Remembering C.S. Lewis: Recollections of Those Who Knew Him | An Interview with James T. Como | December 1, 2005

Remembering C.S. Lewis: Recollections of Those Who Knew Him | An Interview with James T. Como | December 1, 2005

The world soon will be captivated by the blockbuster film release, "Narnia: The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe," and will want to know more about the man who wrote it.

Remembering C. S. Lewis: Recollections of Those Who Knew Him
, just released by Ignatius Press, is a collection of twenty-four reminiscences and impressions from friends, students, and acquaintances of C.S. Lewis, the famed creator of the Narnia tales. The book is edited by James T. Como, founding member of the New York C.S. Lewis Society.

The book provides a glimpse of how C.S. Lewis’s own experiences provided snippets that grew into a beloved classic, and most recently into the Narnia movie to be released by Disney on December 9, 2005. This volume is for both the casual reader and the serious student of Lewis because its readable essays take a step beyond biography to original sources with personal anecdotes and thoughts. Lewis died in 1963, on the same day as President John F. Kennedy and Brave New World author Aldous Huxley.

"The singular authority of this collection derives from one central fact – all but two contributors (one of them being the editor) were personally acquainted with Lewis," notes Como, a professor of rhetoric and public communication at City University of New York.

"The man who created Narnia" would have been quite at home in his mythical world, because as friends recall in the book, C.S. Lewis cut an "egg-shaped" figure who managed to dress quite shabbily even in a new suit, loved country rambles and wild creatures, and detested artifice and intolerance.

Como, the editor of this valuable perspective on Lewis and his life, recently chatted with about the book and its genesis. Como himself came to edit the book from a love of Lewis and his friendship with Lewis’ posthumous editor, Walter Hooper. He relates that finding Lewis was such an epiphany for him that he was happy to find a way to share perspectives of Lewis by collecting these essays.

Among the essays are one by Lewis’s car-hire driver who picked Lewis up shortly after his wife, Joy Davidman, died, students who recalled his weekly personal tutorials with great pleasure, drinking buddies, and rambling buddies. They include people who had distinguished careers of their own and others whose lives were less acclaimed. How did you come to edit this collection?

James T. Como:
There had been some talk in publishing circles and with Walter Hooper, who was Lewis’ last secretary and continues to be his posthumous editor for forty years, about a book. Hooper and I have been friends going back forty years. When publishers were talking about something like this with Hooper, Hooper thought I would be the person best to do it.

This thrilled me because I wanted to know what people who knew Lewis thought of Lewis. If there is anything that can be called an inspiration it was a real desire for familiarity with the man. I had never met him and there were not many people around who had who had talked about him in print. But there were still many people who knew him who were alive (at the time of the book’s original publication in 1979).

The idea comes from this real desire to know Lewis as well as possible from the inside. Since I did not know him, having never met him, the next best thing was to get people who did know him to write for the book. What did Walter Hooper write in the book?

Walter Hooper wrote two things in the book. One was the bibliography. He is the definitive bibliographer of Lewis’s works. It is useful to know in the background just how prominent Walter Hooper is in the world of C.S. Lewis. Hooper was his last secretary, not for very long but at the end there and has edited his works since then. Others have done this or that book but Hooper’s been with the papers for four decades. So he wrote the bibliography, which has been updated for this edition, and he also has an essay called "C.S. Lewis at the Socratic Club."

The Socratic Club was a very, very important debating society at Oxford and Lewis was one of the founders of that. Every week they met and they published the results. Lewis would give a paper very often. And that would pose some kind of thought or dissent or disbelief about Christianity. It’s quite a famous society and its bulletins and the thought that comes from that society and from those years of the society are very important to understanding Lewis. Hooper wrote a study of that society and Lewis’ contribution to it for the book as well. What contributors to the book had met C.S. Lewis?

Out of the twenty-four people, twenty-three met C.S. Lewis. My colleague at the New York C.S. Lewis Society, Eugene McGovern, did not. He has a wonderful essay, "Our Need for Such a Guide." Almost all of these are people who knew C.S. Lewis for some period of time or from a certain angle that is unique. Most have never written anything else about C.S. Lewis but what they have written for my book

This is rare stuff. First of all, it’s authentic. These people knew him. The second is, we’ll never hear from these people again because with very few exceptions, they’ve died. Third, there are very few people left – C.S. Lewis would be 107 years old now for heaven’s sake – who knew C.S. Lewis. So this stuff is unduplicatable. So the contributors were different people and they knew him at different times and in different ways. But the reader comes away with a sense of Lewis that’s very coherent, don’t you think?

