Jack & Warnie

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(Jack and Warnie, August 1908)

C.S. “Jack” Lewis (1898-1963) and Warren “Warnie” Lewis (1895-1973) were brothers. Warnie was about three and a half years Jack’s senior, and Warnie outlived Jack by nearly a decade. They had no other siblings.

Jack and Warnie always had a close relationship. Their childhood nicknames for one another were SmallPigieBotham (SPB) for Jack and ArchPigieBotham (APB) for Warnie. The nicknames came from their nanny’s threats to spank them on their “piggy bottoms” if they misbehaved. And these nicknames stuck till the end of their lives. Later in life, Jack called his elder brother his “best friend”.

Most people already know the life of C.S. Lewis. He’s the author of The Chronicles of Narnia series of children’s books (of which The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe was the first written and published) as well as The Screwtape Letters. Although he wrote other works of fiction, the aforementioned are his best known ones.

It’s likewise no exaggeration to say that J.R.R. Tolkien wouldn’t have finished writing The Hobbit as well The Lord of the Rings without Jack. As Tolkien himself said:

The unpayable debt that I owe to [Jack] was not “influence” as it is ordinarily understood, but sheer encouragement. He was for long my only audience. Only from him did I ever get the idea that my “stuff” could be more than a private hobby. But for his interest and unceasing eagerness for more I should never have brought The L. of the R. to a conclusion.

In addition, C.S. Lewis is well-known as a Christian apologist. In particular, his book Mere Christianity as well as the BBC talks from which the book was based were very influential in his day, and these were what made him famous in the UK. The book continues to be influential in our day. Lewis’ Miracles brought (among other things) the argument from reason to the general public. Philosophers Alvin Plantinga and Victor Reppert have significantly improved upon the argument (especially in C.S. Lewis’s Dangerous Idea: In Defense of the Argument from Reason). The Abolition of Man is a classic in many circles including non-Christian circles (e.g. among political conservatives).

That for which C.S. Lewis is perhaps least known, but which was central to his life’s work, was that he was an Oxford and later Cambridge don. Jack was originally educated in the Classics (i.e. Literae Humaniores aka “Greats”), which at the time was considered (arguably) the most academically rigorous of all disciplines at Oxford (e.g. it took four years to complete rather than three years as with most other Oxford degrees). He received a double first in the Classics, which was then (and perhaps now) a rare feat. However, Lewis later had to finish what amounted to a three year course in English literature but in less than one year in hope of improving his prospects for an academic appointment. This in turn was largely due to a declining need for classicists at the time and a burgeoning interest-turned-revival in English literature in the wake of WWI. Against odds, Lewis again received a first in English literature, then through a series of unlikely circumstances became employed as a fellow at Magdalen College, Oxford, where he tutored and lectured on English literature for Magdalen College students, and lectured on English literature and philosophy at intercollegiate events for Oxford. Jack achieved academic renown most notably for his books The Allegory of Love, A Preface to Paradise Lost, and English Literature in the Sixteenth Century: Excluding Drama, part of the Oxford History of English Literature series (which Jack dubbed “OHEL” as in “oh hell” for how writing it was hell).

Now we turn to Warnie Lewis. Warnie became an officer in the British army, retiring as a captain in 1932 (though later temporarily given the rank of major when he was recalled for service during WWII). He was trained at the prestigious Royal Military Academy Sandhurst, which is the British equivalent to the American West Point. Sandhurst had difficult entrance exams, but Warnie finished #22 out of over 200 students who passed, and became a cadet at Sandhurst. He served in Europe in WWI, Shanghai in the interwar years, and at the famous “miracle” of Dunkirk where he was later evacuated along with the other 330,000 soldiers in the opening days of WWII. Perhaps Warnie could have accomplished far more, but his lifelong struggles with alcoholism kept him from doing so. Some have speculated Warnie’s alcoholism resulted in an earlier retirement from the military than he would have wished.

As an aside, given how close Jack was to his brother, I suppose if Warnie had died at any point, it might’ve defeated if not crushed Jack. Not sure if Jack would’ve had the wherewithal to become who he became without Warnie. From their childhood imaginative stories about Boxen to doing Christian talks for the Royal Air Force which helped build the groundwork for his BBC talks which became Mere Christianity and much else beside.

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(Jack and Warnie, Summer 1949)

Like Warnie, Jack also served in WWI. However, whereas Warnie elected to serve, Jack (and their father) fought tooth and nail against him joining the British forces in Europe. WWI had broken out when Jack was already at Oxford. Jack had fallen in love with Oxford from the very moment he set foot on its campus. He once said: “Heaven is Oxford lifted and placed in the middle of County Down” (a beautiful part of N. Ireland near his birthplace). Jack knew he was destined for academia. At the same time, Jack knew himself to be quite “clumsy”, and he thought he would not likely survive in the trenches if he was drafted and sent. Jack’s father fought to have Jack become an officer since officers were more likely to survive, but Jack was horrible at mathematics (even with significant tutoring), which was a requirement to become an officer at the time. Then his father fought to have Jack join the military but be assigned to stay in the UK, particularly in Ireland as there was trouble brewing in Ireland at the time, which later turned into the Irish independence movement. In the end, Jack had to serve in the trenches of Europe.

Warnie did his level best to help Jack when he could. It turned out, though, that Jack was hit by shrapnel from a German bomb, which killed a fellow soldier standing right next to Jack, while it miraculously “only” seriously injured Jack. A brief letter written by a nurse notified Jack’s father and brother that Jack was “wounded”. It was unclear how badly “wounded” Jack was let alone if he would die. Warnie drove his motorcycle (Jack never learned to drive a motor vehicle his entire life) and raced to visit Jack in the hospital, criss-crossing dangerous terrain and potential enemies to do so. Much to his relief, Warnie found Jack alive and improving. And much to the entire family’s relief, including Jack’s, he was injured badly enough to be sent home to the UK to recover.

Jack believed church was for any and all comers, while communion reserved for Christians; in his view it was a serious, even sacred, matter to take communion. As such, it would have been momentous when, unbeknownst to either at the time, both Jack and Warnie publicly came back to the church for communion on the exact same day – Christmas Day 1931. The events leading up to this moment, that is, the events of Jack’s conversion to Christianity, are well-attested in his writings and elsewhere. Warnie had not taken communion since he was a child, but on Christmas Day 1931 Warnie took communion for the first time as an adult at the Bubbling Well Chapel in Shanghai, China.

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Above is the gravestone Warnie chose for Jack. Their mother died on August 23, 1908. Their father had a small bedside calendar in the master bedroom which contained quotations for each day. The quotation for the day their mother died was from Shakespeare’s play King Lear: “Men must endure their going hence”. After their mother passed, their father never turned the page of the calendar, but kept it on this day along with its quotation for the remainder of his days. As evidenced in the photograph, it was the selfsame quotation which Warnie chose to have etched on Jack’s gravestone.

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