Friday, January 27, 2023




So, it's taken me a while, but I've finally made my way through Don King's new book, the first book-length biography of Warnie Lewis. It's not that long (200 pages plus notes) but does a good job of rehearsing the story familiar to those of us interested in the Inklings, expanding on it in the process. There is new information but few revelations: it does not widen our knowledge of WHL so much as deepen it.


For example we knew Warnie had served in World War I; King describes his duties, ranks, promotions, and the like, focusing on his experiences as an officer in the service corp --not on the front line but not far behind it either. 


Similarly we knew Warnie was a ditchcrawler who loved to take his canal boat on excursions on quiet backwaters throughout the 1930s; King recounts several such trips in Warnie's own words, taken from his now-lost logbooks.*


Those reading this book for its C. S. Lewis connection may be distressed over the detailed description of Warnie's alcoholism, binge by binge, and Warnie (and King's) treatment of Janie Moore, the love of CSL's life.


First off, there's the oddity of his usage 'Moore'. In his Introduction King explains how, finding it awkward to have two Lewises on his hands (CSL and WHL), he chooses in the pages which follow to call W. H. Lewis, the subject of this biography, 'Warnie', which is standard in Lewis studies. The younger brother, C. S. Lewis, he calls 'Jack' (the family nickname, used by close friends), despite knowing some Inkling scholars wd object to this usage (myself among them) [xiii-xiv].  When it comes to naming the inhabitants of the Kilns in the early 1930s, King calls them Jack (=CSL), Warnie (=WHL), Maureen (Mrs. Moore's daughter), and Moore (=Janie Moore).


The last of these four is usually called 'Mrs Moore' by Lewis scholars. But if King felt the need to refer to her by a single-word name, it wd have been better to use her first name, Janie, rather than her last, which has the effect of distancing her from the little community at the Kilns. This is all the more the case because when he comes to introduce Joy Gresham into the family she quickly becomes 'Joy' rather than 'Gresham' or 'Davidman'.


It's pretty clear from various accounts that Janie suffered from Alzheimer's (King refers to it both as 'insanity' and as 'dementia') increasingly through the latter half of the 1940s, until she was moved to a nursing home for her final months in 1950-51. It's also clear that her senility was a late development—the description of Janie M's room during the final stages of her Alzheimer's is particularly appalling:


On January 17, 1950, some relief came as Bruce —an animal that Warnie had come to despise as much as Moore— died. Warnie related that in the dog's final days, as Moore's mind began to slide more quickly toward insanity, having someone walk Bruce was an obsession for her. Often Moore insisted that Jack take the dog out three times in an hour. Warnie's disgust with the entire matter culminated in his writing: "For months past [Bruce] had [[defecated]] in M's tiny overheated bedroom and stunk out the house. How she stood living in what was practically an open latrine I don't know, but that was her affair . . . . I am resting now in a delicious unaccustomed peace; but I wish Paxford had been able to bury the stench as well as the dog!  (King, p.131)**


I have to say that given her limited mobility in her final years (King ascribes it to varicose veins), sharing her room with an incontinent dog makes Mrs. Moore's concern over getting it outside to do its business seems thoroughly justified. One wishes Warnie had stepped up to give his brother a break and just taking on the chore and walked the dog himself. Like I said, distressing.



Disturbing in another sense is King's suggestion that the Inklings may have unwittingly contributed to Warnie's losing control over his alcoholism. That is, attending two weekly gatherings which both included social drinking, one of them in a bar, cd have caused difficulties. Or, as King puts it:


Warnie's downward spiral was quickened 

by the frequency of Inkling gatherings (.146)


I wd v. much like this not to be true.


Finally, there's what I think the most valuable bit in the whole book: a compiled chart of how many Inklings meetings we have evidence for, broken down year by year (page 142). By his reckoning there are 93 documented meetings, with the years with the most recording meetings are 1946 and 1947 (17 each) with 1944 (16) a close runner-up. By contrast, there was only a single recorded meeting in 1941, 1943, 1952, and 1954, with none at all in 1953. Of course King's standards might differ from others over what qualifies as a 'recorded meeting'.


