CS Lewis and The Inklings: The Memories of Lewis' Secretary, Walter Hooper

Introduction by Solomon Schmidt


In November of 2020, Walter Hooper only had a few weeks left to live. This limitlessly kind and unassuming man was spending his last days in an Oxford nursing home, his body and mind weakening each hour. I gave my friend a call, and a frail voice answered the line. When I offered to read him something by C.S. Lewis, though, Mr. Hooper verbally perked up and listened for several minutes to words written by his dear friend.


That was one of the very last times I talked to Walter Hooper, after nearly two years of weekly phone conversations that sometimes lasted two hours. He was the kindest and most humble man I have ever known, and also one of the most fascinating. Having been C.S. Lewis’s secretary, friends with J.R.R. Tolkien, and an acquaintance of Pope John Paul II, Mr. Hooper had plenty of interesting (and occasionally funny!) memories to share that no one else alive today would be able to.


After C.S. Lewis died in 1963, Walter Hooper decided to devote the rest of his life to preserving Lewis’s legacy. Fast-forward fifty-eight years, and today, we can look back and see that is exactly what he did. As literary executor of the C.S. Lewis Estate, Mr. Hooper edited a multitude of previously unpublished books and essays by Lewis, wrote several reference and biographical books on Lewis, and also made sure that none of Lewis’s works ever went out of print.


******


January 8, 2021, was a sad day. England had just been hit by a second wave of the coronavirus, and the country was in lockdown. Gray clouds blanketed the skies over Oxford, and a gentle rain fell as a handful of mourners gathered at St Aloysius Gonzaga Church, where J.R.R. Tolkien and Walter Hooper used to attend daily mass. As I looked at the stained-glass surrounding me and shivered inside the cold church, I thought of how sunny it was in England the last time I had visited. It was the summer of 2019, and Mr. Hooper was still alive. We visited for a while at his apartment, where pictures of him with Lewis and John Paul II adorned the walls, and then had a wonderful dinner together at The Trout, a 400-year-old Oxford pub.


On the day of his funeral, though, I felt lonely and very far away from 2019. But then, I was reminded of a wonderful story about Mr. Hooper, which one of his godsons told during a moving eulogy at the funeral. Many years back, a college student disparagingly asked Walter Hooper how he felt about having lived his life in another man’s shadow. The student was referring to C.S. Lewis, but in his reply, Mr. Hooper transcended the student’s spite and pettiness. “It feels wonderful,” he said. “And I would do it all over again, because it was a Bright Shadow.” The student did not realize it, but Mr. Hooper was referencing a phrase that C.S. Lewis used to refer to Jesus Christ. For at the end of the day, as I was reminded, Walter Hooper was first and foremost a devout, passionate Christian, whose faith fueled his entire life and work.


After the requiem mass finished, everyone filed out of the church and drove in a slow procession to Wolvercote Cemetery. My friend’s body had been placed in the ground just a stone’s throw away from where the remains of J.R.R. Tolkien lie.


Even though Walter Hooper is no longer with us, I believe that his work will live on for many generations. The paper you are about to read contains priceless memories of the time he spent with two great men who were lions of the Christian faith and dramatically changed the course of literary history. Mr. Hooper gave me this document a few years ago, and it has never been published for free access online before. I hope you enjoy reading it and basking in the bright shadow that was Walter Hooper’s life and work.


- Solomon Schmidt, December 2021








Walter Hooper with Solomon Schmidt of History Bites

 

The Transcript of Walter Hooper's Oxford Lecture


"I keep telling myself that I should apologise for the amount of autobiography this talk contains. That is because my friendship with Lewis, compared to that of many others, such as his brother Warnie, Professor Tolkien, and Owen Barfield, was of very short duration. Even so, each of Lewis’s friends saw him from an individual and particular angle, and while I wish for your sake you could have had Warnie or Owen or Tolkien as your speaker, those men are in Heaven and I am grateful to you for accepting my individual and particular angle instead.


My introduction to Lewis’s writings goes back to May 1953 when I was nearing my final term at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. This was the time of the Korean War and all young men were worried whether they’d be allowed to finish their degree before they were drafted into the army.


The draft board had promised to leave me alone for a few months, and in that happy place during a happy time of my life, I was introduced to J.B.Phillip’s Letters to Young Churches: A Translation of the New Testament Epistles (1947). It contained an Introduction by C.S. Lewis. I’d never heard his name before, and I read the Introduction simply because it was there. It made a total conquest of me. [[I’ve been trying ever since 1953 to explain to others why that brief article – now published as ‘Modern Translation of the Bible’ in God in the Dock – had such a powerful impact. What came through the introduction was not simply information about the Epistles but something about Lewis.]] I believe now, and I think I sensed it in 1953, that I’d stumbled upon someone whose faith was as certain as that of the Apostles. Lewis believed – or so it seems to me – with the certainty of St Peter and those who had been with Jesus.


