Archives For Family

C.S. Lewis as a Stepfather

September 8, 2020 — 14 Comments

Step-parenting well can be a challenge. In many cases it brings great joy to both parent and child. But in some unfortunate cases, parenting the biological child of another can seem nearly impossible.

If you needed another reason to respect C.S. Lewis—and I recognize most readers of Mere Inkling don’t—consider the case of his stepsons. I’ll refer you in a moment to an informative column by Jonathon Van Maren, but first, some background.

C.S. Lewis was a confirmed bachelor. He anticipated living out his senior years in the fraternal company of his brother and close friends. God, however, had other plans. His marriage to Joy Davidman is familiar, in part because of the 1993 film, Shadowlands.

Curiously, the film itself raised a question in my mind that has not been satisfactorily answered until now. Where is David Gresham? Joy had two sons Lewis helped raise. Only David is portrayed in the film. At the time I attributed the absence to cinematic convenience. After all, since the son(s) were not the primary focus of the drama, one could easily suffice for the pair.

Some years later I corresponded (too briefly) with Doug Gresham, who has admirably championed the legacy of his stepfather’s faith and work. When I asked about his brother, Doug shared that he had elected to follow Judaism, and chosen not to be directly involved in the workings of C.S. Lewis Co. Ltd. and associated projects.

Now, following David’s death, Doug is free to share with us another insight into the patience and compassion of C.S. Lewis. The great author did not flinch from the duty he had accepted when he married Joy and brought his bride, and her children, into his home. Doug has previously written about their family in his wonderful book, Lenten Lands. He describes the adjustments.

We became a family. It didn’t happen all at once, but slowly and surely Jack and Warnie and I were building some sort of relationship. I could never claim to have been anywhere near as important to Jack [Lewis] as he was to me, but I really do believe that I did become important to him. In addition, I began to understand a little about Jack and began to be able to see the enormous wealth of compassion in him.

The marriage was too brief, lasting from March 1957* until Joy’s death in July 1960. After that, Lewis was diligent in establishing the best future for his sons. Douglas’ life has been a testimony to that commitment. David’s sadly, was not.

The Curse of Psychosis

Schizophrenia is an ugly affliction. Psychotic episodes, where a person is unable to discern between reality and illusion, can create chaos. While modern medications are helpful, in severe cases, long term hospitalization may be required. In David’s case, his life ended several years ago in just such an institution, in Switzerland. 

While schizophrenia often first manifests between the late teens and early thirties, in some cases its onset begins earlier. Such was the case in the Davidman family. And it was during these turbulent years that Lewis did his best to protect and nurture his new sons. Doug relates a shocking example of how his elder brother “was continually trying to get rid of me.” From the aforementioned column:

“I came out of the kitchen [at The Kilns] one afternoon, for example. . . As I walked out the brick arch doorway, there was a splash, and I was covered in gasoline. My brother was standing there trying to strike a match to throw at me.

I kicked his wrist so hard I nearly broke it. The matches went flying, and I took off.” Douglas told me that this sort of thing was not uncommon. “It was a difficult childhood for me,” he said. “Jack tried his very hardest for David all the time. He tried to help in every way he could—he was kind and gentle and wonderful with him.”

Those of us whose families have been scarred by the scourge of schizophrenia understand how one’s compassion and patience can be tested to their limits. C.S. Lewis passed that test. He neither surrendered to the challenge, nor shirked the burden he had willingly assumed.

After reading “C.S. Lewis and His Stepsons” at First Things, my respect for the man continues to grow. I suspect that yours will, as well.


* Their true marriage took place while Joy was hospitalized on 21 March 1957. Lewis had entered into a civil marriage with Joy a year earlier, to allow her to remain in the United Kingdom.

This is the most amazing post you will ever read about hyperbole. Well, until you write one yourself and use even more exaggerated adjectives.

Hyperbole is a curious rhetorical device, a frequent element of satire. Unfortunately, hyperbole is too often employed in a sloppy way (e.g. “he was the worst politician ever”). Yet, in skillful hands it can be quite effective. For example, in English Literature in the Sixteenth Century, when Lewis discusses poet Michael Drayton,* he writes:

When he speaks simply as any lover he can sometimes outsoar all the sonneteers except Shakespeare. . . . Yet again, and in quite a different vein, that of towering hyperbole, Drayton (this time with no rival at all, neither Shakespeare nor any other) sets up the seamark beyond which poetry in that kind has never gone nor could go:

And Queens hereafter shall be glad to live
Upon the almes of thy superfluous prayse.

If he had never written another verse, these two would secure him that praise which is due to men who have done some one thing to perfection.

I was thinking about hyperbole after coming across a wonderful quote by Erasmus of Rotterdam⁑  about his contemporary, the reformer Martin Luther. Though they shared many concerns, they parted company on how best to reform the Roman Catholic Church. Erasmus objected to Luther’s tendency to take every disagreement to extremes, and he named the Wittenberg professor “Doctor Hyperbolicus.”

It reminded me of one of our sons. As a youngster, he suffered from that common childhood disease, excessive summa hyperbolism. Everything was either the best thing ever, or the worst thing he’d ever encountered. Sometimes I referred to him as the “King of Hyperbole,” which was hyperbole on my own part. He was more like a Duke of Hyperbole.

John Colet⁂ was another English scholar discussed in Lewis’ longest work. Colet was a theologian, and a strong advocate of biblically-grounded morality. As we frequently find, Lewis’ assessment is informative, and entertaining.

Colet is, in fact, a declamatory moralist. By calling him declamatory I do not at all mean that he is insincere, but that his methods are those of the declamation; repetition, hyperbole, and a liberal use of emotional adjectives. The morality he wishes to enforce is harsh and ascetic. . . .

The truth is that Colet is a Platonist at heart and has really little interest in the temporal and mutable world below the moon. . . . A cloistered perfectionist, who happens to be also a rhetorician, often says, not exactly more than he means, but more than he understands. He leaves out the reservations: he has really no idea of the crudely literal applications which will be made. (English Literature in the Sixteenth Century)

Hyperbole in Lewis’ Personal Life

The First World War began in 1914. It was a conflict which would cost ten million military lives. C.S. Lewis himself would be counted among a greater number, who suffered terrible wounds during combat. At the beginning of the conflict, Lewis gently chided his father for embracing a growing British fear.

