Don't Eat With Your Mouth Full

Where can we live but days?

steepholm steepholm
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Triolet for CSL
"Some of his revisions of the received narrative will interest only devotees of Lewis who are familiar with earlier biographies. Such, for instance, are the claims that it was in 1930 rather than 1929 that Lewis began to believe in God, and that he came to belief in Christ while being driven to Whipsnade zoo by car in 1932, rather than when riding to the zoo in a motorbike sidecar in 1931."
Anthony Kenny, review of Alister McGrath, C. S. Lewis: A Life, in Times Literary Supplement, 21 June 2013

I disagree. This event is utterly central to Lewis's life - and nuances matter, whether we're reading for a Joycean epiphany or for an allegorical meaning more in line with Lewis's own aesthetic. Indeed, the questions raised here provoke me to poetry:

Oh how did you come to Whipsnade Zoo
To see lion and parakeet?
In ’31 or ’32,
Oh how did you come to Whipsnade Zoo
And who was the Driver driving you,
In sidecar or passenger seat?
Oh how did you come to Whipsnade Zoo
To see Lion and parakeet?

The application of a few Significant Capitals (a practice to which CSL himself was far from averse) shows the affair to be more than an anorakish footnote, of interest only to literary researchers who should no doubt "get a proper job". Whipsnade stands revealed as the new convert's Holy Hospital (where "bitter Penance, with an iron Whip, / Was wont him once to dis'ple every day"), the zoo as Langland's Field of Folk. (For the parakeet was a Paraclete, you see.)

No wonder CSL upped and wrote The Pilgrim's Regress with very little further ado.

Yes, and yes.

Speaking of THE PILGRIM'S REGRESS, I've just begun re-reading GKC's ORTHODOXY.

I've read it, but a long time ago. My clearest memory of it comes from when I managed a second-hand bookshop in the late '80s. Two Spanish women came in asking specifically for that book, but in such thick accents that it took me a good few minutes to understand them. However, we did have a copy - rather battered and tucked away - and I was able to put it in their hands. My proudest moment in retail!

Oh I love this. I did once read AN Wilson's bio of Lewis, and spotted at least one point at which he entirely misunderstood and took seriously some joke Lewis made in a letter. To me, it demonstrated such a serious lack of understanding, it undermined his whole book - which I subsequently ditched, and therefore can no longer give you chapter and verse...

Oh yes, I read that one, and though I don't know which passage you're referring to the general drift is recognizable. The only doubt is whether his misunderstandings were wilful or ignorant, but there are more interesting questions to pursue...

From a letter to Owen Barfield, June 10, 1938

"They keep sheep in Magdelen grove now and I hear the fleecy care bleating all day long. I am shocked to find that none of my pupils, though they are all acquainted with pastoral poetry, regards them as anything but a nuisance: and one of my colleagues has been heard to ask why sheep have their wool cut off. (Fact)

"It frightens me almost. And so it did the other night when I heard two undergrads, giving a list of pleasures which were (a) Nazi, (b) Leading to homosexuality. They were, feeling the wind in your hair, walking with bare feet in the grass, and bathing in the rain. Think it over; it gets worse the longer you look at it."

Wilson apparently thought that Lewis himself thought these pleasures were Nazi, etc., which doesn't make a lick of sense. (Hey, maybe he went bald so as not to experience wind in his hair? Could be! Hey, maybe that's why sheep have their wool cut off, too!)

How anyone could read Lewis and be so completely blind to his enjoyment of sensuous pleasure is beyond me.

Yes, exactly.

‘It is twenty-two years since I read that letter ... and on and off I have been thinking it over. At no time have I been able to see anything Nazi or necessarily homosexual in the listed pleasures, which are precisely of the kind which might occur in a George MacDonald fantasy. But the pleasures are, of course, those of youth, and Lewis at the age of forty seems to have forgotten what it was like to be young. He sees exuberant, and perhaps sensual, pleasure in the natural world ... now such stuff seems to him ‘Nazi’.’ (transcription ganked from

Twenty-two years, and Wilson still never considered that he might be wrong.

Or even that there is more than one way to parse the sentence he's been contemplating all that time.

Lord, what an ass! Still I keep meaning to read Wilson, because

a) Rilstone thinks him worthwhile though often wrong, and
b) apparently Wilson talked about Lewis's first person persona as an old device which made me think of Colette and Kipling, whom I adore.


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