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The debt was large indeed. Kirkpatrick helped the young man prepare for scholarship examinations at Oxford, and the demanding mentor played no small role in Lewis’s outstanding performance at University College, where he took highest honors in honor moderations, greats, and English in 1920, 1922, and 1923, respectively.
If Kirkpatrick taught Lewis to think critically—to demand evidence for even the most casual assertions—Oxford introduced him to a wide horizon of ideas. Whereas Lewis’s hard-pressing mentor had helped him reinforce his atheism, a few associates at Oxford forced him to re-examine his belief in a universe without God.
Lewis entered the world of Oxford in 1917 as a student, and he never really left. Despite an interruption to fight in World War I and his professorship at Cambridge beginning in 1955, he always maintained his home and friends in Oxford. He loved the bookshops, the pubs, and the Bodleian Library, and he reveled in the company of local men who loved to read, write, and discuss books. His attachment to Oxford was so strong that when he taught at Cambridge from 1955 to 1963 he commuted back to Oxford on weekends so that he could be close to familiar places and beloved friends.
It was in Oxford that Lewis pursued things of the mind with fervor. Ideas, books, and debates were ordinary fare in this heady environment. With no particular purpose in life beyond stimulating his imagination, feeding his intellectual curiosity, and writing for publication and posterity, he thoroughly enjoyed academic life. In 1919 he published his first book, a cycle of lyrics entitled Spirits in Bondage, which he wrote under the pseudonym Clive Hamilton. In 1924 he became a philosophy tutor at University College. Then in 1925 he was elected a fellow of Magdalen College, where he tutored in English language and literature. The next year his second volume of poetry, Dymer, was published under the name Clive Hamilton.
Alongside the generally self-centered life Lewis was leading, he demonstrated a loyal and generous nature. When his college roommate, Paddy Moore, was killed in World War I, Jack befriended Paddy’s mother, Mrs. Janie King Moore, and her adolescent daughter Maureen. Then in 1920, after completing his first degree, Lewis decided to share lodgings with them so that he could more carefully look out for their needs.
This gesture of kindness did more than help Mrs. Moore and Maureen; it got C.S. Lewis outside of himself and taught him patience. The association with the Moores also introduced him to Mrs. Moore’s brother, a combat veteran who suffered from a severe warinflicted nervous disorder. This personal encounter apparently shook Lewis’s confidence in materialism, because a letter he wrote in 1923 to his friend Arthur Greeves suggests a slight spiritual awakening. It seems that the “Doc,” as the Moores and Lewis referred to him, came to stay with the trio for three weeks. During the visit “Doc” underwent an ordeal of extreme mental torture. After the attack, when the poor wretch was hospitalized, Lewis wrote to his friend that “Doc” had believed he was in Hell. He wore out his body in the “awful mental tortures,” and then died from heart failure—“unconscious at the end thank God.” Lewis concluded his observation by suggesting it is “a damned world—and we once thought we could be happy with books and music!”
The spiritual awakening continued, enhanced by reading books by George MacDonald and G.K. Chesterton. One MacDonald volume called Phantastes had a powerful impact on his thinking. “What it actually did to me,” wrote Lewis, “was to convert, even to baptize...my imagination.” At Oxford Lewis continued to read MacDonald, and he imbibed G.K. Chesterton as well. The latter author’s books, especially The Everlasting Man, raised serious questions about the young intellectual’s materialism.
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