My dear Papy, You have surpassed yourself. The popular press . . . remarks on the possibility of an invasion: the idea, after being turned over in your mind, appears in your next letter, clothed as “it is absolutely certain that he is going to invade England” Surely . . . this is rather hyperbole?

The one thing that Britain can depend upon is her fleet: and in any case Germany has her hands full enough. You will perhaps say that I am living in a fool’s paradise. “Maybe thon.” But, providing it only be a paradise is that not preferable to a wise and calculating inferno? Let us have wisdom by all means, so long as it makes us happy: but as soon as it runs against our peace of mind, let us throw it away and “carpe diem.” I often wonder how you came to have such a profound and genuine philosopher for your son, don’t you?

In a 1949 letter he explains to a correspondent that the Gospel claims to Christ’s divinity were not hyperbolic appellations.

The Jews may have had their own use of hyperbole but the last direction in wh. they would have used it was to deify a man. The absolute chasm which they put between Jahveh and His creatures was just the thing that cut them off from Pagans.

No other race could have told the stories they told about Moses & Elijah and yet left these persons absolutely, sheerly human. What was Jesus condemned for by the Sanhedrin? Surely His declaration “I am etc.” must have been recorded right?

And, finally, a quotation C.S. Lewis selected for inclusion in his anthology of George MacDonald’s writings.

“But how,” says a man, who is willing to recognize the universal neighborhood, but finds himself unable to fulfill the bare law toward the woman even whom he loves best—“How am I then to rise into that higher region, that empyrean of love?” And, beginning straightaway to try to love his neighbor, he finds that the empyrean of which he spoke is no more to be reached in itself than the law was to be reached in itself. . . .

The man who will love his neighbor can do so by no immediately operative exercise of the will. It is the man fulfilled of God from whom he came and by whom he is, who alone can as himself love his neighbor who came from God too and is by God too. The mystery of individuality and consequent relation is deep as the beginnings of humanity, and the questions thence arising can be solved only by him who has, practically at least, solved the holy necessities resulting from his origin. In God alone can man meet man. . . .

It is possible to love our neighbor as ourselves. Our Lord never spoke hyperbolically. (Unspoken Sermons, First Series, “Love Thy Neighbor”)

I am absolutely convinced C.S. Lewis is one of the most outstanding Christian writers in history. That’s not hyperbole. If anything, it is a vast understatement.


* A selection of the poetry of Michael Drayton (1563-1631) is available at Internet Archive. The introduction to the collection begins, “no poet is more thoroughly English than Michael Drayton.”

⁑ Desiderius Erasmus Roterodamus (1466-1536) was a Dutch humanist who shared many concerns about the state of the Roman Catholic Church with Luther. However, he disliked Luther’s roughshod response and chose to attempt to accomplish some amount of reform from within. His early epistles are available in this free volume.

⁂ For more about John Colet (1467-1519), you might download this biography.

C.S. Lewis did not write a Cinderella story of his own, but he did refer to one of his books as his “Cinderella,” for a different reason.

The Cinderella folk tale is familiar to many cultures. Like the Ugly Duckling, it celebrates real life occasions where events turn upside down, and the disadvantaged are vindicated.

More than two thousand years ago, the Greeks told the story of Rhodopis, a Greek slave girl whose sandal was snatched by an eagle and dropped into the lap of the Egyptian pharaoh. His search for the lovely foot that graced the footwear culminated in a joyous marriage.

I was thinking about step parenting recently, and how some people care for their own children differently than they treat children brought into the union from a spouse’s previous relationship. The subject arose during my prayers, when I thought to offer thanks to God for the depth of love he has given me for my “step-grandchildren.” It is, as far as I can tell, indistinguishable from the love I hold for my biological grandkids.

Following my prayers, I reflected further on family. And—because it reflects real life in terms of raising children, I thought of the story of Cinderella. In particular, I was wondering whether the “wicked stepsisters” were destined to be cruel simply because they were raised by their “wicked stepmother.”

The answer to that dilemma is obvious. Do bad parents raise bad kids? Sometimes, but thankfully, not always. Do good parents raise good kids? Sometimes, but sadly, not always.

If you remove the outliers—the saints on one side and the sociopaths on the other—kids have a reasonable chance to turn out “okay.” Basically, just because someone’s parents are disreputable, doesn’t mean the kids will grow up to be bums as well.

This comes as no shock to any of us, of course. We are too sophisticated to impute the sins of the parents to their children. But are we really? In truth, we often make judgments based upon things utterly beyond a child’s control. Nationality, social status, physical or mental disability . . . some people default to an unconscious ranking of desirability.

I’m reminded of the rewards of working with orphans and the tragic manner in which even these victims are “ranked” in terms of their perceived worth. So much for viewing the world through carnal eyes.

C.S. Lewis described the way a children’s story can flip things around in a way that reveals truth. In 1947 he described this to an American correspondent.

About stories for children. (a) Don’t the ordinary fairy tales really already contain much of the Spirit, in solution? Does not Cinderella give us exaltavit humiles,* and is not Redemption figured in The Sleeping Beauty? (b) For something a little more explicit, what about Geo. MacDonald’s⁑ The Princess & the Goblins, Curdie & the Princess, The Wise Woman, and The Golden Key?

In a 1943 letter to Sister Penelope, Lewis commented on a manuscript she had sent for his review. He suggests a “longish speech” by Melchizedek would be better presented in a different manner.

He’s got to have the sense of mystery about him. That means, for purposes of these plays, he must sound like a king out of a fairy tale. Actually in this speech he sounds more like a Bampton Lecturer! Represents, condemnation, include, mediator all strike the wrong note. I am referring only to the style: the matter is perfectly right. It is easier, of course, to pick holes than to mend them!

He then offers a note about the power of stories to communicate facts and deeper truths.

If I were trying to do it myself I should make it a speech about the Kings of Salem, not about ‘kingship’ in general—like a special magic in that family. (The Kings of Salem are not ordinary kings. . . .)

On the imaginative level I think the deepest truths enter the mind much better as arbitrary marvels than as universal theorems. Cinderella had to be back at midnight—Psyche must not see Cupid’s face—Adam and Eve must not eat the fruit: how much better these statements are than any philosophical generalities about obedience.

