C.S. Lewis’ Amazing 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–and unlike our British neighbours who have seeking new ways to be Brexcellent–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, culminating in 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. except in our own minds. As we look to be the most stable of the new world nations, led by a drama teacher keen on keeping the country in the commonwealth, it is perhaps our moment to shine.

As it turns out, 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 (in population, never in size) British out-port at the time, Canada 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: we are terribly indecisive about such things. 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 Morell 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 (the father of today’s Prime Minister, the drama teacher), 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. Americans, enjoy your day on Monday. Brits, let us know if you want to Brexperience a bit of life on these shores. To the rest of the world, look me up when you stop by. I do know Joe MacDonald.

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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8 Responses to C.S. Lewis’ Amazing Connections with Canada (A Canada Day Post)

  1. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    And leave us not forget George Grant, and that, e.g., Milton Acorn was a Lewis fan, and my old friend and informal mentor,Terry Barker’s engagement with and attention to Lewis (now in several books – most recently, Continuing Chesterton: The Passage and Revelation of Canada’s Renaissance Roots in People’s Poetry – or so I expect, as I have not read it, yet – not even, I blush to say, the sample at Amazon…) , and for instance, “C.S. Lewis and George Grant: The Ancients and the Modern”, but not it alone at the “Icons of Insight” YouTube channel:

    Having lately read John Garth’s accounts of Tolkien’s Kentucky Rhodes Scholar friend when they were undergraduates together, I wonder how many other Canadian Oxonians (both Rhodes Scholars and others) were part of Lewis’s life as contemporaries or students (Cantabrigian Canadians, too, for that matter, and others: also, fellow scholarly peers, even where they may never have met in person)?

    “We don’t celebrate Independence Day here because, unlike noble Americans who know how to throw a good war […] we negotiated our independence” – I have the impression there were various moments in Nineteenth-century North American history when (parts of) Canada were nearly incorporated into the Great Republic (or thought they might be), much as (ahem) Quebec was incorporated into Canada, which, if successful might have left y’all aspiring to a Canadexit and Independence Day of your own… (Canada’s place in “the American Empire” is, of course, a very Grantian theme: cf. Lament for a Nation, among other works.)


    • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

      And, as I should indeed have begun, A Happy Canada Day to you all! (I’ve long enjoyed, at second hand, of course, and rather cerebrally at that (tea and biscuits ought to have been added oftener!), Victoria Day and Commonwealth Day, as well.)


    • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

      Note also Ron Dart’s Wikipedia article, where, among his most recent works, is listed C.S. Lewis and Bede Griffiths: Chief Companions (2016).


    • I’m reading Garth now, and haven’t gotten to Kentucky!
      On Grant, thanks for the link. I probably should have mentioned the link with Lewis, but I don’t know that anyone in the world knows of Canada’s most important public intellectuals.
      And, yes, “British North America” and the United States had negotiated borders for a long time. We are accidents of history and the intentions of both greater and lesser men.
      Quebec may still have a “Quebexit”–note, trademark on the name! Quebec still shares Scotland’s ambivalence to the UK and the UK’s ambivalence to Europe.
      I didn’t know about the Dart book–there you go!


      • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

        A dangerously attractive sounding word you have there, “Quebexit” – it makes me hungry, somehow (mysterious echo of ‘Weetabix’, perhaps?).

        Re. George Grant, tell ’em he was a friend of Northrop Frye (or don’t people know who he is/was anymore. either?). Telling ’em he wrote his dissertation on John Oman probably won’t help…. (not even if you tell ’em Lesslie Newbigin was a John Oman fan, I fear).


  2. robstroud says:

    Happy Canada Day to one and all.

    Thank you, Brenton, for another fine and informative article.


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