Jack, in a hat

Now there are many stories about this famous hat, and Major (Warnie) Lewis recalls one of them in his Memoir prefacing the Letters. He writes:

Jack's clothes were a matter of complete indifference to him: he had an extraordinary knack of making a new suit look shabby the second time he wore it. One of his garments has passed into legend. It is said that Jack once took a guest for an early morning walk on the Magdalen College grounds, in Oxford, after a very wet night. Presently the guest brought his attention to a curious lump of cloth hanging on a bush. "That looks like my hat," said Jack; then joyfully, "It is my hat." And clapping the sodden mass on his head, he continued his walk.

That same hat was lost on one of our picnics, coming back from Cambridge at the end of a term. On the way to Cambridge, at the beginning of the next term, we looked inside the field gate where we had picnicked, and there was the hat, under the hedge, being used as a home for field mice. Jack retrieved it, of course, and later on continued to wear it.

Sometime after that, that same hat spent a week under the front seat of my car; and the very last time I drove the professor, the same hat sat squarely on his head.

Clifford Morris, "A Christian Gentleman", C.S. Lewis at the Breakfast Table and Other Remininscences (1979)

John Wain's description of the Inklings

"This was a circle of instigators, almost of incendiaries, meeting to urge one another on in the task of redirecting the whole current of contemporary art and life.” 


This is what John Wain an undergrad during the war but later Oxford Professor of Poetry, wrote on hearing of Williams' death: 

“I was walking from Longwall Street, where I lodged, towards St. John's, and had just reached the Clarendon Building when a girl I knew by sight came peddling round the corner from New College Lane.  "John", she called out, "Charles Williams is dead."  She had never spoken to me before, and normally would have avoided using my Christian name.  But this was a general disaster, like an air-raid, and the touch of comradliness was right.  I asked her for details, but she knew nothing except that he was dead.  In any case, she could not talk, she was only just not crying. 

I walked on towards St. John's.  The war with Germany was over.  Charles Williams was dead.  And suddenly Oxford was a different place.  There was still so much to enjoy, much to love and hate, much to get used to; but the war-time Oxford of my undergraduate days had disappeared.  Its pulse had stopped with the pulse of Williams." 

John Wain was also an occasional member of the Inklings.

The Scientist Takes Over

A review of C. S. Lewis' That Hideous Strength (1945) 
by George Orwell 

On the whole, novels are better when there are no miracles in them. Still, it is possible to think of a fairly large number of worth-while books in which ghosts, magic, second-sight, angels, mermaids, and what-not play a part. 

Mr. C. S. Lewis's "That Hideous Strength" can be included in their number - though, curiously enough, it would probably have been a better book if the magical element had been left out. For in essence it is a crime story, and the miraculous happenings, though they grow more frequent towards the end, are not integral to it. 

In general outline, and to some extent in atmosphere, it rather resembles G. K. Chesterton's "The Man Who Was Thursday." Mr. Lewis probably owes something to Chesterton as a writer, and certainly shares his horror of modern machine civilisation (the title of the book, by the way, is taken from a poem about the Tower of Babel) and his reliance on the 'eternal verities' of the Christian Church, as against scientific materialism or nihilism. 

His book describes the struggle of a little group of sane people against a nightmare that nearly conquers the world. A company of mad scientists - or, perhaps, they are not mad, but have merely destroyed in themselves all human feeling, all notion of good and evil - are plotting to conquer Britain, then the whole planet, and then other planets, until they have brought the universe under their control. 

All superfluous life is to be wiped out, all natural forces tamed, the common people are to be used as slaves and vivisection subjects by the ruling caste of scientists, who even see their way to conferring immortal life upon themselves. Man, in short, is to storm the heavens and overthrow the gods, or even to become a god himself. 

There is nothing outrageously improbable in such a conspiracy. Indeed, at a moment when a single atomic bomb - of a type already pronounced 'obsolete' - has just blown probably three hundred thousand paople to fragments, it sounds all too topical. Plenty of people in our age do entertain the monstrous dreams of power that Mr. Lewis attributes to his characters, and we are within sight of the time when such dreams will be realisable. 

His description of the N.I.C.E. (National Institute of Co-ordinated Experiments), with its world-wide ramifications, its private army, its secret torture chambers, and its inner ring of adepts ruled over by a mysterious personage known as The Head, is as exciting as any detective story. It would be a very hardened reader who would not experience a thrill on learning that The Head is actually - however, that would be giving the game away.

One could recommend this book ureservedly if Mr. Lewis had succeeded in keeping it all on a single level. Unfortunately, the supernatural keeps breaking in, and it does so in rather confusing, undisciplined ways. The scientists are endeavouring, among other things, to get hold of the body of the ancient Celtic magician Merlin, who has been buried - not dead, but in a trance - for the last 1,500 years, in hopes of learning from him the secrets of pre-Christian magic. 

They are frustrated by a character who is only doubtfully a human being, having spent part of his time on another planet where he has been gifted with eternal youth. Then there is a woman with second sight, one or two ghosts, and various superhuman visitors from outer space, some of them with rather tiresome names which derive from earlier books of Mr. Lewis's. The book ends in a way that is so preposterous that it does not even succeed in being horrible in spite of much bloodshed. 

Much is made of the fact that the scientists are actually in touch with evil spirits, although this fact is known only to the inmost circle. Mr. Lewis appears to believe in the existence of such spirits, and of benevolent ones as well. He is entitled to his beliefs, but they weaken his story, not only because they offend the average reader's sense of probability but because in effect they decide the issue in advance. When one is told that God and the Devil are in conflict one always knows which side is going to win. The whole drama of the struggle against evil lies in the fact that one does not have supernatural aid. However, by the standard of the novels appearing nowadays this is a book worth reading. 

