C.S. Lewis & Friends

Tracking Jack (and Company)

Tintern Abbey
South Side TinturnBetween England and Wales, the River Wye cuts a serpentine path. On its western border (on the Wales side), in a valley suspended between several intersecting hills, stand the ruins of Tintern Abbey (built 1131-1320).
On New Year’s Day, 1931, C. S. Lewis (Jack to all who knew him) began a three-day walking tour with his brother Warnie (Warren) along the Wye. On the second day of that tour, just before noon on a bright winter’s day with frozen turf crunching underfoot, they visited Tintern. A few days afterward Jack wrote an animated account of the abbey to a friend in Ireland:
Have you seen it? It is an abbey practically intact except that the roof is gone, and the glass out of the windows, and the floor, instead of a pavement is a trim green lawn. Anything like the sweetness & peace of the long shafts of sunlight falling through the windows on this grass cannot be imagined. All churches should be roofless. A holier place I never saw.

Jack (now a 32-year-old Oxford don) had been on walking tours before with friends and colleagues, but this was the first such journey for Warnie (three years Jack’s senior) and Jack had been doubtful of the outcome. But all went well and Warnie took to the experience like a veteran. The walk did both brothers good, and they found themselves talking about issues important to each.
In recent years Jack had progressed from atheism to, first, a belief in the Absolute, and then a belief that the Absolute was Spirit, and thence to a belief in God (theism). Warnie too was moving in a similar direction. But just a few days after their tour at Tintern, Warnie told Jack “in conversation that he was beginning to think the religious view of things was after all true.” Jack expressed some amazement at Warnie’s conclusions at the time; yet, a mere nine months later, he joined his brother in the belief that Jesus Christ is the Son of God.

In June 1995, I also visited Tintern Abbey. As I ducked through a narrow gothic doorway, I was greeted by the cries of seabirds sweeping through this roofless church and at once remembered Tolkien’s and Lewis’s fictional mentions of the lure of the gulls. But then Tintern opened out before me, each direction a montage of looming arches layered before and behind one another. Some were still attached to doorways and stone-traceried windows, but others seemed narrow bands of fitted rock without support, soaring skyward, defying gravity altogether. Morning sunlight stabbed through glassless windows, casting the east walls into silhouette, but also shining on every blade of grass, turning the color green into something full of energy and fire. My thoughts lifted on the arches, swooped with gull’s wings, basked in the glory of that radiant light. And in joy I found myself agreeing with Brother Jack: Certainly, nothing so sweet as the long shafts of sunlight falling on the grass; without a doubt, all churches should be roofless.

Barbara Parsons Linville
Ambridge, Pennsylvania
May, 2011

1 The Collected Letters of C. S. Lewis, Ed. Walter Hooper. Vol. 1. (NY: HarperSanFrancisco, 2004) 948 .
2 Letters, Hooper 948.
3 I was in England as part of the “C. S. Lewis Study Tour” sponsored by Great Lion Tours.

Nothing Found (To C. S. Lewis)

At Lewis graveTo England, heart poised, to seek a grave,
To find that last Oxford-cradled cache of you,
Cresset of once-brilliant you
Who blazed across dark corners of minds
For a mere instant of years.

Hurrying—we had only one day,
Hours really—to find the lych gate,
The stone-slabbed tomb, its inscription
So soon crumbling under tiny lichen talons.
Like pilgrim blessed I knelt,
Caressing unyielding granite and found—nothing.

CSL&W graveBereaved of treasure, the cache lay empty,
Nothing remaining of merest you here.
And I thought to myself—Fool.
As if one could find that dazzling spirit
Clamped still in cold and senseless clay.
The Joy-surprised sleep not underground
But voyage, gold-coracled the fiery seas of Dawn.

by Barbara Parsons Linville

Photo Credit Delbert Linville

 

Tracking Jack (and Company)

The Trout Pub

The day had dawned with clear skies as our motor-coach party rose for an elegant breakfast in the Hawkwell House at Iffley, a suburb of Oxford, where we had spent the night. The hotel’s dining room with all its windows and potted palms and immaculate white table cloths reminded some of the 1920s and 30s.

