No one was more formative to the thinking of the young C.S. Lewis than William Thompson Kirkpatrick. Lovingly dubbed “The Great Knock” by the Lewis family, Kirkpatrick absolutely transformed Lewis’ way of thinking and set him on his academic trajectory. An entire chapter of his autobiography, Surprised by Joy, is dedicated to Kirkpatrick’s influence on him when he was Lewis’ tutor before going to Oxford. Lewis’ recollection of their meeting sets the story in play. Lewis had been prepared by his father for a sentimental old man. Their first meeting absolutely shattered that illusion:
At Bookham I was met by my new teacher—”Kirk” or “Knock” or the Great Knock as my father, my brother, and I all called him. We had heard about him all our lives and I therefore had a very clear impression of what I was in for. I came prepared to endure a perpetual lukewarm shower bath of sentimentality. That was the price I was ready to pay for the infinite blessedness of escaping school; but a heavy price….
He was over six feet tall, very shabbily dressed (like a gardener, I thought), lean as a rake, and immensely muscular. His wrinkled face seemed to consist entirely of muscles, so far as it was visible; for he wore mustache and side whiskers with a clean-shaven chin like the Emperor Franz Joseph….
Apparently, however, the old man was holding his fire. We shook hands, and though his grip was like iron pincers it was not lingering. A few minutes later we were walking away from the station.
“You are now,” said Kirk, “proceeding along the principal artery between Great and Little Bookham.”
I stole a glance at him. Was this geographical exordium a heavy joke? Or was he trying to conceal his emotions? His face, however, showed only an inflexible gravity. I began to “make conversation” in the deplorable manner which I had acquired at those evening parties…. I said I was surprised at the “scenery” of Surrey; it was much “wilder” than I had expected.
“Stop!” shouted Kirk with a suddenness that made me jump. “What do you mean by wildness and what grounds had you for not expecting it?”
Most students would be entirely destroyed by this conversation, but watch how fifteen year old C.S. Lewis processes it.
I replied I don’t know what, still “making conversation.” As answer after answer was torn to shreds it at last dawned upon me that he really wanted to know. He was not making conversation, nor joking, nor snubbing me; he wanted to know. I was stung into attempting a real answer. A few passes sufficed to show that I had no clear and distinct idea corresponding to the word “wildness,” and that, in so far as I had any idea at all, “wildness” was a singularly inept word. “Do you not see, then,” concluded the Great Knock, “that your remark was meaningless?”
I prepared to sulk a little, assuming that the subject would now be dropped. Never was I more mistaken in my life. Having analyzed my terms, Kirk was proceeding to deal with my proposition as a whole. On what had I based (but he pronounced it baized) my expectations about the Flora and Geology of Surrey? Was it maps, or photographs, or books? I could produce none. It had, heaven help me, never occurred to me that what I called my thoughts needed to be “baized” on anything. Kirk once more drew a conclusion—without the slightest sign of emotion, but equally without the slightest concession to what I thought good manners: “Do you not see, then, that you had no right to have any opinion whatever on the subject?”
By this time our acquaintance had lasted about three and a half minutes; but the tone set by this first conversation was preserved without a single break during all the years I spent at Bookham. Anything more grotesquely unlike the “dear Old Knock” of my father’s reminiscences could not be conceived (Chapter IX: The Great Knock).
This harsh treatment—an intellectual splash of cold water—was exactly the antidote Lewis needed to the warm bath of academic mediocrity that had been his education up until that time. His intellectual formation had been strong, filled with artistic influences, free play, a bright and curious older brother, wearisome intellectual debates with his father, and endless reading. His formal education, however, had been except for geometry a complete farce and often terrifying. “Some boys would not have liked it,” Lewis explained. “To me it was red beef and strong beer.”
The Great Knock was a naturally analytical thinker. “If ever a man came near to being a purely logical entity, that man was Kirk.” The “either-or” style of Lewis’ argumentation we see in his Trilogy of apologetical works—The Problem of Pain, Mere Christianity, and Miracles—as well as in the character of Screwtape, is certainly formed in those years he spent with Kirk. When one of his opponents were defeated in conversation and retreated with a “Well, you have your opinion…,” The Great Knock would respond, “Good heavens! I have no opinions on any subject whatsoever.”
