Monday, December 16, 2013


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"What I owe to them is incalculable."

~ C. S. Lewis, referring to his circle of writing friends
known as The Inklings

Many of us are aware of how the pursuit of one accomplishment becomes a varied set of added appealing themes. On lesser occasions these are obstacles; in better circumstances serendipity abounds. This recent sojourn was surely the latter. My experience as a C. S. Lewis Scholar-in-Residence at Oxford invariably put me in contact with the legacy of Lewis’ literary circle called The Inklings. The name refers to a small group of writers brought together at Oxford, and with common interests in philosophy, ancient folklore, scholarship, and spiritual life. Principle members C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien, Charles Williams, Hugo Dyson, and Owen Barfield were accompanied by Lewis’ brother Warnie (Warren Lewis), and Tolkien’s son Christopher, among others. The group met regularly, often at Lewis’ teaching and office space at Magdalen College, and at their favorite pub called The Eagle and Child, which was at the center of Oxford. An informal though closely-knit fellowship, the Inklings would share their works in progress and enjoy spirited discussions. These collegial friends each had their own writing interests, and walked, talked, and dined together.

 photo ink002_zps4b955f0f.jpgAbove: The Eagle and Child, Oxford.

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Magdalen College, and College dining hall (below).

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Because I had learning projects of my own, at the University, my reminders about the significance of the places and paths of my sojourn were intermittent. Past, present, and looking forward intertwined. The combination of absorbing my amazement in these places, with an overlapping of new personal experience, actually diverted me from any stifling intimidation. Having tasks-at-hand in a living environment brought interaction into what might have been static spectatorship. The practitioner’s spirit within compels me to convert observation into participation.

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Above: Studying C. S. Lewis' manuscripts.
Below: The Kilns.

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Living in Lewis’ home, I gladly followed as many of his footsteps as possible. There are many Inkling landmarks threaded together by lanes, avenues, and cloister walks. With my own steps, I was privileged to walk the merging of Lewis’ paces with those of his colleagues. From the rooms and stairs and gardens of The Kilns, I found my way to Holy Trinity Church, each time sitting in the Lewis brothers’ pew. Closer to the house is the pond around which Tolkien and Lewis frequently strolled.

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Above: C. S. Lewis Nature Reserve
Below: J. R. R. Tolkien's house, on Holywell Street.

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Magdalen College, Oxford.
Flowers indicate C. S. Lewis' rooms at the University.

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The University’s college campuses, strung together by Oxford city streets, offer most of the paths and sites shared by the Inklings. Because my studies were centered at the Bodleian Library Special Collections, my perspective emanated from the vantage points of written words and reading rooms. Indeed, the Inkling authors are present in these venues, but also at places such as Magdalen (pronounced “maud-len”), Exeter, Balliol, Keble, and University Colleges. The famous Eagle and Child pub displays memorabilia related to the Inklings, including a historic marker at their favorite table. I was sure to visit often to read, write, and feast (on their superlative fish-and-chips). The White Horse, is another tavern favored by the Inklings, and to a lesser extent The King’s Arms; both of these are close to the Library and to Blackwell’s Book Store.

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Inklings memorials decorate The Eagle and Child pub. It's a great place to write.

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Among realms of writers, words and places intertwine. And such centers have drawn authors long before the Inkling members’ lives, and since. The chapel at Exeter College displays a memorial to Tolkien, and several blocks away in Hertford College’s chapel there is a stained-glass memorial for William Tyndale (16th century). Absorbing the ambience, listening to choirs, and participating in services at the Magdalen College Chapel, as well as at Christ Church Cathedral, crossed paths of centuries are clearly evident.

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Above and below:
Exeter College Chapel, with Tolkien tribute.

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William Tyndale window in Hertford College Chapel.

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Above and below:
Christ Church Cathedral (11th century).

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Outdoors are the places of the long meditative and conversational walks of the Inklings (among many others through history): meadows, parks, and- for Lewis- the Headington Road which connects The Kilns with Magdalen College. Parallel to Headington Road is Lewis’ much-loved Addison’s Walk, whose eastern end is along the tree-canopied Cherwell River. A notable night stroll along Addison’s Walk on September 19th, 1931 brought Tolkien and Lewis together in a conversation about Christian faith that influenced a change in the course and emphasis of Lewis’ life. I was sure to explore Addison’s Walk, finding the poetic text written by Lewis that is displayed on a garden wall, and also navigated the Cherwell by rowboat.

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Yes, I also walked Addison's Walk.

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Magdalen College, and the River Cherwell.

