A Well of Wonder: Essays on C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and The Inklings.
THIS POSTHUMOUS COLLECTION OF CLYDE KILBY'S Inklings essays brings to life the gentle, genial man who created that Rivendell in Illinois, the Wade Collection at Wheaton College. Kilby chronicles his meetings with the Oxford writers, most especially J.R.R. Tolkien, and explores the ideas in their works. In twenty-seven chapters (twelve on Lewis, seven on Tolkien, and one brief chapter each on Charles Williams and Dorothy L. Sayers), he offers lucid and occasionally luminescent insights into their prose. Kilby views them through an evangelical Christian lens, with the benevolent vision of a teetotal tobacco-free hobbit.
Kilby long loomed large in lore of the Inklings. He was the guest of honor at Mythcon I in 1970, and shared the Mythopoeic Society's award for Inklings studies with Mary McDermott Shideler in 1971. "Tolkien, Lewis, and Williams" was the lead paper in the Mythcon I Proceedings published in 1971 (34). The "Mythcon Report" describes him as "a good friend of Tolkien and the only American to have read parts of [then unpublished] The Silmarillion" (59).
In 1965, he founded the Marion E. Wade Center and served as its first director. In 1980, I proposed writing a long profile of him for Mythlore. He replied, saying that his wife Martha suggested he demur and write his own autobiography. In the event, he did not, but A Well of Wonder gives a good sense of the man.
After reading C.S. Lewis's "The Case For Christianity" in 1943, the first part of the later-published Mere Christianity, Kilby subsequently read all of Lewis's works, designed a popular course around the mythopoetic works of Lewis and Tolkien, and began a long-term correspondence with Tolkien that lasted until the author's death in 1973. Kilby's original correspondence with Lewis became the core of a collection of papers on first Lewis and eventually a set of six connected British authors who knew or influenced him: Tolkien, Charles Williams, Owen Barfield, G.K. Chesterton, Dorothy L. Sayers, and George MacDonald. This grew into the Marion E. Wade Center's formidable collection of manuscripts, first editions, theses, interviews, books, dissertations, and twenty-three volumes of Major W.H. "Warnie" Lewis's fascinating diaries as well as his letters and his eleven volumes of "The Lewis Papers," family journals and correspondence going back to 1850.
According to Well of Wonder, at the time of Kilby's death, the Wade's riches included more than 1,100 original letters to, from, and about Lewis and 850 pages of his manuscripts, including the "Boxen" stories, written and illustrated during his boyhood. Thirty letters to and from Tolkien, twenty letters to, from, and about MacDonald, and 850 letters from, about, and to Williams add to the hoard (303). The Wade also has become the home of such artifacts as the Lewis family wardrobe carved by Lewis's grandfather, famous from The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe; illustrator Pauline Baynes's original map of Narnia; Tolkien's and Lewis's desks; Sayers's spectacles; and many other items.
Lewis comes first and foremost in this book. One hundred and thirtythree of its 348 pages are given over to commentaries on his works, from "Logic and Fantasy: The World of C.S. Lewis" to "Till We Have Faces." In chapter two, "My first (and only) visit with Mr. Lewis," Kilby recalls meeting Lewis in his Magdalen College, Oxford, rooms in the summer of 1953. Lewis "laughed about idea of the scholar's life as a sedentary one, saying that the physical labor of pulling big folios from the shelves of the Bodleian was all the exercise he needed" (17). They spoke of Palestine, St. Paul, the recently deceased C.E.M. Joad, and the truths to be found in fiction. When Kilby asked Lewis about the relationship between art and Christianity, the author replied that "the same relation existed between Christianity and art as between Christianity and carpentry." "Both from reading his books and talking with him, I get the impression that he is far more fearful than most of us of the subtle sin of pride and tries in every way to escape it: thus his reticence to give an autograph" (1819).
Chapter seven, "On Music, Worship, and the Spiritual Life," is especially rich. Lewis's early musical guides were his boyhood friend Arthur Greeves and Mrs. W.T. (Louisa Smyth) Kirkpatrick, his tutor's wife. Both were pianists and introduced him to Chopin, Grieg, Beethoven, and Schubert and later to the symphonies of Sibelius and Beethoven. Lewis's older sibling Warnie had a gramophone, and the two brothers and friends usually spent Sunday evenings listening, often attending live performances as well.
