My intimate friendship with C. S. Lewis...
Well done, Andrew (Lazo). It is encouraging to see collaborative and respectful engagement between scholars, especially in the field of Lewis studies. You and McGrath have quietly set a high bar for better behaviour among researchers and writers. Hat tip to you and McGrath both. - Lancia E. Smith, First Things comments
Recently, there has been some discussion online about the precise date for the conversion (to theism) of C.S. Lewis. The consensus seems to be that Lewis himself misreported the date in his book, Surprised by Joy, and in his new biography of Lewis, Alister McGrath has set the record straight.
Of course McGrath's correction pleases me immensely. What a man! What a scholar! How utterly punctilious of him! I must say Alice (as McGrath's friends call him) has inspired me to make bold and bring forth my own more modest contribution to this scintillating discussion. The talk has centered on the quality of Lewis’ memory, which many consider prodigious. Well, was it?
Readers of this blog likely are unaware that I knew Jack (as friends of Lewis called him) in the early sixties and late fifties when I was a student at Cambridge...
Since I was reading Calvin, I decided to sit in on Jack’s lectures on the medieval universe (later published as The Discarded Image) to give some background to my work. One day (the exact date escapes me just now, but I'm surmising it was between 23 and 25 March 1959) after the lecture, I asked Jack a question (as I recall it was about an obscure reference in Plato, quoted by Boethius, then mentioned in the Victorines). Lewis invited me back to his rooms to talk. We returned to his rooms, Jack and I, and there I received a stunning discourse on every aspect of my inquiry. So began our friendship, Jack and I; or what at the time I thought was a friendship.
We would sometimes (at least twice) meet in his rooms to discuss theology or literature. Sometimes he would serve me tea (at least once), but there was no set pattern to our encounters (generally speaking). We also went on several walks (at least two). Jack and I loved to take walks, especially if we could get out into the countryside. A friend of Jack's he called "Dick" (almost certainly Richard W. Ladborough) would drive us outside Cambridge and drop us off; then we would hike around the area and walk back to town. I was pretty much in awe at my good fortune. Here I was, a puny American graduate student from Indiana, walking "hedgerows" (as they say) with The Great Man.
As we traversed, Jack would speak in that great booming voice of his (which served him so well in the lecture hall). He would recite the history of the area through which we were walking (in great detail), then move on to giving an account of the books he was presently reading, then gossip about the (quite surprising) differences between Cambridge and Oxford. I never said much (as a general rule). And when I made bold to contribute something to the conversation, my comments were limited to (difficult to hear) mumbles and short ejaculations such as "I see," "you don't say," and "my gracious me!" Once, when I stubbed my toe on a rock, I was reminded of that great literary figure who was equally at home in epic and poetic settings, and I managed the literary allusion "Oh, bother!" I'm certain this epigrammatic contribution inestimably raised my stock with "Jack" (we closest friends called him that).
Sometimes there was a lull in our conversation (may I dare to call it that?) and I would try to think quickly of what I should say? In my mind, I'd go over my proposed wording with great care—even down to footnotes I should use if Jack questioned any of the details—but this took so long that when I was finally ready to give utterance to a thing or two, the moment had passed and Lewis was off on another topic.
Occasionally I would go ahead and say what I had formulated in my mind, but it was always three pages too late—like a misplaced paragraph. On the occasions when I would do this (four, I think), Jack was ever so polite and would encourage me with a long, drawn-out, “Huh … you don’t say.” Sadly, though, the construction of my next sentence took so long we never managed anything approaching a volley in our conversations. I fear my friend "Jack" must have thought I was a lunatic; or worse, an imbecile.
Jack and I would pack sandwiches and take along a thermos of tea. (I taught Jack the American word 'thermos.' Privately, Jack admired Yankee ingenuity.) If we were by a stream (once), Lewis would drink from it, though this seemed to make him cough. At least he coughed that one time.
After eating, we both found ourselves getting up and walking over to a tree to pee. I remember thinking to myself, "I’m peeing in a field next to C.S. Lewis, the friend of J.R.R. Tolkien who (I had heard) never peed on his walks with Lewis." I felt incredibly privileged to be standing there next to Jack both (he and I) aiming at the same tree (also a fence, as I recall, though it was broken). As we peed, my spine tingled. Sometimes that happens although on this occasion I'm pretty sure it was due to my realization I had been inducted into a select group of friendship; that for that afternoon, I had attained the soteriological echelon of "almost an Inkling."
I shan't exaggerate the experience. It's not like we had a sword fight standing there, but more than fifty years later that moment still does stand out as one of the great moments of my life (though I’ve never compiled a top ten). Whenever I see the cover art for "Who's Next," deep in my heart I know I'd always choose Jack over Roger, Keith, John, and Pete.
Now, I’ve gotten a bit off topic and I need to return to the purpose of this post. During a later term at Cambridge (probably around 6 October 1960 at 14:30), I passed Lewis on campus. To my complete horror, he said warmly, “Well, hello Phillip!” Sadly, though (and it pains me considerably to admit it) as he passed me, Jack quickened his pace. I could only stand there with my mouth open. He had forgotten my name...
Something very deep inside me broke loose and the tears began to flow. A girl stopped and asked if I was okay? How could I make her to understand what had just happened? I tried to formulate a good topic sentence, but by then she had walked on and I was alone again. Naturally.
So, when the topic of Jack’s memory comes up, I can only say “It wasn’t that great.” Sometimes I say, “not so hot.” Once I said, “He got things wrong from time to time.”