Celebrating C.S. Lewis at “The Kilns” and Other Historic Sites: An Interview with Michael Ward
For this post, the International Committee welcomes Dr. Michael Ward as he discusses his research into the works of C.S. Lewis and his experience living at “The Kilns,” Lewis’s historic Oxford home.
Michael Ward is an expert on the writings of C.S. Lewis, author of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and six other Chronicles of Narnia. Ward teaches at the University of Oxford, England. He is best known for his book Planet Narnia: The Seven Heavens in the Imagination of C.S. Lewis (Oxford University Press), which became the subject of the BBC television documentary, The Narnia Code. Ward has also co-edited The Cambridge Companion to C.S. Lewis (Cambridge University Press). On the fiftieth anniversary of Lewis’s death, Ward unveiled a permanent national memorial to him in Poets’ Corner, Westminster Abbey, London.
TN: You have been described by the UK’s premier literary journal The Times Literary Supplement as “the foremost living Lewis scholar.” Tell us how you got interested in C.S. Lewis.
MW: In the same way most people do, I suspect, - by having the Narnia books read to me by my parents when I was small. At the weekends, my two older brothers and I would pile into our parents’ bed and my mum would read aloud a chapter or two of the latest Narnia Chronicle and then we’d all get up, have breakfast and start the day. It was a great way to be introduced to Lewis. And once I was old enough to read the books for myself, I did so, - repeatedly! And then I found out that he’d written a lot of fiction for older readers: works like The Screwtape Letters and The Great Divorce, so I read those books too. And then I discovered his numerous books on Christian theology, like Mere Christianity and The Four Loves. I enjoyed those and read them all through my teenage years. But it didn’t end there, because I then discovered his works of literary criticism, like A Preface to Paradise Lost and An Experiment in Criticism. And that side of Lewis inspired me to get more interested in English literature from an academic point of view, which led me to choose English for my first degree. And obviously I had to do that at Oxford, which was where Lewis studied. I went to a college right next to The Eagle & Child pub, where he used to meet with J.R.R. Tolkien and their circle of friends, The Inklings. That was my local watering-hole during my student years. I did a short undergraduate thesis on Lewis’s depictions of evil in the Narnia Chronicles, and, thanks to that, I was asked to do a bit of lecturing and tutoring about Lewis after graduation, which gradually snowballed into a career of teaching and writing about Lewis. It was never something I deliberately set out to do. It was just a case of one thing leading to another.
TN: You lived for three years at Lewis’s former Oxford home. How did that come about?
MW: Yes, between 1996 and 1999 I lived in his old house, called The Kilns.
It’s owned by The C.S. Lewis Foundation, a charitable organization based in California. They bought the house in the mid 1980s when it was in a state of disrepair. They’ve restored it to the kind of appearance it would have had when Lewis lived there between 1930 and his death in 1963. I had the great privilege of occupying two upstairs rooms which had been Lewis’s bedroom and study, and it was my job to find other tenants to live in the house with me and to show groups of visitors round. The Kilns is a rather rambling red-brick house, with lots of small rooms. It’s now a kind of residential study centre and people with a keen interest in Lewis can apply to live there for a period if they wish to do so.
TN: Did you find it inspiring to live there?
MW: Yes, it was an unforgettable time, getting to experience the dimensions of Lewis’s domestic life. I knew what it was like to live in an Oxford college, and now I was able to have a taste of what his home life involved, including some of the less desirable aspects, - because The Kilns is quite a noisy, echoey house, and draughty and cold in the winter. It’s not well insulated! Not that it was quite as freezing in the 1990s as it was in Lewis’s day when the house had no central-heating. One winter night Lewis was lying in bed and reached out to take a sip of water from the glass on his bedside-table and he found that the water had turned to ice. “You can at least lick the ice,” he said. Fortunately, that never happened when I lived there!
Perhaps the most memorable moment was when I was sitting in his old
study one day, listening to a BBC radio adaptation of one of the Narnia books, The Silver Chair. I was contentedly enjoying this radio play when suddenly I thought, “Golly! I’m in the very room where that book was written, and now it’s being beamed back into the room via the radio-waves, and here I am listening to it and completing the circle, as it were.”
It was nice also to know that Lewis had a telescope on the little balcony outside his bedroom; he was a keen amateur astronomer. My own work has included a special study of his interest in medieval planetary symbolism and how that informs the Narnia Chronicles. I used to enjoy looking up at the stars from his bedroom window.
TN: Oxford is a great centre of children’s literature, - not just C.S. Lewis, but also his close friend, J.R.R. Tolkien, and their Victorian forebear, Lewis Carroll. And more recently Oxford has produced Philip Pullman, who has had some harsh things to say about the Narnia Chronicles. What do you make of Pullman and his views?
