C.S. Lewis’s Oxford: Where the Lion and the Witch Met the Hobbit

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When Clive Staples Lewis arrived successful Oxford successful 1916, helium was enchanted by the city’s Gothic chromatic buildings and spires reaching skyward. “The spot has surpassed my wildest dreams: I ne'er saw thing truthful beautiful, particularly connected frosty moonlit nights,” helium wrote successful a missive to his father.

Lewis, an 18-year-old Irishman who went by Jack, was visiting Oxford University to instrumentality the entranceway examination. The metropolis that made an enchanting archetypal content maintained its effect connected him for a lifetime. Oxford was the backdrop to his pupil days, and to his vocation arsenic an world and arsenic the writer known arsenic C.S. Lewis, and it’s wherever helium recovered Christian faith, friendships and home happiness. It is besides wherever he, on with J.R.R. Tolkien — the aboriginal writer of “The Lord of the Rings” and “The Hobbit” — and others founded the Inklings, a literate group, 90 oregon truthful years ago, and wherever aboriginal notions of Narnia and Middle-earth would surface.

Lewis is possibly astir celebrated contiguous for the “Chronicles of Narnia” bid — though helium recovered occurrence successful his satire, similar “The Screwtape Letters,” and spiritual defenses, similar “Mere Christianity.” As the 60th day of his decease nears, it felt timely to retrace Lewis’s steps astir the metropolis that truthful greatly affected his beingness and works. On a autumn afternoon, I met Rob Walters, an writer and a usher with Official Oxford Walking Tours, astatine the cardinal Radcliffe Square, which is surrounded by majestic assemblage buildings. Locals and tourists, speaking myriad languages, walked and biked on the cobbles.


A black-and-white representation    of a balding antheral   looking astatine  the camera. He is smiling slightly.
C.S. Lewis, pictured, befriended his chap writer J.R.R. Tolkien astatine Oxford. They shared the archetypal imaginings of their respective mythical worlds, Narnia and Middle-earth, with each different successful Oxford’s pubs and colleges.Credit...Bettmann, via Getty Images

“I similar it erstwhile radical inquire astir Lewis,” said a buoyant Mr. Walters, who conducts a combined Tolkien and Lewis tour. “He has fans for galore antithetic reasons, immoderate due to the fact that of his Christian works, others for his fantasy,” helium continued. “I discovered him done subject fiction.”

I became a Lewis instrumentality conventionally, done the “Chronicles of Narnia” series, which my grandma gave maine erstwhile I was a child. The 7 children’s books astir a mythical world, published betwixt 1950 and 1956, catapulted Lewis to fame. They person sold implicit 100 cardinal copies and been translated into 47 languages. I devoured the archetypal 3 implicit 1 summertime and was captivated by Lewis’s world, wherever children were powerful, wherever animals talked and wherever — a caller thought for a young Australian — it was perpetually snowy.

Mr. Walters and I stood successful the constrictive St. Mary’s Passage, betwixt University Church of St. Mary the Virgin and Brasenose College. Before us: an ornate woody doorway bearing a striking resemblance to a wardrobe — the portal done which the 4 Pevensie children summation entree to Narnia successful “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe,” the archetypal publication successful the series. In the halfway was a carving that could beryllium a lion’s face, portion supra were 2 aureate fauns (half-man, half-goat creatures). A gangly lamppost stood nearby. The mounting recalled the book’s country successful which a young Lucy lands successful Narnia and meets the faun, Mr. Tumnus, nether lamppost light. All that was missing was a coating of snow.

Scenes from Oxford, including the Narnia Door and wrong the Magdalen College Chapel.

Is this wherever Lewis recovered inspiration for Narnia? “No 1 knows for sure, but the timeline makes sense,” Mr. Walters said. In the aboriginal 1940s, Lewis was a laic theologian, and helium occasionally gave sermons successful St. Mary’s, conscionable a fewer feet away. “Perhaps helium near 1 evening done the broadside doorway and walked consecutive retired onto this,” Mr. Walters said, gesturing to what’s go known arsenic the Narnia Door.

Skirting a tourer with a camera poised astatine the door, we took a near onto High Street, a thoroughfare brimming with shops and eateries. Lewis studied lit and the classics present backmost successful 1917 astatine University College, 1 of the university’s oldest, founded successful 1249.

Today successful Oxford, arguably the world’s best-known assemblage town, a 15th-century gathering tin location a grab-and-go nutrient chain, Anglo-Saxon ruins are wrong miles of a shimmering Zaha Hadid building, and medieval chromatic grotesques ticker from their perches arsenic radical of varying nationalities unreserved astir below.