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Among the many heartening aspects I learned about, while immersed in the legacy of C. S. Lewis, was his sociable personality. He donated his publishing royalties, and provided space at The Kilns for children evacuated from the London bombings during World War II. He also cherished his friends, and in the context of the Inklings, his community of kindred authors were a source of energy and inspiration for him. These writers “aired” their works in progress to one another when they met, and these gatherings were surely accompanied by great discussions. There is inestimable value and vitality in peer fellowship.

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Back in the swirl of the Eagle and Child ("The Bird and Baby"), and writing with fellow scribes.

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Each of the Inkling authors, pronouncedly distinct from one another, have published works and biographies well worth studying. While living at The Kilns, I began reading some of the Charles Williams and Owen Barfield books on the shelves in Lewis’ parlor. Back home in Maine, I’ve begun to gather and convene a group of kindred writers, with the Inklings in mind. We have a favorite pub, and we read from our typewriters. The dynamism of the more cohesive writing circles is shown as each member finds strength in the fellowship to continue their artistic and scholarly pursuits. The finest foundation, as it was for the Inkling members, is friendship.

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The memorable fare at The Eagle and Child;
perfect for a pilgrim scholar!

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Image below from Portland, Maine
continuing the Inklings' practice.

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Sunday, November 24, 2013

royal visit

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“There are a few of my personal belongings which I say farewell to
with deeper regret, for it has been my companion for thirty-five years, almost half my lifetime.
On it were produced
The Lewis Papers, my Biographies, and all my own books.
Also, on a rough computation at least twelve thousand of Jack’s letters.
I shall, I’m afraid, feel very lost on a new machine.”

~ Warren Hamilton “Warnie” Lewis. (from his journal)

During the excited flurry of anticipating my Oxford sojourn, most of the preparation focused on the study fellowship with the manuscripts of C. S. Lewis. Having the parallel prospect of a month’s residency at The Kilns (Lewis’ home) generated additional preparatory correspondence. As the travel time drew closer, my talks with the Lewis Foundation were joined by additional friendly conversations with the caretaker of The Kilns, officially the Warden of the house. Indeed, there are house rules, but they are all sensible ones as The Kilns is a historic home, and is maintained as a place for Scholars-in-Residence to live. The house may also be visited, by arrangement, so that visitors can be introduced to the life and world of C. S. Lewis from the vantage point of his home, at the eastern edge of Oxford.

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Oxford and The Kilns

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Our introductory correspondence and subsequent chats always touched upon our mutual respect for Lewis, as well as for the craft of writing. It is heartening to know that so many others are also cultivating projects. We must each find time and energy to pursue our vocations, often with few resources. Well, as I mentioned gathering my resources for the journey, referring to my typewriter- an Olympia Splendid, my hosts described the Lewis typewriter, and how it is on display at The Kilns. Anticipating an added intrigue to the voyage set before me, I packed a spare typewriter ribbon. Until recently a staple at any stationer, ribbons have become difficult to find (outside of the Boston area), and so the Foundation’s administrator was pleased to hear I was going to bring one to Oxford.

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Above: The typewriter before maintenance.
Below: Comparing handwritten manuscripts and typescripts.

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Settling in at The Kilns, as well as in the University libraries at Oxford, required some acclimating- all of it pleasant- from left-side traffic regulations, to ordering in eateries, to cooking on an Aga stove. Very quickly, with thanks to the Warden of The Kilns, and the University staff I met, the essentials were easily found and daily life was as comfortable as it would’ve been back home in New England.

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Garden work at The Kilns.

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The Lewis typewriter is displayed in the dining room at The Kilns, on a safe and sturdy high table, so that tour groups cannot miss seeing the very well-worn machine. The Royal portable, as I had been told, was likely not used since Lewis’ brother Warnie’s passing in 1973. Warnie did most of the typing. It had been taken out of storage in recent years, and a close look at the machine’s workings revealed the detritus following decades of inactivity. Fortunately, the typewriter did not appear to have been coaxed into much more than decoration. With the grateful blessings of my hosts, I set aside an afternoon to gently restore the machine to functioning order.

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Oiling, a new ribbon, and the Cambridge Typewriter treatment for the Lewis typewriter.

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The typewriter needed a bit more than a simple ribbon change. One day, after my studies, I went to Boswell’s Department Store- Since 1738- on Broad Street, to buy light machine oil and a toothbrush. These proved to be indispensable, as were the bamboo skewers I’d brought with me to spin the new ribbon onto the old spools, as well as to clean the typebars. Carefully removing the machine from its case, I used the house vacuum cleaner to remove the undercarriage dust. Then, out in the Kilns garden, with the typewriter resting on a towel, I proceeded to oil all the moving parts and clean its surfaces, using all the good practices I’ve learned through my years of friendship with Tom Furrier of Cambridge Typewriter. As a light rain began to sprinkle the outdoors, I finished the cleaning and lubricating in the kitchen, along with spooling the new ribbon. Every single bone-dry pivot and joint seemed to sigh with my stealth applications of machine oil.