C.S. Lewis’ Personal Cinderella

Each reader of C.S. Lewis has their personal favorite, thoughtfully selected from the rich buffet of his diverse works. While I treasure many of his works, my personal favorite is The Great Divorce. It pleases me that the title also occupied a special place in Lewis’ own estimation.

Lewis described the underappreciated volume as his “Cinderella.” The beauty and nobility were there all of the time, though unrecognized.

Writing in 1954 to his editor, Jocelyn Gibb, he expresses appreciation for two handsomely bound copies of his books. He says, “perhaps these two charming volumes will teach me at last to have for the bodies of my own books the same reverence I have for the bodies of all other books.” In the same letter he writes, “I am always glad to hear of anyone’s taking up that Cinderella, The Great Divorce.”

Kathryn Lindskoog wrote an article about the book, calling the volume “C.S. Lewis’s Divine Comedy.” She begins with a personal anecdote.

C. S. Lewis beamed, then said “It’s my Cinderella.” I had just told him how much I loved The Great Divorce. (If I had been forced to choose one favorite of all his books, that would have been my choice.) He said he didn’t understand why Screwtape Letters got all the attention when The Great Divorce was so much better.

The Screwtape Letters is another of Lewis’ works that continues to impress me for its unique and effective way of illustrating the malevolent mind that shapes so many of the temptations that assail us. But, for sheer pleasure, I too prefer the wisdom, and the witness to heaven’s reality, that shine so brightly in The Great Divorce.

——

* Exaltavit humiles comes from the Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55) and means God “has exalted the humble.”

⁑ Most of MacDonald’s books are available for free download at Google and Kindle.

Some people become parents and others do not. This column isn’t about the complex considerations that determine which path each individual follow. We all know people in each situation who are happy—as well as those who are dissatisfied.

I want to consider here a single reason some people choose not to have children. There are, of course, many valid reasons for not bringing children into this world, but this one struck me as particularly odd.   

Before we look at the interview question, allow me to offer a thesis that I believe most writers would agree with. Not all would concur, but don’t you think there would be strong consensus with this statement:

Raising children makes being a productive writer more challenging.

It’s pretty logical that the time spent actively parenting children leaves an author with less time to pursue their writing. Especially if they are a good mother or father.

Sure, kids provide us with some great stories and inspiration that can occasionally be worked into an article or story. But unless we’re a Dave Barry, an Erma Bombeck or a Bil Keane, people won’t line up to read about our children’s hijinks. So, if you were to balance the scales, I think we’d be hard-pressed to make the case that the addition of children to our household will make our writing more prolific.

In a recent interview with Forbes columnist Amity Shlaes, the editor of World Magazine raised this subject in an unusual way. Here is the question: “I talked with a Harvard economist years ago who said he was deliberately not having any children because he felt each child would lose him a book. You and I each have four children, and yet we’ve written books. Did you ever do a calculation like this foolish Harvard economist?”

Shales’ response was thoughtful. “Well, I’m very lucky in the husband department. He wanted lots of children and didn’t mind the work. But the main thing is: Children enrich life, they don’t impoverish it. You’d often be richer in dollars if you’d had no children, but with kids you’re richer in social capital, in happiness . . .”

It will come as no surprise that I agree with Shales’ opinion (with the substitution of “wife” in the first sentence). But the idea that struck me as rather shocking in this interchange was the reason the economist gave for opting not to have children: “because he felt each child would lose him a book.”

Wow. That is a pretty honest, and rather crass calculation. I won’t argue with his domestic equation, but it makes me shake my head. I can’t help but wonder how he will feel at the end of his life when he looks at his bookshelf of soon-to-be-forgotten titles and contemplates whether his choice was wise.

Lewis’ Personal Experience

C.S. Lewis was one of the most prolific writers. And he wrote in an expansive range of genres. It could easily be argued that his bachelorhood provided him with the time to write. That, in addition to the creative fountain provided by the Inklings made for a productive environment.

When he became a father, he was extremely conscientious. The boys were sent to private (or, in British parlance, “public”) schools after their mother’s death. However, that was the norm for children in their comfortable economic circumstances.

Lewis loved his sons, and did the best he could to be a father to them, despite his lack of confidence. Lewis was still the man who many years earlier (in 1935) wrote to his closest friend: “I theoretically hold that one ought to like children, but am shy with them in practice.” A decade later, in one of his most powerful books, Lewis confessed “I myself do not enjoy the society of small children . . . I recognize this as a defect in myself” (The Abolition of Man).

Self-awareness is a mark of intelligence and honesty. I strongly believe Lewis put the lie to his self-criticism about lacking a rapport with children, with his wonderful letters written to children.*

It could be argued that parenthood was one of the factors that affected Lewis’ literary production. Brenton Dickieson has a chart showing his annual production of books, here. Another scholar, Joel Heck, has done the world a great service by providing the definitive chronology of C.S. Lewis’ life and work, available here.

Lewis did not marry earlier in his life because he considered himself a confirmed bachelor. Joy’s unexpected arrival transformed his life.

But, even before he became a (step-)father, he would never have uttered the sentiment of the Harvard professor.

A book or a child? Which shall it be? If that is a difficult question for someone, here’s my advice: “Please just write your books; you’d probably make a lousy parent anyway.”


* C.S. Lewis was able to speak clearly to children. And, unlike so many adults, he did not speak down to them. While toddlers may have remained a mystery to him—and he never parented any—he respected children’s questions, and offered wise advice.

On putting one’s life in its proper order: “You are quite right if you mean that giving up fun for no reason except that you think it’s “good” to give it up, is all nonsense.”

And, how is this for a thoughtful, practical comment: “All schools, both here [in England] and in America, ought to teach far fewer subjects and teach them far better.”

Wise counsel to a young person (or anyone): God knows quite well how hard we find it to love Him more than anyone or anything else, and He won’t be angry with us as long as we are trying. And He will help us.”

And, one particularly inspiring comment about faith: “Anyone in our world who devotes his whole life to seeking Heaven will be like Reepicheep” in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader.