After breakfast we attended two seminars about C. S. Lewis and then, at noon, boarded the bus for lunch at the Trout in Godstow, three miles or so away. The Trout had sometimes been the walking destination of Lewis and Tolkien and others of the Inklings group, so naturally we were eager to see it, just as we were eager, by this time, to have lunch.

We arrived at the Trout, a comfortable pub near the confluence of the Oxford Canal and the Thames River. Inside we ordered from menus that offered real roast-sirloin of beef sandwiches as well as galantines of beef and pork and other rich fare. In the dim interior, wainscoting and tufted-leather chairs glowed in welcome, but, in the end, we opted to eat our lunch outside. There on the sparkling grass we found a connected line of wooden picnic tables, which had gone gray and rough-grained with age, where all our group could sit together. And so we ate, June sunshine splashing around our shoulders while from a few yards off, rushing waters from the canal roared down a spillway to the Thames.  In addition, from above us on the rooftops came harsh cries that sounded like cats with mega-phones. The animals, though, turned out to be peacocks, not cats, and they continued to regale us with their racket and radiance throughout our time there.

During the meal, we competed with the peacocks with our own high-spirited noise. With Bob Wright and Julia Castle as raconteurs in charge at our end of the table, hearty laughter ran like audible lightning up and down the benches. Then, as we rose to leave the tables, the peacocks descended from on high and, like efficient bus boys, tidied up any tidbits from our plates that we had left from the feast.

Leaving the peacocks and the pub, we explored the surroundings for awhile, some hiking down to the ruins of the 12th Century Godstow Nunnery which lay nearby; some watching small pleasure boats navigating through the locks from the Oxford Canal to enter the Thames, and some asking questions to which no one seemed to possess an answer about the statue of a lion that occupied a small island of its own across from the Trout. Finally, the time came to go and we left the Trout, full of cheer and good will, as much as any Dicken’s characters around Bob Cratchit’s table.

That night, back at the Hawkwell House, Bob Wright read to us an anecdote about a boat trip that Jack Lewis and his brother Warnie (Warren) and a friend named Hugo Dyson were to take along the Thames River to Godstow in 1939. At the last moment, Warnie couldn’t make it and so Humphrey Havard, the Lewis brothers’ physician and long-time friend, joined them instead. It was he who had written the remembrance we were enjoying.

In the beginning, Lewis and Dyson were in high spirits, discussing the Renaissance with swift repartee and “flashes of wit,” according to Havard; Lewis quoting from memory, passage after passage, from this source and that; Dyson trying to prove his own theories; and Havard just trying to keep the boat on course.

The next day, Sunday, each man went to his own church, and then rejoined the others to return downstream on the Thames. All was going well when the boat’s engine suddenly stopped and did not seem to want to start again. Both Lewis and Dyson then took turns walking along the bank towing the boat with a long line. But when Havard tried taking their place with the towline, neither Lewis nor Dyson could keep the boat from veering from one bank to the other, so everyone finally agreed that Havard had to stay with the boat, while the others did the heavy work on the towpath.

It didn’t take long after that, however, for the boat’s engines to restart and once again the friends were on their way toward home. During the time they had been away, no one had kept track by newspapers, etc., of what was happening in the outside world. But then, as they stopped at the Trout in Godstow for lunch that day, September 1, 1939, they learned that Hitler had invaded Poland and that war was now inevitable for Britain. What had begun as a carefree holiday now fell to silence, each man turning to his own thoughts as they made their way back to Oxford.

That night they met for a dreary dinner together, until Lewis suddenly said, “Well, at any rate, we now have less chance of dying of cancer,” at which remark the company first stared, striving to catch his meaning, and then suddenly dissolved into laughter.

Barbara Parsons Linville
Ambridge, Pennsylvania
May, 2011

Robert E. Havard, “Philia: Jack at Ease,” in C. S. Lewis at the Breakfast Table and Other Reminiscences by James T. Como, (Collins, St. James’s Place, London, 1980) 218-220.