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CS Lewis has been honoured at Westminster Abbey. Amanda Hodges explores how his time in Surrey helped inspire the Chronicles of Narnia
Travelling from his native Belfast to leafy Great Bookham in the autumn of 1914, 15-year-old
CS Lewis (Jack to his friends and family) was astonished by the scenery he saw from the window of his carriage:
“I had been told that Surrey was suburban and the landscape that actually flitted past the windows astonished me. I saw steep little hills, watered valleys and wooded commons. Even the sprinkling of suburban villas delighted me,” he wrote in his autobiography, Surprised By Joy.
War had just been declared, but for the future great Narnia chronicler and Christian apologist, September was momentous for different reasons.
After an unhappy year at Malvern College, he begged his father to allow him to leave. Albert Lewis turned to his old headmaster, William Kirkpatrick, (‘The Great Knock’ as he was known), to prepare his son for Oxbridge entrance.
To be freed from a world where his twin passions of books and music were undervalued, this opportunity was nothing short of blissful for the young Lewis: “Happy without other boys?! The mere thought that I shall never have to play games again was enough to transport me,” he wryly recalled.
In Bookham, he was met by Kirkpatrick – an impressive, if shabbily dressed figure over six foot tall: lean, muscular and bewhiskered.
Initially bewildered, Lewis swiftly found much to admire in his new tutor. The intellectual rigour he demanded was perfectly suited to Lewis’s own mental agility. “Here was a man who thought about what you said. I loved the treatment and began to put on intellectual muscle.”
He was introduced to the Classics, learned Greek, Latin and modern languages and read voraciously. The discovery of George MacDonald's fantasy novel Phantastes at the village bookstall was a particular revelation: “That night my imagination was baptised,” he wrote.
MacDonald, a Christian writer, had a considerable storytelling ability and was able to convey complex ideas in an engaging way. It provided Lewis with a literary lesson that would later find fruition in his fiction and inspire his Narnia chronicles. As an atheist, Lewis, at first, did not accept its spiritual undercurrents, but the seeds of his later religious conversion were sown.
Not only was Lewis's new life academically satisfying, but he was often happily left to explore the countryside, another abiding passion: “On afternoons and on Sundays, Surrey lay open to me. What delighted me was its variety, the whole thing could never lie clearly in my mind and to walk in it daily gave the same sort of pleasure that is in the labyrinth complexity of Malory,” referring to Morte D'Arthur, a favourite book.
To his friend Arthur Greeves, he wrote, “When you walk through the woods [in wintertime] every branch is laden like a Christmas tree, the mass of white arranged in every fantastic shape.” Minus the faun and the wardrobe, it's a classic evocation of a scene from the Narnia books.
Yet, however happy the Bookham idyll, by late 1916 Lewis knew military service was inevitable. His studies at Oxford University were interrupted by the trenches of France from where he returned wounded in May 1918.
Lewis subsequently became an academic and writer, but when he reflected upon his Great Bookham years with its balance of work and leisure, it was, to him, the ideal life: “When I speak of a 'normal day’, it is a day of the Bookham pattern. For if I could please myself I would live as I lived there. On a Saturday, when the whole weekend's reading lay ahead I reached as much happiness as is ever reached on earth.”
CS Lewis: A Life. Hodder & Stoughton, £20. westminster-abbey.org