Recollections on Life with C.S. Lewis:
Interviewed by Mark Neal
An Interview with Walter Hooper, October 21, 2009
Walter Hooper, author and trustee of the literary estate of C.S. Lewis, recently visited Wheaton, IL, from Oxford, England. I was given the opportunity to interview him the day after he gave a talk at Wheaton College about his colossal job of editing some twenty to thirty of Lewis’s works over a span of about forty-five years. I interviewed Hooper, now 78, in the hushed environs of the Marion E. Wade Center, a research collection devoted to works by and about seven British authors, including C.S. Lewis. A soft-spoken man with a British and southern accent, Hooper has lived in Oxford since he began his work on Lewis. His reverence for and love of Lewis was evident throughout the interview, and one could tell he was still enamored of Lewis after all these years.
Hooper was born in Reidsville, North Carolina, in 1931. He attended the University of North Carolina, graduating in 1954. After serving in the U.S. Army for two years, he reentered the University and graduated with a master’s degree in education in 1958. He taught in Chapel Hill and at Christ School in Asheville, N.C., as well as at the University of Kentucky, where he taught English. After corresponding with Lewis for many years, Hooper went to visit him in England in the summer of 1963. They quickly became friends and Lewis asked Hooper to stay on and become his secretary. Hooper gave up his position at the University and moved in with Lewis who was in declining health at the time. Lewis died a few months later on November 22. Hooper then assisted Owen Barfield as a literary trustee to sift through Lewis’s work and devoted the next forty-five years of his life to editing and keeping Lewis’s works in print. While in England, Hooper became friends with many members of the group known as the Inklings which included such notables as J.R.R. Tolkien, Charles Williams, Owen Barfield and Lewis himself. Hooper went on to be ordained into the Anglican priesthood and served as chaplain of Jesus and Wadham, two Oxford Colleges. He also served as an assistant rector of the church of St. Mary Magdalene in Oxford and became a member of the Roman Catholic Church in 1988. In addition to his work of editing, Hooper has authored several books about Lewis.
MN: So you officially met Lewis in 1963, but you had corresponded with him some years prior to that.
WH: Yes. I began corresponding with him in 1954, when I was in the army.
MN: I was wondering what began your interest in Lewis and this correspondence.
WH: Well, when I was at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, I was a friend with the football captain who was a Christian and member of this little group I went to. Anyway, he was the first man I knew who even spoke the words C.S. Lewis, and he mentioned The Screwtape Letters, which he had read, but which wasn’t available in the bookshops in Chapel Hill. But the one book that was available was Letters to Young Churches, a translation of the New Testament Epistles by J.B. Phillips to which Lewis had written an introduction. Anyway, it was the introduction that changed my life so much. And I’m still, all these years later, wondering what it was in that introduction that made Lewis so present and so attractive. I think it was because you felt this man had some part of the same closeness to Christ as the apostles did themselves. Anyway, it interested me so much I wanted whatever I could find by him. I had to go into the army a few months later but just before I went in, the day before, I think, I was able to get a copy of Miracles which I took with me into the army and kept in my fatigues to read in the little ten minute breaks between training exercises.
MN: So that prompted you to begin corresponding with Lewis.
WH: Yes, I then began corresponding. I wrote to him out of sheer appreciation, telling him how much I had gotten from his books, from that book anyway. Anyway, having a reply, in handwriting, surprised me. It was a very good letter. And so we corresponded a bit over the years.
MN: What would you say are a few of the most memorable things that you remember about your time with Lewis?