After a number of deferments I finished my degree and I went straight into the army and Fort Jackson, South Carolina. Days before I was drafted I found a copy of Lewis’s Miracles, and this went with me. During basic training I kept Miracles hidden beneath my shirt, which made for a good deal of discomfort during callisthenics and bayonet practice. However, in those little ten-minute breaks between firing bazookas and throwing grenades, I managed to read a page or so. If a book can hold your interest during all that excitement, and while you’re crawling under barbed wire in a muddy trench, it is a very, very good book.


I began corresponding with Lewis shortly after this. In that first letter from Lewis, dated 30 November 1954, he emphasised this very thing. I don’t think he wanted me to think too highly of him because he began by saying, ‘I am glad if I have been the instrument of Our Lord’s help to you: in His Hands almost any instrument will do, otherwise none. We should, I believe, distrust states of mind which turn our attention upon ourselves.’


We continued to correspond, and it was while I was lecturing on English Literature at the University of Kentucky at Lexington in the early 1960s that I began writing an academic book about Lewis – never completed. This led Lewis to invite me to come and see him if I should come to Oxford. Up until this time I would have been a very happy and contented young man if I could but see Lewis. But this was a chance to actually meet him.


I went to Oxford in June 1963. I had an appointment with Lewis at the house – The Kilns, Kilns Lane in Headington Quarry – on Monday the 10th June. However, I’d been warned that his house, some five miles from Oxford, was very difficult to find, and on Friday afternoon, the 7th June, almost as soon as I’d arrived in Oxford, I went out to see if I could find his house. No one in Kiln Lane could tell me where he lived, but someone showed me where his housekeeper lived, and I went there. The housekeeper, Mrs Miller, said she’d just seen him arrive back from Cambridge, and she urged me to go and call on him.


I arrived at The Kilns about 4 o’clock. The house face uphill, and when I walked round to the front door I saw a man with his back to the window reading. I rang the bell and regretted bitterly that I was bothering Lewis. Never had I seen myself in so unfavourable a light – an ignorant, provincial Tar Hell calling on this great man! But it was too late to flee. Someone was unlocking the door, and there stood C.S.Lewis.


It turned out that I’d arrived at tea time, a favourite time of the day for Lewis who was a great, a monumental tea drinker. ‘You can’t get a cup of tea large enough or a book long enough to suit me,’ he said one time. I too was a lover of tea, but my intake had never been as gargantuan as his. As soon as we’d finished one pot of tea, Lewis would go to the kitchen and make another, and another. I was quite a shy young Southern American at that time, but after what seemed gallons of it, I asked if I might be shown the ‘bathroom.’ Remember, I’d only just arrived in England, and I did not then know that in most homes the bathroom and the toilet are separate rooms.


With a touch of mock formality Lewis conducted me to what was really the bathroom. He flung down several towels, produced several tablets of soap, and before closing the door on me he asked if I had everything I needed for my ‘bath.’ ‘Oh, yes!’ I said with some alarm. By this time I was very uncomfortable, and I finally got up enough nerve to go back in the sitting-room and say that it was not really a ‘bath’ I wanted. Lewis was roaring with laughter, and he said, ‘Now that will break you of those silly American euphemisms. Let’s start over again. Where do you want to go?’


There I was, catapulted right into a far more interesting life than I’d imagined was to be had, and pretty soon we were talking about everything under the sun, Lewis constantly making verbal distinctions, and catching me out on logical points. I remember a valuable distinction he made that afternoon. I asked which of his books he thought ‘best,’ and his answer was Perelandra. He then asked which I ‘liked’ the most. Thinking we were talking about the same thing, I said, ‘Well, I agree with you that Perelandra is the best of your books.’ ‘I didn’t ask which you thought “best”,’ said Lewis, ‘but which you like most.’ ‘Oh, in that case, I said the one I like most, and indeed more than any book, is That Hideous Strength.’ ‘Don’t you see the difference? said Lewis. ‘You may think one thing better than another, but you might like something else better.’ The effect of all this clear talk was that by the time I had to leave I liked Lewis so much that I foresaw a life ahead of me that would be very dull compared to the few hours I’d just had.


Lewis walked with me to the bus stop, with a visit to his local pub, the Ampleforth Arms, which was just beside it. I remember that on that brief walk I was surprised that Lewis had turned out to be so much more than I imagined he would be. I remember thinking, ‘I love this dear man.’ We’d just finished our pint when the bus arrived. I assumed this meeting had replaced the one on Monday and I thanked Lewis for giving me so much of his time. He looked surprised, and said, ‘you’re not getting away! You’re coming to the Inklings meeting on Monday.’


As you probably know, the Thursday evening meetings of the Inklings ended in 1949, but the Tuesday morning meetings continued, with one alteration. After Lewis became a Professor at Cambridge in 1955, he came home for the weekend and went back to Cambridge on Monday afternoon. For this reason, the meetings were changed to Monday mornings. In 1962 they moved the venue from the Bird and Baby across the street to the Lamb and Flag.