Epitaphs & C.S. Lewis

June 10, 2020 — 15 Comments

Have you already decided on an epitaph for your headstone? Or are you trusting others to sum up your life in familiar, traditional words of relationship? C.S. Lewis was of the opinion that a unique sentiment was most appropriate for such occasions.

My own decision has been made by default. At the present time I’m leaning towards simply using a military marker. They look distinguished, and the money that is saved can benefit the living, or perhaps one of the charities we support.

Basically, they have name, rank (I just want “Chaplain” instead of “Lieutenant Colonel”), dates and sometimes a very short personalized element. I think I’ll opt for the simple “Christian cross” which is familiar to those who have visited military cemeteries. I am tempted though, to use the agnus dei, even though it is listed as the official emblem of the United Moravian Church.

Due to the religious diversity (and confusion) in the United States, the Veterans Administration offers a theological smorgasbord of options. You can see the seventy-five options currently available here.

They include established American faiths such as Zoroastrianism and the Tenrikyo Church as well as more contemporary favorites Wicca and Eckankar (which claimed not to be a religion when I encountered its missionaries during my college years). Not to be ignored, are Humanism and its sibling, Atheism. For those preferring ethnic options, we have the Medicine Wheel, ancestor worship (African Ancestral Traditionalist), and the Hammer of Thor.

How Much Should an Epitaph Say?

I’ve seen some headstones that record only a name. Leaves only questions. Some give a brief observation, such as Boot Hill’s marker for Dan Dowd who perished in 1884. It records single word, “Hanged.”*

There are a few longer epitaphs, such as this one, sounding almost like an apology. “Here lies George Johnson hanged by mistake 1882. He was right we was wrong. But we strung him up and now he’s gone.” Sadly, they learned too late the horse they assumed he had stolen, was purchased legally.

In New Hampshire, there is a headstone with a 150 word inscription. Apparently, the woman’s husband had quite an axe to grind with a local congregation.

Caroline H., Wife of Calvin Cutter, M.D. Murdered by the Baptist Ministry and Baptist Churches As follows: Sep’t. 28, 1838; aged 33 She was accused of lying in church meeting by the Rev. D. D. Pratt and Deacon Albert Adams. Was condemned by the church unheard. She was reduced to poverty by Deacon William Wallace. When an exparte council was asked of the Milford Baptist Church, by the advice of their committee, George Raymond, Calvin Averill, and Andrew Hutchinson They voted not to receive any communication on the subject. The Rev. Mark Carpenter said he thought as the good old Deacon said, “We’ve got Cutter down and it’s best to keep him down.” The intentional and malicious destruction of her character And happiness as above described destroyed her life. Her last words upon the subject were “Tell the Truth and The Iniquity will come out.”

C.S. Lewis’ Epitaph

Lewis wrote a moving epitaph for his wife, Joy Davidman. It was based upon one he had written for his good friend Charles Williams. The phrase “Lenten Lands” was used by his stepson David Gresham, as the title of his story of his parents’ marriage.

Here the whole world (stars, water, air,
And field, and forest, as they were
Reflected in a single mind)
Like cast off clothes was left behind
In ashes, yet with hopes that she,
Re-born from holy poverty,
In Lenten lands, hereafter may
Resume them on her Easter Day.

To adorn C.S. Lewis’ own grave, his brother Warnie opted for simpler verse. It was taken from a passage in Shakespeare’s King Lear.

“Men must endure their going hence.”

C.S. Lewis wrote another noteworthy epigraph. It was in a poem by that very name. It was originally published in 1949 in Time and Tide magazine. It has been included in the collection of Lewis Poems as a stanza in “Epigrams and Epitaphs.” He shared it with his fellow poet, Ruth Pitter when it was first written, writing “I append my latest Short, your most obliged C.S. Lewis.”

My grave my pillory, by this blabbing stone
Forbidden to rest unknown,
I feel like fire my neighbours’ eyes, because
All here know what I was.
Think, stranger, of that moment when I too
First, and forever, knew.

In 2013, C.S. Lewis received the great honor of having a memorial stone placed in Poet’s Corner of Westminster Abbey. The inscription was chosen from one of his talks.

I believe in Christianity as I believe that the Sun has risen,
not only because I see it but because by it I see everything else.

I began with the question of what each of us might hope is inscribed as the legacy of our life. In truth, I don’t care if my marker even bears my name, since the Lord knows me as a member of his flock. But what I would like to see gracing my passing, are the words, “Well done, good and faithful servant” (Matthew 25:23).


The photograph adorning this post comes from side-by-side monuments for two Yale chemists. You can read the curious story about them, and the reason for the “Etc.” that adorns the second. Apparently it was added by the family at a later date, since they regarded “Nobel Laureate” as insufficient.

* The most famous epitaph in Arizona’s Boot Hill Cemetery reads “Here lies Lester Moore. Four slugs from a 44. No Les. No More.”

C.S. Lewis loved rabbits. His affection for the cuddly rodents went all the way back to his childhood. And it continued through the whole of his life. In fact, you can read about “C.S. Lewis as an Advocate for Animals” at a Humane Society link below.*

Despite this affection, rabbits do not feature prominently in The Chronicles of Narnia. They are among the “statues” turned to stone by the Witch. In the description of Aslan breathing life back into them, it says, “then [Aslan] pounced on a tall stone dryad which stood beyond the dwarf, turned rapidly aside to deal with a stone rabbit on his right, and rushed on to two centaurs” (The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe).

Rabbits helped spread the word about an impending attack on Archenland in The Horse and His Boy. Shasta urges the animals to spread the word.

“Oughtn’t your High King to be told?”

“Certain sure, something ought to be done about it,” said the Hedgehog. “But you see I’m just on my way to bed for a good day’s sleep. Hullo, neighbor!”

The last words were addressed to an immense biscuit-colored rabbit whose head had just popped up from somewhere beside the path. The Hedgehog immediately told the Rabbit what it had just learned from Shasta.

The Rabbit agreed that this was very remarkable news and that somebody ought to tell someone about it with a view to doing something. And so it went on. Every few minutes they were joined by other creatures, some from the branches overhead and some from little underground houses at their feet, till the party consisted of five rabbits, a squirrel, two magpies, a goat-foot faun, and a mouse, who all talked at the same time and all agreed with the Hedgehog.

