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C.S. Lewis’s Oxford: Where the Lion and the Witch Met the Hobbit

C.S. Lewis’s Oxford: Where the Lion and the Witch Met the Hobbit

It was at a 1926 English department faculty meeting that he met another Oxford professor, John Ronald Reuel Tolkien. The friendship propelled both toward realizing their literary worlds: Middle-earth and Narnia.

First impressions were not hot. “No harm in him,” Lewis wrote of Tolkien after their first meeting. “Only needs a smack or so.” The two soon bonded over a love of storytelling, myths and language. By 1929, Tolkien was sharing unpublished manuscripts with his new friend, and Lewis shared his poetry. “I was up till 2:30 on Monday,” Lewis wrote in a letter to a friend that December, recounting that he and Tolkien “sat discoursing of the gods and giants and Asgard for three hours,” referring to the Nordic mythological realm.

Tolkien, a Catholic, also nudged the atheist Lewis toward becoming a believer and a prolific defender of Christianity in his writing.

Lewis, raised Anglican, by his midteens “maintained that God did not exist,” according to his 1955 semi-autobiographical work “Surprised by Joy.” His mother’s death from cancer when he was 9 was his first disillusionment. He wrote in the book that “all settled happiness, and all that was tranquil and reliable, disappeared from my life.”

Influenced partly by his Oxford friends, Lewis gradually came to believe in God by the end of the 1920s, but did not yet consider himself Christian. The shift was catalyzed by a now-fabled after-dinner walk on Sept. 19, 1931, with Tolkien and the English academic Hugo Dyson, where talk of poetry, myth and religion bled into the early hours. Lewis declared a change of heart: “I have passed on from believing in God to definitely believing in Christ,” he wrote in a letter on Oct. 1, “a long night talk with Dyson and Tolkien had a lot to do with it.”

Christian themes underpinned Lewis’s fiction that followed. Aslan the Lion, a main character in the Narnia series, is widely interpreted as a Jesus figure: He sacrifices himself and is ridiculed, but is later resurrected to save the realm.

Lewis’s epiphany-inducing night stroll was around Addison’s Walk, a leafy mile-long track within Magdalen College. I retraced their steps for 40 minutes, taking in peaceful scenes of the River Cherwell, of trees turning russet, of people boating on the water and of a herd of deer in a nearby field. If ever there was a setting for lofty conversations, I thought, Addison’s Walk felt right.

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