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The Royal Signet shines and writes again!

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The serial number is ES 14545.  photo royal13_zpsd5306cf2.jpg

Indeed, the typewriter does work again, and has all its parts. Its spartan appearance, having no ribbon covers, standard platen-roller controls, tabs, or margins, is due to the machine’s manufacture during the Great Depression. Sending a closeup photo of the serial number to Cambridge Typewriter, Tom wrote back that the machine, a Royal Signet, had been made in 1932. He also mailed matching spoke-style spools to The Kilns, to parallel the vintage of the machine. His one request was that I type him a letter on C. S. Lewis’ typewriter. So, I did. The Signet was used for thousands and thousands of letters and typescripts, and it is quite likely that I’ve typed its last letter. Though the machine is now nice and shiny, with its new ribbon, and functioning, its role is for historic artifactual display. The Warden was thrilled with its refreshed look, and we proudly displayed it for Oxford Open Doors, in mid-September. It was during my maintenance and careful handling of the Signet, that I fully realized the instrument’s importance. At the Bodleian, I’d been reading a great many typed pages of both Jack’s (C. S. Lewis) and Warnie’s (Warren Hamilton Lewis) provenance. Yet another honor, among many others during this sojourn, was to have been able to “re-warm” the Lewis typewriter and return it to its place of prominence at The Kilns.

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The Lewis typewriter "In Situ."

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Writing a letter on the Signet.

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A visitor lands on my notebook, in the Kilns garden.

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Wednesday, November 13, 2013

chronicles of bodleian

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“We do not enjoy a story fully at the first reading.
Not till the curiosity, the sheer narrative lust,
has been given its sop and laid asleep,
are we at leisure to savour the real beauties.”

~ C. S. Lewis, On Stories

Although my explorations of the world of C. S. Lewis awakened and concluded daily at his home, The Kilns, my studies were centered at the Bodleian Libraries. The name Bodleian is attached to the system of libraries at Oxford, with the medieval and 16th century-era reading rooms at the center, and incorporated in the Bodleian quad. The eldest of the libraries are in heart of the city of Oxford. Gratefully, these places were also at the heart of my month of days as a Lewis Scholar-in-Residence.

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From the crosstown Risinghurst bus, my brisk strides developed into a daily path northwards from the High Street side of the Covered Market, along Saint Mary’s Passage, across Radcliffe Square, and threading the stone-arched gateways of the Old Bodleian. From the courtyard flagstones, I’d send a wink up to King James in the sculpted architecture, thankful for my favorite Bible. Then across Broad Street (nicknamed “Book Street”), with a glance at Blackwell’s, my steps turned the corner from Clarendon, to the Parks Road. The department of Special Collections, home to the Oxford University Libraries’ manuscripts and rare books, is in Radcliffe Science.

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Above: King James, facing the Library quadrangle.
Below: A portion of Blackwell's Bookstore.

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Each and every visit to the reading rooms began with warm welcomes. Part of the pleasure of my studies was an awareness of collegial kindredship with staff and students alike. Our gathering was transcendent of the perfunctory, and grounded in shared passions for our learning. Taking my seat with my day’s allotment of C. S. Lewis, I’d look around the room, while settling in. Across the table was a reader with a medieval illuminated book; he was using an infra-red visor to see through the manuscripts’ layers. Diagonally across to my right was another reader, with sheet music manuscripts, and she was smiling back at the pages, humming. The large room was regularly filled with adventurers and their pursuits. Indeed, these research spaces are “pencils-only,” and I did find myself making side notes on my study pages that described my impressions.

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Focused on Lewis’ work, poring over the materials for hours a day, the opened archival boxes and folders were as windows to me. His handwriting style became intimately familiar. The papers and handwritten words became portals through which I could recognize the author’s mind and method. My daily journeys back across the campuses, to the High Street, were often amidst a state of reverie that followed a spell of deep immersion in my studies.

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Views of the High Street, Oxford.

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My grateful amazement at the manuscripts and rare books was matched by fascination with the Oxford library structures themselves. The Bodleian’s core buildings date back to the 1400s, with the Divinity School, and Duke Humfrey’s Library, both of which are enveloped by the Schools Quadrangle. As with most of the University buildings, the libraries are sturdily ornate Gothic sand-colored stone edifices. Within the carved and spired masonry are stone steps, complex corridors, and high-vaulted reading rooms. My Oxford card permitted me to explore libraries beyond the Old Bodleian, though I found my favorite post-study-hours reading spaces to be in the more ancient spaces- and among the art, philosophy, and theology collections. (Indeed, this is without mentioning the countless sites and perches throughout the city of Oxford, deserving at least an essay of its own.)

