This morning I had a nice stroll through C.S. Lewis’ garden and this afternoon I oggled Jane Austen’s handwritten stories. Really. I am sitting in a café next to . . . who knows? Professors, students, travelers like me, here from the four corners of the world, perched above a street that a hundred heroes have walked — Lewis Carroll, J.R.R. Tolkein, the martyrs Latimer and Ridley, the bonnie king of England. Oxford seems a lucky place, but I suppose it’s much like anywhere else. It is the birthplace (or the death place) of people great and grimy, whose ghosts, the tour guides promise, moan about the narrow streets at night.
I felt a little sheepish admitting on my tour of The Kilns this morning that not only was I happily paying out pounds to see Lewis’ home (we stood in the room where he died; a new tour guide perched on his bed to take notes as we listened) — but I had in fact visited another Lewis shrine at Wheaton College earlier this year. At what point am I truly a Narnia groupie?
Why are our favorite famous people so fascinating?
What makes some people extraordinary?
They say at every breath you inhale a little oxygen once breathed out by Julius Caesar, that everyone with European roots is related to Charlemagne. That tattered and rat-eaten Magna Carta I saw in the building next door was reportedly signed by one of my husband’s ancestors, and probably, I imagine, by one of mine. (Might even be the same person. You know, if you go back a ways, every human being on the planet is related — 50th cousins, so they say.) And yet some of those cousins beguile and bewitch us. If you happen to bump into a famous Somebody at the airport, you’ll no doubt come home chirping about it to anyone who’ll listen (I’ve seen a few myself if you are dying to hear the stories).
In The Great Divorce (one of my favorites), Lewis writes about Napoleon pacing back and forth in hell, muttering about whose fault it was. But while this man of importance and glory frets his eternity away, the narrator spots a woman in Heaven, radiant in splendor.
‘Is it?… is it?’ I whispered to my guide.
‘Not at all,’ said he. ‘It’s someone ye’ll never have heard of. Her name on earth was Sarah Smith and she lived at Golders Green.’
‘She seems to be… well, a person of particular importance?’
‘Aye. She is one of the great ones. Ye have heard that fame in this country and fame on Earth are two quite different things…. already there is joy enough in the little finger of a great saint such as yonder lady to waken all the dead things of the universe into life.’
Hmm. A life illuminated by joy. That changes the equation, doesn’t it? Who’s really special after all?
They say if everyone is special then no one really is. Give trophies to all the Little Leaguers and none of them really shine. All those helicopter moms doting on mediocrity… I agree, it’s gross. But at least the pandering doesn’t last forever. All that excess of praise peters out at some point as the little rascals grow out of their cuteness. Unfortunately we don’t outgrow lavishing undeserved worship on lackluster performances, we just focus it on a few shiny people. There’s no fairness in it — celebrities without a shred of talent, best-sellers without a speck of charm, truly wonderful people who are beloved one year and forgotten the next. Maybe that quiet fellow behind me in line at the grocery store is the next C.S. Lewis, but I can’t peel my eyes away from People Magazine.
And what of C.S. Lewis? The words that poured out of that man’s pen are some of the best things ever put to paper (he never typed, did you know that? Always a fountain pen. Said it helped him think.) And yet the man had some serious quirks, some character flaws that would drive you crazy in a brother, or a friend. I wonder as he wrote about Sarah Smith from Golders Green if he chuckled to think of the people lining up outside his driveway, shoving to get a glimpse. In Heaven, he might have speculated, he’d be somewhere at the bottom of the heap.
Still, Lewis was a person who did what he did best with unbelievable skill, a person whose words inspire us all to do a little better. That’s something.
The best and brightest students come here to Oxford, brilliant, dazzling in their accomplishments. How proud their parents must be! How proud would I?
How many out of all of them will outshine Sarah Smith of Golders Green?
In an upside-down Kingdom, the top-heavy world will topple (not may, or might, but will). All that’s up top will tumble down, and all that’s on bottom will tumble up. Maybe we should all teach our children not to strive for the top but to dive low.
In the words of our good friend Clive Staples Lewis, “Do not imagine that if you meet a really humble man he will be what most people call ‘humble’ nowadays: he will not be a sort of greasy, smarmy person, who is always telling you that, of course, he is nobody. Probably all you will think about him is that he seemed a cheerful, intelligent chap who took a real interest in what you said to him. If you do dislike him it will be because you feel a little envious of anyone who seems to enjoy life so easily. He will not be thinking about humility: he will not be thinking about himself at all.”
My favorite Somebody at Oxford has long since been overshadowed (and overjoyed) by a better Somebody. Someday we’ll get to meet them both.