Wednesday, November 13, 2013

chronicles of bodleian

“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.

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.

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

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.

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.

Views of the High Street, Oxford.

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.)

Philosophy & Theology Faculties Library

Below: Divinity School ceiling.

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.

Radcliffe Camera

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

* 1 John 3:18


Ted said...

This simple desert preacher is constantly dazzled and humbled by the environment of ideas and beauty that you surround yourself with. Too dazed to even comment coherently most times. Keep it up, I need a shot of bright white lightning to the head every once in awhile. (:

crofter said...

Thank you for sharing. For me, something such as this would take a long time to sink in, your great notes should help.

rino breebaart said...

awesome write-up - pure scholarship in an amazing environment.

Chris Routledge said...

This is just lovely. I haven't done much archive work, but after reading this I feel like I want to.