For the truth was that in that golden age when the Witch and the Winter had gone and Peter the High King ruled at Cair Paravel, the smaller woodland people of Narnia were so safe and happy that they were getting a little careless.

In The Last Battle we see a clear contrast between the types of animals which populate Narnia. Tirian, the last king of Narnia, is leading the children toward their destiny.

First, he had given Jill some practice in archery and found that, though not up to Narnian standards, she was really not too bad.

Indeed she had succeeded in shooting a rabbit (not a Talking rabbit, of course: there are lots of the ordinary kind about in Western Narnia) and it was already skinned, cleaned, and hanging up.

Back to the Beginning

When he was a child, beginning at age eight, Lewis began writing stories about “Animal Land.” His brother Warnie, several years older, joined him in composing stories inspired in part by their reading of the words of Beatrix Potter.

Animal Land is clearly the product of young children—children with wonderful imaginations—but children nonetheless. These various works have been published by Lewis’ stepson in a collection called Boxen. As Douglas Gresham writes, “In developing the world of Boxen, Jack appropriated the ‘dressed animals’ of Beatrix Potter and that part of their fictional world they called ‘Animal-Land,’ while Warnie (whose interests were always a touch more prosaic than Jack’s) made his half ‘India.’”

The world was thoroughly thought out, complete with maps and a historic chronology.

Animal-land is divided into 13 provinces. Bear-land, Wolf-land, Squirrel-land, Mouse-land, Rabbit-land, Pig-land, Bird-land, Horse-land, Fox-land, Land of Typical Animals, Insect-land, Rat-land, With the island of Piscia, or Fishland. . . . Rabbit-land is the first provence in learning and art.

Rabbits feature prominently in Boxen. The very first element is a script, entitled “The King’s Ring (A Comedy).” The introduction is delightfully childlike: “Interesting carictars. Famous ones. For instance, Sir Big, a world-famed gentleman. A very good choreus and nice scenry. (Slight comic tints in and out threw it.)”

The two protagonists are King Bunny, whose ring is stolen, and Sir Peter Mouse, his “knight in waiting” who aids him in finding it. It is filled with silly dialog, despite the serious plot. For example:

KING BUNNY: Tell Sir Goose to tell Sir Big to tell Mr Gold Fish to tell Gollywog to tell Mr Icthus-oress to tell Dorimie to tell the sailors to take Hit [the villain] away.

In his autobiography, Lewis wrote of his childhood home. “Here my first stories were written, and illustrated, with enormous satisfaction. They were an attempt to combine my two chief literary pleasures—‘dressed animals’ and ‘knights-in-armour.’

Drawing Pleasure from Real Life Rabbits

Lewis’ correspondence includes passing references to rabbits, always expressed in an approving way. For instance, in 1947 he mentions enjoying a memorable event during a boring time. “I wonder how you are all getting on? Nothing much has happened to me except that I saw a rabbit yawn. I suppose people who keep tame ones have seen it often but this was a wild rabbit and I thought it a very curious sight. It was a very bored triangular yawn in the middle of a long hot afternoon.”

During WWII, he penned a curious comment about rabbits recently added to his home.

We are keeping rabbits at the Kilns now, in addition to the hens! But they are very much nicer. As I passed the enclosure in which all the young ones are the other evening, I saw they had all got into a box which happened to be lying there.

They were all standing (or sitting) up on their hind legs and all facing in the same direction: so that they looked exactly as if they were conducting some kind of evening service—the box looked just like a pew.

While the rabbits were almost certainly present to supplement food rations during the war, they were not treated as commodities. Lewis appreciated them in the way he respected other creatures designed by God’s hand. Thus, he had what my wife and I would consider to be a well-rounded family—including one or more members of the non-human variety.

Lewis described this diverse household in a 1943 letter to June Flewett,⁑ one of the children evacuated to his home during the war.

Bruce [Lewis’ dog] behaved with great lack of fortitude during the thunderstorm last night and two of the rabbits made it an excuse for absenting themselves without leave. Pushkin [his cat] behaved better, but not well. In fact there is a general lack of keenness and discipline among the four-footed members of the household which I deplore.

One more story about an actual rabbit with which the great author developed an ongoing relationship.

In a 1942 letter to Sister Penelope CSMV, he says, “I am establishing quite a friendship with one of the rabbits which we now keep along with the deer in Magdalen grove. It was done by the discovery that he relishes chestnut leaves which grow too high for his reach. He doesn’t yet allow me any familiarities but he comes and eats from my hand.”

Lewis continues to describe his new friend, and adds a keen theological observation. “But oh!, the great lollipop eyes and the twitching velvet nose! How does [God] come to create both this and the scorpion?”

Later that same year, Lewis updates the Anglican nun on the status of his animal-friend.

The Rabbit and I have quarrelled. I don’t know why, unless I gave him something that disagreed with him. At any rate, he has cut me dead several times lately—so fair and so fickle! Life is full of disappointments.”

At that time he shared his disappointment with his lifelong friend, Arthur Greeves. “Did I tell you in my last letter that I’d struck up quite an acquaintance (almost a friendship) with a rabbit in Magdalen Grove who used to come and eat leaves from my hand? Alas, I must have given something that disagreed with him, for he disappeared for about 10 days, and since his reappearance has refused to look at me.”

It may be that same rabbit, or one of its kin, renewed its relationship with Lewis, because he referred to a similar experience in two 1944 letters to other children.

I live in a College here: a college is something rather like a castle and also like a church. It stands just beside a bridge  over a river. At the back of the part I live in there is a nice grove of Trees. There are a lot of Rabbits there. One very old rabbit is so tame that it will run after me and take things out of my hand. I call her Baroness Bisket because she is a kind of biscuit colour.

It’s not easy, nor is it usually relevant, to determine a bunny’s gender. So, Lewis may be excused for writing the following to the second young correspondent, six months earlier.

I am getting to be quite friends with an old Rabbit who lives in the Wood at Magdalen. I pick leaves off the trees for him because he can’t reach up to the branches and he eats them out of my hand. One day he stood up on his hind legs and put his front paws against me, he was so greedy. I wrote this about it:

A funny old man had a habit
Of giving a leaf to a rabbit.
At first it was shy
But then, by and by,
It got rude and would stand up to grab it.

