It’s July 8, 1917. The Great War rages on the Continent and an 18-year-old C. S. Lewis settles into his new life at the University of Oxford. Studies are on hold, the school nearly empty. Most his peers are on the battlefield, many already dead. He himself will reach the trenches of France within a few months, arriving there on his 19th birthday. He will sustain injuries and return to England to convalesce, after which he will resume his academic pursuits and launch his career as a scholar and writer. But not yet, not at the moment he writes a letter to his long-time friend and correspondent, Arthur Greeves, back in Ireland. In this latest missive, he tells of a moving experience from the night before.
These days, he spends most his time at nearby Keble College training for military service, living there in temporary barracks, but returning to his rooms at University College on weekends. Though Irish and exempt from conscription, he serves anyway, entering the army through the University Officers’ Training Corps. Military service is, perhaps, an odd fit for him. The teenage Lewis was bookish, by his own admission fat, not particularly patriotic, and seems to have little respect for the army and soldiering. “Write me a nice long letter and help keep up other interests amid all this damned military show,” he tells Arthur on one occasion.
He is understandably afraid of what’s to come, but also surprisingly resigned. His father is anxious that his son should be in the artillery, assuming this to be safer. Jack (as he was known) is more realistic, seeing the more dangerous infantry to be his fate. He lacks the “advanced mathematics” required for an artillery appointment for one thing, and he is uncomfortable with the idea of his father influencing the army’s decision to secure protections others do not enjoy: “It is true that you might get me in by influence. But would it not be very wrong for mere reasons of safety, to push me into a responsible position for which I know I am absolutely unfit?” He later reports his respect for the Commanding Officer of the 3rd Somerset Light Infantry, and comradeship with other soldiers, as further incentives to stay where he is.
With an uncertain future ahead, just months before reaching France, Lewis settles into his letter. “Last night,” he tells Arthur, “I wandered out into the deserted [quad of University College] and, after ‘strolling’ for some time, went up a staircase where nobody ever goes in these days into the oldest part of the College.” There is an artistic flair to his storytelling here, as he establishes an eerie, gothic atmosphere, complete with tiny, ivy-covered windows, gloomy halls and rooms, and a descending darkness. “I walked up and down long passages,” he continues, “with locked rooms on each side, reveling in ‘desolation.’” Most of the student rooms are locked, but – readers see this coming after the dramatic setup –“by good luck I found one open and went in.” He observes the name Carter inscribed on the door.
There is a deep sense of melancholy at this moment. It seems to Lewis “almost sacrilege to turn on the lights in such a forsaken place, but I simply had to inspect it.” The furniture is just as its former resident left it, his photos on the wall, his books in place: a copy of Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy, one of Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones. A snapshot of a young student’s life, one now in the trenches instead of Oxford’s lecture halls. Lewis finds the experience moving and tells Arthur, “I suppose this sounds trivial to you: but perhaps you can picture the strange poetry of the thing in such a time and place. I wonder who Carter is, and if he has been killed yet, and why he left his pile of music so untidily on the dressing table?”
Lewis couldn’t have known that the student whose room he visited was Canadian: Mr. Arthur Norwood Carter, who came to Oxford from New Brunswick as a Rhodes Scholar. He survived the war and was awarded the Military Cross on March 6, 1918.
After continuing his evening rambles with a visit to the clock tower with its “cobwebs,” he returns to his rooms for some relief, finding the empty school “a bit creepy.” And once there, he settles into Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene for comfort, an epic poem of knights in armor, heroism, and service to Queen and country.
Lewis closes this letter, as he often does in correspondence with Arthur, by discussing his literary ambitions, the hope of getting “my stuff” published. (He would eventually release his first book, a collection of poems, in 1919). There’s a connection here, I think, between the brief glimpses of Lewis-the-soldier and Lewis-the-would-be-author in letters around this time. To his mind, both careers seem doomed to failure. He tells Arthur, with respect to his longing to write books, “What castles in the air – but still better have a cloud castle than no castle at all.”
An intriguing expression. His extravagant, ambitious desire to publish is likely nothing more than a pipe dream, but he recognizes the dreaming itself is what really matters. At the same time, the fat, bookish, unlikely soldier retreats into Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene, of all things. Though unfit for the artillery and, in many other ways, a less than ideal candidate for service, this frightened solider on the eve of battle finds comfort in a chivalrous romance about knights slaying dragons and other enemies of the realm. A bit of escapism, yes, but also an embrace of the heroic, as if to say, “My career as a soldier is not likely to end any better than my efforts to publish, but duty calls and I must try my best.” Imagination, those castles in the sky, as inspiration. Imagination, sparked by Spenser’s tales of the Redcrosse Knight and others, as solace to one about to face his own dragon.
For this letter and other letters of the period, see C. S. Lewis, Collected Letters, Volume 1: Family Letters 1905–1931, ed. Walter Hooper.
Michael Gilmour teaches English and biblical literature at Providence University College. His latest book is Animals in the Writings of C. S. Lewis (Palgrave Macmillan, 2017).