Well, this isn’t all. Not by a long shot! But it’s week one, for what it’s worth. Doesn’t show Michael’s HOURS in the library photographing 250-year-old letters, doesn’t show lots of the beauty. But for those who wonder what we’ve been doing all week, or those who want to plan a trip to Oxford or to Wales… here are some highlights!
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.
I’m fascinated by the way books have the power to shape us. I say “have the power to” because clearly not all books succeed in this mission (or even want to. Don’t think Danielle Steele ever wanted to change the world!) But certain remarkable books sweep across a culture with tsunami force. Some leave a wake of destruction that persists over the decades (Lolita?), some permeate a culture subtly and ever-so-slightly change the dominant worldview (Vonnegut, maybe?), and a few give a startling smack-down to the group conscience (Uncle Tom’s Cabin, say).
But ask any random person if any particular book has rocked their world, and you’ll usually get “Yes, absolutely. Let me think. Ummmmm…….” They may have read all of Jane Austen twice, and adore her, but did she change them? Hard to say. They may have read a list of great philosophers in college, but can they remember what any of them said? A few.
It’s tricky, because it’s terribly hard to quantify how a book has shaped your thinking, even if you know it has. It’s tough to remember after you’ve read it what you ever thought before you picked it up. Truth seems awfully obvious after you accept it.
And when a book is read often enough to affect an entire culture, it’s almost impossible to track its impact. Say 100 high school history teachers all read the same book, causing them to lean a little off the pacifist side of the fence. That year, they make numerous asides about the stupidity of wars through the ages, and all 1,000 of their students, by year’s end, are questioning when a war ever did anybody any good. None of those hormonally-charged teenagers ever read the book in question, but all of them were indirectly impacted by it.
Of all the writers who’ve ever influenced me, two rise to the top of the heap. I’ve always been a little shy to say it, because they’re trotted out so often. But they good and truly have changed my thinking, layer upon layer, year after year. They have the curious distinction of speaking to young and old alike, so if you meet them in 4th grade they are able to follow you up to the Depends years. And though they made a splash about 70 years ago, they still have a surprising message in the 2000s.
I made my first pass through C.S. Lewis’s Narnia series almost 30 years ago, finding the complete set on the family bookshelf. (A little like finding a stack of $100 bills just waiting for you in a dresser drawer.) Narnia was delicious, can’t-stop-eating-it Turkish Delight to my 10 year old soul. One Sunday, sitting bored in church, swinging my legs, I had an astonishing thought. “Jesus is like Aslan,” I scribbled in amazement across the top of the first page of Acts, an exclamation that I saw every time I flipped through that old Bible for the next few years. Well, duh. But it was something no one had pointed out to me, a mind-blowing moment. You see, I loved Aslan. I mean really loved him. And suddenly that love was transferable. Thankfully, Lewis was prolific, and I am still plowing through his legacy, which just seems to be more beautiful as you go “further up and further in.”
The other author who continues to teach me is Lewis’s good buddy J.R.R. Tolkien. Full disclosure: I have read but three of his books. The Hobbit was a fun read back in elementary school, and although my father attributes his faith in part to his incredulous discovery that such a writer could possibly be a Christian, at the time, hobbit-lore seemed a happy fairy tale. (Dad maintains that he always expected every Christian to be a weakling, an idiot, or a hypocrite, and Tolkien was the first to challenge this assumption.) While I always thought Tolkien was a great story-teller and an innovator, that’s about it. In my twenties I decided I really ought to tackle Lord of the Rings. I read the first two before full-time motherhood hit, and I’ve yet to go back and finish the third. (Lame, I know.) But Peter Jackson’s film version plays at our house many times a year, and can I just say that every time I see it, it moves me again, elves and goblins notwithstanding. In weary trenches of vocational ministry, in the “dark night of the soul,” in all the uphill battles of life, I hear Samwise Gamgee cheering us on against the odds, I foresee a day when evil will be vanquished and goodness win.
Lewis and Tolkien are extraordinary not only because of their talent and intellect, but because they wrote in a time of great darkness, and they chose light. Lots of people have mined their work over the decades, and you wouldn’t expect there to be much left to say. So I am super-excited about a new book exploring their influence as it worked against the backdrop of the World Wars.
