C.S. Lewis’ Connections with Canada: A Canada Day Post!

Canadian biscuitsIt is Canada Day here in, well, it’s in the title, isn’t it? Canada Day is, unsurprisingly, celebrated in Canada, and by the millions of Canadians hidden secretly among the peoples of the world, waiting until the signal to rise up. We don’t celebrate Independence Day here because, unlike noble Americans who know how to throw a good war, we negotiated our independence over tea and Canadian biscuits (which are not cookies). So we have Canada Day, a grotesque splattering of red and white maple leafs through the nation combined with brilliant fireworks and a rare, tentative showing of Canadian pride.

In solidarity with Canada Day, then, I thought I would draw out some of the connections between C.S. Lewis and Canada.

There are very few. Canada isn’t very important, after all. Let’s be honest.

Canada-Day facepaintBut there are some, so I will give it a go.

Lewis had a Canadian aunt, which I think was pretty unremarkable in itself. But she was able to listen to a grieving nine-year-old with patience and love at his mother’s funeral:

Against all the subsequent paraphernalia of coffin, flowers, hearse, and funeral I reacted with horror. I even lectured one of my aunts on the absurdity of mourning clothes in a style which would have seemed to most adults both heartless and precocious; but this was our dear Aunt Annie, my maternal uncle’s Canadian wife, a woman almost as sensible and sunny as my mother herself (Surprised by Joy, ch. 1).

Lewis admitted in a 1959 letter to Sr. Madeleva that his Canadian aunt would tell him of her 19th century Canadian adventures with lakes and Indian villages. He later described her like this:

In her also I found what I liked best—an unfailing, kindly welcome without a hint of sentimentality, unruffled good sense the unobtrusive talent for making all things at all times as cheerful and comfortable as circumstances allowed (Surprised by Joy, ch. 3).

Sounds Canadian, eh?

canada_unionjackThe next reference to Canadians is at war. Just a small British out-port at the time, Canadians militarized during the two world wars and really made their name in the world. When a young, inexperienced officer named C.S. Lewis landed in France in WWI, it was a pair of middle-aged Canadian officers who “once took charge of me and treated me, not like a son (that might have given offence) but like a long-lost friend” (Surprised by Joy, ch. 12).

Canadians fought well in WWI alongside the British. After the war, Lewis sent a weird note to his father, asking for his opinion on the “Canadian Bolschevists”. “Canadian” and a nationalistic movement seem like a contradiction in terms, but there was an editorial about “Canadian Bolshevists” in the The Ottawa Journal on Jan 24, 1919, if you would like to look it up.

A decade later, Lewis wrote to his father on Feb 25th, 1928, and talked about the death of a Magdalen fellow, Mr. Wrong (yes, you have that right, his name was Wrong). Wrong was a mentor to Lewis, and we have this fun little look at a Brit’s eye on Canada:

He was always extremely friendly to me, and I liked him as well as anyone in College. He was that very rare and very delightful thing, a colonial aristocrat–being of an old Canadian family. His grandfather was one of the last people to fight a politic al duel; to which he was challenged on whatever corresponds to the floor of the ‘House’ in Canada. The blend is curious. It is odd to find a man who has canoed in Hudson bay and knows all about trapping and skunks and Indians, and yet who has distinction in the lines of his face and tradition in his outlook. No doubt, like other good things, it is disappearing: the influx of commercial democracy and the rule of the Bosses from the States will soon put an end to that element in Canada, just as (I am told) it has Magdalen.

Micmac Indians Poling a Canoe Up a Rapid, Oromocto Lake, NB Richard George Augustus Levinge 19th cLewis was right about American culture and Canada—though pop culture has been more influential than politics. I too have trapped skunks and canoed, though not on the Hudson Bay (rather the Morel River and its danger of beavers and mosquitoes). I also once challenged someone to a duel on Parliament Hill in Ottawa. It was a parliamentary page, and I was a tourist who paid $6 for a tour of the Hill. The page, who was a young woman studying French at university at the time, declined the duel and I was asked to please leave.

gilby's scotch adAfter WWII, during rationing, Lewis was getting food from friendly Americans. He also got a Canadian ham for Christmas dinner, 1949. Canadian hams are a little porkier than American ones, what with the diet of doughnuts and beer and poutine and mayonnaise on things. Lewis also got this Oct 26th, 1954 note from an American friend: “A bottle of Gilbey’s Scotch is on its gurgling way to you both from Marshall Ellis, Ltd., Canada.” Hard to deny that Canada is awesome.

Among the most puzzling Canadian reference is in Lewis’ Essay “Hedonics”:

But of all London the most complete terra incognita is the suburbs. Swiss Cottage or Maida Vale are to me, if not exactly names like Samarkand or Orgunje, at any rate names like Winnipeg or Tobolsk. That was the first element in my pleasure.

