C. S. Lewis and a Sense of Place

The first time I visited England I was ten years old. My parents let me walk around London by myself armed with nothing more than a map, layered clothing appropriate to the sometimes damp and foggy weather, and good walking shoes. I still remember staring through the gates of Buckingham Palace and thinking, “This looks like something out of a C. S. Lewis book.” My fourth grade public school teacher had read The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe to our class two years prior.

The years went on and I kept reading Lewis, inspired in part by my youth pastor who was a real fan. After my first year in college I decided to return to the British Isles to, among other agenda items, visit the places where C. S. Lewis lived, wrote, taught and worshiped. I carried with me across the pond paperback copies of many of the Lewis books I had not yet read. I studied Miracles while lying on the grass beside the Cherwell River in Oxford. I delighted in Till We Have Faces while sitting on the open deck of the ferry crossing the Irish Sea on a brilliant sunny day. Mere Christianity solidified my intellectual acceptance of the Christian faith while reading in a postage-stamp-size hotel room in Lewis’s beloved Donegal.

That trip in 1982 also saw my first visit to The Kilns, Lewis’s Oxfordshire home for over thirty years. There was a bit of difficulty finding the house at first. I asked around Oxford for the location of Lewis’s home. “C. S. who?” was generally the response I received. (The estimation of C. S. Lewis has gone up, even in the eyes of Oxford in the last thirty years. It would be hard to find anyone in Oxford today who does not know who Lewis was or even where he lived.) Aided by a map and photographs from Kilby and Gilbert’s C. S. Lewis: Images of His World I eventually found Kiln Lane, Lewis Close and then The Kilns itself. With a large camera strung around my neck, I walked right up to what turned out to be the side door of The Kilns, rang the doorbell and waited. I was soon greeted by a professorial-looking gentleman by the name of Mr. Thirsk. I introduced myself as an American fan of C. S. Lewis.

“I wondered if I might see the house.” I offered tentatively.

Mr. Thirsk responded with typical English courtesy and decorum, “Yes, you may walk around the outside of the house and take as many photographs as you like.”

Of course I had been hoping that Mr. Thirsk would invite me in for a cup of tea. As it was my American youthful brashness was rewarded with far more than it deserved. I did walk round the outside of the ramshackle brick house taking quite a number of photographs. From what I could spy through the curtained windows The Kilns in 1982 was still, in the words of former occupant Joy Davidman Gresham, “a house held up by books”. In addition to the house I ventured to see the pond in which Lewis would often take a swim in good weather.

From The Kilns it was on to Holy Trinity Church, Headington Quarry, and a visit to the Lewis brothers’ grave. A sense of longing crept over me that evening upon my return to the center of Oxford as the sun set beyond Magdalen Tower. How I wished I could have lived in my parents’ generation and met the great man himself. As it was, I had been born in the same year that Lewis died. I would have to content myself with simply seeing the places where he had enjoyed and sometimes endured his earthly sojourn.

Fast-forward fifteen years. I was now married with children, living in South Carolina, the pastor of a church. One day one of my parishioners, knowing my love of C. S. Lewis, came to me and said, “Did you know that Douglas Gresham, the step-son of C. S. Lewis, spoke at a Michael Card concert here in town last week?”

“No. I had no idea. If I had known I would have been there!”

Around the same time another friend introduced me to the intrigue of the Internet. Soon I had my own e-mail address and was exploring the wonders of the web. One of the first web sites I stumbled upon was “Into the Wardrobe” and on the home page I immediately spied a message from Douglas Gresham along with an e-mail address. On the spur of the moment I decided to write to the man and ask him some questions about Lewis. That first e-mail led to a long correspondence and a friendship that has now lasted for twelve years. I immediately began planning a C. S. Lewis Tour of England which took place in the summer of 1997. Doug was our tour guide around Oxford for three days. This time I got to see the inside of The Kilns! Of course countless other Lewis fans can now enjoy a tour of The Kilns thanks to the efforts of the present owners, The C. S. Lewis Foundation of Redlands, Calif.

Friendship with Doug eventually led my family and me to spend the better part of a year living and working with the Greshams at Rathvinden House in Ireland. While living on the Emerald Isle we took advantage of the opportunity to see the Lewis sites around Belfast. On one occasion I even had the blessing of exploring Lewis’s childhood home, Little Lea, that house of the “long corridors, empty sunlit rooms, upstairs indoor silences, attics explored in solitude, distant noises of gurgling cisterns and pipes, and the noise of wind under the tiles. Also, of endless books.”

Living with the Greshams occasionally brought bits of Lewis’s writing alive for me in a whole new way. For example, there was the sunny summer day when Merrie Gresham first asked us to pick currants in her garden. As we were picking currants Lewis’s words from Surprised by Joy suddenly flooded my mind,

As I stood beside a flowering currant bush on a summer day there suddenly arose in me without warning, and as if from a depth not of years but of centuries, the memory of that earlier morning at the Old House when my brother had brought his toy garden into the nursery.

“So this is a currant bush!” I thought to myself as I went on picking.

On another day, this one rather wet and blustery, Merrie talked about hanging up laundry to dry in the airing cupboard.

“What is an airing cupboard?” I asked.

“Well, it’s right here—this cupboard with the water heater.” Merrie responded.

Now I was able to picture what Lewis had in mind when he wrote in one of his letters,

I know all about the despair of overcoming chronic temptations. It is not serious, provided self-offended petulance, annoyance at breaking records, impatience etc. don’t get the upper hand. No amount of falls will really undo us if we keep on picking ourselves up each time. We shall of course be v. muddy and tattered children by the time we reach home. But the bathrooms are all ready, the towels put out, and the clean clothes in the airing cupboard. The only fatal thing is to lose one’s temper and give it up. It is when we notice the dirt that God is most present in us; it is the v. sign of His presence. . . .

Of course one can enjoy reading Lewis perfectly well without ever having set foot in Ireland or England. However, having that sense of place helps the reader to picture what Lewis is saying even more effectively. Though Lewis’s classic writing style often seems timeless, Lewis himself was a man of a particular time and a particular place. Stepping into the places of Lewis’s life brings his world alive, just as, in a greater way, visiting Israel brings alive the world of Jesus, or visiting the Mediterranean paints in Technicolor the missionary journeys of the Apostle Paul.

My wife and I hope and plan to make that journey again into the world of C. S. Lewis in the summer of 2009 as we lead a C. S. Lewis Tour of Ireland and England for as many people as wish to join us. To learn more about it you may visit my web site www.willvaus.com/c__s__lewis_tour or e-mail me, will@willvaus.com, for more information.

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Will Vaus is the author of Mere Theology: A Guide to the Thought of C. S. Lewis (InterVarsity Press, 2004) and The Professor of Narnia: The C. S. Lewis Story (Believe Books, 2008).

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