Professor Tolkien was not at the first meeting I attended, but his son Christopher was there, along with most of the other Inklings, [[Colin Hardie, Public Oratory of the University, Fr Gervase Mathew, Dr Humphrey Havard, Commander James Dundas-Grand, R.B. McCallum, Master of Pembroke College, John Wain (not the cowboy) and Roger Lancelyn Green.]] I’d never witnessed anything like the conversation on that occasion. Lewis by no means did all the talking, or even much of it. He picked up on something I said, and threw it like a ball around the room. The subject was commented on by others, and pretty soon I was saying things that certainly did not represent my usual way of talking. We all know people who make us feel insecure and around whom we sound like fools. Lewis was the opposite. He brought you out. He encouraged you. You were your best in his company. By the time we’d had our pints and pork pies, and the meeting was ended, I was stunned at what had happened. To paraphrase Shakespeare, Lewis was not only ‘witty in himself’, but the ‘cause of wit’ in other men. Remembering that first Inklings meeting, I believe it was the first time I detected in Lewis what he once defined as love of one’s neighbour – ‘a steady wish for the loved person’s ultimate good as far as it can be obtained.’


Lewis invited me back to the Kilns on Wednesday. He then suggested I come out on Sunday so we could go to Communion together at Holy Trinity Church. After the service that Sunday we returned to the Kilns for breakfast. Lewis enjoyed cooking breakfast, and there was excellent conversation over fried eggs, bacon, sausage and toast.


After this we settled into a regular routine of thrice-weekly meetings: Monday at the Lamb and Flag, Wednesdays at The Kilns, and Sundays when we went to Church together. Lewis’s brother, Warnie, was at this time in Ireland. One of his stepsons, Douglas, was at home, and the other who I soon met, David, was in a College in London. The others who made up the ‘Kilns family’ were Lewis’s house-keeper, Mrs Miller, who lived in Kiln Lane, and his gardener and general factotum, Fred Paxford, who had been with Lewis since 1930. He remains in my memory as a man of immense integrity, completely dedicated to ‘Mr Jack’ as he called Lewis.


Lewis’s marriage has recently been made the subject of a film, Shadowlands. But at the time I found it hard to remember that Lewis had been married, and I said that he didn’t strike me as a marrying man. ‘That’s because we were together such a short time,’ he said, ‘and besides, I’ve always been a bachelor at heart.’ It was, however, indirectly through Joy that I came to understand something important about Lewis – his relish for what he called ‘rational opposition.’


One day after the Inklings meeting, Dr Havard - or ‘Humphrey’ as Lewis called him - drove three of us out to the Trout pub at Godstow. This beautiful old 14th century pub was one of Lewis’s favourite places, and while having our sandwiches outside, beside the river, Lewis told me what Joy had said about Southern men – which was that they dominated women. He asked what I had to say about the matter. I felt trapped. I didn’t agree with Joy, but I was afraid of saying so lest he be offended. I’d been brought up to think that if you didn’t agree with someone’s likes or dislikes you didn’t like him. Absurd as this may be, I think it is true of many people on this side of the Atlantic. It was certainly true of me, and up until this occasion it prevented me from enjoying ‘rational opposition.’ I tried to avoid a straight answer, but Lewis was persistent. ‘Do you agree with her?’ he asked. ‘Well, no,’ I said, ‘Then, what do you disagree with?’ he asked. ‘Everything,’ I said finally, ‘She was totally wrong.’


While Humphrey and I were inside getting more beer, I asked if he thought I had offended Lewis. ‘Good heavens, No!’ he said. ‘He loved his wife, but he didn’t always agree with her!’ I soon came to realise that for Lewis conversation was always about something, that the purpose of it was to argue towards truth. Furthermore, I sensed that this arguing towards truth has been one of the things Lewis enjoyed about Joy, perhaps was one of the main reasons they became friends in the first place.


[[Dr Havard was Lewis’s doctor and it was his bad luck to diagnose the aches and pains in Joy’s leg as fibrositis – rather than the cancer it actually was. Whether his wrong diagnosis made things worse in the end I don’t know. But, not surprisingly, it turned Joy totally against Humphrey, and during the period of the marriage Lewis rarely saw his old friend. After I’d been with Humphrey a number of times Lewis told me how sad he was he had to stop seeing him. ‘But,’ he said, ‘after Joy died we met up again and have continued as always. Wasn’t that good of him?’ He went on to say: ‘He was not a good doctor – but he was a good friend.’ ]]


Ever since I’d read Miracles during basic training I’d wondered what Lewis’s conversation would be liked. It was first and foremost very like his books: not that his conversation sounded ‘bookish’, but that his books are like his conversation. You know, don’t you, that nearly all Lewis’s works are written in the first person? Even Lewis had to repeat himself occasionally, and I remember him saying several things exactly as they appear in his books.