Winnipeg“Winnipeg,” you should know, is not a name that evokes pleasure in most Canadians. Not displeasure, just a general sense of “oh, I drove through there once: it was cold and flat.” There is a good Tim Hortons there, near the highway.

A very peculiar link with Canada is The Canadian C.S. Lewis Journal. Edited by the enthusiastic Stephen Schofield, I have friends who have published letters, stories, and news in the Journal. As the 1980s developed, Schofield and the Journal became very negative of Walter Hooper’s editorial work—part of the Kathryn Lindskoog controversy. Yet, here is Hooper’s memorial of Schofield:

This charming man was tireless in his search for first-hand news about Lewis. Despite his profound deafness, a wealth of his interviews with Lewis’s friends found their way into In Search of C. S. Lewis…. Schofield’s interest in Lewis and his world was unquenchable, and even after being diagnosed with cancer he did some of his best work with The Canadian C.S. Lewis Journal. He had published eighty-three issues before his death on 12 August 1993. The journal was taken over by Roger Stronstad who ac ted as editor until it c eased publication in 2001.

stephen schofield cs lewisI have a few of these Journal copies, but I had the pleasure of going through the entire series at the Merril Collection of Science Fiction, Speculation & Fantasy in Toronto. They are like an underground zine in the 80s, a cut-and-paste collection of essays, memories, and fandamonia. After Schofield’s death, Stronstad turned the Journal into a respected academic collection. With its death the last of Canadian C.S. Lewis societies disappeared, until the Inklings Institute of Canada began a couple of years ago.

Among the interesting and unusual things in the 1980s Canadian C.S. Lewis Journal is a greeting from Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, which includes an epigraph quotation from pierre trudeau canadaLewis himself:

Prime Minister – Premier Ministre

The Future is something everyone reaches at the rate of 60 minutes an hour, whatever he does, whoever he is.
C. S. Lewis

Clive Staples Lewis has indeed reached the future and will continue to do so, for his works were of inspiring and eternal wisdom. In paying tribute to a great man, and to use Kenneth Tynan’s words, “a classical writer, a mediaeval poet and a brilliant and vivacious mind,” The Canadian C S Lewis Journal is pursuing in its own way, the communication of those works. I am pleased to offer congratulations and best wishes of success.
Pierre Elliott Trudeau

Grand-Séminaire-Québec LavalA nice link with Canada is that on Sep 22nd, 1952, Lewis received an Honorary Doctorate of Literature from Université Laval in Quebec. It is a little puzzling as Laval is a French university, but Lewis’ Christian books had been translated into French. It is an honour, since Laval is one of our more respected universities, and is more than 450 years old—which is very old for Canada, which is only 149 years old today. Lewis responded to the Rector of Laval Monsignor Ferdinand Vandry’s June 1952 note:

Dear Monsignor Vandry,

Please accept my sincere thanks for the great and unexpected honour offered me in your letter. I do not know whether in order to receive it, I must be present before the Special Convocation on September 22nd. If that is necessary then I am compelled, with great regret and undiminished gratitude, to refuse the Doctorate since my other engagements make it quite impossible for me to visit Quebec in September.

Even if it is possible for me to receive the degree in absence, the question remains whether that would be held to imply any disrespect for Convocation or any insensibility to the great favour you are showing me. Naturally I would rather lose it than receive it under conditions which the University might consider as ungracious on my part.

I await your kind advice on these points.

Whatever the decision may be, I shall retain a vivid sense of the University’s kindness.

Please convey to all concerned my most respectful and obliged greetings.

canada day maple leafThat, then, is the Canadian Dr. C.S. Lewis’ connection with Canada: canoes, duels, hugs, French honours, ministerial nods, Scotch, hugs, editorial conspiracies, brothers in arms, Winnipeg and Mr. Wrong. Happy Canada Day to all and sundry, even those who are not Canadian. We are very inclusive on that point here.

About Brenton Dickieson

“A Pilgrim in Narnia” is a blog project in reading and talking about the work of C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and the worlds they touched. As a "Faith, Fantasy, and Fiction" blog, we cover topics like children’s literature, apologetics and philosophy, myths and mythology, fantasy, theology, cultural critique, art and writing. This blog includes my thoughts as I read through Lewis and Tolkien and reflect on my own life and culture. In this sense, I am a Pilgrim in Narnia--or Middle Earth, or Fairyland. I am often peeking inside of wardrobes, looking for magic bricks in urban alleys, or rooting through yard sale boxes for old rings. If something here captures your imagination, leave a comment, “like” a post, share with your friends, or sign up to receive Narnian Pilgrim posts in your email box. Brenton Dickieson is a father, husband, friend, university lecturer, and freelance writer from Prince Edward Island, Canada. You can follow him on Twitter, @BrentonDana.
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24 Responses to C.S. Lewis’ Connections with Canada: A Canada Day Post!