Manchester Evening News, 16 August 1945
Reprinted as No. 2720 (first half) in The Complete Works of George Orwell,
edited by Peter Davison, Vol. XVII (1998), pp. 250-251


A C.S. Lewis story: 

Jack and a friend were walking down a street in Oxford and passed by a beggar.  Lewis reached in his pocket and gave the man a coin.  For this he was reprimanded by his companion who said the beggar would only waste the money on drink.  "What a coincidence," said Lewis, "that's just what I was going to do with it!"  

(via Facebook - hope it's true!)

Betjeman and Lewis

'Life was luncheons, luncheons all the way', Betjeman wrote, not quite accurately, because he was also an active member of the University Dramatic Society and a regular contributor of poetry and architectural comment to the student magazines Isis and Cherwell, which he edited in 1927. In fact, Betjeman worked tirelessly at what interested him, and if Bishop Betjy was an Oxford character, he was always something more than a poseur. Already a recognised authority on architecture, Betjeman was widely read in the most obscure as well as traditional authors, and he shared his dedication to becoming a poet with another undergraduate and close friend, the decidedly unswanky W H Auden of Christ Church. 

Yet like Auden (who instead of a predicted First Class got a Third), Betjeman's experience of English literature at Oxford was, academically speaking, a disaster. It is a common misconception, fostered by Betjeman himself, that he 'Failed in Divinity!' and as a consequence left Oxford for ever: a Byronically outcast 'soul in hell'. But University records indicate that the truth was more complicated and painful than this, and derived in part from the state of mutual antipathy that developed between Betjeman and his tutor, a passionately didactic young don from Northern Ireland who had only just begun teaching at Magdalen in Betjeman's first term: Clive Staples Lewis. 

Although only eight years older than his pupil, C S Lewis's undergraduate experience of Oxford had been very different from Betjeman's. Born in 1898, he attended University College for one term before being shipped out to the Western Front in 1917, where he was wounded by an exploding shell at the battle of Arras. He returned to Oxford after the war and took a First in Greats, then a degree in English, but like many ex-servicemen he found himself completely at odds with the fast cars and flappers mentality of the early and mid-'20s. There had been just twelve other undergraduates at University College in 1917, when Lewis was 18 and the right age to be carefree. By the time he returned, he was 21 and had lived through a war that had killed the golden boys of his generation and he was in no position to appreciate the so-called Golden Aesthetes of Betjeman's day. 

Moreover, there was the additional problem of the School of English Language and Literature, whose establishment in 1894 had attracted the sort of intellectual opprobrium usually reserved for Media Studies today: 'a school for soft-optioners, school teachers, and women'. In order to elevate the study of English above 'mere chatter about Shelley', the emphasis in the taught syllabus was on language rather than literature. Alongside the big writerly guns (Shakespeare, Spenser, Milton), undergraduates were required to study Anglo-Saxon, Middle English and the history of English language and philology. Without an intimate knowledge of Grimm's Law formulating sound-change in early Germanic consonants, even the most diligent student taught by an entirely sympathetic tutor would struggle to excel if language was not their metier, and so Betjeman the puckish dilettante and Lewis the unyielding pedagogue embarked on a fraught master-pupil relationship, the repercussions of which haunted Betjeman for the rest of his life. 

Lewis's idea of a literary salon at this pre-Inklings, pre-Christian stage of his career was a roistering beer-and-baccy session, reciting Norse sagas in his booming voice and encouraging his students to chant linguistic mnemonics out loud. His teaching style was pugnacious, and with his tweed jacket, pipe and aggressively unpoetic vocabulary (excellence was indicated by a laconic 'all right'; defaulters were said to need 'a smack or so' to get them into line), Jolly Jack Lewis appeared to be the embodiment of everything that was hearty and antithetical to the fey, Anglo-Catholic aesthete Betjeman, who admired Victoriana and minor poets and incensed his tutor by insisting that Oscar Wilde's lover, Lord Alfred Douglas (with whom Betjeman had enjoyed an illicit correspondence when he was at Marlborough), was a greater writer than Shakespeare. 

'I wish I could get rid of the idle prig', Lewis confided to his diary. 'I was rung up on the telephone ... from Moreton in the Marsh, to say that he hasn't been able to read the OE, as he was suspected for measles & forbidden to look at a book. Probably a lie, but what can one do?' Or again, when Betjeman did deign to turn up, he 'appeared in a pair of eccentric bedroom slippers and said he hoped I didn't mind them, as he had a blister. He seemed so pleased with himself that I couldn't help replying that I should mind them very much myself but I had no objection to his wearing them.' Betjeman's attempt to win his tutor over by inviting him to tea in his rooms in St Aldate's only alienated Lewis further, as he was forced to participate in conversations about lace curtains and to mingle with 'a galaxy of super-undergraduates', including 'an absolutely silent and astonishingly ugly person called McNeice [sic]'. 

It was hardly a surprise, then, that when Betjeman failed the elementary but compulsory First Public Examination in Holy Scripture, his tutor was less than supportive of his requests for help. What was perhaps more surprising was that 'Bishop Betjy', with his attachment to all things ecclesiastical, should have been unsuccessful in his 'Divvers' exam, not once but twice in his third year, before being sent down at the end of Hilary term 1928. 

Dr Judith Priestman
Oxford Today - 
Volume 18 Number 3, Trinity 2006