Lewis, a confirmed atheist when he went to Kirk to be tutored, found his foundational atheism augmented by Kirk’s rationalism.
I have said that he was almost wholly logical; but not quite. He had been a Presbyterian and was now an Atheist. He spent Sunday, as he spent most of his time on weekdays, working in his garden. But one curious trait from his Presbyterian youth survived. He always, on Sundays, gardened in a different, and slightly more respectable, suit. An Ulster Scot may come to disbelieve in God, but not to wear his weekday clothes on the Sabbath (Chapter IX: The Great Knock).
These were formative times—1914-1917—and Lewis was being prepared intellectual in his teen years by a man who excelled academically, absolutely loved classical literature, and who saw in Lewis the makings of a great mind.
In 1921, not long after Lewis had gone to war and then excelled at Oxford, The Great Knock passed away. Lewis wrote a tribute of the man to his father:
I am glad that you sent me the wire. I am a poor reader of papers and should have been very sorry, through ignorance, to let such a thing pass in silence. Poor old Kirk! What shall one say of him? It would be a poor compliment to that memory to be sentimental: indeed, if it were possible, he would himself return to chide the absurdity. It is however no sentiment, but plainest fact to say that I at least owe to him in the intellectual sphere as much as one human being can owe another. That he enabled me to win a scholarship is the least that he did for me. It was an atmosphere of unrelenting clearness and rigid honesty of thought that one breathed from living with him–and this I shall be the better for as long as I live. And if this is the greatest thing, there are others which none of us will forget: his dry humour, his imperturbable good temper and his amazing energy–these it is good to have seen. He was a unique personality with nothing inconsistent about him–except the one foible about the Sunday suit: the more one sees of weakness, affectation and general vagueness in the majority of men, the more one admires that rigid, lonely old figure–more like some ancient Stoic standing fast in the Roman decadence than a modern scholar living in the home counties. Indeed we may almost call him a great man, tho’, as it happened, his greatness was doomed to reach so small a circle. I should have liked to have seen him once again before this happened (March 28, 1921).
The occasion of Kirk’s death brought up the tension between C.S. Lewis and his father. Lewis had left behind his father’s faith, though I see concessions here and there in the letters. Albert, C.S. Lewis’ father, bemoaned the fact that there was no funeral service for the great tutor. Note the intricacy of Lewis’ answer to his father:
I can of course appreciate your feelings about poor Kirk’s funeral. Stripped of all wherewith belief and tradition have clothed it, death appears a little grimmer–a shade more chilly and loathsome–in the eyes of the most matter of fact. At the same time, while this is sad, it would have been not only sad but shocking to have pronounced over Kirk words that he did not believe and performed ceremonies that he himself would have denounced as meaningless. Yet, as you say, he is so indelibly stamped on one’s mind once known, so often present in thought, that he makes his own acceptance of annihilation the more unthinkable. I have seen death fairly often and never yet been able to find it anything but extraordinary and rather incredible. The real person is so very real, so obviously living and different from what is left that one cannot believe something has turned into nothing. It is not faith, it is not reason–just a ‘feeling’. ‘Feelings’ are in the long run a pretty good match for what we call our beliefs.
I am uncertain about Albert’s response, but we see the reasoning impact of The Great Knock in Lewis’ early thoughts about death. Indeed, some of them are hauntingly similar to his thoughts in A Grief Observed, where, four decades later, Lewis shares his deepest experience of death.
While adolescent in formulation, his thoughts about belief her would mature. Indeed, Lewis himself would say that it was Kirk’s tutelage that eventually led him to convert to Christianity. It is with no little humour, I presume, that it is the character of Mother Kirk that carries him through to conversion in his allegorical conversion narrative, The Pilgrim’s Regress—“Kirk” being not only Kirkpatrick’s nickname, but the Scottish name for the church.