  1. Callum Beck says:

    great article Brenton

    Liked by 1 person

  2. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    Great, indeed! Thank you very much!

    May I add a couple morsels? More than a morsel was George Grant’s membership in the Socratic Club, and, I think, his future wife, Sheila’s involvement there and the fact that she was tutored by Lewis. (But check William Christian’s biography and selection of letters on the exact details.) I wonder how much interaction there was between Canadian students, Rhodes Scholars and others, during the more than three decades of Lewis’s teaching, etc? Assiduous searching might turn up more famous and respected Canadian scholars, and others, in this category.

    As far as I remember, Milton Acorn was a great Lewis fan. There must be all sorts and degrees of that general influence of Lewis among Canadian readers. (And listeners? Was Lewis’s broadcasting relayed to Canada?)

    A very great, and probably largely unsung Canadian influence in the Oxford Lewis Society throughout most of its first decade was that of Terry Barker. (He also introduced me to the works of Grant – and Acorn! – and we started an Oxford George Grant Society as ancillary to the Lewis Soc, and had Paul Marshall talk – another Lewis fan! – and, if memory serves, had a joint Lewis-Grant meeting attending to Joy Davidman and Lewisian and Canadian tensions where ‘the Great Republic’ was concerned.)

    And, in what now seems almost the ‘pre-history’ of The Kilns in its restoration, William Christian stayed there while working on his Grant biography. (And Clive Tolley and I were both keen L.M. Montgomery fans, while looking after it. One wonders what-all Canadian authors, scholarly and otherwise, Lewis knew?)


    • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

      And, Happy Canada Day!

      Liked by 1 person

    • I forgot about George Grant! Ha! I tried writing an article about reading George Grant’s essay on the “University Curriculum” with Abolition of Man, but I never pulled it off.
      And I didn’t know about Milton Acorn.
      I didn’t comb through Lewis letters for individual references to New Brunswick or Ontario or whatever, but could have found a few new ones.
      Do Brits generally know the Canadian provinces and American states? I sort of know Australia’s but not New Zealand’s (just the two cities). I couldn’t tell you much about South Africa’s geography, and couldn’t tell you all the counties in England–just the general lay of the land. How much to British learn about the colonial world?


      • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

        Good questions – did I ever have a sense of any answer? – nothing comes immediately to mind! Who would have been taught how much, in which schools, and when? How much would have depended on the interests of individual teachers, students, families?

        For example, reading Lewis’s characterization of Mr. Wrong, I wondered whether Lewis might have made mental comparisons with Americans depicted in the novels of Anthony Trollope.

        And what of the popularity of Stephen Leacock in England for decades?

        And what of John Buchan, before as well as after becoming Governor General? His Wikipedia article speaks of his “knowledge and interest in increasing public awareness and accessibility to Canada’s past”.

        Canada’s past makes me suddenly think of Conan Doyle’s The Refugees: A Tale of Two Continents (1893).

        How would pop culture have nourished an interest in, and (romanticized?) sense of Canada?


  3. robstroud says:

    Fascinating, and quite entertaining as well. May offer my own wishes for a safe and proud Canada Day as well.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. My greetings to you on Canada Day. Just as it would appear were Lewis’s experiences with Canadians all of mine have been happy ones including working with a number of Canadian colleagues when teaching in Zambia. I also have some distant relatives (I hope!) in Canada; an Italian family, some of whom stayed in London and married into my father’s family, others who went on to Canada. I hope they prospered there.


  5. mitchteemley says:

    Why are there not a bajillion Likes here? Delightful whimsy about Canada, AND C. S. Lewis quotes to boot! Yay, eh!


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  7. James says:

    Excellent writing Brenton! Truly astounding 😉

    Liked by 1 person

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  9. L.A. Smith says:

    Whoops! Missed this on Canada Day but catching up now! Wonderful post – most of these Canadian connections I did not know. Great little tidbits here….although as a Westerner I could have done without the Trudeau connection….. 😉


    • Yes, I remember the palpable distaste for Trudeau when I lived in Alberta, which was absent in other places I lived (Nova Scotia, Newfoundland, BC, and PEI). The National Energy Policy was the nail in that coffin I think.


  10. L.A. Smith says:

    NEP…..shudder……I think the fact that Alberta just doesn’t matter when it comes to national politics is the problem. All the votes are in Ontario and Quebec, and the rest of the country basically may as well not exist. At least that’s the way it feels at times!


    • See, that’s what everyone said when I lived in AB, but AB & BC were important for the last two elections–three really. And the Reform party, mostly West based, was implicated closely in wrangling the budget under control with Paul Martin. I think Albertans feel what you say; I don’t know that it is true.
      Whereas, here in the Maritimes, 4 provinces, and it makes no difference what we do. The alienation is palpable.


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