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Philosophy & Theology Faculties Library

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Below: Divinity School ceiling.

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On one memorable occasion, while studying in the Radcliffe Camera, I looked up from my books and up to the heights of the rotunda. Then, as my eyes surveyed the tiered shelves filled with titles- so many of them looking extremely interesting to me- I realized that I might do well to write out names and imprints for future reading, considering my limited time at Oxford. But the other realization, while glancing among massive bookcases and cavernous chambers, was the powerful impression prompted by the sheer vastness of the libraries. It is an ocean of immeasurable volume and depth, which even the thirstiest of readers could not encompass. The sheer abundance is formidable, astonishing, and humbling. An ocean of written words.

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Radcliffe Camera

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During my month at Oxford, I filled dozens of pages with research notes, and have only begun to digest the experience of intimately studying Lewis’ writing. I mapped my studies in a sequence that commenced with his notebooks, followed by selections of essays, and finally a journey through collections of written correspondence. Beginning with notebooks turned out to be a good idea, acclimating my reading patterns with Lewis’ unedited writing style and his admirable eclecticism. The notebooks were filled from both ends: Lewis would start from the front cover, with project notes and idea developments, and flip the book over to thus create another “front cover” for reading lists, lesson plans, and still more idea-sketches. The notebooks amount to what appeared to me as an operatic overture, with portions of nascent melodies- tastes of motifs that evolve later. Blended in with annotated bibliographies, he wrote out biographies of classical philosophers, and essays I recognized as having read in his published works, plus a complete chapter from The Magician’s Nephew, which was part of his famous Chronicles of Narnia, written for children.

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From the Lewis notebooks to manuscripts of his published essays and books, I found many glimpses of the author’s productive mind. He wrote about the subjects he taught, the literary works of the medieval and Renaissance eras. He also wrote prolifically about the ideas that most interested him, and there I saw the philosopher within the provocative author. The manuscript reading room staff did permit me to carry in my own Bible, and very gratefully I made notes in it from Lewis’ insights. Now the words remain together with me.

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At this early stage of personal response to these intense studies, impressions of discoveries come to mind. C. S. Lewis likely did not anticipate that his notebooks would be analyzed, let alone in the 21st century, alongside the manuscripts of the authors whose oeuvres he studied himself and taught to his students across town at Magdalen College. The boxes and boxes of carefully preserved manuscripts reminded me of a description that post-dates Lewis’ life: multitasking. He received (through his prodigious correspondence, as well as with his many friendships) ideas and themes, and he produced ideas and themes. It is immensely inspiring.

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I also saw how Lewis “worked” his writing- all by hand, fine-tuning his compositions. I found myself drawn to crossed-out words and sections, to see how- or whether- Lewis replaced his own text. He would change words, or the order of his words (using arrows), or titles of essays and chapters. I used the opportunities to write both the original and the changed words in my notes. Amidst a ream of boxed papers, on one occasion, I found myself steeped in Screwtape Proposes a Toast, and thoroughly enjoyed the side-adventure.

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Previous to these studies, I has not been aware of the extent of Lewis’ letter correspondence. Alongside the original renditions of published works are decades of correspondence (and these are the letters that were collected later by the Bodleian’s donors; there were a great many more letters received by Lewis, and sent by him. I’ve also seen many at the Archives of Wheaton College). Lewis made a point of responding to every letter; he felt that personal correspondence was a way to extend the compassion of his faith. He replied encouragingly to the children who wrote him, complimenting their perceptions of his Narnia characters. He wrote to the Nobel committee, nominating his friend and colleague J.R.R. Tolkien for the Nobel Literature Prize.

 photo bod-26_zps53071eb1.jpg The motto above the Library entrance translates as:
Academicians of Oxford, Thomas Bodley has built this library for you
and for the Republic of the Learned.
May the gift turn out well.

Equally inserted in preservation folios are numerous letters to and from American readers that sent care packages to the Lewis household at The Kilns during the post-World War II period of severe rationing in England. There are humorous and endearing letters between Lewis and his wife Joy. Still further, amidst the fasciculed letters, I navigated the currents of correspondents between Lewis and his student Bede Griffiths. The letters span from the early 1930s to the end of Lewis’ life, with subjects the two philosophical, theological, and intellectual thinkers shared. Through the letters, I saw what a full life Lewis had. As a tutor and professor, I saw that he exceeded those roles by being a practitioner of his ideals. C. S. Lewis truly comprehended the dictum of Saint John*, who enjoined his readers to rise above pronouncements by living and inspiring the meaning of faithfulness and trust. And in the company of volumes and words received, my steps continue nourished.

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* 1 John 3:18