I suppose there is a tendency to imagine C.S. Lewis as an introspective, brooding sort of fellow. A friend of mine recently pointed out that this image may be because of Anthony Hopkins’ interpretation of Lewis in Shadowlands–a performance that has certainly left an imprint on me fifteen years after seeing it. But I think the image of Lewis captured in David Downing’s, Looking for the King, is far closer to the truth. Downing portrays an approachable, friendly, curious fellow with an affinity for cider and the laughter of close friends.
As much as I appreciate Hopkins’ performance, the more I read of Lewis’ journals and letters–not to mention the humour that laces his fantasy works–the more I’m certain that Lewis loved laughter, and loved friendship.
There is a letter that C.S. Lewis wrote in 1948 that, I think, captures the humour that infiltrated Lewis’ life and the life his friends, the Inklings. It was after WWII, and although rationing had officially ceased, some things were simply impossible to get in England. Lewis’ letters of the period include dozens where he thanks people–usually Americans–for gifts they sent him in those lean days.
One of these generous benefactors was a prominent American doctor, Warfield Firor. Dr. Firor shared an extended correspondence with Lewis, and invited him to visit in the Rocky Mountains, though Lewis could never make it. Throughout this post-WWII period, Dr. Firor sent a number of gifts. These packages of meats and sweats and fortified drinks from Lewis’ fans, friends and supporters were always gratefully acknowledged.
And they were often shared.
One ham sent by Dr. Firor, in particular, has become a ham of note in the history of literature. Here is a letter from Lewis dated March 12, 1948:
My dear Dr. Firor,
Though I have already written to thank you for your grand present of the ham, that letter was written before tasting it: and now having done so, I feel that common decency demands further and heartier thanks.
The fate of the ham was this: we have a small informal literary club which meets in my rooms every Thursday for beer and talk, and–in happier times–for an occasional dinner. And last night, having your ham to dine off, we had a meal which eight members attended. By diligent ‘scraping the bottom of the barrel’ in various colleges we got two bottles of burgundy and two of port: the college kitchen supplied soup, fish and a savoury: and we had a delightful evening. This by English standards is a banquet rarely met with, and all agreed that they had’nt eaten such a dinner for five years or more.
I enclose a little souvenir of the occasion which may amuse you.
With our very best thanks for all the happiness you gave us,
Despite the hamhock pun, the reader can immediately see the light tone. This is the second official letter from the Oxford don regarding the ham–the previous one described it as “that magnificent ham.”
But there’s more.
There is also a note attached, a splendid specimen of Inklings humour. Walter Hooper includes a copy of the note in The Collected Letters of C.S. Lewis: Volume II: Books, Broadcasts, and the War (1931-1949). It is a bit difficult to capture in print, but here it is:
The undersigned, having just partaken of your ham, have drunk your health:
Lewis adds this note to the bottom of the letter:
As some have not v. legible signatures, I had better say the list runs; C.S. Lewis, H. V. Dyson, Lord David Cecil, W. H. Lewis, C. Hardie, C. R. Tolkien, R. E. Havard, J. R. R. Tolkien. The order is just as we happened to be sitting. Tolkien père is the senior and T. fils the baby.
Dr. Firor, who has a named chair at John Hopkins, would later go on to donate his Lewis collection to the Bodleian and sponsor important work in Lewis studies. And Lewis would go on to receive more packages from supporters. I read of one, once, that included fresh eggs, bacon, and butter–betraying a confidence in the postal system that I do not have.
I think, though, that this note, written in all its false seriousness, should dispel our image of Lewis or Tolkien as brooding intellectuals or humourless introverts. After all, the great Oxford Don and Cambridge Professor C.S. Lewis, the author of works of literature, critical theory, philosophy, and poetry, was able to sign a letter, “yours Ham-icably.” It seems he was able to ham it up with the best of them.