, he was a typical schoolboy.  For instance, though the food at the school was good, they “of course…grumbled at it” (58).  It recalls to my mind the time in elementary school a transfer student yelled at a group of us when we were complaining about the otherwise good food at our own school in south Georgia.  We were all taken aback.  After all, aren’t school children obligated to complain about lunchroom food?

On the subject of his descent into atheism, Jack places a good bit of the blame for his fall from grace on a very well-meaning school matron, called Miss C. in SBJ (G. E. Cowie, in real life).  She was searching and experimenting with her faith at that point her her life and, like many before and since, had begun to explore some of the “paths less trodden,” and that had led her into the occult.  She introduced Lewis to the entrance to the confusing maze of “Theosophy, Rosicrucianism, Spiritualism; [and] the whole Anglo-American Occultic tradition” (59).  Unbeknownst to her, she was carrying a candle into a room “full of gunpowder” (59).

I had never heard of such things before; never except in a nightmare or a fairy tale, concieved of spirits other than God and men.  I had loved to read of strange sights and other worlds and unknown modes of being, but never with the slightest belief; even the phantom dwarf* had only flashed on my mind for a moment. […]  But now, for the first time, there burst upon me the idea that there might be real marvels all about us, that the visible world might be only a curtain to conceal huge realms uncharted by my very simple theology.  (59-60)

I can understand the temptation.  From my earliest years, I too have found all these things alluring.  I have, for years now, kept accounts of the paranormal–ghosts, faeries (the real, frightening sort, not the Tinkerbell vulgarizations), and other unknown phenomena–on my regular private reading list.  Oddly, I can carry on surprising intelligent conversations about a broad range of strange things.  And it is always an open and dangerous question to know where to draw the lines in my studies.  The whole subject has a unique, supernatural pull to it, and people that have never felt it usually don’t understand it.  Those that have, Jack says, “will know what I mean” (60).  All I can do is hope that it is this sense of wonder at the unknown that I apparently share with Jack will be a help to me with my own fiction writing rather than a spiritual hindrance, as Jack himself seemed to think it was.

Miss C never offered Lewis anything concrete, and that was the rub.  She opened doors that encouraged him to search for what was conceivable rather what was true.  This infected his view of theology, like a virus, and it turned the creed from something that was a certainty to a mere list of assumed possibilities.  Of course, there is nothing binding in possiblities.

So, ironically, Jack’s first step away from his faith was toward the occult, and only by gradual degrees unmarked did he finally find himself an atheist.

*Earlier, in SBJ, Lewis recounted that after he left Campbell College, he was walking in the garden at Little Lea and “I was for a second not quite sure that a little man [a dwarf] had not run past me into the shrubbery” (55).  This instance might be worth looking at by itself sometime, if to do nothing more than indulge my own fascination with Faerie.

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The internet is being a “biddy” tonight (as my grandmother used to say) and I’m exhausted with more work yet to ignore in favor of collapsing into bed in exhaustion, but I want to try to stay as disciplined as I can.  Therefore, I’m going to take look at one letter at least.

When we last left our intrepid Jack Lewis, he had penned his last letter from the Hell-hole that was Wynyard School.  The school shortly thereafter gave up the ghost, and, within a year, so did its proprietor, Robert Capron (who died in an asylum in November 1911).  Jack spent one part of one semester at Campbell College, just down the road from his home, before transferring to a small preparatory school (Cherbourg) just outside Warnie’s beloved Malvern College.  The brothers could travel to school together now, and Jack could expect to move on to Malvern where Warnie was already cutting quite the figure.

The letter in question, written in January 1911, was Jack’s first from Cherbourg.  There are a few small points of interest, perhaps.

Jack, for all of his eventual love of learning, definitely has the standard schoolboy’s approach to school–They’ve apparently hardly arrived before he’s figure out how much longer they have to go before the next holidays.  At this point, he’s figured on 79.

Up to this point, Jack had loathed England and its countryside.  Of course, since his primary experience of England had been Wynyard, that isn’t surprising.  He was pleasantly surprised here, though, to find that “Malvern is one of the nicest English towns I have seen yet.”  He does note that, “The hills are beautiful, but of course not so nice as ours.”  (226-7, 16)

He is also asking Albert for his prayer book, which has apparently gone missing.  Unless this is an early example of the posing he later carried on with his father (from whom he hid his eventual atheism), it is an indication that he indeed had carried some belief with him.  I would like to know exactly what prayer book he’s referring to–it might illuminate his “unconscious” respect for the higher liturgy to which he had been exposed.  Of course here I might be revealing my own ignorance by not knowing off-hand.

Finally for tonight, I see that in Hooper’s footnote, Cherbourg was a school that was literally tied to its founder, Arthur Clement Alan.  He created it, it followed him when he moved, and finally closed when he retired.  I wonder why?  Was any effort made to see to a more enduring legacy?  If so, it obviously failed.

