The Jack I Knew

When Douglas Gresham was eight years old, his mother, Joy Davidman, introduced him and his brother David to the man who would eventually become their stepfather: C. S. Lewis, known to his friends and family as “Jack.” Gresham chronicled this remarkable relationship in Lenten Lands: My Childhood with Joy Davidman & C. S. Lewis(Macmillan, 1988). In addition to serving as the Creative and Artistic Director of the C. S. Lewis Company and co-producer of the upcoming film version of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe , Gresham has recently published a new biography of Lewis, Jack’s Life: The Life Story of C. S. Lewis (Broadman & Holman, 2005). In it, he calls Jack “the finest man and best Christian I have ever known.”

In the introduction to your new book, you write, “This is merely the simple recounting of the story of what I believe to be the extraordinary life of an extraordinary man.” What are you trying to offer in your biography of Jack that is different from the other biographies of him that have been published?

All too often, Jack’s personality and his traits of honor, courage, duty, and commitment seem to get lost in the verbiage that clutters the pages of books about him. His wonderful sense of humor, his consciousness of his own sinfulness and of his salvation from it—these are missing from most writings about him, yet they were the essential characteristics of his personality.

I suppose I have tried to write about what sort of man he really was.

Your book focuses on the private, home life of Jack, with his public life taking place off stage, so to speak. In what ways did Jack have a far more demanding domestic life than most Oxford students and dons of his day?

Jack’s unconditional acceptance of the responsibility to care for the mother and younger sister of Paddy Moore, his friend and fellow soldier who died in the war, resulted in his living a very difficult life for the 30 years that he stood by his commitment. Initially, when he was a student at Oxford, he did his best to provide a home and sustenance for this little family out of the meager student’s allowance that his father provided. This allowance would have been ample for one undergraduate living in college, but for a young man trying to support a family, it was a pitifully small amount at the time.

In addition to financial difficulties, he was always working, either at his studies, to which he was very dedicated, or in the succession of temporary homes that they inhabited. Jack found himself not only a student, but also a domestic servant, a handyman, carpet layer, occasional carpenter, removalist (every time they moved from one residence to another it was Jack who did the hard work), assistant cook, and so forth.

Amazingly, he was able to put his practical skills into a wide variety of tasks while still keeping up with his academic pursuits, and all this without complaint or resentment.

Jack’s brother Warnie thought it was a waste for such a brilliant man to be peeling potatoes and cleaning dishes all those years. How do you think such a life of domestic responsibility helped form Jack into the kind of person who could write Mere Christianity, create Narnia, and be the spiritual shepherd of millions?

Nobody ever learns how strong temptation can be until they have overcome it. Jack overcame many of the temptations that beset us every day, and having done so he gained a great understanding of the nature of temptation and also of people and their behavior. The private Jack was the man who fought against anger, impatience, intolerance, and all the other daily temptations, and mostly defeated them. The public Jack was the man who then went to the trouble of writing down all that he had learned from those battles so that others would benefit.

How did Jack’s sense of knightly honor and chivalry, which comes across so clearly in his writings, affect how he lived his daily life and how he treated people?

Those concepts are very much evident in the way that he lived his life from moment to moment. Jack was always ready to defend those who were defenseless, to help the helpless. He would step in anonymously to help all sorts of people in all sorts of need. Jack made his sense of charity a watchword of his life, and there are many today whose education is owed to anonymous donations from him. Jack paid for my schooling as one of his many charitable exercises long before he and Mother were married.

His sense of duty is exemplified by the fact that at the age of 18 he volunteered to fight in World War I when he had no need to do so [because he was an Irishman]. He felt that it was his duty to defend the country which had given him so much. “Greater love hath no man than this, that he lay down his life for his friends,” and Jack laid his life down day by day for the benefit of all whom he encountered and on a wider scale by writing his books. Who could count the millions of people whom his daily living has deeply affected?

What is your favorite story from Jack’s life?

I am rather fond of the time that he took 32 German prisoners during the First World War. Jack and his platoon were approaching a shell-shattered French farmhouse, and his experienced and battle-wise Sergeant Ayers didn’t like the look of the place. It was too quiet and inoffensive looking. So he suggested that Jack take half the platoon and conceal themselves in front of the house while he, Sergeant Ayers, took the other half and stormed the house from the back.

Jack and his men waited under scant cover while Sergeant Ayers and his men stormed into the back of the house roaring at the top of their voices and firing their rifles at the windows and doors. Immediately, the German soldiers inside came bursting out of the front door. Jack and his men immediately rose to fire, but the Germans threw their weapons away and raised their hands, crying for mercy. At once, Jack emerged from cover and calmly walked up to the two terrified German officers who were leading the men, accepted their surrender, and formally took them prisoner along with their men.

When all the fuss was over and the Germans had been sent under escort back to the prisoner-marshalling area, Sergeant Ayers gently reproved Jack, saying, “Sir, you might have at least drawn your pistol.” Jack had to admit that the thought had never even crossed his mind. He had to all intents and purposes been unarmed all the time.

Describe a typical day at The Kilns when you lived there with Jack and Joy.

It would often start before dawn as I heard Jack rise at about five and make his early morning cup of tea in the kitchen (my bedroom was off the kitchen). Jack would take a tea tray to his study and begin work on his correspondence. He would stay there until about 8:00, when he would join my mother for breakfast. Then he would return to his study to work or finish writing letters. I would go about my own pursuits, perhaps helping Fred (Paxford) in the gardens or paddling my kayak on the lake.

Lunch was at 1:00, and I was expected to be on time. Afterwards, Jack would usually go out for a walk. Sometimes I would accompany him, but more often he went his way and I returned to my own adventures. In bad weather, I would stay in the house and read, but it would be very severe conditions indeed that kept Jack indoors. Sometimes he would meet friends for a pint in a pub somewhere, then walk home and retire once more to his study, writing or correcting exam papers, or doing whatever duty was upon him at the time.

At 4:00, Jack and sometimes Warnie would join Mother for tea in the “common room,” and I would come in around then to raid the larder for whatever goodies were not guarded. Then the grownups went back to work, and I returned to the serious business of growing up, which I did reluctantly I have to admit.

Dinner time was 7:00, and the family once again gathered at the dining room table. After dinner, Jack would join Mother, and they would read, play Scrabble, or enjoy conversation until it was time for bed. Warnie often joined them, and sometimes I was there too. But more often, I was adventuring either in a book or outside. Finally, the day would close on a late evening cup of tea with some biscuits or cake, and then to bed.

You recount in your book how difficult a relationship Jack had with his own father. How do you think this influenced his relationship with you as your stepfather?

I don’t think it did. Jack was sufficiently self-aware to swiftly apprehend any behavioral patterns in himself that may have originated in his childhood, and if they were disadvantageous, he would curb them. The one he had most difficulty with was his constant fear of penury, a trait that he shared with Warnie. His technique for dealing with it was to give away as much money as was asked of him whenever it was asked or whenever he became aware of dire need in someone else.

What kinds of things did you and Jack do together?

Many things—walking, sawing firewood, discussions, entertaining visitors, all kinds of everyday things. We talked about almost everything under the sun.

Did he ever talk to you openly about his grief after your mother’s death?

It was rather more that we shared our grief with each other. If we tried to talk about it, though, we would both dissolve in tears, and that was a very embarrassing experience for those brought up to believe in the “stiff upper lip” philosophy of English schools of the time.

What is the most important thing Jack taught you?

To think (and I mean really think) rather than to emote, and that both men and women must learn to control their emotions rather than allowing their emotions to control them. CH

By Douglas Gresham

[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #88 in 2005]

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