WH: Well, I found an underlying current of humor in everything. Not jokes. He didn’t tell jokes. And I go back to a passage in The Weight of Glory where it says, “You have never met a mere mortal. Everyone you meet will one day be a blessed splendor or a damned ghost. But you’ve never met a mere mortal.” But you know, knowing that people are immortals is when you can be the merriest with them because the basic things are understood between you. And I think that gave rise a lot to Lewis’s merriment. And as I said last night, in my first meeting with him I was almost paralyzed with both fear of him at the beginning and admiration. Anyway, we were drinking so much tea that eventually (I’d only just arrived in England and I didn’t know that in England the bathroom and the lavatory were separate rooms) I asked like almost all Americans, “Do you mind if I use your bathroom?” And he said “Certainly not!” And he took me to his bathroom, which had nothing in it except a bathtub. And he got out several tablets of soap and several towels, a real exaggeration, and said of all of that stuff, “Now do you have enough for your bath?” Anyway, he left me in the bathroom, and I was wondering what on earth I was going to do. I was really uncomfortable. Anyway, I went back in and I said, “Actually it wasn’t a bath I wanted.” Well of course he knew that, he was laughing, and said, “That will cure you of those American euphemisms. Now let’s start over again. Where do you want to go?” Well, it made me love him, you know? It broke the ice and I felt at ease with him and that was a very important thing for him to do. It might have backfired with somebody, but it didn’t with me. I liked him all the more. And as he and I walked on towards the pub where I would get the bus back, I didn’t know whether I’d ever see him again, but I thought, I really love this man. I’d always liked his books, and I imagined I’d like him, but now I knew I did.
MN: Can you give a brief description of Lewis? I feel like some people have misconceptions of who he is as a person. How would you describe him?
WH: Well, his conversation was always about something. I don’t think he had any small talk. I don’t think he was the sort of man to which you could just muse about the weather: “Nice day, isn’t it?” He would probably have said, “Have you noticed that particular cloudscape?” as he and Owen Barfield called it, because they really looked at the sky. He loved nature, any type of nature. But in conversation with him it really was about something. When I was first getting to know him, maybe something like the third or fourth meeting, we were out at the Trout (a pub) having lunch with Dr. Havard, one of the Inklings, and Lewis said that Joy [Lewis’s American wife] said that the men in the south, where I came from, dominated the women who hardly had a chance to speak. “What do you think about that?” he asked me. And I said, “Oh I wouldn’t want to argue with your wife or contradict her.” “No,” he said. “What do you think?” And finally I said, “Well I think she was wrong.” “Wrong?” he asked. “Yes. Totally wrong.” Anyway, later, when I was in the pub with Dr. Havard I asked, “Do you think I hurt his feelings?” Havard said, “Oh no, no, he loved her, but he didn’t necessarily believe everything she said.” And I think, up until that time, I was very much under the belief that if you didn’t like the food I liked, you didn’t like me. If you didn’t like the pictures I liked, you didn’t like me. But Lewis wasn’t like that at all, you know? And as I got to know him better I found that the things that we were talking about were not personal; they were not about you and they weren’t about him. I’ve begun to think of them as something there on the table you could look at, just at the table between us. And we were talking about it, not about our personalities. And in that way, it made it much easier to talk about.
MN: In the introduction to Letters to Arthur Greeves you stated that the months you were with Lewis before he passed away were some of the happiest of your life. You said, “One day with another, it was the happiest time of my life, for I, like Lewis, now knew what it was to be ‘King of England.’” Why would you say this was the happiest time of your life and what did you mean by saying you knew what it was like to be King of England?
WH: Well, he said himself when he discovered a great friend that, you know, this was like being the King of England, or equivalent to that. Well I had been reading him, as I’ve said, since 1953, and imagining perhaps just seeing him. Maybe, maybe, meeting him. But to have all of these things come true to a degree I never expected was almost beyond belief. And to find that he was so much better and more interesting than I could have imagined was an extra bonus. And he had invited me to come back to him as his secretary and we were looking forward, really, to spending the rest of his life together and maybe my life too. Which meant that I was a sharer of his problems too, including the problem he had with his brother and his brother’s problem [Lewis’s brother was an alcoholic]. But at least you know that if you’re going to spend a long time with this person, you have to both become quite honest about what your limitations are, what the problems are that you’ll be facing. He didn’t want me to come into the house and then discover something. I was also going to have the problem of Lewis’s correspondence which was a huge thing in his life, and as his brother, who did some typing for him, was away for long periods of time, it was becoming almost intolerable for Lewis to cope with so much correspondence. But anyway, I was the solution to that. And I was looking forward to it very, very much.
