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Visit to CS Lewis's Oxford home set me on magical journey to his childhood days in Northern Ireland

 

For many, CS Lewis was the author of the fantastical The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe. But, ahead of the fifth CS Lewis Festival in Belfast later this month, Richard Woodall explains that his imagination was firmly rooted in the Northern Ireland of his youth.

My inadvertent journey into CS Lewis's Oxford home started with a sketchbook. I had gone to draw The Kilns - the former home of the Belfast writer, academic and theologian - alongside a fellow arty type and was noting down the shape of the front door when a voice called out: "Would you like to come in and have a look around?"

This was unexpected for a host of different reasons. Firstly, I didn't even know it was an open house, so to speak.

Little did I know it had been fully restored to how it was in the great man's time. This was the start of a much more meaningful journey for me.

The Kilns was home to Clive Staples Lewis, or 'Jack' to friends, for more than 30 years and was his abode during the period in which he wrote the Narnia series and some of his deeper theological titles. A sprawling eight-acre site when Lewis and his brother Warnie moved there in 1930, it still has the accompanying lake and forest south of the house. The house itself has been decorated to mirror the 1950s style.

As I stepped into the house for the very first time I was taken from the hubbub of busy Oxford life into a hallway marking the start of my journey into finding out more about the enigma of CS Lewis. As I perched on a chair situated in what was Lewis's study, I remembered the quote from Lucy Pevensie in The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe: "Narnia! It's all in the wardrobe just like I told you!"

There was no wardrobe, however, in that particular room.

I'm in no doubt as to the cultural significance Northern Ireland held for Lewis and how it shaped his thinking when writing about the magic of Narnia. When the young Lewis was just seven years old the family moved from the home in Dundela Avenue, Belfast, to a detached Edwardian house - Little Lea - located on Circular Road, also in the east of the city.

This was the place where Lewis and older brother Warnie first started to explore the world of talking animals and imaginary worlds.

Significantly, it was also home to many long hallways and spacious rooms with accompanying wardrobes.

It's easy to appreciate the cosy settings within which many authors write and yet, clearly, for Lewis places were of great importance to him, often inspiring new worlds, characters and themes.

The fifth CS Lewis Festival takes place this month in Belfast and, once again, a focus of this is CS Lewis Square, now a year old. It's clear from seeing the sculptures there - including Aslan, Maugrim, Mr and Mrs Beaver, the White Witch and Mr Tumnus among others - that the city Lewis called home in his formative years is now inspiring interest in his works further.

Even the city of Oxford, some argue, has been slow over the years to celebrate one of the 20th century's greatest authors.

This is startling because of the many hints of Lewis and Narnia in the city. When I first moved to Oxford a decade ago I was immediately drawn to the various tell-tale signs of Narnia. The door of Brasenose College, situated on St Mary's Passage, has a maned lion-like face engraved into its centre, accompanied by gargoyles of fauns either side of the entrance.

Looking further along, one spots a lone lamp-post. Another half-a-mile away is the Eagle and Child public house - formerly called the Bird and Baby in the time of Lewis - and where the literary group the Inklings, including Jack, J R R Tolkien, Charles Williams and Owen Barfield and others, met to share their thoughts over beer every Tuesday.

The other side of the water in Belfast would be the place a young Lewis would first come to think of the role of a Lion in a fantasy world. At St Mark's Church on the Hollywood Road, Jack would have seen the doorknob at his grandfather's vicarage that was cast in the form of a lion.

Although an undergraduate at University College, Oxford, it was at Magdalen College that Lewis was elected a tutorial fellow in English in 1925. He remained in this post until 1954, when he was offered professor of medieval and renaissance literature at Magdalene College in Cambridge.

But it was while in Oxford that he rediscovered his faith when undertaking a nightly stroll alongside Tolkien and Hugo Dyson on Addison's Walk inside the grounds of Magdalen College one evening in 1931.

Listening back to Lewis's wartime radio broadcasts, it's hard to decipher any hint of an Ulsterman in his accent, but his heritage was key in forming many of his literary creations. He would return to the land of his birth every year for his holidays and was particularly fond of the Mourne Mountains.

This fondness for Northern Ireland can also be seen in a letter he wrote to his brother where he stated "the part of Rostrevor which overlooks Carlingford Lough is my idea of Narnia".

