When Clive Staples Lewis arrived in Oxford in 1916, he was enchanted by the city’s Gothic stone buildings and spires reaching skyward. “The place has surpassed my wildest dreams: I never saw anything so beautiful, especially on frosty moonlit nights,” he wrote in a letter to his father.
Lewis, an 18-year-old Irishman who went by Jack, was visiting Oxford University to take the entrance examination. The city that made an enchanting first impression maintained its effect on him for a lifetime. Oxford was the backdrop to his student days, and to his career as an academic and as the author known as C.S. Lewis, and it’s where he found Christian faith, friendships and domestic happiness. It is also where he, along with J.R.R. Tolkien — the future author of “The Lord of the Rings” and “The Hobbit” — and others founded the Inklings, a literary group, 90 or so years ago, and where early notions of Narnia and Middle-earth would surface.
Lewis is perhaps most famous today for the “Chronicles of Narnia” series — though he found success in his satire, like “The Screwtape Letters,” and religious defenses, like “Mere Christianity.” As the 60th anniversary of his death nears, it felt timely to retrace Lewis’s steps around the city that so greatly affected his life and works. On a fall afternoon, I met Rob Walters, an author and a guide with Official Oxford Walking Tours, at the central Radcliffe Square, which is surrounded by majestic college buildings. Locals and tourists, speaking myriad languages, walked and biked along the cobbles.
“I like it when people ask about Lewis,” said a buoyant Mr. Walters, who conducts a combined Tolkien and Lewis tour. “He has fans for many different reasons, some because of his Christian works, others for his fantasy,” he continued. “I discovered him through science fiction.”
I became a Lewis fan conventionally, through the “Chronicles of Narnia” series, which my grandmother gave me when I was a child. The seven children’s books about a mythical world, published between 1950 and 1956, catapulted Lewis to fame. They have sold over 100 million copies and been translated into 47 languages. I devoured the first three over one summer and was captivated by Lewis’s world, where children were powerful, where animals talked and where — a novel idea for a young Australian — it was perpetually snowy.
Mr. Walters and I stood in the narrow St. Mary’s Passage, between University Church of St. Mary the Virgin and Brasenose College. Before us: an ornate wooden door bearing a striking resemblance to a wardrobe — the portal through which the four Pevensie children gain access to Narnia in “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe,” the first book in the series. In the center was a carving that could be a lion’s face, while above were two golden fauns (half-man, half-goat creatures). A tall lamppost stood nearby. The setting recalled the book’s scene in which a young Lucy lands in Narnia and meets the faun, Mr. Tumnus, under lamppost light. All that was missing was a coating of snow.
Is this where Lewis found inspiration for Narnia? “No one knows for sure, but the timeline makes sense,” Mr. Walters said. In the early 1940s, Lewis was a lay theologian, and he occasionally gave sermons in St. Mary’s, just a few feet away. “Perhaps he left one evening through the side door and walked straight out onto this,” Mr. Walters said, gesturing to what’s become known as the Narnia Door.
Skirting a tourist with a camera poised at the door, we took a left onto High Street, a thoroughfare brimming with shops and eateries. Lewis studied literature and the classics here back in 1917 at University College, one of the university’s oldest, founded in 1249.
Today in Oxford, arguably the world’s best-known university town, a 15th-century building can house a grab-and-go food chain, Anglo-Saxon ruins are within miles of a shimmering Zaha Hadid building, and medieval stone grotesques watch from their perches as people of varying nationalities rush about below.
When Lewis arrived, there would have been fewer women — they were not allowed to seek degrees here until 1920 — and fewer students generally. “Most were either dead or at war,” Mr. Walters said. In 1917, there were only 12 men enrolled at University College — Lewis included.
Lewis volunteered for officer training within months of arriving at Oxford (as an Irishman born in Belfast, he was not automatically enlisted in the British army) and was shipped to the trenches of France — until he was wounded by an exploding shell in 1918 and returned to his studies.
Lewis’s postwar years led to major shifts in his worldview: When Lewis first arrived in the city, he aspired to be a poet. He was also an atheist. He changed his mind on both accounts at Oxford.
A long walk and a late-night epiphany
Bidding Mr. Walters farewell, I strolled a few minutes down High Street to Magdalen College, easily spotted by its striking medieval bell tower. Here, in 1925, Lewis landed a coveted role as fellow and tutor in literature, a position he held for 29 years. The small fee (8 pounds, or nearly $10) for public access to the grounds is worth it. As I walked through the Great Quad with its gargoyles and manicured lawn, far from the crowds, I wondered how often Lewis passed through. His second-floor rooms in the New Building, where he lodged, are marked by red geraniums growing from a window box.
It was at a 1926 English department faculty meeting that he met another Oxford professor, John Ronald Reuel Tolkien. The friendship propelled both toward realizing their literary worlds: Middle-earth and Narnia.
First impressions were not hot. “No harm in him,” Lewis wrote of Tolkien after their first meeting. “Only needs a smack or so.” The two soon bonded over a love of storytelling, myths and language. By 1929, Tolkien was sharing unpublished manuscripts with his new friend, and Lewis shared his poetry. “I was up till 2:30 on Monday,” Lewis wrote in a letter to a friend that December, recounting that he and Tolkien “sat discoursing of the gods and giants and Asgard for three hours,” referring to the Nordic mythological realm.
Tolkien, a Catholic, also nudged the atheist Lewis toward becoming a believer and a prolific defender of Christianity in his writing.