Yes, I just let people speak for themselves. Some of them knew him very early and fell out of touch. Some of them knew him early and stayed in touch. Some came into his life and left his life after just a few years. So I decided to put this before the reader, these brushstrokes, so to speak, as part of a bigger portrait and let them work it out for themselves.

For example, his pupils Derek Brewer and Peter Bayley have gone on to distinguished careers of their own. They knew him in a friendly fashion when they left Oxford and grew up and became men of letters themselves. But their acquaintanceship was really limited to that one point of view as Lewis’ students, which is the perspective they relate in the book.

And it’s interesting if you compare the two of them. They both very vividly remember a certain painting on the wall of Lewis’ room where they would go for their tutoring. Except they’re different paintings! They’ve kept in touch themselves and they’ve joked about this! Memory is a tricky thing.

In spite of that, what comes forth from this book is a multi-faceted man – humor here, melancholy there, deep learning here, religious service someplace else. In no given instance do the contributors contradict the basic elements of Lewis character and personality and I find that fascinating. He wasn’t a simple man. He was multi-faceted. You know, drinking and smoking here, maybe cursing there, praying here – and yet he is a whole guy. I think that’s what made this book valuable – the different views add up to a consistent whole.

James T. Como holds advanced degrees in medieval English literature (Fordham University) and in Language, Literature and Rhetoric (Columbia University) and is Professor of Rhetoric and Public Communication at York College of the City University of New York, where he has taught for over thirty-five years.

A founding member of the New York C. S. Lewis Society (1969) and former editor of its bulletin, CSL, he has published ‘C. S. Lewis at the Breakfast Table’ and Other Reminiscences and articles on Lewis in such journals as National Review, Seven, and The Wilson Quarterly. In 1993 he visited the closed set of Richard Attenborough’s Shadowlands and interviewed the principals, after which he commented (not entirely favorably) on that film. Dr. Como also lectures widely on Lewis and other Christian authors, including “Moral Learning In and Out of Narnia,” the Thomas More Lecture on Learning, for St. Thomas More College in Fort Worth, Texas, and, most recently, “Congruent Christians,” one of a number of public of lecture series he had given at the Center for Christian Studies of the Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church in Manhattan and elsewhere.

He has also written on the novelist Mario Vargas Llosa and, more generally, on the political culture of Peru, where he has lived and visited with some frequency. He has also published Branches to Heaven: The Geniuses of C. S. Lewis (Spence). A Catholic and native New Yorker, Dr. Como (and his Peruvian wife) have two grown children and live in Westchester County.

Related Articles:

The Relevance and Challenge of C. S. Lewis | Mark Brumley
An Hour and a Lifetime with C.S. Lewis | An Interview with Dr. Thomas Howard
C.S. Lewis’s Case for Christianity | An Interview with Richard Purtill | By Gord Wilson
Paganism and the Conversion of C.S. Lewis | Clotilde Morhan
Evangelizing With Love, Beauty and Reason | An Interview with Joseph Pearce
The Measure of Literary Giants | An Interview with Joseph Pearce

C. S. Lewis | Ignatius Press resources:

6 By C.S. Lewis (The Great Divorce, A Grief Observed, Mere Christianity, Miracles, The Problem of Pain, and The Screwtape Letters)
C.S. Lewis and the Catholic Church | by Joseph Pearce
Remembering C.S. Lewis: Recollections of Those Who Knew Him
C.S. Lewis for the Third Millenium | by Peter Kreeft
C.S. Lewis' Case for the Christian Faith | by Richard Purtill
The Complete Chronicles of Narnia | by C.S. Lewis (single, hardcover volume)
The Chronicles of Narnia Set | by C.S. Lewis (7-volume set, softcover in case)
Chronicles of Narnia Set (3 tapes)
The Life of C.S. Lewis: Through Joy and Beyond (DVD)
Shadowlands (BBC edition; DVD)
The Magic Never Ends (DVD)
Literary Giants, Literary Catholics | by Joseph Pearce
Literary Converts | by Joseph Pearce