Kilby's obituary of Lewis, "Everyman's Theologian," originally published in the January 1964 issue of Christianity Today, begins with this summation:
The death of Clive Staples Lewis on November 22, 1963, removed from the world one of the most lucid, winsome, and powerful writers on Christianity. We have reason to thank God that such a man was raised up in our time to become, as Chad Walsh has put it, the apostle to the skeptics. (43)
After praising The Screwtape Letters, Mere Christianity, The Problem of Pain, and the Ransom trilogy, Kilby concludes:
Like Albert Camus, Lewis believed death to be the most significant fact in the interpretation of life; yet, unlike Camus, he was convinced that man is primarily made for eternity. [...] But perhaps the most persistent theme in Lewis is that of man's longing for Joy. He calls this longing 'the inconsolable secret' that inhabits the soul of every man, a desire that no natural happiness can ever satisfy. It is a lifelong pointer toward heaven, a nostalgia to cross empty spaces and be joined to the true reality from which we now feel cut off. The culmination of this longing in the rhapsodic joy of heaven is, for me at least, the strongest single element in Lewis. In one way or another, it hovers over nearly every one of his books and suggests that Lewis's apocalyptic vision is perhaps more real than that of anyone since St. John on Patmos. (49-50)
In chapter eight, "Into the Land of Imagination," Kilby writes that
[N]o one has ever been able to explain the imaginative process, no doubt because successful creativity is as large as life itself. Lewis give a fragmentary sketch of how The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, one of his Narnian stories, came to be. It began, as his stories generally did, with a mental image, this time of 'a Faun carrying an umbrella and parcels in a snowy wood.' This initial bit lodged in Lewis's imagination when he was about sixteen, long before he became a Christian. Years later, he says, he sat down to see if he could make a story out of it. Had he not in the meantime given himself completely to God, it would probably have been a good story as such, but now 'Aslan came bounding into it.' Not only that, but 'Aslan pulled the whole story together.' Would the story become a Christian tract? Amazingly, in this book Lewis tied narrative interest and profound theology together, and we experience not only a multitude of details related to the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ but also note that he died on a stone table representing the laws of Moses. (110)
This reader wishes that Kilby had given more attention to Lewis's poetry than the five brief quotations he includes, but quibbling here seems akin to grumbling over a fine, filling feast that lacks a dessert of Turkish Delight.
Of Warnie, Kilby writes: "I visited with Major Lewis many times. He has told me very, very graciously, that I am a member of the family. I've been in the bedroom where Lewis died, up in his regular bedroom. In his last days, he couldn't go upstairs; he had heart trouble and various other serious ailments. I'd sometimes sit with Major Lewis at night and watch television." (299)
The last time I saw Clyde Kilby, I said, "You know, if one could have a favorite Inkling, mine would be Warnie." He beamed. "I'm so glad to hear you say that," he said, smiling. "He was such a wonderful man."
J.R.R. Tolkien entered Kilby's literary consciousness later. While Kilby "does mention reading The Hobbit at an early date [...] he does not mention Tolkien until in a 1962 class on Romantic poetry," according to editor Loren Wilkinson, who adds: "I had the distinct impression he didn't know [Tolkien's Middle-earth novels] well yet, and they were a very minor part of the evening discussion group in 1964. The books were not well-known and were still hard to find." (149).
Kilby met Tolkien on Sept. 1, 1964. Their friendship began then. Dr. Robert Havard, the Lewis and Tolkien family physician and an essential Inkling because he owned an automobile and drove, told Kilby to simply go over to Tolkien's home and ring the bell. Tolkien answered and escorted Kilby into his office, "remodeled from a one-car garage [...] pretty well filled up with a desk, a couple of chairs, and bookcases along the walls. [.] [He] was a most genial man with a steady twinkle in his eye and a great curiosity--the sort of person one instinctively likes." The two discussed Tolkien's friendship with Lewis, the financial strictures brought about by his retirement from Pembroke College in Oxford in 1959, and the popularity of the Middle-earth tales: "I think he was pleased" (177-78). To Kilby's surprise, Tolkien invited him to return three days later. "I was by no means unhappy to find him doing nearly all the talking. [.] Tolkien, himself a Catholic, told anti-Catholic anecdotes [some gleaned from Lewis] with a glow of humor and an utter lack of antagonism" (179). Kilby observed that Tolkien
was always neatly dressed from necktie to shoes. One of his favorite suits was a herringbone with which he wore a green corduroy vest. [...] His conversation bore about it a steady parturiency, like the sort of grass that sends out runners to root in every direction. One felt that his words could not pour out fast enough--there was a sense of the galloping on of all his ideas at once, along with kaleidoscope facial changes. (191)
Kilby attempted to purchase Tolkien's manuscripts for Wheaton, but Marquette University in Milwaukee had beaten him to the punch in 1957. But the author did invite Kilby back to Oxford to assist in the completion of The Silmarillion in the summer of 1966. "Two things immediately impressed me. One was that The Silmarillion would never be completed. The other was the size of my own task. How could I in a few weeks read, analyze, and give a critical judgement on such a mammoth literary effort. Actually I spent one entire day on one six-page section of the manuscript" (186).
Kilby was exasperated by Tolkien's dithering over the pirated Ace paperback editions of The Lord of the Rings, even though he acknowledged that those bootlegged books made his work popular. He understandably disliked Barbara Remington's cover illustrations for the first Bantam editions, and complained about W.H. Auden's condescending remarks about his home decor in a Saturday Evening Post feature story. All this distracted him from the task at hand. So did concerns about his wife Edith's health.
