Walking with C.S. Lewis

Walking with C.S. Lewis November 25, 1998

He always took the early, slow train from Oxford, so he could say his prayers and enjoy the scenery before he arrived at the tiny station at the foot of the Malvern Hills.

C.S. Lewis rarely tinkered with the details of these trips, since the goal was always the same — to walk and talk with friends. He wore a rumpled tweed jacket with the obligatory leather elbow patches, baggy wool pants, walking shoes and an old hat. He had a battered rucksack and he never carried a watch.

His host was George Sayer, his former pupil at Magdalen College and a close friend for three decades. They usually walked the 10-mile Malvern ridge, with its lovely views of the distant Welsh hills, the Severn valley and the Cotswolds. But sometimes they strayed elsewhere, joined by other colleagues.

“Beauty was so important to Jack and so was good conversation,” said Sayer, using the nickname Lewis preferred. “What could be better than putting the two together? One could not have found a better walking companion.”

Sayer gazed out the sunny garden window in his sitting room, which served as the starting point for their travels. Then he laughed out loud.

“You should have seen Jack trying to walk with J.R.R. Tolkien! Once Jack got started a bomb could not have stopped him and the more he walked, the more energy he had for a good argument,” said Sayer. “Now Tolkien was just the opposite. If he had something to say, he wanted you to stop so he could look you in the face. So on they would go, Jack charging ahead and Tolkien pulling at him, trying to get him to stop – back and forth, back and forth. What a scene!”

That was long ago. It has been nearly a quarter of a century since Sayer led Malvern College’s English department and a decade since he wrote “Jack: C.S. Lewis and His Times.” This year, fragile health prevented Sayer from fully participating in events marking the centenary of Lewis’ birth on Nov. 29, 1898. Lewis died on Nov. 22, 1963, the same day as President John F. Kennedy.

It’s hard to say why Lewis remains such a dominant figure, said Sayer. The former atheist did have a unique ability to handle tough questions in a way that was both intellectual and popular. Lewis also wrote many different kinds of books – from children’s literature to apologetics, from science fiction to literary criticism. Readers start reading one form of his writings, such as “The Chronicles of Narnia” fantasies, and then graduate to another, such as the more philosophical “The Problem of Pain.” Many have been drawn to his work through two movies called “Shadowlands,” based on the story of the Oxford don’s marriage to American poet Joy Davidman.

Much of this “would have infuriated Jack because he rejected all attempts to analyze writers by dwelling on their personal lives,” said Sayer. “He called this the ‘personal heresy.’ It is very ironic that so many people have such an astonishing attachment to C.S. Lewis as a person, or to the person that they perceive him to have been.”

This trend began during the writer’s lifetime. Lewis was, of course, thankful that millions embraced his work. But Sayer said he grew frustrated that so many readers – especially Americans – hailed him as a celebrity, yet failed to dig deeper into the issues that most challenged him.

Lewis would probably be distressed, said Sayer, to discover that the books that made him an effective apologist in the 1940s and ’50s are so popular decades later. He would ask why mainline Catholics and Protestants writers now attack Christian orthodoxy, rather than defend it. Lewis would ask why so many evangelicals keep writing books for the people already in pews, instead of focusing on those outside the church.

“Jack was a highly intellectual man, yet he was also very emotional,” said Sayer. “The man I knew was highly persuasive, quite comical and very entertaining. Above all, he loved a good argument and he rarely passed up a chance to jump into the thick of things. He would want his admirers to take his work and push on, not to stay in the same place.”

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