MN: This next question has to do with the Inklings. In the biography of Lewis that you co-wrote with Roger Lancelyn Green, you mentioned that Lewis liked his friends to know and like one another. And he introduced you, obviously, to a number of the Inklings. Did you also attend meetings of the Inklings?
WH: I did. At that time, since Lewis had accepted the professorial chair at Cambridge, the Inkling meetings had changed from Tuesdays to Mondays because Lewis got the train to Cambridge on Monday afternoons. So since 1962, the Inklings had been meeting in the Lamb and Flag [a pub in Oxford], which is just across the road from the Bird and the Baby [nickname for another pub in Oxford, The Eagle and Child]. When I saw him that first time on a Friday afternoon, I thought this was the end of seeing him at all and I thanked him and he said, “You’re not getting away, you’re coming to the Inklings meeting on Monday.” And I did, and after that I attended many Inkling meetings with all of them [members of the Inklings] while I was there.
MN: Can you give me a sort of feel or flavor of what those meetings were like?
WH: Well I remember at the first one there were, I think, eight of us, and I was surprised and delighted to find that Roger Lancelyn Green was there. I was an admirer of his books, but particularly his book, King Arthur and His Knights of the Round Table which Lewis himself, as I later discovered, was very, very fond of. And in fact, he said it was in some ways better than Mallory's Le Morte D’Arthur. Lewis had introduced me, and others, to the idea of Logres, the spiritual kingdom within Britain, which he makes so much of. This is what his book That Hideous Strength is partly about. But what Roger Lancelyn Green did was to take all the great retellings of the Knights of the Round Table, mainly Mallory, and put them all together in his retelling. But what Mallory, I think, doesn’t have, is anything about Logres. And this is made one of the central ingredients in Green’s story. Anyway, at that meeting of the Inklings, I thanked Roger Lancelyn Green particularly for his introduction of Logres into his retelling. And Lewis heard this, yet he asked what I was talking about, what I meant by it, and then it was like a ball passing around the table as we had our drinks. Anyway, it kept coming back to me and my very limited knowledge of Arthurian matters as compared to his. But I did know quite a lot, you know. Anyway, he kept bringing things out of me, and getting me to talk about things, because I was the guest, I’m sure. But in the end, I kept being surprised at how well I expressed myself. And I realized later, it’s because Lewis was a very good-natured man. He didn’t suppress you. Because he was a very learned man, you’d think maybe he could have made you look such a fool. He could have, and people do. But he didn’t, that wasn’t his way. I think he was truly charitable. Like God, in a way, wanting to see creatures do the best they can with whatever little knowledge they have. Let it shine. And, you know, when that meeting ended a couple of hours later, I walked out, I remember, with Colin Hardie, who was a most learned man, (he was the public orator for Oxford University), and he said, “You know, after one of these sessions with Jack (the name Lewis used for himself), my head is about to spin off.” And that frightened me, because I thought “His head! What about my poor little head, you know?” Lewis by no means did all the talking, but he made it possible. That’s what made these meetings so enjoyable, was Lewis making it possible.
MN: Do you think your friendships with any of the Inklings influenced the direction your life would ultimately take?
WH: Oh, yes. Lewis wanted me to meet all of the Inklings. He had me telephone [J.R.R.] Tolkien once, and urge him to come to tea. As it turned out, Tolkien couldn’t. But this was part of Lewis’s idea: “I’m making you my secretary and I want you to know them [Lewis’s friends] and I want them to know you.” But I was telling Kim Gilnett, (Gilnett personally oversaw the restoration of Lewis’s home, the Kilns), that increasingly, (I’m really a pretty old man now, and I keep a diary), when I look at myself and write about myself, I call myself an old fool. Because that’s what it seems to me I’ve become. But when I mentioned this to Kim, he said, “Oh you can’t say that. You can’t say that. Because don’t you know that in George Sayer’s biography of Lewis, he speaks of the summer of 1963 and says he saw Lewis in the hospital and Lewis said, “Have you met Walter Hooper, my new secretary? I want you to like him. He’s almost too anxious to please, but no fool. No, no fool.” So Kim said, “You can’t call yourself a fool now, or old fool, because he said you were no fool.” I said, “But does that mean that it lasts forever?” So, you know, I wonder whether people will say he’s an old fool or no fool.