Lewis, raised Anglican, by his midteens “maintained that God did not exist,” according to his 1955 semi-autobiographical work “Surprised by Joy.” His mother’s death from cancer when he was 9 was his first disillusionment. He wrote in the book that “all settled happiness, and all that was tranquil and reliable, disappeared from my life.”
Influenced partly by his Oxford friends, Lewis gradually came to believe in God by the end of the 1920s, but did not yet consider himself Christian. The shift was catalyzed by a now-fabled after-dinner walk on Sept. 19, 1931, with Tolkien and the English academic Hugo Dyson, where talk of poetry, myth and religion bled into the early hours. Lewis declared a change of heart: “I have passed on from believing in God to definitely believing in Christ,” he wrote in a letter on Oct. 1, “a long night talk with Dyson and Tolkien had a lot to do with it.”
Christian themes underpinned Lewis’s fiction that followed. Aslan the Lion, a main character in the Narnia series, is widely interpreted as a Jesus figure: He sacrifices himself and is ridiculed, but is later resurrected to save the realm.
Lewis’s epiphany-inducing night stroll was around Addison’s Walk, a leafy mile-long track within Magdalen College. I retraced their steps for 40 minutes, taking in peaceful scenes of the River Cherwell, of trees turning russet, of people boating on the water and of a herd of deer in a nearby field. If ever there was a setting for lofty conversations, I thought, Addison’s Walk felt right.
Two pubs where two worlds took shape
Late mornings on Tuesdays from 1933 (although some reports say it could have been earlier) until 1949, Lewis could be found on the other side of Oxford, usually at the Eagle and Child pub, holding court with the Inklings, the informal literary society, most likely over a pint or three. Lewis was a founder of the small tribe, which included Tolkien and the writers Charles Williams and Owen Barfield.
Works in progress, including drafts from “The Lord of the Rings” and the first Narnia proofs, were presented here.
Members did not shy away from disagreement. Lewis struggled at times with Tolkien’s books for all their “Hobbit talk,” and Tolkien thought Narnia was a haphazard attempt at mythology, regretting that Narnia and Lewis’s work “should remain outside the range of my sympathy as much of my work was outside his,” Tolkien wrote in a 1964 letter.
But without Tolkien and the Inklings, there might never have been Lewis the fantasy novelist. While lamenting the state of popular fiction one day in 1936, Lewis said to Tolkien, “Tollers, we need more stories like your Hobbit — we’ll just have to write them ourselves,” according to “The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien,” a collection of his correspondence. Soon after, Lewis — who had previously written poetry and Christian defenses — completed “Out of the Silent Planet,” the first book of what would become a popular science fiction trilogy.
Lewis wrote of the Inklings to a friend in 1941 that “what I owe them all is incalculable.” Tolkien, too, was grateful for their meetings and Lewis’s friendship. Only by Lewis’s “support and friendship did I ever struggle to the end,” Tolkien wrote in a 1954 letter, shortly after “The Fellowship of the Ring” was published.
The Eagle and Child, which has become a pilgrimage site for lovers of Narnia and Middle-earth, was shuttered during the pandemic and is now for rent. When I visited in 2019, it was the quintessential Oxford pub — low-slung roof, dimly lit, ales as plentiful as the conversation and laughter.
The Lamb and Flag, a watering hole across the road that has operated since 1613, hosted the Inklings in the society’s twilight years. The pub also closed during the pandemic, but a community group — called the Inklings — rescued it and reopened its doors in October after a renovation, ensuring that Oxford visitors can still clink pints and think of the Inklings’ legacy.
A refuge in the woods
The next morning, under gray skies, I set out to the final sites on my tour. A 15-minute taxi ride to the suburb of Risinghurst deposited me before a rambling, two-story brick house known as the Kilns. This was Lewis’s home from 1930 until his death from kidney failure on Nov. 22, 1963, at 64.
Today, the Kilns is a study center operated by the C.S. Lewis Foundation and offers tours by appointment. “Each year we get hundreds of people wanting to visit his home,” said Tyson Rallens, the center’s director, who met me at the front gate.
“Lewis found a lot of inspiration here,” Mr. Rallens said as we stood in the kitchen, a radiant Aga stove heating the house as it would have done during Lewis’s life. He showed me a black-and-white photo of Lewis’s gardener, Fred Paxford, the inspiration for Puddleglum, a loyal yet pessimistic character in the Narnia series book “The Silver Chair.”
In “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe,” the children are sent to the country home of a professor to escape the bombing of London, and in real life, Lewis opened the Kilns to several children seeking refuge from the Blitz.
After the house tour, Mr. Rallens suggested I visit Lewis’s garden, across the cul-de-sac from the main house. Today, it is the C.S. Lewis Nature Reserve, a sprawling wooded area with a large pond. I was amazed by how the reserve swallowed me up with its quiet; I’d have had no idea a freeway was close.
A woman, bundled up and with a battered copy of “Surprised by Joy,” sat on a brick bench overlooking the pond — a seat once a favorite of Lewis’s. When she was gone, I sat there and looked at the woods and water. I thought, once more, that had there been snow, the scene before me could easily be Narnia.
The final stop was Lewis’s resting place in the graveyard of Holy Trinity Church, where Lewis frequently worshiped, near the Kilns. The church honors him with a stained-glass window depicting Narnia. Visitors are welcome inside and on the cemetery grounds. At Lewis’s gravestone, among auburn leaves, I found dry flowers and a few handwritten notes tucked underneath pebbles.
One read, “Thank you for being my guide during this strange, wandering time.” I imagined it was from an admirer of Lewis’s Christian writings. In another, which was more weathered, I could just make out the end: “And thank you for the stories.” It was exactly what I’d come to tell Lewis myself.
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