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C. S. Lewis and Oxford’s Literary Heritage

Today, 22nd November, is the fiftieth anniversary of the death of C. S. Lewis, beloved author of (amongst other works) The Narnia Chronicles and well known as a Christian thinker and apologist after his conversion which he chronicles marvellously in his book ‘Surprised by Joy’. This anniversary is being marked across Oxford, where he spent much of his life, with various services and lectures this weekend.

C. S. Lewis isn’t the only famous writer to be linked to Oxford though, and one of the things I enjoy most about being here in Oxford is being moments away from literary history. Whether it is looking out of my window to see the ‘dreaming spires’ which inspired Matthew Arnold to write in his poem Thyris:

“And that sweet city with her dreaming spires,

* She needs not June for beauty’s heightening,”*

Or, walking down St Mary’s Passage, alongside the University Church and seeing the door (part of my College) which is said to have inspired C. S. Lewis’ ‘The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe’. You cannot help but be surrounded by the literary history of this city. Perhaps more remarkably a friend of mine had a room in his College which was once J. R. R. Tolkien’s.

More recently though, Oxford has inspired Philip Pullman’s masterful ‘His Dark Materials’ Trilogy, and has been the location of many of the scenes in the Harry Potter films. Last Summer at Oxford Summer Courses we got a chance to sit in Merton Field, by Christ Church Meadows and watch a production of Alice in Wonderland, based on the stories by Lewis Carrol who was spent his academic life at Christ Church which towered up behind us as we watched the production.

It is worth saying more about C. S. Lewis though. He was a fellow of Magdalen College for 29 Years, whose academic work was in Medieval and Renaissance Literature. It was while here in Oxford that he wrote many of his most notable works. Just up the road from Somerville College where Oxford Summer Courses will be based next year is the Eagle and Child, a Pub where in 1939 Lewis and Tolkien would meet with others in an informal group known as ‘The Inklings’ where they collaborated on their writings. If anyone is looking for a fun introduction to some of Lewis’ other works beyond the Narnia Books, then I can recommend the audiobook of The Screwtape Letters read by the indomitable John Cleese. It is a classic work, read in style by Cleese.

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Summary

On the fiftieth anniversary of his death, we take a look back at C. S. Lewis' life in Oxford and the impact it had on his literary career.

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