Sunday 24 November 2013

Alistair McGrath on C S Lewis

Yesterday, Mrs T and I were privileged to go to an afternoon of lectures on C S Lewis in Oxford.  The Lectures were in the Grove Auditorium, Magdalen; I was pleased to see inside, as this was built only recently, in a style known as Magdalen Vernacular.  I had previously admired it from outside, as sitting well with the College architecturally, and the inside was also good, including acoustically.

There were four lectures, each very different, and each very good.

The first was by Alistair McGrath, on the relationship between Lewis and Magdalen. In terms of this relationship, one of the key points he made was the importance to Lewis of the interdisciplinary nature of Oxford College life: how the Fellows of all disciplines would eat together every day, and get to know and understand something of each others' disciplines.  He cited as an example, the nobel-prize winning Peter Meadowar, who was a Fellow at the same time, and possible links in the thinking between the two.

Magdalen was also the place where Lewis learned and refined his skills as a lecturer: he resolved truly to engage with undergraduates, and to memorise his lectures as an aid to this.  These skills led not only to his drawing large crowds to his lectures (unlike, say, Tolkien, who apparently mumbled his way through his…) but were also foundational in securing his broadcasting career with the BBC, and his lecturing beyond academe (eg round the airbases of the country for the RAF during the War).

One of his other strengths developed at this time, presumably at least in part in the Magdalen SCR, was his ability to bring sharp minds together, and get the best out of all of them.  That was very much the ethos of the Inklings, the informal grouping of friends who met both in the Eagle and Child (and later the Lamb and Flag) and in Lewis' rooms in New Buildings to discuss their writing (among other things).

It was not all easy: after the War, Lewis was less happy at Oxford. He was criticised for writing popular rather than academic books (and Christian ones at that). He responded by producing several academic books that have stood the test of time: his Preface to Paradise Lost, the Allegory of Love, and his History of English Literature.

He was also (with Tolkien) on the losing side of an argument in the Faculty about including more modern English texts in the Literature syllabus.  I had not realised that English Language and Literature were such new disciplines at Oxford; indeed, that seems to be (at least in part) why Lewis went into the field: he had originally studied Classics but failed to find an appointment.  English was seen as the new growth area, so he studied for a degree in that too, eventually landing the new Fellowship in English Language and Literature at Magdalen.

It was in his rooms at Magdalen, of course, that he famously first discovered belief in God, and then a little later, in Christianity.

Alistair McGrath explained all this, and much more (such as Lewis' problem with games and typing: his thumbs), in an engaging and erudite way, and also took questions at the end, such as what was the problem between Betjeman and Lewis? and what accounts for Lewis' popularity in the USA? All in all, an excellent start to the afternoon.  He was followed by Walter Hooper, whose talk I will blog about in due course.

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