Interesting to see that King's tally confirms what I had long since concluded on my own: that the four members who attended most often, the regulars, were CSL, JRRT, WHL, and Dr. Havard.***  I hope King will return to this compilation and build upon it for a future project; it wd make a good book in itself. 


In the end: if you're only going to read  one book on or by the Major, it shd be BROTHERS AND FRIENDS (1985), the edition of his diaries put together by Clyde Kilby and Marj. Mead. And the second shd be King's INKLING, HISTORIAN, SOLDIER, and BROTHER: A LIFE OF WARREN HAMILTON LEWIS.


--John R.


*Warnie used these as the basis of several articles of advice on ditchcrawling; King discusses and summarizes these in his excellent essay "Warren Lewis: The Soldier Sailor" published in the fall 2021 issue of the JOURNAL OF INKLING STUDIES (Vol.11 Issue 1) pages 58-69.

**In one of the books on Joy Davidman we're told one of the first things she did upon arriving at the Kilns was to do a thoroughgoing cleaning of the Kilns. If King's account is fair then no wonder.

***What evidence we have suggests these were also the ones who attended the longest although King does not address this point.


Murilegus rex said...

Isn't it doutbtful that Warnie would have needed the Inklings gatherings as an incentive (or a pretext) to drink? Although Europeans in the early 20th century drank less than in the 19th century, it still was a time so nonchalant about alcohol* that an occasion like "male academics coming together to talk and drink" didn't stand out very much (or so I think).

* C. S. Lewis has Mrs. Beaver in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe serve brandy to the Pevensie children ...

Matt Fisher said...


You wrote "Disturbing in another sense is King's suggestion that the Inklings may have unwittingly contributed to Warnie's losing control over his alcoholism...I wd v. much like this not to be true." I certainly understand your reaction to King's suggestion, but I think it's also important to remind ourselves that both society's views and understanding of addictive behaviour were very different in that time period that how we view addiction now. So I'm not surprised that, in hindsight, specific things from the lives of Warnie or Jack or JRRT now look MUCH more problematic than they did when actually happening.


David Bratman said...

I haven't seen the book yet, but I did see the Inklings chronology that King published in the Journal of Inklings Studies. It was a very bad piece of research, making leaping assumptions about meeting patterns we have no actual evidence for, and arbitrary in its classification of what was an Inklings meeting. If it had limited itself to what we know, or classified its guesses and surmises as such, it could have been excellent. From what I've been told about the book version, it's no better.
I intend to review this book, so I'll go into more detail there.

Xanturi said...

Dear Mr. Rateliff,

I'm planning a hybrid MRes thesis titled Wonder's Native Haunt: Nature and Enchantment in the Fantasies of Lord Dunsany and J.R.R. Tolkien. My goal is to examine the similarities and differences between these two authors' outlooks on nature, particularly in regard to the ecocentric worldview and the sensibility/attributes of wonder and enchantment. As such, a large part of my thesis will be dedicated to the Pegana mythology and The Silmarillion. However, in months of research, having accrued around 60 sources, I've yet to discover a single study that discusses these works in any depth alongside one another. Very few nature-related studies exist on Dunsany, so it's not entirely surprising. Much of the critical scholarship on him is diffuse and is usually limited to The King of Elfland's Daughter in connection with Tolkien's recovery. I've read your thesis on Dunsany, and I found it very helpful. But it's certainly frustrating to see next to no critical studies on two highly related invented cosmologies from two pioneers of fantasy.

I wonder if you could help me with this at all. I can share other details about my project if necessary.

Kind regards,

Taylor Hood

I wondered

John D. Rateliff said...

Dear Xanturi

Hi Taylor. Sorry for the delay in this response. I wd be very much interested in learning more about your Dunsany/Tolkien project.

One stark distinction between Ld D and JRRT is that Dunsany's engagement with nature was much mort that of a hunter from riding in fox-hunts to safaris in Africa. Tolkien by contrast emphasized that the hobbits never practiced any blood sports (which I take to include, say, bullfighting). This is a major sticking point that I believe turns off a lot of readers of THE KING OF ELFLAND'S DAUGHTER with it steady diet of unicorn slaughter.

GIven you focus, I'd also suggest a close look at Dunsany's gods.

Best of luck to your project; Drop me a line if you'd like to talk more about Ld D.

--John R