Monday, 25 November 2013

Michael Piret on C S Lewis

The third of Saturday's talks on Lewis was by Michael Piret. Piret is possibly the least well-known of the four speakers (for the previous two, see here and here. My account of the fourth, Lord Williams of Oystermouth [Rowan Williams] will follow).  Piret is the current Dean of Divinity at Magdalen (that is, the Chaplain) and his topic was Lewis the Bald - A Five Act Drama.

Both Mrs T and I assumed that was a typo on the programme, and was meant to be Lewis the Bold; but we were both mistaken.  For the really exciting thing we learned in this talk was that there is a previously unknown work by Lewis that exists only in manuscript in the archives of Magdalen College.

Apparently, for many years, the Vice President of the College has kept an official register. In former times (up until around 1920) this was in Latin, and was an official record of College business: who had been elected to fellowships, taken degrees and so forth. 

Then it was realised that this was simply duplicating what was readily available elsewhere, and was somewhat pointless. So a new custom arose, of writing it in English, and recording things of a more informal nature, which might be of interest to future readers.

There was a brief return to Latin, but from about 1925, the register is in English, and is a prose summary of various interesting bit of college news.

However, when he was Vice President, Lewis wrote a five act drama instead.  This play features real College characters, not very heavily disguised; however, only Lewis and two servants retain their real names.  Other characters are given names which amused Lewis for various reasons - and his successor as Vice President, has helpfully pencilled in the initials of all the real names of the dramatis personae.

I cannot give an account of the play here, as we were asked to turn off any recording devices, and I took that to mean that this part of the afternoon was confidential. I surmise that Magdalen intends to publish the work at some stage, and reasonably enough does not want anyone to steal their thunder.

However, it became very clear that Lewis was not a success in the role of Vice President. It was customary to elect the next most senior person who had not held the role to the job for a year, and then re-elect him for a further year.  Lewis was not re-elected. In later years, when asked to stand for a similar administrative role, he said that anyone who had worked with him in such a capacity would never want to do so again, as he was both 'meddlesome and forgetful.' Many memoirs of the time recall his failure to get details (times, places and purposes of meetings, for example) correct, and his lack of interest in the daily workings of the role, such as answering official correspondence (whereas he was punctilious with regard to unsolicited private correspondence, as his Letters testify).

There's not much more I can say about this talk, except that it was very enjoyable and well delivered - and that the prospect of a previously unknown work of Lewis' (albeit a fairly frivolous one about a fairly dull period in his life) is an exciting one: certainly the extracts to which we were treated were admirably entertaining.

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