Well, that’s the main reason I’m not writing a special happy birthday post for C.S. Lewis. True, if he were alive, we would be celebrating his eleventy-fourth birthday, which would be exceptional indeed. But he isn’t alive. He is dead.
And if he was alive, my career of telling people what C.S. Lewis was on about would be in trouble, wouldn’t it? After all, we could just ask him what he thought. We can’t have that now, can we?
But apart from my selfish reasons, isn’t it a bit strange to be celebrating the birthday of a dead man? Perhaps I’m just not as into this posthumous birthday greetings as I should be. Voltaire recently had a birthday, but I didn’t send a note. Today is also Madeleine L’Engle’s birthday, though I follow her on twitter so she must still be alive. And we can’t forget Theobald von Bethmann Hollweg, who was born on this day. I’m not certain who he is, but he has a very cool German name and is quite dead.
Perhaps my hesitancy to celebrate C.S. Lewis’s 114th birthday comes from my reaction to the community of those who cast a sort of saintly glow over the deceased British author. It’s true that The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe follows only Tolkien and Dickens in global sales. It is also true that scores of people continue to speak of the transformation that his literature has occasioned in their lives, drawing them deeper into the worlds of imagination and faith.
But have we gone too far?
Here’s a story sent to me by the widow of a student of C.S. Lewis’ named Eddie Edmonds. Eddie, who I had the chance to visit with some before he passed away, was the founding Dean of Education at the University of Prince Edward Island, and a literature student at Oxford in the 1930s, before his tutor, C.S. Lewis, was famous.
In 1998, Eddie was invited to Wheaton College to present a paper for the Centenary Celebration of Lewis’ birth at Mythcon XXIX. Now, it would only be fair to describe the context. Eddie was a reserved English gentleman from an important family line, a celebrated poet and scholar who grew up in an educational atmosphere that has since slipped away. He was welcomed warmly at Wheaton, and was soon surrounded by an array of scholars and fans of the Inklings.
While Eddie was a Tolkien fan himself, he was surprised by the Mythcon attendees. He found himself in the lunch line surrounded by elves and dwarfs and be-wimpled medieval women wandering through the Chicago suburb. Some of these supernatural delegates were at the table with Eddie and his wife, though they were “ignorant of my standing as Eddie’s wife,” I am told. When he stepped out they commented surreptitiously that he was no spring chicken. I would have probably agreed in that setting.
Needless to say, Mythcon is a lively affair. And as it was a celebration of Lewis’ birth, at one of the gatherings, the conference as a mass sang “Happy Birthday” to “Jack.” Eddie, a man who had actually studied under the Oxford Don and knew his intellectual habits, leaned over to his wife and whispered sotto voce, “The man’s dead!”
He is! Dead I mean. He still is, fourteen years later.
Now, it is true that I could make good use of his birthday to speak of our admiration of Lewis’ work, to retell his biography, to draw links between ideas, or to critique the myth while reconsidering the man, as some of myblogmates have done. But I won’t do that. He’s dead!
Instead, I’ve decided not to acknowledge his birthday at all. Eleventy-four or no, C.S. Lewis has died, and it is left to us to take up the task of telling stories and retelling the Story in the twenty-first century.
I will, however, find a way to get to Mythcon. I wonder how I’d look in a wimple.