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Nearly in Narnia

By Paul Knowles

Tracing the footsteps of C.S. Lewis at his home, his college, and his church, all Oxford, England. (Pictured is The Kilns, his home.)

 

There is a small, relatively unimportant Victorian church in Headington Quarry, on the eastern edge of Oxford, England. This building, centuries newer than most English churches that draw tourists, much smaller than the mighty cathedrals, none the less has a bulging guest book.

They come because Holy Trinity Church was the parish church attended by C.S. Lewis - professor, Christian apologist, and author of the beloved series of Narnia books and many other works. His simple grave - a stone slab, no upright monument - rests in the churchyard. It reads, "In Loving Memory of My Brother Clive Staples Lewis, Born Belfast 29th November 1898, Died in this parish 22nd November 1963. Men Must Endure Their Going Hence."

November 22, 1963 is a date indelibly etched in the minds of many North Americans, not because they marked the passing of Lewis, but because on this day, John F. Kennedy was assassinated.
The church is locked, but there is a notice instructing the persistent to apply for the key at the Vicarage. A patient and sweet minister's wife, in mid-conversation on her portable phone, handed me a ring of keys. The big one opened the door to the church where the creator of Narnia once worshipped.

Inside, Narnia is not forgotten - an etched glass window in the nave includes images of Aslan; of Polly and Digory on Fledge, the winged horse; of Jill, riding on an owl; of Peter's sword and Susan's bow and Lucy's vial of magic medicine; of Prince Caspian's ship; of Reepicheep the Mouse, Mrs. Beaver, and Jewel the Unicorn.

In the rear of the church is the "Lewis Corner" where you can buy (on the honour system) everything from a history of the church to a tea towel bearing local and Narnian images.

And halfway up, on the far left aisle, is a short pew abutting a thick pillar. On the pillar - faux Norman - hangs a small statue of St. George. The shelf on the pew ahead carries a small brass plaque that admits - 'announces' would require a bigger plaque - that this is the seat occupied by C.S. and Warren Lewis as they worshipped Sunday by Sunday.

I visited the church on a Thursday afternoon, alone in the building for at least an hour, although I encountered locals in the churchyard, eager to recount the history of C.S. Lewis. Some of them even got some of the details right.

I left the church imagining the very unchristian battles waged on a Sunday morning as Lewis fans - especially those from this side of the Atlantic - arrive as visitors for church, only to find that someone else has occupied those two precious, plaqued seats.

Pew envy. An intriguing byproduct of fame.

From the church, I drove a mile or so to The Kilns, long the home of C.S. Lewis, always known to his friends as "Jack". Since C.S. stands for "Clive Staples," perhaps we can guess why. After his death, his brother, Warren, continued to occupy the house for a decade. It was then sold to other owners.
More recently, The Kilns has been acquired by the C.S. Lewis Foundation, located in Redlands, California. The foundation has restored the house as the "C.S. Lewis Study Centre." It is occupied by tenants - some, students at Oxford - and can be toured by appointment.

Thus, I visited Lewis' kitchen, dining room, library and study - which at the time of my tour was the bedroom of the delightful young head resident, a female student from Missouri. Whether Lewis ever even met a person from Missouri, we do not know. He did, however, marry an American divorcee, Joy Davidman. The guide denied ever encountering his ghost, although many years ago New Testament paraphraser J.B. Phillips claimed to have done so.

The house is in excellent repair; however, as a museum it is sadly lacking in artifacts, containing only one authentic item remaining from the Lewis occupation - Warren's manual typewriter. There are Lewis books in the library, including some first editions (although not of the Narnia chronicles, which now fetch $1000 a volume for a first edition). Oddly, I discovered that the copy of "The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe" high on the shelf is really a blank book wrapped in an authentic dust jacket, with a cut-and-paste title page and no other words inside. Why this is, neither I nor the head resident had any idea.

Just before I left The Kilns, I was relieved to discover some of the residents drinking wine in the quaint, old kitchen. Many of Lewis' North American fans are of an essentially fundamentalist persuasion - which would have both amused and confused Lewis - but the creator of Narnia was dedicated to the pleasures of the pipe and the pint.

He and a group of author friends known as the Inklings - including J.R.R. Tolkien and Charles Williams - met regularly to quaff pints and read their latest work to each other. These early meetings were convened in the "snug" at an Oxford pub named The Eagle and Child, more commonly the Bird and Baby. It serves good pints, still, on St. Giles. If you are lucky, you can sit at a table in a corner decorated with photos of Lewis, Tolkien, and friends. This was not their table of choice - in fact, renovations at the Eagle and Child drove them out to the Lamb and Flag, across St. Giles - but the ambience is none the less unbeatable.

The pub is in the heart of Oxford, a pleasant walk from the Colleges, including Magdalen, where Lewis taught. (He ended his teaching career at arch-rival Cambridge, coincidentally at Magdalene College there, but never moved residence from Oxford.)

Unlike many of the Colleges of Oxford, Magdalen (pronounced, of course, Maudlin) is usually open to visitors - for a price. It's worth it; you'll see the New Buildings (new in 1730, 300 years after Magdalen was founded); the deer park, cloisters, chapel, and the Magdalen College Walks along the Cherwell - pathways much frequented by Lewis and friends. Magdalen Tower is famed for May Morning celebrations.

Fans of Lewis' books such as "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe" first experience them as rich fantasies. It's a revelation that these tales are rooted deeply in the city of Oxford and its environs. From the house of Professor Kirke to the woodlands of Narnia (very similar to woodland near The Kilns and Magdalen) lovers of Lewis' work who walk in his footsteps, from Headington Quarry to St. Giles, will find themselves in unnervingly familiar territory.

For more information, go to www.visitbritain.ca