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Addison's Walk

On an early Sunday morning, September 20, 1931, three 30-something English professors took a stroll together on Addison’s Walk in the grounds of Magdalen College at the University of Oxford:

  • 32-year-old C. S. Lewis (Fellow and Tutor of English Literature at Magdalen College, Oxford),
  • 39-year-old J. R. R. Tolkien (Rawlinson and Bosworth Professor of Anglo-Saxon at Oxford), and
  • 35-year-old Hugo Dyson (Tutor and Lecturer at Reading University).

Their time together had begun the evening before at dinner, but their conversation went late into the night.

After Tolkien left around 3 a.m., Lewis and Dyson continued talking until they retired at  4 a.m.

The following Tuesday (September 22), Lewis recounted the scene to his longtime friend and correspondent, Arthur Greeves:

We began on metaphor and myth--interrupted by a rush of wind which came so suddenly on the still, warm evening and sent so many leaves pattering down that we thought it was raining. We all held our breath, the other two appreciating the ecstasy of such a thing almost as you would.

We continued (in my room) on Christianity: a good long satisfying talk in which I learned a lot: then discussed the difference between love and friendship--then finally drifted back to poetry and books.

Later in the letter, discussing the writings of William Morris (a 19th-century English novelist and poet who had greatly influenced Lewis from his youth), Lewis notes:

These hauntingly beautiful lands which somehow never satisfy,--this passion to escape from death plus the certainty that life owes all its charm to mortality--these push you on to the real thing because they fill you with desire and yet prove absolutely clearly that in Morris’s world that desire cannot be satisfied.

The [George] MacDonald conception of death--or, to speak more correctly, St Paul’s--is really the answer to Morris: but I don’t think I should have understood it without going through Morris. He is an unwilling witness to the truth. He shows you just how far you can go without knowing God, and that is far enough to force you . . . to go further.

The following month (October 18), Lewis wrote to Greeves again about their conversation:

Now what Dyson and Tolkien showed me was this: that if I met the idea of sacrifice in a Pagan story I didn’t mind it at all: again, that if I met the idea of a god sacrificing himself to himself . . . I liked it very much and was mysteriously moved by it: again, that the idea of the dying and reviving god (Balder, Adonis, Bacchus) similarly moved me provided I met it anywhere except in the Gospels. The reason was that in Pagan stories I was prepared to feel the myth as profound and suggestive of meanings beyond my grasp even tho’ I could not say in cold prose ‘what it meant’.

Now the story of Christ is simply a true myth: a myth working on us in the same way as the others, but with this tremendous difference that it really happened.

You can watch below an imaginative reconstruction of their conversation:

Years later Lewis wrote a poem entitled “What the Bird Said Early in the Year,” which not coincidentally is set in Addison’s Walk, and has to do with a spell becoming undone.

I heard in Addison’s Walk a bird sing clear:
This year the summer will come true. This year. This year.

Winds will not strip the blossom from the apple trees
This year, nor want of rain destroy the peas.

This year time’s nature will no more defeat you,
Nor all the promised moments in their passing cheat you.

This time they will not lead you round and back
To Autumn, one year older, by the well-worn track.

This year, this year, as all these flowers foretell,
We shall escape the circle and undo the spell.

Often deceived, yet open once again your heart,
Quick, quick, quick, quick!--the gates are drawn apart.

Let him who has ears to hear, hear.

Magdalen College gates


Some readers might wonder about the relationship between this event and Lewis’s conversion to theism, and then his actual conversion to Christianity.

Conversion to Theism

In his 1955 memoir, Surprised by Joy, Lewis famously tells his readers that he finally abandoned his resistance to God, becoming “the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England,” in the Trinity Term (the eight weeks from late April to late June) in 1929.

That dating would seem to settle the matter. And it did for virtually all Lewis scholars, until Alister McGrath was researching the question for his 2013 biography, C. S. Lewis--A Life: Eccentric Genius, Reluctant Prophet. In short, McGrath believes that Lewis was off by one year in his recollection, and that it was actually Trinity Term of 1930 (possibly in mid-June). If McGrath is correct, then the conversation with Tolkien (September 1931) was a little more than a year after Lewis began to believe in God (June 1930).