But it’s a very nice Rabbit all the same: I call him ‘Baron Biscuit.’

Like C.S. Lewis, I adore rabbits. Years ago we had an indoor bunny, appropriately named “Sweetheart.” In her youth she acted like the cartoon character Ricochet Rabbit, pinging from place to place. In her senior years she settled down and was contented to be a cuddly lap bunny. I add my own “thank you” to Lewis’ for these precious parts of God’s creation.


* The Humane Society pdf is available here.

⁑ June Flewett is regarded as the inspiration for Lucy Pevensie in the Chronicles, and grew up to become an actress and theater director. C.S. Lewis paid for her tuition at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. When she and her two sisters were sent from London to the Kilns, her favorite author was C.S. Lewis. Ironically, it was a while before she learned that he and their host were one and the same.

C.S. Lewis considered war a hated necessity in a fallen world. Emperor Constantine I, in contrast, did not shirk from waging violent conflict to reunite the Roman Empire in the early fourth century. What could these two men, humble and proud, have in common?

In a New York Times essay, “C.S. Lewis’s Legacy Lives on, and Not Just Through the Wardrobe,” Mark Oppenheimer compares their influence on the expansion of the Christian Church.

Who, since the time of Jesus and his apostles, has brought more people to Christianity than anybody else?

A short list would include the Roman emperor Constantine, who legalized Christian worship in 313, and Pope Urban II, who began the First Crusade in 1095. But it would also include C.S. Lewis, who moved more hearts with a pen than others have with armies.

Oppenheimer’s Jewish perspective is likely the reason Urban II (c. 1035-1099) finds himself on this short list. After all, the Crusades were intended to liberate the Holy Land from its Muslim conquerors. Other than a handful of the genuinely religious individuals who participated, no historian (much less any educated practicing Christian) would consider the Crusades an evangelistic enterprise.

As for the similarities between C.S. Lewis and Constantine, I am hard-pressed to find many. One, however, is common to many men throughout history. The influence of women in their lives was significant. This is true in terms of both their revered mothers, and their tenacious wives.

Women in Constantine’s Life

Constantine was the first Roman emperor to convert. Because he delivered the Church from persecution and favored the religion within the empire, he is regarded by the Orthodox Church to be a saint. His transitional reign, and the foundation of Constantinople, were monumentally important. But the violence experienced within the imperial family leaves disturbing questions that cannot be answered.

Constantine’s mother, Helena, was a true saint. She lived a devout life and did many good works. Doubtless, she also tempered the volatility of her son.

Constantine had four sons. The first was born to Minervina, a wife or official concubine about whom very little is known.* However, in 307 Constantine followed the common practice of marrying the daughter of a powerful ally, in this case the Augustus (Emperor) Maximian. This wife, Fausta, gave birth to three emperors who succeeded their father and proceeded to battle one another.

The first son, Crispus, was likely the most virtuous of them all. Unfortunately, however, Constantine heeded the lies of his step-mother, Fausta, and had Crispus put to death.⁑

The image of the Roman coins at the top of this column reveals official images of Helena and Fausta. Both of the women had, by the time these were minted, been honored with the title Augusta. The photograph comes from a detailed study of the coinage minted during Constantine’s Vicennalia, which marked the twentieth year of his reign. It features two coins of each, from different mints.

“For Helena,” that author notes, “the reverse always figures Securitas, and for Fausta, either Salus or Spes.” Roman personifications were not actually regarded as “gods,” except by the most superstitious. They were images intended to represent abstract qualities or values. Securitas represented Security with Salus and Spes representing Health and Hope, respectively. The inference here is that Helena represented the stability and authenticity of the dynasty, while Fausta represented its vitality and hope for the future, particularly as she nestles in her arms two future emperors.

Women in C.S. Lewis’ Life

For symmetry, we won’t discuss Minto here. Lewis’ mother and wife did, however, exert a great influence on the man he became. Whereas, with Constantine, one a saint, and the other a murderer, Lewis’ ladies both lived their Christian faith.

Flora Augusta Hamilton Lewis (1862-1908) was the daughter of an Anglican priest in Belfast. (By odd coincidence, her name included Helena’s regal title, Augusta.) Flora was quite gifted, and taught young Jack French and Latin. Her untimely death, during her boys’ childhood, left a last mark on both of them.

My father never fully recovered from this loss. Children suffer not (I think) less than their elders, but differently. For us boys the real bereavement had happened before our mother died.

We lost her gradually as she was gradually withdrawn from our life into the hands of nurses and delirium and morphia, and as our whole existence changed into something alien and menacing, as the house became full of strange smells and midnight noises and sinister whispered conversations. (Surprised by Joy)

Despite the great loss, life continued. Everyone eventually came to view Professor Lewis as a confirmed bachelor. Himself included. That is, until Joy Davidman entered his life. She turned his life upside down. Much has been written about their deep love for one another, and how well suited they were for each other.

Some have criticized Lewis for insensitivity to women. I consider this allegation utterly fallacious. Like all interpersonal relationships in this fallen world, bonds between (and within) genders are complex.

For those who consider Lewis’ personal outlook on male/female roles to be unenlightened, might I suggest you compare them to the example of any other man. Constantine perhaps?


* Minervina may have been Constantine’s wife, or official concubine. Since Crispus was regarded as a fully legal heir, the former is most likely. She may have already died before Constantine strengthened his political position with his second marriage.

⁑ The most probable account is that Fausta falsely accused Crispus of molesting her. After mercilessly condemning his own son, Constantine learned of the deceit and had Fausta executed as well. Crispus already held the rank of Caesar, and was heir apparent to his father. The story is extremely complicated, and heartbreakingly tragic.

C.S. Lewis & Scrabble

February 12, 2019 — 11 Comments

scrabble

It’s not uncommon for people who love words to also enjoy the game Scrabble.

The word game, born in 1933, is quite popular. In fact, the Hasbro company claims “today the SCRABBLE game is found in three of every five American homes.”

The game made enough of an impact in New York City, that the neighborhood where it was conceived is adorned with the distinctive Scrabblesque street sign shown above.

