Tuesday, March 10, 2009


So, I've recently been enjoying listening again to my audiotape of John Lawlor's C. S. LEWIS: MEMORIES & REFLECTIONS, read (wonderfully!) by Bernard Mayes.* Last Friday, at Work at John's Day, I was describing how Lawlor says CSL was a person with whom it was pretty much impossible to have a conversation, since he despised 'chat' and always tried to turn any conversation into a kind of debate. Hearing this, Anne Trent made the interesting observation that this sounded rather like Gandalf with his cutting critique of Bilbo's 'good morning-ing' in the opening chapter of THE HOBBIT.

I've never heard anyone make that connection before, but I think she may be on to something here. While in MR. BAGGINS I described Gandalf's determination to take conversational commonplaces literally as Tolkien at his most Carrollingian, now that she's pointed it out there does seem to be a shadow of The Great Knock** here. As Lewis himself said of his mentor, "The idea that human beings should exercise their vocal organs for any purpose except that of communicating or discovering truth was to him preposterous. The most casual remark was taken as a summons to disputation" (SURPRISED BY JOY p. 135-136).

And Lawlor makes clear that, to his pupils at least, Lewis adopted Knock's methods whole-heartedly. He describes CSL as an "unmistakably strident man", for whom all "talk" was argument and cross-examination: "one quickly felt that for him Dialectic supplied the place of conversation"; he was someone who "talk[ed] habitually, as Johnson did, for victory".*** That such an approach was extremely off-putting is shown not just by CSL's description of first meeting Kirkpatrick but by Lawlor's comment that "the young Lewis was at first as dismayed as any of his own pupils at a conversational technique indistinguishable from viva voce**** examination." Lawlor goes on to "deplore" the influence of The Great Knock, going so far as to state that "His meeting with Lewis was perhaps one of the least fortunate in intellectual history." [emphasis mine]

This cannot be the whole truth, of course -- Lewis could hardly have become a close friend of J. R. R. Tolkien, a man who disliked confrontation, had he treated his peers the way he treated his students, and it's equally clear that his daily interaction with his brother Warnie must have been much more low-key. Still, I know the next time I re-read THE HOBBIT I'll be on the lookout for any other mannerisms Gandalf might have picked up from JRRT's fellow Inkling. Just in case.


*This is the same Bernard Mayes who played Gandalf in the Mind's Eye adaptations of THE HOBBIT and also THE LORD OF THE RINGS back about thirty years ago; he apparently also did the adaptation of LotR himself. Mayes seems to be an interesting character in his own right, at various times being Fr. Mayes, Prof. Mayes, and a co-founder of Nat'l Public Radio (cf. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bernard_Mayes) as well as an experienced voice actor.

**aka Lewis's tutor, W. T. Kirkpatrick.

***to be fair, I had suggested that Lewis sometimes 'talked for victory' to Dr. Havard, who denied it, although he admitted that the other Inklings sometimes fell silent more to end the argument that because Lewis had won it. I think he thought that by 'talked for victory' I meant that CSL wd adopt any point of view in order to win, like the Gk sophists (which was not at all my intent), whereas CSL always argued from conviction.

****i.e., an oral defense required to get a degree.

1 comment:

David said...

That surely is how Lewis talked to his pupils in tutorial sessions, because he was trying to beat argumentation into them the same way Kirkpatrick had beat it into him. (And they either sank or swam. The ones who swam, swam very well indeed.)

But he certainly didn't talk like that all the time. At the Bird and Baby, Chad Walsh in his first book reports, "The steady flow of ideas is not a one-way traffic. Lewis is as good a listener as talker, and has alert curiosity about almost anything conceivable."