22 July 2015

Young C. S. Lewis, Arrived at Oxford

C. S. Lewis first came to Oxford in the spring of 1917. So many students were absent, abroad on the battlefields of France, that the town and its colleges seemed empty. Lewis himself had entered the University Officers' Training Corps and would spend much of the year preparing to serve in France.

One weekend that summer he wrote to his friend, Arthur Greeves, back home in Ireland:

Last night, at about nine o'clock I wandered out into the deserted quad. & after 'strolling' for some time went up a staircase where nobody ever goes in these days into the oldest part of the College.  The windows here are all tiny & ivy covered & stained so that it was very dark already.  I walked up & down long passages with locked rooms on each side, revelling in 'desolation'.  The 'oaks' of these rooms were mostly (as I say) locked, but by good luck I found one open & went in.  On the inner door the faded name 'Mr Carter' greeted me: inside was a tiny room, smaller than my own at home, very dark & thick with dust.  It seemed almost sacrilege to turn on the light in such a forsaken place, but I simply had to inspect it.  The furniture was all just as the owner must have left it & his photos were there on the wall.  I also inspected his books (mostly ordinary Everymen) including 'Lavengro', 'Tristram Shandy', [Edmund] Burke's Speeches & 'Tom Jones'. I suppose this sounds trivial to you; but perhaps you can picture the strange poetry of the thing in such a time & place.  I wonder who Carter is, and if he has been killed yet, & why he left his pile of music so untidily on the dressing table? 
(Letter of 8 July 1917)

University College, Oxford 
The respect, the poignant reverence, with which Lewis examines this scene, seeing poetry and near sacrilege, and wondering in a single breath whether the war had killed Carter 'yet' -- as if it were inevitable -- and about the mess of papers he had left behind him -- as if he were in a rush to leave -- all of this can only make me wonder how much of himself Lewis saw in this room. How much of his own onrushing future in the trenches loomed in this isolated room, dark and thick with dust, with a faded name on the door, and the pieces of a life left behind?

Perhaps as I continue reading his letters, I will learn the answer for sure, just as I think I sense it now. Part of the problem is that it's so easy to read this fluid prose, and think of the C. S. Lewis we all usually think of, the teacher, the scholar, the apologist, the Inkling, the novelist of more mature years, of this fellow here below:

and not this other fellow in the next photograph, this very young man soon to go off to war when all he really wants to do is read and learn, this very young man whom we don't see when our minds conjure up the image of C. S. Lewis.  This young man has never met Tolkien, is somewhere between atheist and agnostic, and in his letters talks about girls and music as well as the books he loved and devoured.  The man who wrote the letter above was not merely describing a scene and evoking a mood.  He was writing something that lay in his own future. And after several hundred pages of his letters it becomes easier to sense the fear that lies behind his words as his own time in the trenches draws nearer.  What books did he leave behind on his desk, what papers? Was his door locked behind him when he went?  Or did he perhaps leave it open for the next very young man to find?  Did he ever learn what happened to Carter?

Lewis in 1919.

Carter lived, by the way.

1 comment: