If author, Christian apologist and Oxford University don C.S. (Jack) Lewis had lived to see his Narnia tales become not only cherished children’s literature, but also an early 21st-century silver-screen success story, he probably would have been astonished.
“The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” garnered $740 million worldwide. Had any of that take come into Mr. Lewis‘ hands, it’s likely he would have given away most of it.
His was a simple life, we learned during a walking tour of sites Mr. Lewis frequented around Oxford. He didn’t drive a car; took in orphans, animals and houseguests; and gave away half of what he earned. His greatest entertainment was intellectual and animated conversation and jousting, especially with friends such as J.R.R. Tolkien, whose “Lord of the Rings” also brought great posthumous fame and fortune.
Around town, Mr. Lewis cut the profile of the quintessential professor in a rumpled old tweed coat whose pockets had burn holes from his ever-present pipes. “The Professor,” as his Oxford neighbors called him, had an unassuming demeanor and wasn’t much for small talk. Yet he had many loyal friends. The storyteller and intellect behind the myths, the magic and the expositions also was often called a “country man” — a bit of a dig at his lack of elitism.
Yet when he died on Nov. 22, 1963 (the day John F. Kennedy was assassinated) he left the world a legacy of allegorical literature and apologetics that has only burgeoned in appeal since his exit.
My traveling companion and I are Lewis admirers, so we incorporated a couple of Oxford nights and a walking tour of his home turf into our recent ramble through England’s Cotswolds region. As we walked in his steps, we gained a better understanding of the man whose words and teachings continue to magnetize fans of all ages.
We slept two nights in the charming and strategically located Macdonald Eastgate Townhouse Hotel on historic High Street. The first evening in town, we had some pub grub at the Mitre, a fixture on the main drag where Mr. Lewis sometimes took a meal.
Our lodging put us inside the contemporary pulse of Oxford’s medieval town-and-gown ambience and next to Magdalen College, where Mr. Lewis was elected a fellow in 1925. Originally a 17th-century coaching inn, with modern updates and a charming breakfast room, the Eastgate is where Mr. Lewis first met his future wife, Joy Gresham. In the film “Shadowlands,” however, actor Anthony Hopkins as Mr. Lewis makes the proposal to actress Debra Winger in the Eastgate’s venerable sister hotel, Macdonald Randolph Hotel, where we had a white-linen dinner following the day tour. Joy Lewis died from cancer at age 45.
To begin our tour, our guide, Terry Bremble, recommended that we take a taxi from Eastgate to Headington Quarry, Mr. Lewis‘ suburban village neighborhood. That was home base for Mr. Lewis and his older brother Warren, “Warnie,” from 1930 to 1963. The neighbors referred to the pair as “the Professor” and “the Major” in recognition of their academic and military vocations. The brothers were lifelong best friends and seldom seen apart.
Inside the mid-19th-century Holy Trinity Church, the Lewises sat in the same pew for Sunday morning and Evensong worship year after year. Ronald Head, a former vicar of the church, said the brothers attended most church social events, but few congregationalists in the immediate community were aware of Mr. Lewis‘ fame.
Inspiration for “The Screwtape Letters,” Mr. Head thinks, came to Mr. Lewis while he was sitting in church during World War II. Opposite the Lewis pew are shimmering engraved-glass Narnia windows, installed in 1991 to commemorate the church’s famous connection. The windows feature the castle, the lion Aslan, a flying horse and other animals from the stories.
The brothers’ final resting place is in the churchyard, amid tall pine trees and ivy-covered stone walls. The side-by-side graves are identified by simple stone markers that project no fame or notoriety.
No hallowed Westminster Abbey crypt for this 20th-century intellectual giant. He probably would have refused such an offer anyway.
As we strolled out the church gate, Mr. Bremble pointed to the Masons Arms public house across the street. Built in 1872, the old watering hole was well known to the Lewis brothers. Some speculated that the two men often left church early because they wanted to enjoy a pint or two on their way home, as some of today’s parishioners most probably do. In the mid-19th century, the pub became part of the working-class neighborhood, where stone was quarried for local buildings, including those of the university.