Essay / Culture

A Terrible Little Stroll with C.S. Lewis

Who, I ask you, wouldn’t enjoy taking a walk around the Oxford countryside with C.S. Lewis? Surely, no matter what you wanted to talk about, that many-sided man, that generous soul and omnivorous reader would be able to engage you in illuminating conversation. Surely.

But no. In second volume of The Collected Letters of C. S. Lewis (Books, broadcasts, and the War, 1931-1949), Lewis tells a story about taking a terrible walk with somebody named Kenchaw, somebody with whom Lewis seemed to have nothing in common and nothing to talk about. “That Kenchaw man,” he calls him, in a letter to his brother Warnie who is serving in the military in Shanghai. Lewis writes the letter (dated March 20, 1932) with obvious relish in sharing a good yarn with his brother, but it really does sound like an awful walk. Lewis had only been a Christian for about a year, and this letter has plenty of the sarcasm, superiority, and priggishness that Jesus was going to work out of him in the coming years of spiritual disciplines. We won’t catch him being quite this catty again very often after 1932, but it’s interesting to know he had it in him.

“As a character,” Lewis says, “he is worth describing, or seems so to me because I had to go for a walk with him. He is a ladylike little man of about fifty, and is to-a-tee that ‘sensible, well-informed man’ with whom Lamb dreaded to be left alone.

Here is the rest of the letter. I’ve added a few line breaks to improve the web readability, but otherwise it’s just as you’ll find it in The Collected Letters.

“My troubles began at once. It seemed good to him to take a bus to the Station and start our walk along a sort of scrubby path between a factory and a greasy strip of water …

I blundered at once by referring to the water as a canal.

‘Oh –could it be possible that I didn’t know it was the Thames? I must be joking. Perhaps I was not a walker?’

I foolishly said that I was. He gave me an account of his favorite walks; with a liberal use of the word ‘picturesque.’ He then called my attention to the fact that the river was unusually low (how the devil did he know that?) and would like to know how I explained it. I scored a complete Plough, and was told how he explained it.

By this time we were out in Port Meadow, and a wide prospect opened before him. A number of hills and church spires required to be identified, together with their ‘picturesque’, mineral, or chronological details. A good many problems arose, and again I did very badly. As his map, though constantly brought out, was a geological map, it did not help us much.

A conversation on weather followed, and seemed to offer an escape from unmitigated fact. The escape, however, was quite illusory, and my claim to be rather fond of nearly all sorts of weather was received with the stunning information that psychologists detected the same trait in children and lunatics.

Anxious to turn my attention from this unpleasing fact, he begged my opinion of various changes which had recently been made in the river: indeed every single lock, bridge, and stile for three mortal miles had apparently been radically altered in the last few months. As I had never seen any of the places before (‘But I thought you said you were a walker…’) this bowled me middle stump again.

The removal of a weir gave us particular trouble. He could not conceive how it had been done. What did I think? And then, just as I was recovering from this fresh disgrace, and hoping that the infernal weir was done with, I found that the problem of how it had been removed was being raised only as the preliminary to the still more intricate problem of why it had been removed. (My feelings were those expressed by Macfarlane at dinner one night last term, in an answer to someone’s question. ‘Yes. He is studying the rhythms of medieval Latin prose, and it is a very curious and interesting subject, but it doesn’t interest me.’)

For a mile or so after the weir we got on famously, for Kenchew began ‘I was once passing this very spot, or, no, let me see –perhaps it was a little further on– no! it was exactly here –I remember that very tree– when a very remarkable experience, really remarkable in a small way, happened to me.’ The experience remarkable in a small way, with the aid of a judicious question or two on my part, was biding fair to last out the length of the walk, when we had the horrible misfortune of passing a paper mill (You see, by the bye, what a jolly walk it was even apart from the company!). Not only a paper mill but the paper mill of the Clarendon Press. ‘Of course I had been over it. No? Really etc’ (The great attraction was that you could get an electric shock.)

But I must stop my account of this deplorable walk somewhere. It was the same all through –sheer information. Time after time I attempted to get away from the torrent of isolated, particular facts: but anything tending to opinion, or discussion, to fancy, to ideas, even to putting some of his infernal facts together and making something out of them –anything like that was received with blank silence.

Once, while he was telling me the legendary foundation of a church, I had a faint hope that we might get onto history: but it turned out that his knowledge was derived from an Edwardian Oxford pageant. And now that I come to think of it he is exactly what one would have expected a geographer to be.

But I mustn’t give you too black an impression of him. He is kind, and really courteous (you know the rare quality I mean) and a gentleman. I imagine he is what women call ‘Such an interesting man. And so clever.’

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