On 22nd November 1963 headlines around the world reported events in Dallas, Texas. President John F Kennedy had just been shot as he rode in a motorcade through the city.
A few hours earlier, in a house just outside Oxford, a 64-year-old professor of English Literature breathed his last, his death and that of Aldous Huxley the same day overshadowed by the events in the United States.
The man who passed away exactly 60 years ago was C S Lewis. To adults and children alike, he is pre-eminently the creator of the fantasy world of Narnia. For successive generations, the adventures of the four Pevensie children in ‘The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe’ have opened the door to an imaginative, magical world where humans live alongside talking beasts. The Lion, Aslan, appears at times of need to rescue, guide and protect his Narnian subjects.
The inventor of the Chronicles of Narnia, C S Lewis, was not merely a writer of fantasy. He was also an academic, specialising in medieval and Renaissance English Literature, a university lecturer and teacher, and a preacher and radio broadcaster, known for a series of remarkable and accessible books, such as Mere Christianity, which explain Christian faith and belief.
C S Lewis spent most of his adult life in Oxford. He arrived as an undergraduate at University College in 1917, one of the worst years of the First World War, finding a college “where the mullioned windows are dark with ivy that no one has bothered to cut since the war emptied the rooms they belong to”.
He interrupted his studies for military service, then, after receiving a ‘Blighty’ in northern France in 1918, he returned to Oxford to take two first class degrees and become a Fellow and tutor at Magdalen College, a job which
he was to hold for the next twenty-nine years. Initially rejecting religious belief, it was in his rooms in the New Building of Magdalen that, as he recorded in 'Surprised by Joy’, he “admitted that God was God, and knelt and prayed: perhaps, that night, the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England.”
Lewis is also well known as a member of The Inklings, that group of Oxford academics and writers which also included JRR Tolkien, Hugo Dyson and Owen Barfield, who used to meet in The Eagle and Child pub on St Giles on Tuesday lunchtimes - with such regularity than another Oxford writer, Edmund Crispin, had a character in one of his novels say, “There goes Lewis; it must be Tuesday”. Here they read, critiqued and encouraged each other’s works. Tolkien later reflected on the importance of Lewis’ unstinting praise for his own fantasy writing; “The unpayable debt that I owe to him was not influence but sheer encouragement. He was for long my only audience.”
Just before he died, Lewis summed up his life in his final words to his brother, Warren (Warnie) Lewis: “Warnie, I have done all that I was sent into the world to do, and I am ready to go.”
This plaque in memory of C S Lewis is affixed to the wall outside a gate between Deer Park and a bridge leading to Addison’s Walk. It was placed in 1998, marking the centenary of Lewis’s birth. On it is engraved one of Lewis’s poems:
WHAT THE BIRD SAID EARLY IN THE YEAR
I heard in Addison’s Walk a bird sing clear:
This year the summer will come true. This year. This year.
Winds will not strip the blossom from the apple trees
This year, nor want of rain destroy the peas.
This year time’s nature will no more defeat you,
Nor all the promised moments in their passing cheat you.
This time they will not lead you round and back
To Autumn, one year older, by the well-worn track.
This year, this year, as all these flowers foretell,
We shall escape the circle and undo the spell.
Often deceived, yet open once again your heart,
Quick, quick, quick, quick! – the gates are drawn apart.
You can easily find a guide to take you on a JRR Tolkien & CS Lewis tour on our "Guides" page, or simply fill in the form and request C S Lewis & JRR Tolkien or Inklings Tour for a magical, themed walk around Oxford.