C. S. Lewis opens chapter four of his autobiography, Surprised by Joy, with this statement: “In January, 1911, just turned thirteen, I set out with my brother to Wyvern, he for the College and I for a preparatory school …” (56).
However, since we know Lewis was born on November 29, 1898, simple math tells us that in January 1911 he would have just turned twelve, not thirteen. He would not have turned thirteen until eleven months later in November 1911. Lewis’s statement here about his age seems to suggest that he was not particularly good at simple math.
In fact, because of his abysmal math skills, Lewis failed the entrance exam to Oxford not once, but twice. After World War I, a war in which Lewis saw combat in France, passing this exam (called Responsions) was waived for men who had been in the service. Had not World War I intervened, it is almost certain Lewis would never have been admitted. That’s how bad he was in math, or, as he might have said, in maths—and this despite the fact that his mother, Flora, had graduated with a degree in mathematics from Queen’s University in Belfast, a rarity for the time.
If we continue on to chapter eleven of Surprised by Joy, we come to the part where Lewis tells how during the years he was being tutored at Gastons by Kirkpatrick, he discovered a book that would change his life. There we find this moving description:
And then, on top of this, in superabundance of mercy, came that event which I have already more than once attempted to describe in other books. I was in the habit of walking over to Leatherhead about once a week and sometimes taking the train back…. The evening that I now speak of was in October. I and one porter had the long, timbered platform of Leatherhead station to ourselves. It was getting just dark enough for the smoke of an engine to glow red on the underside with the reflection of the furnace. The hills beyond the Dorking Valley were of a blue so intense as to be nearly violet and the sky was green with frost. My ears tingled with the cold. The glorious week end of reading was before me. Turning to the bookstall, I picked out an Everyman in a dirty jacket, Phantastes, a faerie Romance, George MacDonald. (179)
However, this event of superabundant mercy which Lewis records actually took place in March, not October—specifically on the evening of Saturday, March 4, 1916. We know this because in The Collected Letters of C. S. Lewis: Volume I, we have a letter Lewis wrote to Arthur Greeves from Gastons dated March 7, 1916 in which he tells him about an amazing new book he had just bought seemingly by accident. He explains to Arthur:
I have had a great literary experience this week. I have discovered yet another author to add to our circle—our very own set…. The book, to get to the point, is George MacDonald’s “Faerie Romance,” Phantastes, which I picked up by hazard … on our station bookstall last Saturday…. Whatever the book you are reading now, you simply MUST get this at once. (169-70)
As Lewis remembers this event years later in Surprised by Joy, his description is incredibly vivid. He has the pictures exactly right—even if he is slightly off on the date. And this was typical of Lewis. If his weak suit was dates and numbers, his strong suit was images, particularly ones he had held in his mind for a long time.
Lewis also comments on this life-changing event in The Great Divorce, where he includes himself as one of the characters who is taken on a bus ride to the outskirts of Heaven. As each visitor is greeted by the “Solid Person” specially chosen to serve as his guide, much as Dante had Virgil as his guide in The Divine Comedy, Lewis encounters the Scottish clergyman and author, George MacDonald. Lewis, as the first-person narrator, offers us this report of their meeting—and once again he has his age wrong, telling us that he was about sixteen when he really would have been nearly seventeen and a half at the time:
I tried, trembling, to tell this man all that his writing had done for me. I tried to tell how a certain frosty afternoon at Leatherhead Station when I first bought a copy of Phantastes (being then about sixteen years old) had been to me what the first sight of Beatrice had been to Dante: Here begins the New Life. (65)
For another example of Lewis and his dates, we might turn to the most famous passage from Surprised by Joy, the place in chapter fourteen where Lewis comes to a belief in God. He writes:
You must picture me alone in that room in Magdalen, night after night, feeling, whenever my mind lifted even for a second from my work, the steady, unrelenting approach of Him whom I so earnestly desired not to meet. That which I greatly feared had at last come upon me. In the Trinity Term of 1929 I gave in, and admitted that God was God, and knelt and prayed: perhaps, that night, the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England. (228-9)
In chapter six of his recent biography on Lewis, Alister McGrath presents evidence from Lewis’s correspondence that this year was actually 1930 rather than 1929. In addition—as Andrew Lazo notes in his article “New Finds about Lewis’s Conversion”—in an earlier unpublished manuscript version of Surprised by Joy, there is also evidence for this later date. (Andrew promises there will be much more to come from him later on this topic.)
