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C.S. Lewis and Libraries

December 18, 2019 — 9 Comments

Do you suppose that if we gathered together all of the volumes written by the Inklings, along with all of the books and articles written about these gifted authors, we could fill a library? I am uncertain, but I think the effort would prove a quite enjoyable undertaking.

Libraries have always been important to Christians. The preservation of documents during the so-called “dark ages” was one of the major duties assumed by monasteries. It’s no accident the oldest continuously operating library is found in a monastery. The library at Saint Catherine Monastery contains “3,300 manuscripts, and some 8,000 early printed books, together with 5,000 new books.”

When Egeria visited the Sinai in 383-384, she wrote approvingly of the way the monks read to her the scriptural accounts concerning the various events that had taken place there. Thus we can speak of manuscripts at Sinai in the fourth century.

It is written of Saint John Climacus that, while living as a hermit, he spent much time in prayer and in the copying of books. This is evidence of manuscript production at Sinai in the sixth century. The library at the Holy Monastery of Sinai is thus the inheritor of texts and of traditions that date to the earliest years of a monastic presence in the Sinai.

It comes as no surprise that libraries played a prominent role in the life of C.S. Lewis. The three volumes of his letters include well over a hundred references to them. I offer just a small sampling to illustrate.

In 1914, Jack (at boarding school in England) wrote his father about some renovation work being done in their Northern Ireland home. He refers to the existence of two libraries. The second was the one the boys, Jack and his brother Warnie, shared.

I hope that by the time this letter reaches you, the study wall will have been replaced and the stately hall of Leeborough will smile upon guest and inhabitant with its pristine splendour and hospitality. Of course in restoring the ‘main library’ you are careful to alter the appearance of the room as little as possible. It would be a pity if I came home to a strange house. In the meantime I hope that the small library has been  allowed to remain untouched?

The next year he wrote to his father, apparently in response to an accounting of the collection in the “small library.” One wonders how his father responded to his comment about the octavo book format. After all, he was himself an educated man, a solicitor. But then, most of the legal publications with which he was acquainted would have published in such a format. [See the video* below for an explanation of book sizes.]

The state of our library at Leeborough must be perfectly appalling: how such a collection of ignorances and carelessnesses could have got together on the shelves of our room passes my comprehension. As well, where is the beautiful quarto edition? What is a quarto? I don’t believe you have the vaguest idea, and should not be surprised if the edition in question is merely an 8vo., (no, that doesn’t mean ‘in eight volumes,’ though I too thought so once.)

Meanwhile, Lewis spent considerable time in the library of his school, Malvern College. The library was not only a valued place of learning and reflection. It also served as a refuge from the bullying that was a daily reality at the boarding school. (As we know, the tormenting of vulnerable students is not restricted to schools that double as temporary homes; it seems to be endemic to educational settings for children and adolescents.)

[In a letter to his father, Lewis wrote:] The worst part of the summer term is the fact that we have to keep out of doors nearly all our time; but here one notices the great advantage of being in the Upper School, and therefore allowed to go into the Grundy Library at all hours of the day—it proves a great refuge when the ‘house’ is out of bounds.

In 1915 he chided his close friend, Arthur Greeves, about treating businesses like libraries. I offer an extended passage since it offers a rare insight into Lewis’ musical interests.

Odeon records are the most fascinating and delusive bait on the Gramaphone market. Cheap, classical, performed by good artistes, they present a jolly attractive list: but they wear out in a month.

Of course there are exceptions, and I can play you some selections from Lohengrin which I have on that make, and which have worn well. On the whole however, I wouldn’t advise anyone to get Odeon records, as a short-lived record is one of the most disappointing of things.

I foresee, by the way, that your way of getting records is like Jane McNeil’s way of getting books—that is you use a shop like a free library: whenever a record is worn out, back it goes to the shop, and you have a new one in its place.

The same year, in another letter to the same friend, Lewis displays a bit of prejudice in exactly what sort of volume belongs in a library. “Your little edition [of Faerie Queene] is very nice, but rather too small, and not enough of a library-looking book.” In the same context he later bemoans paying to have a volume professionally bound.