McGrath came to this conclusion for four reasons:

First, . . . a close and continuous reading of his works--especially his correspondence--reveals no sign of a significant change in tone or mood throughout 1929, and even in early 1930. Between September 1925 and January 1930, Lewis's writings disclose no hint of any radical change of heart or mind, or even a pending change. If Lewis was converted in 1929, this supposedly pivotal event seems to have made no impact on his writings--including his letters to his closest friends at that time, Owen Barfield and Arthur Greeves.

Second, Lewis's widowed father died in September 1929. If Lewis's chronology of his own conversion is accepted, Lewis had come to believe in God at the time of his father's death. Yet Lewis's correspondence makes no reference at all to any impact of a belief in God, however emergent, upon his final days spent with his father, his subsequent funeral, and its emotional aftermath. Might, I wondered, the death of Lewis's father have been a stimulus to him to think about God, rather than something he approached from an existing theistic perspective? If Lewis discovered God in the summer of 1930, his father's death the previous year might well have marked a turning point in his thinking.

Third, Lewis's account of the dynamics of his conversion in Surprised by Joy speaks of God closing in on him, taking the initiative, and ultimately overwhelming him. We find echoes of this language in a short letter from Lewis to Owen Barfield, written hastily on 3 February 1930, which speaks of the "spirit" becoming "much more personal," "taking the offensive" and "behaving just like God." Lewis asked Barfield to come and see him soon, before he made a rash decision to "enter a monastery." Barfield was later unequivocal about the significance of this letter for Lewis's spiritual development: it marked "the beginning of his conversion." The letter reflects Lewis's language about the pressures he experienced immediately before his conversion. Yet this conversion is clearly ahead of him, not behind him.

Fourth, Lewis makes it clear that his behaviour changed as a result of his new belief in God. Although still not committed to Christianity, he now began to attend both his local parish church on Sundays, and college chapel on weekdays. Yet Lewis's correspondence makes no reference to regular attendance at any Oxford church or Magdalen College chapel in 1929, or the first half of 1930.

Yet things change decisively in October 1930. In a letter to his close friend and confidant Arthur Greeves, dated 29 October 1930, Lewis mentions that he now goes to bed earlier than he used, to, as he has now "started going to morning chapel at 8." This is presented as a new development, a significant change in his routine, dating from the beginning of the academic year 1930-1. The date of this change of habit makes sense if Lewis discovered God in the summer of 1930--perhaps in June 1930, right at the end of the academic year. This would explain Lewis starting to attend college chapel in October 1930. The Oxford academic year resumes in October, thus giving Lewis the opportunity to begin attending college chapel regularly.

McGrath further notes that Lewis was “unreliable when it comes to relating his internal and external world.”

When it comes to dates, months, and days, Lewis gets things muddled. Lewis himself remarked on this failing in 1957, shortly after the publication of Surprised by Joy: he could now, he confessed, "never remember dates." His older brother Warnie declared that Lewis had a "life-long inability to keep track of dates." When Lewis became Vice-President of Magdalen College, Oxford in 1941--a fixed-term appointment with essentially administrative responsibilities, which rotated around the fellowship--he was soon found to be incapable of carrying out one of the chief responsibilities of this role: arranging for the booking of rooms for college meetings or private engagements. Lewis simply could not remember dates. Rooms were double-booked--if they were booked at all.

Conversion to Christianity

On September 28, 1931--just nine days after Lewis’s conversation with Tolkien on Christ being the true myth--Lewis took the final step in embracing the divinity of Christ while riding in his older brother’s motorcycle sidecar on the way to the newly opened Whipsnade Park Zoo in Bedfordshire. He recounts:

I know very well when, but not how, the final step was taken.

I was driven to Whipsnade one sunny morning. When we set out I did not believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, and when we reached the zoo I did.

Yet I had not exactly spent the journey in thought.

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16 thoughts on “85 Years Ago Today: J. R. R. Tolkien Convinces C. S. Lewis That Christ Is the True Myth”

  1. Jason says:

    I ran article on my Facebook feed. The funny thing is that I just so happen to be in Oxford at the moment! I just spent the day walking around and even had lunch at the Eagle and Child, one of the places the Inklings used to gather. I’m going to head out now and see if I can take a stroll through Addison’s Walk.

