CS Lewis: Beginnings in a Belfast Garden

Listen to a podcast featuring Lewis expert Sandy Smith and discover the iconography of Narnia inspired by Belfast landmarks  

In the third and final of Sandy Smith’s lecture series on CS Lewis at the Linen Hall Library. Smith discusses Lewis' departure from Belfast and the emergence of Belfast influences in his later writing.

In the previous lecture, Smith talked about how the death of Lewis' mother left the budding author feeling adrift in a world that was, in his words, ‘all seas and islands now'. Here, Smith picks up the thread of Lewis' life where he left it, with both Lewis and his brother Warren ensconced in separate English boarding schools.

It was an unhappy time for Lewis, both personally and scholastically. In his writing he comments dryly that his father ‘with extreme diligence researched all of the schools and then choose all the worst'. In his letters home Lewis asked repeatedly to be removed from the school and allowed to return to Belfast. Eventually his father acquiesced, and Lewis was enrolled in Campbell College.

‘You could walk that in twenty minutes,' says Smith, 'but Lewis was sent from Little Lea [the family home] to Campbell College as a border. That, in a way, tells the story of the unhappy home this had become.'

Smith picks out another element of Lewis' life in Belfast that was later to re-emerge as a part of the Narnian landscape. A version of the Lamp-Post in the Lantern Waste - which played such an important role in both The Magician’s Nephew and The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe - stood at a fork in the road between Campbell College and Lewis’ boyhood home. Smith imagines Lewis seeing it on his first day at his new school:

‘In The Magician’s Nephew, Lewis describes where the lamp-post originated as being in ‘The Wood between the Worlds’, and this lamp-post that he passed everyday in his school career at Campbell’s was between two worlds: the world of home and the world of school.’

Although Lewis was more content at Campbell, his father became concerned about the quality of his son’s education. Wanting to ensure that his son was accepted at Oxford, Lewis Senior engaged his old headmaster from Lurgan College – and the teacher who recommended he train as a solicitor - as Lewis’ private tutor.

So Lewis was sent away to England again, but this time it was a much happier experience. He and his tutor, WT Kirkpatrick, got along so well, in fact, that Lewis gives a nod to his old tutor in his most famous work.

‘Lewis recalls looking out the window and seeing his tutor out there in his garden, walking along with a spade. And he nicknamed him ‘Old Diggory’ and it is Diggory who appears in The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe as the old professor.’

Kirkpatrick and Lewis were also in accord over their religious beliefs, or lack thereof. Kirkpatrick planned to become a Presbyterian minister as a young man, only to abandon his faith in old age. By contrast, Lewis’ atheism came to him early in life and was only abandoned once he went to Oxford and met JRR Tolkien and the famed Inklings.

‘He was so disappointed,' adds Smith. 'He discovered that the people he liked most, and the people he valued most, held a very different opinion from his in these years.’

Without that theological sea-change it is likely that Lewis would never have written the Narnian series. Or if he had, it would have been a very different piece of work. The seeds of Narnia, however, had been planted long before that: in Belfast.

Smith brings up a slide photograph of bright red door on the rectory of St Mark’s Church in Belfast, where CS Lewis’ maternal grandparents lived when he was a child. The brass doorknob, directly at child eye-level, is a lovingly sculpted, oddly compassionate looking lion. The same lion, Smith has no doubt, that ‘came bounding into the story’ of The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe.

CS Lewis: An Exhibition runs from March 2 – 25.