In the manuscript account of his conversion, after finishing the story of how at last he gave in to God, Lewis starts a new paragraph with this statement: “The same year and the same month I learned an art which I had been trying to learn since boyhood. I learned to dive” (61).
We know that Lewis learned how to dive in the early summer of 1930. Again we know this because we have a letter he wrote Arthur Greeves—this one dated July 8, 1930. In it, Lewis reports: “I also had some lovely bathes with Barfield in a reach of the little river…. Here I learned to dive which is a great change in my life and has important (religious) connotations” (Collected Letters II, 915).
And so like his age when he went off to school in 1911, the month when he discovered Phantastes, and his age when he discovered Phantastes, the year of Lewis’s conversion to Theism may be another place where he is slightly off.
As a final example of Lewis’s occasional tendency to confuse his dates, we turn again to The Collected Letters: Volume II, where a letter to Sister Penelope can be found bearing this odd heading:
July [August] 9th 1939
Although Lewis indicated the date of July 9, in it he responds to a letter from Sister Penelope that was dated August 5. Knowing that even Lewis could not answer a letter he had not yet received, Walter Hooper, the series editor, suggests that as Lewis was penning his reply, he had somehow become mistaken about what month it was—even though it was not anywhere near the start of a new month or the end of a previous month, but August 9.
These examples suggest we could probably find others if we looked, but the question rises: Does it really matter if Lewis gets his own dates slightly wrong every now and then? Certainly, as Lewis shows us in these examples, it is human to err. Are Lewis’s slightly incorrect dates of any more consequence than his slightly incorrect quotes—which are also scattered here and there throughout his written works—or, we might ask, than his slightly incorrect capitalization of random common nouns? Is the issue of Lewis and his dates just academic gnat-straining?
I would like to offer a three-part answer to this question.
First, having these dates correct is definitely of scholarly interest. While the vast majority of human beings past and present would be bored to death by the topic of Lewis and his dates, scholars—both the professional ones and the hundreds of Lewis buffs all over the world—should be careful with Lewis’s dates, even if he himself was not. While it may not always be scintillating, good scholarship can never be sloppy. Accuracy is a necessary first goal and not just nit (or gnat) picking. With it, an article still may not go anywhere; without it, an article can not go anywhere.
Even if there is no greater reason, writing about Lewis, like all good writing, needs to be accurate simply for accuracy’s sake. (The same could be said about the need to be critical—and not simply accept what others, even the authors themselves, have said about something.)
Second, in some cases, there may be a greater reason—having these dates correct may occasionally prove to be of related interest to something else. Ideas and theories are always based on something (or should be). If an event in Lewis’s life actually took place earlier than he reports, we may find that something previously assumed to have been a factor, now could not have been a factor. Alternatively if we find that an event in Lewis’s life took place later than he reports, there may be new factors that played a role which could now be considered.
But are Lewis’s sporadic, slightly-off dates of real interest or of lasting interest? Perhaps not. Not if we define real interest and lasting interest to be reserved for issues like the fact that Lewis did discover Phantastes and the fact that he did kneel, and he did pray, and he did admit that God was God. These kinds of issues are (or should be) the main focus.
As recorded in Letters to Children, when asked by young Laurence Krieg about the order one should read the Chronicles of Narnia, Lewis wrote back, “Perhaps it does not matter very much in which order anyone reads them” (68). Few readers have noticed that with Lewis’s use of perhaps and very, he actually gave his eleven-year-old correspondent a guardedly-ambiguous and doubly-nuanced answer—and in doing so provided a fitting response to the question of what difference any correction of his own dates may make.
Perhaps the corrected dates will matter and will matter very much—if so, then the case will need to be made for this.
Perhaps they will matter, but in a way that is not very significant.
Or perhaps they will not matter very much.
Devin Brown is a Lilly Scholar and a Professor of English at Asbury University. In his forthcoming book, A Life Observed: A Spiritual Biography of C. S. Lewis, Devin talks about Lewis’s discovery of Phantastes, his long road to conversion, and his journey of faith afterwards.