  2. KC says:

    Well, I guess I can confuse Lewis for getting dates wrong. I have apparently been getting the personnel wrong in my remembering of the Addison’s Walk moment. I don’t know how many people I have told that it was Barfield–rather than Dyson–who talked with Lewis and Tolkein that night.
    Sighhhhhhhhh… Sorry, Professor Dyson.

    1. KC says:

      Oooops! I mean I guess I can FORGIVE Lewis for getting dates wrong. And apparently, I can’t even get my words right today. Sheesh!
      One of the things that has occasioned my mistakenly assigning Barfield to the Addison’s Walk scene was my acquisition sometime back of his book ‘The Poetics of Diction: A Study in Meaning.’ The dedication in the front reads, “To C. S. Lewis. ‘Opposition is true friendship’.”

    2. Catriona Speight says:

      In the second reason McGrath gave you cite the death of Lewis’s faith as a possible catalyst to conversion. Is that not meant to be the death of Lewis’s father?

  3. doug sayers says:

    Thanks for this one Justin. Always enjoy hearing the testimonies of believers.

    Interesting that theism preceded faith in Christ. It seems that we must belong to the Father, by faith, before we can embrace the Son, by faith. Heb 11.

  4. Nathan says:

    Not knowing the context of that last quote, I was wondering if anyone knew if it was a comment on the mystery of the Holy Spirit’s regenerative work, or a slight on his brother’s driving.

  5. Sean Johnson says:

    Can one make a logical, academic, reasonable, and historical assent to the truth claims of scripture without being truly regenerate? I think that often times Christians assume C.S. Lewis was a true born-again Christian because he was an intelligent man and we Christians can align ourselves with him and not look like such idiots in the eyes of the unconverted. To the point, I have serious concerns about his understanding of the Atonement. You can be off-base about a great many things but you are treading on hallowe ground when you speak about the sufficiency of the person and the completion of the work of the God-Man Jesus Christ.

  6. Jeff Hopper says:

    This line from McGrath appears to need a correction: “Might, I wondered, the death of Lewis’s faith have been a stimulus to him to think about God…” Should it not be the death of Lewis’s father?

  7. Herman W. Hughes says:

    I enjoyed teaching the Lewis novels and pointing out the Biblical references and metaphor of Christ in Aslan. Dr. H. W. Hughes, Professor Emeritus, Pepperdine University.

  8. Lyndsey Simpson says:

    It would be great if people stopped writing books re-hashing a single chapter of one of CS Lewis’. We really really could and should just read the original. Too many books out there. Bad ones I find not so irritating as the mediocre ones. Just a thought..

  9. A delightful article indeed. Thanks, Justin, for the research and the fascinating anecdotes on Lewis. Lewis’ admiration for George McDonald moved me to be likewise captivated by McDonald

  10. Alana Forsyth says:

    Might, I wondered, the death of Lewis’s faith have been a stimulus to him to think about God, rather than something he approached from an existing theistic perspective? should be Might, I wondered, the death of Lewis’s >>>>> father <<<<< have been a stimulus to him to think about God, rather than something he approached from an existing theistic perspective?

  11. Ken Pierpont says:

    Thank you so much for this. It was a delightful read. Thank God for His work in the life of Lewis and the thoughtful reflection here. I’m grateful for your work.

  12. Darrin Moore says:

    Although the stroll with Tollers and Dyson was indeed an ‘ah-ha’ moment for Lewis, there were many that preceded it, as well as an infinity of less epiphanyl little movements in his mind that prepared the ground for the ‘checkmate’ moment, and all of these, it seems have been ignored by the article and the excerpts from McGrath which, in all fairness, try to pinpoint the moment of his final conversion to Christianity rather than his overall move away from agnosticism to faith.

    As an abstract thinker who struggles mightily to remember specific dates and exact details of chronology but who has a good recollection for the general way things unfold, I was struck by how much emphasis the article put on the walk with Tolkien and Dyson rather than what stood out to me as a more pivotal event that took place five years previous. Shortly after that walk on September 20th, 1931, Lewis wrote to a friend: “I have just passed on from believing in God to definitely believing in Christ―in Christianity,” adding that his “long night talk with Dyson and Tolkien had a good deal to do with that.” It was doubtless a moment of epiphany for Lewis, but a simple reading of his 1955 memoir ‘Surprised by Joy’ shows that it was more of a capstone to his conversion, a final straw that broke his back, rather than some ricochet away from nontheism.