When Lewis arrived, determination would person been less women — they were not allowed to question degrees present until 1920 — and less students generally. “Most were either dormant oregon astatine war,” Mr. Walters said. In 1917, determination were lone 12 men enrolled astatine University College — Lewis included.

Lewis volunteered for serviceman grooming wrong months of arriving astatine Oxford (as an Irishman calved successful Belfast, helium was not automatically enlisted successful the British army) and was shipped to the trenches of France — until helium was wounded by an exploding ammunition successful 1918 and returned to his studies.

Lewis’s postwar years led to large shifts successful his worldview: When Lewis archetypal arrived successful the city, helium aspired to beryllium a poet. He was besides an atheist. He changed his caput connected some accounts astatine Oxford.

Addison’s Walk, a mile-long way wrong Magdalen College wherever Lewis had a alteration of bosom connected religion.

Bidding Mr. Walters farewell, I strolled a fewer minutes down High Street to Magdalen College, easy spotted by its striking medieval doorbell tower. Here, successful 1925, Lewis landed a coveted relation arsenic chap and tutor successful literature, a presumption helium held for 29 years. The tiny interest (8 pounds, oregon astir $10) for nationalist entree to the grounds is worthy it. As I walked done the Great Quad with its gargoyles and manicured lawn, acold from the crowds, I wondered however often Lewis passed through. His second-floor rooms successful the New Building, wherever helium lodged, are marked by reddish geraniums increasing from a model box.

It was astatine a 1926 English section module gathering that helium met different Oxford professor, John Ronald Reuel Tolkien. The relationship propelled some toward realizing their literate worlds: Middle-earth and Narnia.

First impressions were not hot. “No harm successful him,” Lewis wrote of Tolkien aft their archetypal meeting. “Only needs a smack oregon so.” The 2 soon bonded implicit a emotion of storytelling, myths and language. By 1929, Tolkien was sharing unpublished manuscripts with his caller friend, and Lewis shared his poetry. “I was up till 2:30 connected Monday,” Lewis wrote successful a missive to a person that December, recounting that helium and Tolkien “sat discoursing of the gods and giants and Asgard for 3 hours,” referring to the Nordic mythological realm.

Tolkien, a Catholic, besides nudged the atheist Lewis toward becoming a believer and a prolific defender of Christianity successful his writing.

Lewis, raised Anglican, by his midteens “maintained that God did not exist,” according to his 1955 semi-autobiographical enactment “Surprised by Joy.” His mother’s decease from crab erstwhile helium was 9 was his archetypal disillusionment. He wrote successful the publication that “all settled happiness, and each that was tranquil and reliable, disappeared from my life.”

Influenced partially by his Oxford friends, Lewis gradually came to judge successful God by the extremity of the 1920s, but did not yet see himself Christian. The displacement was catalyzed by a now-fabled after-dinner locomotion connected Sept. 19, 1931, with Tolkien and the English world Hugo Dyson, wherever speech of poetry, story and religion bled into the aboriginal hours. Lewis declared a alteration of heart: “I person passed connected from believing successful God to decidedly believing successful Christ,” helium wrote successful a missive connected Oct. 1, “a agelong nighttime speech with Dyson and Tolkien had a batch to bash with it.”

Christian themes underpinned Lewis’s fabrication that followed. Aslan the Lion, a main quality successful the Narnia series, is wide interpreted arsenic a Jesus figure: He sacrifices himself and is ridiculed, but is aboriginal resurrected to prevention the realm.

Lewis’s epiphany-inducing nighttime stroll was astir Addison’s Walk, a leafy mile-long way wrong Magdalen College. I retraced their steps for 40 minutes, taking successful peaceful scenes of the River Cherwell, of trees turning russet, of radical boating connected the h2o and of a herd of cervid successful a adjacent field. If ever determination was a mounting for lofty conversations, I thought, Addison’s Walk felt right.

Two Oxford pubs saw the earliest versions of Narnia and Middle-earth: the Lamb and Flag, near and right, and the Eagle and Child, center.

Late mornings connected Tuesdays from 1933 (although immoderate reports accidental it could person been earlier) until 1949, Lewis could beryllium recovered connected the different broadside of Oxford, usually astatine the Eagle and Child pub, holding tribunal with the Inklings, the informal literate society, astir apt implicit a pint oregon three. Lewis was a laminitis of the tiny tribe, which included Tolkien and the writers Charles Williams and Owen Barfield.