C.S. Lewis was also a fan of the game. He and his wife Joy played the game regularly. But they modified the rules, to allow for their particular intellects. Doug Gresham, their son, describes this in The Magic Never Ends: The Life and Works of C.S. Lewis.

They played word games with each other. They had their own rather unique rules for Scrabble. They would take one board and both sets of letters from two Scrabble sets. And then they would proceed to play Scrabble, allowing all known languages, whether factual or fictional, and they would fill the whole board with words.

Jack, Joy & Their Love of Words

The third volume of The Collected Letters of C.S. Lewis includes two references to the way Scrabble became a familiar feature of their married life. In the first, written in July of 1957, he describes the situation at the beginning of Joy’s remission.

It is fascinating in several ways. It describes Lewis’ own declining health and the manner in which God had used it to be a blessing in their relationship. The shock, however, comes in Lewis’ confession about who was the Scrabble champion at The Kilns.

Joy is now home, home from hospital, completely bed-ridden. The cancer is ‘arrested,’ which means, I fear, hardly any hope for the long term issue, but for the moment, apparently perfect health, no pain, eating & sleeping like a child, spirits usually excellent, able to beat me always at Scrabble and sometimes in argument.

She runs the whole house from her bed and keeps a pack of men not only loving her but (what’s rarer) one another.

We are crazily in love.

My back turns out to be not slipped disc but osteoporosis–a spongy condition of the bones that is common in men of 75 but almost unknown at my age (58). After full investigation by a great Professor of Pathology the cause remains quite obscure. It has passed the stage of spasms and screams (each was rather like having a tooth out with no anaesthetic and you never knew when they were coming!), but I still ache a good deal and need sleeping draughts.

Can you realise the good side? Poor Joy, after being the sole object of pity & anxiety can now perform the truly wifely function of fussing over me–I’m in pain and sit it out–and of course the psychological effect is extremely good. It banishes all that wearisome sense of being no use. You see, I’m very willing to have osteoporosis at this price.

The fact that Jack and Joy were truly “crazily in love,” made the brevity of their life together all the more poignant and precious. In July of 1960, Lewis wrote to inform a friend of Joy’s passing.

Dear Mrs Gebbert, Alas, you will never send anything ‘for the three of us’ again, for my dear Joy is dead. Until within ten days of the end we hoped, although noticing her increasing weakness, that she was going to hold her own, but it was not to be.

Last week she had been complaining of muscular pains in her shoulders, but by Monday 11th seemed much better, and on Tuesday, though keeping her bed, said she felt a great improvement; on that day she was in good spirits, did her ‘crossword puzzle’ with me, and in the evening played a game of Scrabble.

At quarter past six on Wednesday morning, the 13th, my brother, who slept over her, was wakened by her screaming and ran down to her. I got the doctor, who fortunately was at home, and he arrived before seven and gave her a heavy shot.

At half past one I took her into hospital in an ambulance. She was conscious for the short remainder of her life, and in very little pain, thanks to drugs; and died peacefully in my company about 10.15 the same night.

I could not wish that she had lived, for the cancer had attacked the spine, which might have meant several days of suffering, and that she was mercifully spared.

You will understand that I have no heart to write more, but I hope when next I send a letter it will be a less depressing one.

This letter suggests that Joy’s final evening in this world was a happy one. It was filled with warm and family domesticity. Under the circumstances, who could hope for more. As Lewis writes, it would only be for our own selfishness that we would wish to prolong the suffering of those we love.

I would be curious to learn whether Lewis ever again played Scrabble during those final few years of his own life. I suspect that it would have been too painful. Best to recall the game in light of the affectionate competition the two of them shared.

Teaching Kids to Write

November 20, 2018 — 13 Comments

banner

My grandkids have stunned me with their enthusiasm for writing. And all it took to inspire them was a very simple activity.

I invited our ten youngest grandchildren (aged 4 to 12) to write their own family newspaper. Although I devised our family publication myself, I’ve since learned that there are abundant resources—albeit of vastly different qualities—available online. You’ll find some links below.

The first challenge was to explain to them what a newspaper is. The irony is not lost on me that none of our four families currently subscribe to daily papers. It was more difficult than I anticipated to explain to all of the novice journalists precisely what newspapers are. I use the present tense, because the medium is not quite obsolete, despite the downward trajectory of most local papers. As an editorial in the Washington Post said this year, “newspapers have been dying in slow motion for two decades now.” And it seems to many the process is accelerating.

Nevertheless, as the proud veteran of high school and college newspaper staffs, and a former contributor to my hometown weekly, I believe such publications are ideal for developing writing skills. The passion overflowing from my writing bullpen has vastly exceeded my expectations, confirming my impression.

While it took a while to gather enough submissions for the first issue, they rushed to fill the second. When each was “published,” all of the kids immediately sat down and read their personal issues from proverbial cover to cover.

My endorsement of family newspapers does not carry over to the commercial press. Sadly, too much of what is presented as “objective reporting,” is patently subjective. I debated my journalism profs about that matter forty years ago, and the evidence has only grown more visible. I also agree with C.S. Lewis’ opinion that the majority of what passes for “news,” is superfluous or sensationalistic.

Even in peacetime I think those are very wrong who say that schoolboys should be encouraged to read the newspapers. Nearly all that a boy reads there in his teens will be seen before he is twenty to have been false in emphasis and interpretation, if not in fact as well, and most of it will have lost all importance.

Most of what he remembers he will therefore have to unlearn; and he will probably have acquired an incurable taste for vulgarity and sensationalism and the fatal habit of fluttering from paragraph to paragraph to learn how an actress has been divorced in California, a train derailed in France, and quadruplets born in New Zealand. (Surprised by Joy)

Perhaps ironically, Lewis did not hesitate to publish his own writings in worthy newspapers. Most notably, The Guardian (an Anglican newspaper printed between 1846 and 1951) published several of his essays. In addition, they presented to the world (in serial form) both The Screwtape Letters and The Great Divorce.

For an interesting discussion about C.S. Lewis’ opinion that newspapers are inadequate tools for assessing truth, check out this article. The author draws a valid distinction between Lewis’ example and the current state of affairs where “we judge too quickly and offer grace much too slowly.”

Elements of Our Family’s Publishing Experiment

After describing to the kids what newspapers are, I provided them with a list of potential subject matter. In addition to “standard” sorts of news and reviews, I added things like “sermon notes,” fiction, and comics.