Never, never get a book bound. You will gather from this that ‘Tristan’ has arrived and is a complete and absolute failure. When I told them to bind it in brown leather, with corner pieces etc., I imagined that it would look something like Kelsie’s Dickens . . . Well as a matter of fact, though in a sense they have done what I told them, yet the total effect, instead of being booky and library like, is somehow exactly like a bank book or a ledger.

The following year he informs Greeves about his current reading. Due to his unhappiness at Malvern, his father had transferred him to be tutored by William Kirkpatrick. Lewis was fifteen when he moved to Gaston. His two and a half years there were intellectually stimulating, but spiritually deadening.

Talking of books—you might ask, when do I talk of anything else—I have read and finished ‘The Green Knight,’ which is absolutely top-hole: in fact the only fault I have to find with it is that it is too short—in itself a compliment. . . .

Since finishing it I have started—don’t be surprised—‘Rob Roy,’ which I suppose you have read long ago. I really don’t know how I came to open it: I was just looking for a book in the horribly scanty library of Gastons, and this caught my eye. I must admit that it was a very lucky choice, as I am now revelling in it.

Next it was off to University College at Oxford, where Lewis celebrated an amazing library. Once again, these letters were written to Greeves.

The book shops here are rather adorable, and also our college library. Still better is the Library of the Union Society (a club everyone belongs to) where I spent this morning turning over one book after another and enjoying myself hugely.

13 May 1917
So about 11.30 we arrived back at college and I am come straight thence to the Union. ‘The Union’ is a club to which nearly everyone in the varsity belongs. It has a writing room of strictest silence, where I am scribbling this, and an admirable library where I have already passed many happy hours and hope to pass many more. Oh, Galahad,⁑ you simply must come up after the war.

Lewis not only pursued focused research in the library at his college. He also explored.

I have also been spending more time than usual in the College Library, dipping here and there. Did I tell you that there was a queer little volume in Latin by Cornelius Agrippa⁂ the great magician . . ?

Unfortunately the print is so execrable and the worms have done their work so well that I cannot make much of it: but I love to have it in my hands, and think of all the wizards who have centred their hopes on it—perhaps on this very copy, for it is some 300 years old.

In 1919, Lewis visited the historic Dr. Steevens’ Hospital in Dublin. He described the memorable visit to Greeves.

We had quite a pleasant day in Dublin. I liked Warnie’s friend, who is house-surgeon in Steeven’s hospital where he has a very pleasing little set of rooms. Have you ever been in Steeven’s? There is a fine little library—despite some shocking portraits—containing some letters of Swift’s. This letter begins to read like a guide book, so I will pass on.

In 1924, Lewis’ father apparently inquired into the amount of money he was spending on books. That is a quite natural question from a parent supporting a graduate student. Jack explained:

The book bill was naturally increased by my turning to a new subject. I try to use the libraries as much as possible: but when one is reading for a particular exam there are over a hundred other people taking the same books out of the libraries–and of course there are some things one must have at command. My expenditure on books will be less in future.

 I’m confident Lewis kept his word, and cut back on his book purchases in 1925. However, true bibliophiles will ultimately find a way, even when it’s a choice between books and food. Lewis continued to build an impressive personal library in the years that followed.

A Final Thought about Our Personal Libraries

Wouldn’t you enjoy only a book that came from the personal library of someone you admire? I certainly would. C.S. Lewis did, as well. In 1953 Lewis received a copy of In Brief Authority from his fellow Inkling, Roger Lancelyn Green.

My dear Roger
Oh angel! What a lovely present, and all the more valuable for being the copy from that enchanted place your own library. I re-read it at once. It is perhaps the most complete of his books: as funny, or very nearly as funny, as Vice Versa but with a beauty which V.V. did not attempt. The ogre is somehow a very real character. Very, very many thanks.

The Wade Center at Wheaton College owns almost 400 books from C.S. Lewis’ personal library. Some are undergoing conservation treatment, but the others are available to visitors. However, “requests to view books from the Author Libraries should be placed at least 24-hours in advance.”