And so, good night!

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Today I decided to knock out a small batch of letters at once and see Jack through his terrible years at Wynyard School, called “Belsin” in Surprised By Joy.

For those unaware, Wynard was Jack and Warnie’s first boarding school.  In Surprised By Joy, Jack described Wynyard as one of the worst possible places imaginable.  The headmaster, Robert Capron (“Oldie”) was literally insane and later carted off by the men in white coats after he assaulted one of his students.  The school closed after the incident.

Of course, that wasn’t the only time he attacked his students.  Apparently, such incidents occurred on an almost daily basis.  Jack describes one boy (whose one fault was that he was the son of a dentist, and of too low a social standing for Capron’s preference) who was made to bend over while Capron (a huge, burly man) literally took running starts from the other side of the room with each slash of his cane.

Lewis notes that he learned next to nothing while there, and that they were forced to spend the majority of the time doing random geometry sums (Warnie did the same five every day for more than a year without getting caught).  It forced Jack to learn a great deal about geometry, but little else:  “All the other arts and sciences thus appeared to us as islands (mostly rocky and dangerous islands) ‘Which like to rich and various gems inlaid; The unadorned bosom of the deep’–the deep being a shoreless ocean of arithmatic” (SBJ 28).

There is, of course, much that could be said about Jack’s time at Wynyard, and I have neither the time nor the the energy to say it, at the moment, so I’ll skip ahead to my chief observations:

First, Jack insists in Surprised By Joy that he and Warnie “did not succeed in impressing the truth [about the conditions at the school] on our father’s mind.” He also notes that, “We did not even try very hard” (30).   That is more than borne out by reading his letters.  Whatever Albert Lewis’s shortcomings, I cannot blame him for not pulling his sons out sooner, if the letters are any indication of what his sons told him.  After the comment (mentioned in my previous post) calling the place a “hole,” Jack says nothing in particular that would indicate what he and Warnie were facing.  Consider the following samples:

    • “I find school very nice but it is frightfully monotenis [sic]” (154, 9).
    • “As to what you say about leaving [Wynyard] I cannot know quite what to say.” (155, 9)
    • “In spight [sic] of all that has happened I like Mr. Capron very much” (155, 10).

It is also notable that in all of the remaining letters, Jack fails to mention any cruelty or particular dislike of the school.  They were evidently speaking of the issue in person and perhaps in Warnie’s letters, though, as evidenced by Albert’s question about them leaving.  It may be that Jack was concerned that his letters might be intercepted by Oldie himself, but that is mere speculation since, so far as I know, nothing to that effect is said elsewhere.

Also, it is possible that his reticence to tell Albert what is really happening implies that Jack is already distancing himself from his father.  He certainly already seems to be setting up his habit of trying to keep Albert at arm’s length.  That is particularly notable in the letter dated 16? December 1909 (195-6, 13), where he specifically tells Albert that he could meet Warnie at St. Lime Station, and it would “no longer be necessary for you to come over.”  I know this becomes a pattern, particularly with the advent of Mrs. Moore.  Jack later remembered his relationship with his father with shame, and wished that he could have undone and unsaid much of it.

In Surprised By Joy, Jack noted that intellectually his time in the school was “entirely wasted” and that it threatened to “have sealed my fate as a scholar for good” (34).  He notes particularly a “great decline in my imaginative life” (34).  This is also borne out by the letters.  There isn’t even a whiff of imagination beyond a reference to purchasing the Strand Magazine for a reading club they were creating.  Boxen isn’t mentioned once.

This is interesting because Lewis later became very, very good at retreating into his imagination in tense situations.  He particularly seemed to exercise it during his time in the trenches in WWI.  In my recently published paper in Mythlore, I speculated on possible origins for that ability, and I mentioned that one possible starting point might have been as a defensive measure against Capron’s torture.  From what I see here, that idea is entirely wrong; Jack’s imagination died while he was at that school.

Of course, Jack himself notes that he did learn some things…such as geometry and some English grammar.  I would point to the letters as clear evidence of the latter.  When he begins at Wynyard, he is still very much a younger writer, with poor punctuation and at times even poorer spelling (see above).  By the time he leaves, he had matured as a writer dramatically, and a significant increase is evident in his spelling, grammar, and general ability to express himself.

Finally for the night, I want to mention that I was moved by his depiction of Capron’s daughters, as captive to their father as his school boys were.  They strike me as a negative version of the daughters of Robert E. Lee, as bound to a tyrant as Lee’s daughters were to a hero.

I’ve always felt sorry for the Lee girls.  Their father was so good, so strong, such an incredible man, that none of them could find a husband to match his considerable standard.  They all died without marrying.  I don’t think Gen. Lee would have wanted that for his girls, and I know he would weep to know that he himself was the indirect cause of it.

Good night!

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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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