A more poignant tribute—even more than the sensitive words above, I believe—is the hidden character of The Great Knock within the Chronicles of Narnia. Digory Kirke, one of the heroes in The Magician’s Nephew and The Last Battle is also the elusive figure of the Professor in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. As they are sent to the countryside to escape the war, the Pevensie children meet Professor Kirke when he is an old man:
He himself was a very old man with shaggy white hair which grew over most of his face as well as on his head, and they liked him almost at once; but on the first evening when he came out to meet them at the front door he was so odd-looking that Lucy (who was the youngest) was a little afraid of him, and Edmund (who was the next youngest) wanted to laugh and had to keep on pretending he was blowing his nose to hide it (Chapter 1).
The children mostly have the days to themselves, but a rift develops between them as they refuse to believe the youngest, Lucy, as she has made up a story about a secret world in a wardrobe—a world that apparently only appears for her. Finally, the two older children seek the help of the Professor, who they are certain will find some way of getting Lucy to see sense or diagnose her with the appropriate mental illness.
So they went and knocked at the study door, and the Professor said “Come in,” and got up and found chairs for them and said he was quite at their disposal. Then he sat listening to them with the tips of his fingers pressed together and never interrupting, till they had finished the whole story. After that he said nothing for quite a long time. Then he cleared his throat and said the last thing either of them expected:
“How do you know,” he asked, “that your sister’s story is not true?”
“Oh, but -” began Susan, and then stopped. Anyone could see from the old man’s face that he was perfectly serious. Then Susan pulled herself together and said, “But Edmund said they had only been pretending.”
“That is a point,” said the Professor, “which certainly deserves consideration; very careful consideration. For instance – if you will excuse me for asking the question – does your experience lead you to regard your brother or your sister as the more reliable? I mean, which is the more truthful?”
“That’s just the funny thing about it, sir,” said Peter. “Up till now, I’d have said Lucy every time.”
“And what do you think, my dear?” said the Professor, turning to Susan.
“Well,” said Susan, “in general, I’d say the same as Peter, but this couldn’t be true – all this about the wood and the Faun.”
“That is more than I know,” said the Professor, “and a charge of lying against someone whom you have always found truthful is a very serious thing; a very serious thing indeed.”
“We were afraid it mightn’t even be lying,” said Susan; “we thought there might be something wrong with Lucy.”
“Madness, you mean?” said the Professor quite coolly. “Oh, you can make your minds easy about that. One has only to look at her and talk to her to see that she is not mad.”
“But then,” said Susan, and stopped. She had never dreamed that a grown-up would talk like the Professor and didn’t know what to think.
“Logic!” said the Professor half to himself. “Why don’t they teach logic at these schools? There are only three possibilities. Either your sister is telling lies, or she is mad, or she is telling the truth. You know she doesn’t tell lies and it is obvious that she is not mad. For the moment then and unless any further evidence turns up, we must assume that she is telling the truth.”
Susan looked at him very hard and was quite sure from the expression on his face that he was no making fun of them.
“But how could it be true, sir?” said Peter.
“Why do you say that?” asked the Professor.
“Well, for one thing,” said Peter, “if it was true why doesn’t everyone find this country every time they go to the wardrobe? I mean, there was nothing there when we looked; even Lucy didn’t pretend there was.”
“What has that to do with it?” said the Professor.
“Well, sir, if things are real, they’re there all the time.”
“Are they?” said the Professor; and Peter didn’t know quite what to say.
I’ll leave the reader to explore the entire story, but note all the influences of Kirk in this story. “She had never dreamed that a grown-up would talk like the Professor and didn’t know what to think”: this is precisely Lewis’ first experience with The Great Knock. The consistent, cold logic is ever present, even to the point of believing the fantastic until other evidence presents itself. Lewis puts his Trilemma—worked out in Mere Christianity—into the voice of the Professor on a matter of eyewitness testimony. Professor Kirke shares more than a name with Lewis’ great mentor: he is a tribute in fictional form.
Perhaps Lewis goes too far making his atheistic mentor a Christian character in his fiction—essentially baptizing him posthumously in print. But I think that Lewis really believed that a belief in God was the logical end of the kind of project that typifies Kirk’s life. In this way, The Great Knock was not only formative to Lewis intellectually, but in his atheism and rationalism was a key step on his journey to faith.