Tolkien's dilatory and unmethodical approach to The Silmarillion troubled Kilby. "It would be satisfying to record that I always found him busy at his writing, but that is not true. I did find him sometimes working at his Elvish languages, an activity that seemed endlessly interesting to him. I think he did a good deal of reading of detective stories and science fiction" (193). In the long run, "My negative criticism of the manuscript became more or less a footnote to the positive. Afterward I remembered that Lewis also believed that Tolkien could be influenced only by encouragement" (201). (Kilby also failed to obtain an introduction to Tolkien's modern English translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and The Pearl, to publisher Rayner Unwin's dismay. The works had been complete for twenty years.)
Kilby's portraits of everyday domestic life in the Tolkien household interleaved with ecological and literary opinions are an especial joy.
On our first visit there, he took me round the garden and gave me the history of nearly every plant, and even the grass. He said he had loved trees since childhood and pointed out the trees that he had himself planted. [...] Tolkien wrote a letter to the editor of the London Sunday Telegraph [on Sept. 19, 1973] taking exception to what he thought was an unfair allusion to his attitude toward trees. [.] He spoke of birds, saying that a certain blackbird was now tame enough to eat out of Mrs. Tolkien's hand. (192-93)
Tolkien and his wife spoke often and affectionately about their children and grandchildren. Kilby, who was childless, wrote: "I have a great yen for children. I have no children, but I love children. Some people say that it's because I'm not around them long enough" (321). Kilby observed, though, that while he "got the impression that [Tolkien] expected to live to a very old age [...] both he and Mrs. Tolkien were then in need of some attention from physicians. Both complained of rheumatism, which they felt was accentuated by wet weather. [...] One day the idea arose of taking a walk over some path he and Lewis had once covered, but he said it was no longer possible for him to walk far." (194)
Comparing Tolkien to Niggle, Kilby concludes:
I might remark on one apparent difference between Niggle and his counterpart. Niggle was up on his ladder at work when the Inspector in black came to take him away. My own impression was that Tolkien, despite protestations to the contrary, had greatly slowed down and perhaps seldom climbed the ladder clear to the top at all. I hope I am wrong. And even if I am right, might not a Niggle at seventy-four deserve a recess from the heights? (203)
After 1966, Kilby never saw Tolkien again. Kilby invited him to come to Wheaton College, but Tolkien demurred, as he had declined Marquette's offer ten years earlier. "In December 1967, he wrote me that his work had 'proceeded hardly at all' for a year. 'I have been so distracted by business and family affairs (interlocked), and my dear wife's health, which doesn't improve [...] and I can no longer burn so much of the wrong end of the candle as I used to'" (207).
In February 1973, Kilby wrote again invited Tolkien to come to Wheaton. "He answered that he was unable to accept. 'My age alone is I think sufficient reason but I have been in medical hands lately and have had some severe advice with regard to my future conduct.' Of his life between then and September 2, when the Inspector in black came for him, I know little" (208.)
Kilby's six-page summation of Charles Williams reveals understanding, if not admiration, for that Inkling. He states that Descent into Hell is "perhaps the best of Williams's novels. It most clearly reveals how Williams welds events and Christian meaning together" (263).
Kilby gives the four remaining Wade authors less time and space. He praises Sayers's theological essays, noting "that both Dorothy Sayers and G.K. Chesterton, each an effective Christian apologist, were famous as detective-story writers, where a sense of paradox is essential" (268). Kilby is succinct in his reading recommendations on Chesterton ("I would unquestionably say Orthodoxy and The Everlasting Man were good beginnings. At least they were for me."), Barfield ("I would certainly suggest History in English Words"), and MacDonald ("There is no question, the children's books, any of them. They're all so beautiful, especially The Princess and the Goblin. In my opinion, that's the best book he wrote. At the Back of the North Wind is his second-best book") (323).
A Well of Wonder belongs on every Inklings scholar's shelf. As a recovering reporter, this reviewer especially admires Kilby's interviewing skills, the foremost of which was simply being a good listener. His puissant perusals of the published, and, in the case of his 1966 summer of working with Tolkien on The Silmarillion, the unpublished works of the authors he writes about here are what make this book so extraordinarily valuable.
In A Well of Wonder, years of Inklings study and first-hand experiences come together in a rich and robust scholarly chronicle. Clyde Kilby enjoyed friendships and conversations that Mythlore readers can only dream about. Reading this book, those dreams come true.
Thanks to Laura Schmidt for research assistance.
Alpajpuri, and Bernie Zuber. "Mythcon Report." Mythcon I, Harvey Mudd College, Claremont, CA, 1970. Ed. Glen GoodKnight. Los Angeles: Mythopoeic Society, 1970. 59.
Kilby, C.S. "Tolkien, Lewis, and Williams." Mythcon I, Harvey Mudd College, Claremont, CA, 1970. Ed. Glen GoodKnight. Los Angeles: Mythopoeic Society, 1970. 3-4.