Archives For Magdalen College

An Evolutionary Fluke

January 11, 2022 — 18 Comments

Did trees evolve from apes? An odd question, to be sure, but one humorously posed by C.S. Lewis in a letter to his father.

While this column does discuss the theory of evolution, it’s not doctrinaire. So, whatever your opinion of Darwin’s notions, read on, and you may enjoy a pleasant surprise.

C.S. Lewis, the brilliant Christian apologist was not an ironclad “evangelical” in the American sense of the word. Here in the U.S., that typically requires adherence to a handful of doctrines, usually including the affirmation of the infallibility of the Scriptural autographs and of the creation of humanity in the persons of our first parents, Adam and Eve.

As important as these matters are, very few Christians would deem them salvific, in the sense that people holding less “vigorous” views on these issues will be excluded from heaven.

C.S. Lewis was one of those who focused on the core of the Christian faith, rather than secondary doctrines. He referred to this as “mere Christianity,” and it was based on a trusting relationship with God through the Person of Jesus, God present with us in the Incarnate Word.

As for doctrines per se, like all good defenders of the faith, C.S. Lewis preferred not to get bogged down with secondary matters. This is consistent with the spirit of Paul’s advice to the young pastor, Timothy.

Remind them of these things, and charge them before God not to quarrel about words, which does no good, but only ruins the hearers. . . . Have nothing to do with foolish, ignorant controversies; you know that they breed quarrels. And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone . . . (2 Timothy 2:14, 23-24).

Lewis’ 1927 Evolutionary Conversation

In March of 1927, C.S. Lewis wrote one of his eclectic letters to his father in Northern Ireland. As usual, he commented on his father’s previous correspondence and shared about his current health and activities. While his relationship with his father grew strained after his mother’s untimely death while he was still a child, Lewis’ letters to his father exude familial respect framed in the context of early twentieth century British sensibilities.

That said, Lewis was always eager to share curious or silly experiences he knew would amuse his solicitor father. He takes a humorous approach, for instance, to advising his father to consult a more skilled doctor to diagnose an ailment, rather than suffering with the incomplete work of the physician he has always known, he will simply be “offer[ing] up several months of pain as a sacrifice on the altar of an old acquaintance.”

At the same time, he acknowledges his personal inclination toward doing the same, stating that “if I lived at home [I] would continue to use Gillespie all my life.” Gillespie, it turns out, ran a taxi service long favored by the family despite his bumpy transportation. “I have never regretted Gillespie and his hexagonal wheel,” Lewis shares.

He returns to his argument, however, by saying his father’s health demands the attention of a competent physician rather than relying on past ties. He concludes with an illustration based on his own brother. “Hang it all, even you wouldn’t suggest that because I’ve known Warnie a long time I ought to trust him as an interpreter on a holiday in Spain.”

C.S. Lewis proceeds to share with his father current events at Magdalen College (“we are putting up a new building”) and a recent nightmare (“it was the sense of being on the moon . . . the complete desolateness, which gave the extraordinary effect”).

The letter includes other fascinating elements, but it is time now to consider the reference to evolution.

An Absurd Age

I absolutely love the way C.S. Lewis invites us to experience the following moment. His story is so vivid, it still lives a century after the described events transpired.

We live in the most absurd age. I met a girl the other day who had been teaching in an infant school (boys and girls up to the age of six) where the infants are taught the theory of Evolution. Or rather the Headmistress’s version of it.

Simple people like ourselves had an idea that Darwin said that life developed from simple organisms up to the higher plants and animals, finally to the monkey group, and from the monkey group to man.

The infants however seem to be taught that ‘in the beginning was the Ape’ from whom all other life developed – including such dainties as the Brontosaurus and the Iguanodon.

Whether the plants were supposed to be descendants of the ape I didn’t gather. And then people talk about the credulity of the middle ages! À propos of this can you tell me who said ‘Before you begin these studies, I should warn you that you need much more faith in science than in theology.’ It was Huxley or Clifford or one of the nineteenth century scientists, I think.

