I've been in Oxford for the weekend, attending a special event to celebrate the life and legacy of C.S. Lewis.
For almost thirty years from 1925, Lewis was a Fellow of Magdalen College, and his shadow still looms large there. To mark the fiftieth anniversary of his death, the College invited members and guests to an afternoon of lectures on his life and works followed by a commemorative dinner; among those who attended were former students of Lewis's, others who knew him, and many like me who had come to pay tribute to the man who had opened a magical world to them, or had touched them in other ways through his writings.
The book in the picture is my childhood copy of The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe. I took it with me and read it again over the weekend, and found on the back page the application form for membership of the the Puffin Club which as a ten-year-old I had neatly filled in but for some reason had not sent; seeing that and reading the book again was like re-encountering my younger self, and I think Lewis would have understood that feeling.
The afternoon began with a talk by the Revd. Professor Alister McGrath, whose biography of Lewis I have just read and can warmly recommend, and who was speaking on the symbiotic relationship between Lewis and Magdalen. He traced Lewis's path to the college - it was not a straightforward one - but once there he was found to be a natural teacher who talked to people, not at them, and who, with his "port wine and plum pudding voice" packed the lecture room and opened up works of literature with an unusual lucidity.
Professor McGrath talked of the Thursday evening Inklings meetings in Lewis's rooms in New Buildings (above) when works-in-progress were read and ideas were sparked, but in referring to the all-male environment of which Lewis was a product, and defending his subject against allegations of giving his female characters subordinate roles, he was quick to make the point that Lewis was "discerning of talent and blind to gender" when it came to the teaching and discussion of English Literature.
The second speaker of the day was Mr. Walter Hooper, a charming American gentleman whom I can best describe as 'couthy'. I wish I could recount at length his many anecdotes and his recollections of his correspondence, friendship and working relationship with Lewis - he was his secretary during the final months of Lewis's life, his biographer and the editor of his collected letters. Invited to attend Inklings meetings, Mr. Hooper said he had never experienced anything like them: "you were your best in his company," he said. The warmth and affection with which he spoke was as great as his admiration for the man whose work he had first come across as a young soldier in 1953 when he kept a copy of Miracles hidden under his shirt and read a page or two at every opportunity while on exercise, and whom he remembers with the utmost fondness all these years later.
The Revd. Dr. Michael Piret, Magdalen's Dean of Divinity, then talked about Lewis's time as Vice-President of the College, and read many excerpts from a drama which exists in College archives, Lewis the Bald, a tragi-comedy penned by Lewis in which the author reveals both a high degree of self-awareness, and a sharp, clever wit and clear-sightedness when it came to his colleagues.
The final speaker of the afternoon was Lord Williams of Oystermouth, better known to most of us as Rowan Williams, former Archbishop of Canterbury; his book The Lion's World - A journey into the heart of Narnia was published last year. He spoke on fantasy fiction and fairytale and of Lewis's view that being supremely about something that isn't us, it is of moral importance to the young: "in a world of agency, magic, supportive animal friends, the ego is not at the heart of it," and destructive self-interest is put aside. His thesis was closely argued and more complex than my summary might suggest, but his analysis of Lewis's fiction was a fascinating one, and when asked to whom Lewis's mantle has been passed, he spoke with the authority of a deep knowledge of the field of Philip Pullman (ironically, as Alister McGrath describes him, "Lewis's most strident critic"), Alan Garner - particularly for books such as Thursbitch and Boneland which Lord Williams commended as "utterly haunting and remarkable", and of course, the Harry Potter series, "a most interesting fusion of the school story and fairytale, and a work about atonement and redemption".
The day concluded with dinner in Hall at which a toast to C.S. Lewis was drunk, the petits fours appropriately included Turkish Delight, and at which Lewis's Godson Mr. Laurence Harwood spoke and read extracts of three of Lewis's letters, including one full of wisdom, consolation and encouragement which he had received from his Godfather at a difficult time in his youth. It was a fitting end to a day which remembered a man whose brilliance as a scholar and teacher shaped the lives of many young people, whose clarity and fluency as a speaker and communicator opened many minds to faith, and whose writing continues to inspire and delight.