MW: Yes, I’ve had the pleasure of meeting Pullman a couple of times. He came and addressed the Oxford Lewis Society on one occasion. And then, a few years later, I was asked to participate in a public debate with him at an Oxford church. I find him a fascinating man: very personable and articulate and interesting. I’ve enjoyed his collection of essays, Daemon Voices, very much. I like particularly what he has to say about Philippa Pearce’s Tom’s Midnight Garden, one of my favourite children’s books. But his antagonism towards Narnia is not very well targeted, if you ask me. I think Pullman is allowing his attitude to religion to distort his perspective, and his usual insightfulness as a literary critic deserts him. He often has what looks like a plausible critique, but then when you go and look at the Narnia Chronicles more carefully, you realize that he’s actually misread what he’s attacking or that he’s not being even-handed. It would take too long in this interview to detail the various mistakes that I think he makes, but if anyone wants to know why I say he’s mistaken, I would point them to an article I wrote analyzing his Narnia critique here.
TN: Oxford has a museum dedicated to children’s literature, The Story Museum. If people wanted to visit Oxford to see the specifically Lewis-related sites, where would you point them?
MW: There are five main things to visit.
First, the pub that I mentioned, The Eagle & Child. The Inklings met here
for many years and you can see lots of photos on the walls showing Lewis, Tolkien, and other members of the group.
Second, The Kilns, which you can see from the road for free. Alternatively, you can enter the house and look round if you make an appointment to do so, for which there is an admission fee
Third, Holy Trinity Church, Headington Quarry. This is the church where Lewis worshipped and where he had the inspiration for The Screwtape Letters. It’s also where he is buried, in a grave he shares with his brother, Warren. Lewis died on 22nd November 1963, the same day, and even the same hour, that President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas. Headington Quarry is on the eastern edge of Oxford, close to The Kilns, and the church has an engraved window featuring characters and scenes from Narnia.
Fourth, the Oxford Lewis Society, which meets every Tuesday evening during university term-time. I’m the Senior Member (Faculty Adviser) for the Society, and I give a talk usually once a term. Visitors in Oxford are always welcome to show up and listen to whoever is giving the talk that week. Most of our meetings focus on Lewis and his works, but quite often we branch out into Tolkien or George MacDonald or G.K. Chesterton or Dorothy L. Sayers. It’s been going since 1982 and has even published a book, C.S. Lewis and His Circle: Essays and Memoirs from the Oxford C.S. Lewis Society.
Fifth, Magdalen College, where Lewis worked as a tutor and fellow for almost thirty years.
The rooms that he occupied at Magdalen aren’t open to the public, but
you can see the Chapel where he attended Evensong. And there is also a lovely circular walk in the grounds of the college called Addison’s Walk
where Lewis would perambulate most days, and where he had a life-changing conversation with two friends, J.R.R. Tolkien and Hugo Dyson, which led to Lewis’s Christian conversion. He wrote a poem about Addison’s Walk called ‘What the Bird Said Early in the Year’ which is now engraved on stone plaque on a wall in the walk. It was my idea to put it there, actually! It was unveiled in 1998, the centenary of Lewis’s birth. The final couplet goes this like this:
Often deceived, yet open once again your heart.
Quick, quick, quick, quick! The gates are drawn apart.
MORE ABOUT MICHAEL WARD: Michael Ward is Senior Research Fellow at Blackfriars Hall, University of Oxford. He is the author of The Narnia Code (Tyndale) and co-editor of C.S. Lewis at Poets’ Corner (Wipf and Stock). Though based in Oxford, Dr Ward is also employed as Professor of Apologetics at Houston Baptist University, Texas, teaching one course per semester as part of the online MA program in Christian Apologetics. For more information about Michael Ward, please visit his website: http://www.michaelward.net/index.html
ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER: Over the past decade, Tanja Nathanael has been building substantial experience in international children's literature by means of travel, coursework, publications, and conferences. Her study of children's literature has taken her to Iceland, Denmark, Germany, Austria, Poland, Sweden, England, Scotland, Ireland, and Wales. Additionally, she has published numerous "postcard" book reviews in Bookbird, an international children’s literature magazine. She has also presented on the topic of international children's literature at both regional and international conferences, including the 15th Annual European Conference on Reading in Berlin in 2007 and on ChLA's international panel on Iceland in 2008. Professionally, she has served on ChLA’s international committee (2015-2018) and continues her support as Co-Editor of the blog. She is currently serving on the Studies in Languages and Literatures Advisory Board for The International Federation for Languages and Literatures (FILLM). She successfully defended her dissertation in Fall 2018 and graduated with a PhD in English Literature at the University of Southern Mississippi in Spring 2019. Her research interests include nineteenth century British Literature—especially Old Northern antiquities as celebrated by the Victorians—and children’s literature, including broader connections to international literatures within these areas.