I encourage them to illustrate their own articles, and the first two issues have been graced with images of dogs, horses, King Tut, and a Turtle Bear (who served as a weather forecaster). Each child contributes at their own level, and the cousins commend each other on their efforts.

We’re early in the stages of teaching the kids about rewriting and self-editing. Depending on the situation, either their parents or the editorial staff (grandma and grandpa) assist them with learning to revise their own work.

I must confess that one of the most fun aspects of Curious Cousins Courier is my ability, as the editor, to creatively engage in a bit of editorial privilege. The primary example comes in a “Family Heritage” feature that I write for each issue.

In the first, we considered the life of the cousins’ great-great-grandfather who immigrated from Norway in 1912. Julius Olaissen Næsbø unsuccessfully attempted to travel on the RMS Titanic, but the steerage class was full, and he had to settle for a departure several weeks later. The fringe benefit of reading about “Grandpa Nesby” came in learning that other languages include letters in their alphabet that are foreign to us in the States.

In the second issue, I pointed the children to one of their ancestors who helped establish our country itself, during the Revolutionary War. Joseph Johnston was born in Ireland, and was a sergeant in the Fifth Virginia Regiment.

The importance of cementing family bonds—and instilling a healthy awareness of our family’s legacy—is extremely important to me. I suppose that is due in large part to spending the first third of my life as a nomadic military kid. Yet that sense of disconnectedness from my extended family did not prevent me from inflicting the same itinerant military lifestyle on my own children. But that’s a story for another day.

If you help to establish a newspaper or journal for members of your own family, I trust you will find it as rewarding as I do.

A Few Online Resources

Get the Scoop: Create a Family Newspaper,” from Education.com

How to Make a Family Newspaper,” from wikiHow.

The 5 Ws are noted on ImaginationSoup. (In case you’ve forgotten, they’re who, what, where, when and why.)

More developed thoughts, with an eye toward the classroom, are available at The CurriculumCorner.

C.S. Lewis at Belsen

July 26, 2018 — 4 Comments

belsen school

Boarding schools are somewhat rare in the United States. And that is a good thing.

C.S. Lewis attended three, and he considered two of them to be torturous. The first he came to refer to as Belsen, in reference to the deadly Nazi concentration camp. His older brother, Warnie, had moved to the same school when he too was nine, three years earlier.

The headmaster of Wynyard School in Hertfordshire was an Anglican priest named Robert Capron who was quite unhinged. In fact,

The school that [his father] Albert Lewis, after careful study and deep reflection, chose for his sons was run quite autocratically by a man who had already been prosecuted for cruelty to his students and who, within a very few years, would be certified as insane. (The Narnian)

Honestly, there is a proper place for boarding schools—as long as they are not operated by lunatics.

As I finished seminary, a window opened for my wife and me to serve on the “mission field.” After serious prayer, we told the missions agency that “we will happily serve in any nation, discharging any type of ministry duties . . . so long as our children can remain with us.”

Some people are willing to make even that sacrifice. And they not limited to those in ministry. When I was stationed in the United Kingdom, the United Stated Department of Defense operated its own boarding school for military dependents at RAF High Wycombe. (Canadians attended as well.)

Leaving a Mark

It’s no surprise boarding schools left a deep imprint on Lewis’ psyche. For seven-plus months of the year, they controlled nearly every aspect of his life, from “reveille” to slumber.

He wrote about the repercussions in a variety of places, most notably his autobiography,  Surprised by Joy: The Shape of My Early Life. During a recent rereading of the collection of essays in Present Concerns, I enjoyed “My First School.”

The essence of the essay is anticipation—anticipation of good events, such as holidays, and ominous occasions (in this case, the return to the schoolhouse). Before exploring that subject, Lewis sets the stage by briefly describing the grim environment at Belsen.

The Head [Rev. Capron] had, indeed, a grown-up son, a smooth-faced carpet-slipper sort of creature . . . a privileged Demi-god who ate the same food as his father though his sisters shared the food of the boys.

But we ourselves were . . . Beaten, cheated, scared, ill-fed . . .

Later, as a Christian adult, Lewis was able to glean some good even from these demoralizing days.

Life at a vile boarding school is, in this way, a good preparation for the Christian Life, that it teaches one to live by hope. Even, in a sense, by faith; for at the beginning of each term, home and holidays are so far off that it is as hard to realize them as to realize heaven. (Surprised by Joy)

It teaches one to live by hope.

In 1911 Lewis would be sent to a far better school, Cherbourg House in England. It was a prep school for Malvern College where he would follow his brother as a student. Although this school was healthier, it possessed its own shortcomings.

Cherbourg House was the tragic place where Lewis lost his childhood faith.

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. I will try to set down what I know of the conscious causes and what I suspect of the unconscious.

Most reluctantly, venturing no blame, and as tenderly as I would at need reveal some error in my own mother, I must begin with dear Miss C., the Matron. No school ever had a better Matron, more skilled and comforting to boys in sickness, or more cheery and companionable to boys in health. She was one of the most selfless people I have ever known. We all loved her; I, the orphan, especially.

Now it so happened that Miss C., who seemed old to me, was still in her spiritual immaturity, still hunting, with the eagerness of a soul that had a touch of angelic quality in it, for a truth and a way of life. Guides were even rarer then than now.

She was (as I should now put it) floundering in the mazes of Theosophy, Rosicrucianism, Spiritualism; the whole Anglo-American Occultist tradition. Nothing was further from her intention than to destroy my faith; she could not tell that the room into which she brought this candle was full of gunpowder.

I had never heard of such things before; never, except in a nightmare or a fairy tale, conceived 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 . . .

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. And that started in me something with which, on and off, I have had plenty of trouble since—the desire for the preternatural . . . (Surprised by Joy)

In closing with Lewis’ sad slide into atheism, this brief look at his experience in boarding schools affords us a sobering reminder.

Christian parents (indeed, all parents) are quite wise to be cautious about where they have their children schooled. After all, educators also expose their students to their particular worldviews.


I have written previously about education in the column “Were All Valedictorians!

For a brief consideration of Belsen’s influence on the Chronicles of Narnia, turn here.