Works successful progress, including drafts from “The Lord of the Rings” and the archetypal Narnia proofs, were presented here.

Members did not shy distant from disagreement. Lewis struggled astatine times with Tolkien’s books for each their “Hobbit talk,” and Tolkien thought Narnia was a haphazard effort astatine mythology, regretting that Narnia and Lewis’s enactment “should stay extracurricular the scope of my sympathy arsenic overmuch of my enactment was extracurricular his,” Tolkien wrote successful a 1964 letter.

But without Tolkien and the Inklings, determination mightiness ne'er person been Lewis the phantasy novelist. While lamenting the authorities of fashionable fabrication 1 time successful 1936, Lewis said to Tolkien, “Tollers, we request much stories similar your Hobbit — we’ll conscionable person to constitute them ourselves,” according to “The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien,” a postulation of his correspondence. Soon after, Lewis — who had antecedently written poesy and Christian defenses — completed “Out of the Silent Planet,” the archetypal publication of what would go a fashionable subject fabrication trilogy.

Lewis wrote of the Inklings to a person successful 1941 that “what I beryllium them each is incalculable.” Tolkien, too, was grateful for their meetings and Lewis’s friendship. Only by Lewis’s “support and relationship did I ever conflict to the end,” Tolkien wrote successful a 1954 letter, soon aft “The Fellowship of the Ring” was published.

The Eagle and Child, which has go a pilgrimage tract for lovers of Narnia and Middle-earth, was shuttered during the pandemic and is present for rent. When I visited successful 2019, it was the quintessential Oxford pub — low-slung roof, dimly lit, ales arsenic plentiful arsenic the speech and laughter.

The Lamb and Flag, a watering spread crossed the roadworthy that has operated since 1613, hosted the Inklings successful the society’s twilight years. The pub besides closed during the pandemic, but a assemblage radical — called the Inklings — rescued it and reopened its doors successful October aft a renovation, ensuring that Oxford visitors tin inactive clink pints and deliberation of the Inklings’ legacy.

In and astir the Kilns, Lewis’s location until his decease successful 1963. In the center, his gravestone astatine Holy Trinity Church.

The adjacent morning, nether grey skies, I acceptable retired to the last sites connected my tour. A 15-minute taxi thrust to the suburb of Risinghurst deposited maine earlier a rambling, two-story ceramic location known arsenic the Kilns. This was Lewis’s location from 1930 until his decease from kidney nonaccomplishment connected Nov. 22, 1963, astatine 64.

Today, the Kilns is simply a survey halfway operated by the C.S. Lewis Foundation and offers tours by appointment. “Each twelvemonth we get hundreds of radical wanting to sojourn his home,” said Tyson Rallens, the center’s director, who met maine astatine the beforehand gate.

“Lewis recovered a batch of inspiration here,” Mr. Rallens said arsenic we stood successful the kitchen, a radiant Aga stove heating the location arsenic it would person done during Lewis’s life. He showed maine a black-and-white photograph of Lewis’s gardener, Fred Paxford, the inspiration for Puddleglum, a loyal yet pessimistic quality successful the Narnia bid publication “The Silver Chair.”

In “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe,” the children are sent to the state location of a prof to flight the bombing of London, and successful existent life, Lewis opened the Kilns to respective children seeking refuge from the Blitz.

After the location tour, Mr. Rallens suggested I sojourn Lewis’s garden, crossed the cul-de-sac from the main house. Today, it is the C.S. Lewis Nature Reserve, a sprawling wooded country with a ample pond. I was amazed by however the reserve swallowed maine up with its quiet; I’d person had nary thought a freeway was close.

A woman, bundled up and with a battered transcript of “Surprised by Joy,” sat connected a ceramic seat overlooking the pond — a spot erstwhile a favourite of Lewis’s. When she was gone, I sat determination and looked astatine the woods and water. I thought, erstwhile more, that had determination been snow, the country earlier maine could easy beryllium Narnia.

The last halt was Lewis’s resting spot successful the graveyard of Holy Trinity Church, wherever Lewis often worshiped, adjacent the Kilns. The religion honors him with a stained-glass model depicting Narnia. Visitors are invited wrong and connected the cemetery grounds. At Lewis’s gravestone, among auburn leaves, I recovered adust flowers and a fewer handwritten notes tucked underneath pebbles.

One read, “Thank you for being my usher during this strange, wandering time.” I imagined it was from an admirer of Lewis’s Christian writings. In another, which was much weathered, I could conscionable marque retired the end: “And convey you for the stories.” It was precisely what I’d travel to archer Lewis myself.

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