The author and academic Alister McGrath recounts in his book CS Lewis, A Life: Eccentric Genius, Reluctant Prophet, that Lewis once remarked to one of his students that: "Heaven is Oxford lifted and placed in the middle of Co Down."

Ronald Bresland, author of The Backward Glance: CS Lewis And Ireland, adds how much the north coast of Antrim was adored by the author, arguing that "among the romantic ruins of Dunluce Castle and the windswept beaches of the Causeway Coast, we can detect something of the origins of Cair Paravel (Narnia's castle)".

My own Narnian journey took another unexpected turn when I accepted a job a few years back at Oxford University Press (OUP) and became further interested in the Inklings - seeing that I was now working at the place one of its members, poet, critic and novelist Charles Williams, had also worked.

When he arrived in Oxford Williams had to move from working for OUP in its London base because of the outbreak of war. Subsequently, he was helped into a lecturing position at the university by Lewis. It was intriguing to think of the journey Williams would have taken from OUP - based in Jericho in the centre of Oxford - to the famous Bird and Baby pub.

As I read more of Lewis I felt compelled to set up a CS Lewis reading group for publishing colleagues interested in his work. Named the Addison Group, after the location of Jack's famous conversion walk, it sought to whet the appetite of those interested in building up a picture as to why Lewis wrote what he did, as well as being a place for the curious to discover his works for the first time.

Meeting in the very pub which the Inklings met - the Eagle and Child - it was in this group that I first discovered Lewis's Till We Have Faces, one of his works often given less attention.

This mythological text, which reworks the story of Cupid and Psyche, kept all of us hooked as we sat below Lewis's portrait in the same place The Inklings met all those years before.

Looking back, I realise how pivotal visiting The Kilns was in developing my interest in Lewis. Having many friends based in Belfast, I was often surprised at the seeming lack of interest in remembering a heavyweight of a figure in that city, as well as in England.

Shockingly, it was only in the 1970s that The Kilns, which had fallen into disrepair, was taken on by the American organisation the CS Lewis Foundation and given a new lease of life.

I was taken aback to discover that the academic hub of this magnificent author's life had been forgotten so soon after he had died in 1963.

The legacy of CS Lewis is, without doubt, remarkable when you consider his enormous literary output. Perhaps not fully appreciated by academic colleagues at the time, he was also unassuming and his life speaks of a story of courage and triumph.

Although his "day job" was as a scholar of medieval and renaissance literature, his passion for storytelling and for helping others understand matters of faith motivated him to produce works of science fiction and children's literature.

This was the man who acted as an advocate for Christianity at a time of national turmoil when he gave a series of BBC radio talks about Christianity in the early-1940s amid the Second World War. These then formed the basis of his compelling book Mere Christianity.

His modest character is perhaps not altogether surprising, considering the suffering he had encountered in his life. He encountered the childhood grief of losing one's mother, saw his friend Paddy Moore killed in action and was later to be a husband who suffered the agony of losing a wife to cancer.

Maybe some of this hardship early in his life explains why Clive Staples Lewis called himself "the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England" following his coming to faith.

But his ownership of his Christian beliefs was no more obvious than in the 1942 highly-acclaimed apologetic novel The Screwtape Letters, which addressed the issue of temptation.

It's heartening to see Lewis given notable recognition in Belfast, particularly as organisers celebrate the fifth annual CS Lewis Festival. It's only right that this giant is celebrated in his homeland, even if his BBC accent rather placed him at odds with the land of his youth.

Walking around Lewis's kitchen back in Oxford, all these thoughts permeated my thinking as I was transported to a land far away from the present. All this in the same place where this Oxford don would return on the bus to his Headington home and dream of a world filled with magic and anthropomorphism.

As I prepared to leave his house, glimpses of a beaver delivering a message, a white witch speaking of Turkish delight and a lion upholding truth all flickered through my mind.

This eureka moment prompted me to recall the words of Lewis himself, who wrote home speaking of a real parallel universe amid the familiarity of a favourite landscape.

"I yearn to see Co Down in the snow," he said. "One almost expects to see a march of dwarfs dashing past. How I long to break into a world where such things were true."

  • Richard Woodall is a freelance writer based in Oxford. The CS Lewis Festival takes place in venues across east Belfast from November 18-22. For more details, visit www.eastsidearts.net/cs-lewis-festival-2017

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