The essays collected in God in the Dock include a peculiar little piece, entitled “Scraps.” The article, which was originally published in 1945, describes four brief scenes. The first describes the nature of our heavenly library.

“Yes,” my friend said. “I don’t see why there shouldn’t be books in Heaven. But you will find that your library in Heaven contains only some of the books you had on earth.”
“Which?” I asked.
“The ones you gave away or lent.”
“I hope the lent ones won’t still have all the borrowers’ dirty thumb marks,” said I.
“Oh yes they will,” said he. “But just as the wounds of the martyrs will have turned into beauties, so you will find that the thumb-marks have turned into beautiful illuminated capitals or exquisite marginal woodcuts.”

Reading these words renewed my enthusiasm for lending out my books. As you know, sharing one’s library is much like the biblical injunction about extending aid: “and if you lend to those from whom you expect to receive, what credit is that to you? . . . do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return . . .” (Luke 6:34-35)

C.S. Lewis employs this same illustration in a 1947 letter to one of his correspondents. The context for his remark is how deeply the woman misses the house from which she had recently moved. I’m no philosopher, but Lewis’ argument for how the essential essence of a thing can last, reminds me of Plato’s conception of forms.

I think that about Houses the answer is this. Nothing rises again which has not died. The natural and possessive love for a house if it has been crucified, if it has become disinterested, if it has submitted to sacrifice, will rise again: i.e. the love for a house you were willing to give up will rise again.

The willful, grasping love will not—or only rise as a horror. About the house itself, if the love rises, then all that is necessary to bless it will, I believe, be there. It may not be very like what you would now call ‘a house:’ but you’ll see then that it was what you really meant by the house.

But the whole point is that you can keep forever only what you give up: beginning with the thing it is hardest to give up—one’s self. What you grab you lose: what you offer freely and patiently to God or your neighbour, you will have. (Your heavenly library will contain only the books you have given or lent! And the dirty thumb marks on the latter will have turned into beautiful marginal decorations—I’m joking of course, but to illustrate a serious principle.)

A love of libraries is something shared by most of us “readers.” We can only imagine with joyous anticipation the collection of biographies and stories of adventures, sacrifice, tribulation, rescue, and resurrection that await us in the New Jerusalem. And we’ve already savored a foretaste of that banquet, since the Bible itself is a library in its own right.


* This short video explains different sizes for books. For a comprehensive listing of the options, see this chart at AbeBooks.

⁑ Galahad was C.S. Lewis’ nickname for his lifelong friend, Arthur Greeves. It was inspired by Greeves’ “idealistic turn of mind.” (Into the Wardrobe: C.S. Lewis and the Narnia Chronicles)

⁂ Henricus Cornelius Agrippa (1486-1535) was a brilliant German who excelled in a number of fields. He served as a soldier, physician and lawyer. He even became a Professor of Theology at the University of Dôle for a time, and later lectured on theology at the University of Turin.

Most curiously, he wrote several books on the magic and the occult. If your Latin is competent, you can read some of his magical writing here. Or, you may find the first English translation more accessible.

Of potentially greater interest is a proto-feminist volume he dedicated to Margaret of Austria. Declamatio de nobilitate et praeccellentia foeminei sexus (Declamation on the Nobility and Preeminence of the Female Sex) defended the equality of the sexes and attributed women’s inferior social status to cultural traditions, inequality in access to education, and the domination of men.

As for Agrippa’s confused bonds with the occult and Christian theology, consider this repudiation of the occult written near the end of his life.

But of magic I wrote whilst I was very young three large books, which I called Of Occult Philosophy, in which what was then through the curiosity of my youth erroneous, I now being more advised, am willing to have retracted, by this recantation; I formerly spent much time and costs in these vanities. At last I grew so wise as to be able to dissuade others from this destruction.

For whosoever do not in the truth, nor in the power of God, but in the deceits of devils, according to the operation of wicked spirits presume to divine and prophesy, and practising through magical vanities, exorcisms, incantations and other demoniacal works and deceits of idolatry, boasting of delusions, and phantasms, presently ceasing, brag that they can do miracles, I say all these shall with Jannes, and Jambres, and Simon Magus, be destined to the torments of eternal fire.

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.