Another good remark I read long ago in one of E. Nesbitt’s fairy tales –‘Grown ups know that children can believe almost anything: that’s why they tell you that the earth is round and smooth like an orange when you can see perfectly well for yourself that it’s flat and lumpy.’

Ironically, immediately after this, Lewis introduces his next subject with the words: “Almost the only interesting thing that has happened to me lately was a visit from a young German.” You see, I wasn’t misleading you when I said his letters are filled with fascinating material.

One must assume that times have changed, and that English children are no longer being taught such simplistic distortions of actual theories. But that’s not the theme of this current post. Rather, I wish to show how wonderfully entertaining a simple family letter can be – especially when it comes from the pen of C.S. Lewis.

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.

Deadly Gargoyles

September 8, 2014 — 15 Comments

gargoyle magdalenWhoever first considered gargoyles an attractive addition to buildings, must have had an odd personality. I have never developed an appreciation them.

What’s worse is when moonstruck (lunatic) architects deem gargoyles suitable for adorning churches.

There are too many examples out there to count. I am sure there are a number of websites devoted to them. But I don’t care enough to investigate.

It is one thing to shape a natural or fantastical creature to use as a rain spout on a building. Quite another, in my opinion, to opt for a grotesquery.

Churches should stick with symbolism that edifies the people. Admittedly, this can include some potentially gruesome subject, such as images of martyrdoms.

Our familiarity with the crucifix itself has dulled the impact of its terrible agony. We often fail to recognize the magnitude of the suffering Jesus endured.

Gargoyles were in the news this week. The reason for their appearance gave the title to this column.

A tragedy occurred in Chicago when a gargoyle broke free from a dated building and struck an innocent pedestrian. She was killed almost immediately by the crushing blow.

To make matters even more sad, the building from which the “ornament” fell was a church.

Second Presbyterian Church was built in 1874 and is a national historic landmark. Local news outlets report that it failed various inspections between 2007 and 2011, but passed them in 2012 and 2013. (The picture above is not of the gargoyle in question.)

Sarah was the name of the victim of this tragic accident. I invite your prayers on behalf of this young woman’s loved ones, especially her two children.

I think so little of church gargoyles that I included the subject in an as yet unpublished book set in the medieval period.

The nightmare gargoyle pictured on the top of the page adorns Magdalen College in Oxford. It was established in 1458, and was the school where C.S. Lewis began his teaching career.

In C.S. Lewis: An Examined Life, Bruce Edwards writes, “The college is noted for its wealth of gargoyles, grotesques, and stone portraits of notable people.”

Well, the college may be named after Mary Magdalene, but at least it isn’t a church. As for the stone “portraits,” they sound like a very agreeable adornment.

As lovely as Magdalen is considered to be, on the whole Lewis considered Cambridge University more appealing than Oxford. In a 1954 letter he wrote, “I’m afraid one must admit that, architecturally, Cambridge beats Oxford; there is so much more variety in Cambridge.”

In two other letters written the same year, Lewis revealed that there was much more to his new academic post than mere architecture that appealed to him. Oxford had taken Lewis for granted, and often belittled him because of his simplistic trust in Christ.

You know I am going as a Professor to Cambridge? My new college is Magdalene, Cambridge: a tiny little place compared with this, but a perfect gem architecturally and (I think) much more congenial socially & spiritually.

Did I tell you I’ve been made a professor at Cambridge? I take up my duties on Jan. 1st at Magdalene College, Cambridge (Eng.). Note the difference in spelling. It means rather less work for rather more pay. And I think I shall like Magdalene better than Magdalen. It’s a tiny college (a perfect cameo architecturally) and they’re so old fashioned, & pious, & gentle and conservative– unlike this leftist, atheist, cynical, hard-boiled, huge Magdalen. Perhaps from being the fogey and ‘old woman’ here I shall become the enfant terrible there.

It is not about architecture at all—or the presence or absence of grotesqueries. It is about finding a home where you know you are welcome and appreciated. A place where you do not need to remain constantly on your guard, because there are colleagues present who desire to see you humbled.

It is good to know C.S. Lewis spent the final years of his teaching life in an academic family that truly appreciated the gifted scholar in their midst.