In a time of ISIS, Ugandan and Somalian horrors, sex trafficking rampant around the world, it’s easy to think those in the Leave it to Beaver era couldn’t possibly speak to our times. To think so is to miss it: Lewis and Tolkein are perfectly poised to speak to us. I hope they aren’t forgotten any time soon.
Zeke ate a mouse the other day. Bit the head right off. Zeke is the name of our neighbor’s 7-year-old son, but fortunately, he does not come into this story. Zeke also happens to be the name of a very fluffy black cat that has adopted us.
I am not a cat person. I hear the old joke about the difference between cats and dogs* and think, why would anyone want to own a cat? But Zeke is a very dog-like cat in many respects, and he has charmed our family. Every morning, he waits on the windowsill to greet us. When we open the door, he flops on his back to have his tummy scratched. He follows us when we go for walks. He watches us eat dinner. It’s not that he’s hungry or neglected, quite the opposite, he just likes us.
The kids have gone bananas for this green-eyed cat. Having never been around felines much, they are amazed and delighted at everything he does. Patrick, almost 8, has been the most enamored. Until the mouse.
We had heard that Zeke likes to entertain guests up here with his feats of strength, catching small rodents and tossing them into the air, leaping up and snatching them with his paws. He’s auditioning for America’s Got Talent, I think. But the actual stalking and maiming of the little mouse was too much for our little guy, who was completely horrified. “Nature, red in tooth and claw.”
It reminds me of Annie Dillard’s cat story in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. Her cat, free to come and go from the window, I guess, would wake her every morning, returning from nighttime adventures and pouncing onto her bed. One day, pawed and pounced on by the cat, Dillard looked in the mirror and saw bloody pawprints all over her shirt. (Please forgive if I’ve mixed up the details; I don’t have my copy of the book up here at the cabin to consult.)
They say housecats are the most — what? efficient? vicious? — predators in North America, expertly, ruthlessly stalking and killing anything small and available. They haven’t lost their hunting instincts. They are carnivores. (Patrick, after the mouse incident, insisted that he would no longer be a carnivore, and pulled the turkey out of his sandwich at lunch.) Though the kids know this academically, the reality of messy death, victim and victor, was a jolt. Living in the city, we are out of touch with the wildness of nature and the heartlessness of the food chain. We are not farmers, have never slaughtered a chicken, don’t see where our food comes from, other than the Krispy Kreme conveyor belt of sticky goodness. Life is sanitized, safe.
I have been reading a biography of C.S. Lewis by Alister McGrath, and came across his famous description of Aslan this week: “The most characteristic feature of Lewis’s Aslan is that he evokes awe and wonder. Lewis develops this theme with relation to Aslan by emphasising the fact that he is wild — an awe-inspiring, magnificent creature, which has not been tamed through domestication or had his claws pulled out to ensure he is powerless. As the Beaver whispers to the children,’He’s wild, you know. Not like a tame lion.'”
There is something about this wild place of woods and mountains, who-knows-what creatures (another kind of lion, perhaps) living in the vast expanse of untamed wilderness, that evokes to me a sense of God’s own wildness. The Bible stories that we so often declaw for children hint at a God beyond our Sunday school pictures, a God who invented carnivores.
The world is wilder than we remember, fiercer, untamed. On one hand, we participate in dark things without even pausing to consider, and on the other, we forfeit the experience of the wonder and awe all around. What if God is bigger and more unpredictable than we allow? What if there is mystery outside your window?
What if the Easter story unfolding again this week, was unfamiliar, new, permitted to shock and astound and dismay and poke us in some tender place? The White Witch has got hold of Aslan and howls in her triumph; we are Lucy and Susan crouching in terror at a distance to watch the Deep Magic work. Are we moved? Are we undone?
Who knew? Life lessons from Zeke, the terrifying cat. I miss my goofy dog.
*There once was a man named Bob, the proud owner of a cat and a dog. Every day, Bob took care of Rover. He fed him, scratched his tummy, brushed him, tossed a ball for him, and picked up his poop. Rover thought, “Bob is my master and I love him. He must be God.” Every day, Bob took care of Tom. He fed him, scratched his ears, groomed him, tossed his yarn ball, and picked up his poop. Tom thought, “Guess I’m God!”