Now that Thanksgiving is over and Advent is upon us, the last of the leaves are falling from the trees here in Scotland and the hours of daylight are dwindling. Looking back on my first semester at St. Andrews, I realized how fortunate I was to have been able to celebrate in a very intimate way the lives and work of two ‘men of letters’ who are also two of my literary heroes. Both Russell Kirk and C.S. Lewis were fond of a saying attributed to Bernard of Chartes, which celebrates the debt we owe to the great writers and thinkers of the past:
We are like dwarfs on the shoulders of giants, so that we can see more than them, and things at a greater distance, not by virtue of any sharpness of sight on our part, or any physical distinction, but because we are carried high and raised up by their giant size.
I do not think it would be an exaggeration to say that the American Kirk and British Lewis are considered by many to be two literary giants of the 20th century who shared that quintessential ‘giant’ quality: they help us to better see. The view these past few months has been particularly clear, since anniversary celebrations have brought both writers back into the spotlight.
To start, this October, Russell Kirk’s family members, close friends, former students, along with St. Andrews alumni arrived in Scotland to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the publication of Kirk’s seminal work, The Conservative Mind: From Burke to Eliot, originally his doctoral dissertation at the University of St Andrews. As the names in the subtitle suggest and the intellectual genealogy within the book’s covers confirms, Kirk’s portrayal isn’t so much about politics (in the sense of policy issues) as it is about the power of the imagination—the “faculty of meaning” (as Lewis puts it) employed by creative thinkers who sought to conserve the very best of the past for subsequent generations, something they succeeded at only because they were able to speak to the present. This linking of the past and present was a palpable theme throughout the entire weekend’s celebrations, as visible in the physical presence of Kirk’s grandchildren as it was in the sharing of his ideas with a new generation of St. Andrews students.
Similarly, the C.S. Lewis Symposium and Commemoration at Westminster Abbey in London this November was a gathering of those who, as speaker Alister McGrath put it, shared the childless Lewis’s “intellectual DNA”, in that we had all been deeply inspired by him and are “linked to him through our imagination and reason.” This ‘bridge building’ between reason and imagination seems to be the key to understanding Lewis’s ever increasing popularity and persistent influence (many of his books, after all, remain bestsellers even 50 years after his death).
During the dedication of a stone memorial to Lewis in Poet’s Corner at Westminster Abbey, the last surviving recording of C.S. Lewis’s BBC talks during WWII was played and the final scene from Narnia’s The Last Battle was read by Douglas Gresham, Lewis’s stepson:
“Now at last they were beginning Chapter One of the Great Story which no-one on earth has read: which goes on forever: in which every chapter is better than the one before.”
Life was an adventure for both Russell Kirk and C.S. Lewis because they knew their own small role was part of an even Greater Story. Both writers attempted to bring others into that Story by reconciling the modern divorce of reason from imagination through that most irresistible of invitations: wonder. Because of their literary legacies, any child (or child-at-heart) who reads their fantastical tales will never look at an old wardrobe or the ominous door at the end of a spooky hallway the same way again. And as eager readers open their minds more with each turning page, many will find the courage to enter these magical portals and discover where they lead.
As T.S. Eliot (another writer I paid homage to during my literary London pilgrimage) said in his poem Little Gidding:
We die with the dying:
See, they depart, and we go with them.
We are born with the dead:
See, they return, and bring us with them.
The moment of the rose and the moment of the yew-tree
Are of equal duration. A people without history
Is not redeemed from time, for history is a pattern
Of timeless moments.
May the redeeming words of Russell Kirk and C.S. Lewis continue leading many to that realm of the timeless, giving us the sturdy shoulders we often need to better see the way.