    Five years earlier Lewis was struck by a greater flash of insight which came from an eerily ironical source (the Lord works in mysterious ways); a decidedly incorrigible atheist, TD Weldon, a fellow don whom Lewis describes as “the hardest boiled of all the atheists I ever knew . . . the cynic of cynics, the toughest of toughs.” One night in Lewis’s room, this don who was “determined to be a villain . . . who believes he has seen through everything and lives at rock bottom,” said to Lewis in an almost off-handed way about the evidential solidity of the accuracy of the events in the Gospel that “All that stuff of Frazer’s Dying God. Rum thing. It almost looks as if it had really happened once.” This curiously potent seed of faith in Christ’s death and resurrection―planted in Lewis’s mind by a devout atheist―germinated in Lewis’s imagination and eventually bore, with the timely fertilization of his discussions with Inklings like Tolkien, the Christian fruit of one of the sweetest faiths of the twentieth century.

    But this fruitful growth toward Christ had been watered thoroughly and regularly by Lewis’s extensive reading. He devoured books by the bushel and joked that while trying to remain a sound atheist, “all the books were beginning to turn against me. Indeed, I must have been blind as a bat not to have seen long before, the ludicrous contradiction between my theory of life and my actual experience as a reader.” Lewis felt he “could really feed . . . on the most religious” writers, but “on the other hand, those writers who did not suffer from religion . . . all seemed a little thin; what as boys we called ‘tinny’. . . . There seemed to be no depth in them. They were too simple. The roughness and density of life did not appear in their books.” It was through his reading that his thought were turned from the centrifugal trajectory of individualist rationalism back toward the central Truth of all things and his thought began to centripetally be pulled toward that center in a tightening orbit of that Truth. “Considerations arising from quite different parts of my experience were beginning to come together with a click.” Just prior to that “Rum thing” moment, Lewis had read G.K. Chesterton’s book The Everlasting Man in which he saw “for the first time the whole Christian outline of history set out in a form that seemed to make sense. Somehow I contrived not to be too badly shaken. You will remember that I already thought Chesterton to be the most sensible man alive ‘apart from his Christianity.’ . . . In reading Chesterton as in reading MacDonald, I did not know what I was letting myself in for. A young man who wishes to remain a sound Atheist cannot be too careful of his reading. There are traps everywhere― “Bibles laid open, millions of surprises,” as Herbert says, “fine nets and stratagems.” God is, if I may say it, very unscrupulous.”

    Lewis felt that for many years God had been closing in on him, but shortly after reading Chesterton and his ‘Rum thing’ moment with Weldon, he was convinced he was offered a wholly free choice while riding a bus up Headington Hill. He became aware that he was “holding something at bay, or shutting something out. Or, if you like, I was wearing some stiff clothing, like corsets, or even a suit of armour, as if I were a lobster. I felt myself being, there and then, given a free choice. I could open the door or keep it shut; I could unbuckle the armour or keep it on. Neither choice was presented as a duty; no threat or promise was attached to either, though I knew that to open the door or to take off the corslet meant the incalculable. . . . I chose to open, to unbuckle, to loosen the rein. . . . And nearly everyone now (one way or another) in the pack; Plato, Dante, MacDonald, Herbert, Barfield, Tolkien, Dyson, Joy itself. Everyone and everything had joined the other side.”

    When those doors are opened to you, will you be open to them?

  13. I love this story. I have loved it ever since I got into reading Lewis. Thank you for sharing it afresh.

    “He is an unwilling witness to the truth. He shows you just how far you can go without knowing God, and that is far enough to force you . . . to go further.” How very, very – well, just how very cool. Just completely awesome (in all the nuances of the word!).

  14. Wendy Hunter says:

    I love reading stories of peoples’ conversions. God knows the right track for each one. I was inspired to think of Lewis’ story and walk in the story, to one I know now beginning her own walk, but not having made any decision. Thanks!

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Justin Taylor, PhD

Justin Taylor is executive vice president of book publishing and book publisher for Crossway and blogs at Between Two Worlds. You can follow him on Twitter.

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