MN: No, I don’t think anyone will call you a fool. You’ve quoted Lewis as saying, “Some knowledge is not superceded. All that is not eternal is eternally out of date.” You referred to this a little earlier, as we were talking about Lewis, that the appeal of his works, the reason they are still in print, is because he writes in such a way that you feel like he’s just been with the apostles or the resurrection happened five minutes ago. I’m wondering if you could elaborate on that a little bit and maybe talk about how you see Lewis’s continued impact on culture and individuals.
WH: Well, I remember we had in our Oxford University C.S. Lewis Society a meeting with a man whose name I forget at the moment, but who I think deals entirely with Christian culture, trying to keep it up to date, and trying to find out how you still appeal to say, Generation X and all of that. And I’m glad there are so many people who are involved in that. Anyway, he came down to conduct with us a seminar on Mere Christianity, and I thought, “This man thinks almost entirely of how to reach future people.” And so I thought, “Oh, he’ll want to rewrite the whole book.” But to my surprise and delight, he said, “I wouldn’t change a word of Mere Christianity.” Everything in language is eventually out of date. In one sense, it becomes old fashioned. But then, Owen Barfield and I, as trustees of the Lewis estate, considered this a great deal over many, many years. What would make Lewis’s works, you know, undated? Would it be to change words in The Screwtape Letters? In Mere Christianity? I think Lewis himself had thought about this. And I think we noticed that suggestions that had been made in the press about what Lewis might say today, we found were quickly dated. Very quickly dated. You don’t have to live very long to see a word come in and go out. Like the word “lifestyle.” It came in here in the, what, 70’s? And people couldn’t say “life.” They had to say “lifestyle.” And now, praise be to God, I think it’s gone out, and “life” has come back in again, which says much more. So I think there will always be a debate about that. I have seen two published versions of updated Screwtape Letters which were so quickly dated it made your head spin. So it makes me realize that Lewis really did know how to write more or less permanent English.
MN: That’s very interesting. You’ve made it your life’s work to study and present Lewis and his works to the world, so obviously he made a very deep impression on you to keep you all these years so devoted to his work and memory. You had a quote in Light on C.S. Lewis that states, “And yet. . . much as I hang on every word that Lewis wrote, I would happily exchange all for one more conversation with him over tea in the sitting room of the Kilns.” What motivated you to remain so devoted to Lewis all these years?
WH: I don’t know. I think it’s just that I like him so much. And it interests me that we are sitting here today. Because the fact that you and I are together here at Wheaton, in this place, confirms my earliest beliefs about Lewis, that he really is remarkably good, you know? So I think it turned out I was right all that time! He is that good, you know? I read his works all the time and I think, “Gosh, this is so marvelous.” I’m reading That Hideous Strength, my favorite book of Lewis’s, for about maybe the twentieth time, something like that. I believe I’m getting more out of it this time than ever. So, I don’t know. I just went from day to day and there have been other things, you know. Sometimes there have been happy things happening along the way, and sometimes unhappy things. It was not all a time of great happiness. I was often very homesick for the United States, and during the early years, I had so little to live on. Being poor makes you feel lonely and cold and outside, you know? But it’s been very gratifying to see Lewis being taken up by so many people. And you know, I feel that less is required of me now and I’m not sure that I’m really very much good for anything else. I think if I had stopped in say, 1996 with that huge companion and guide to Lewis's works, that still left the Letters which I had been collecting for so many years, about thirty years. So I’m glad God spared me to do that. I know that my edition of the letters is not perfect by any means, and I’m sure it will be superseded at some point. But at least there’s something to go on, you know, whoever the future editors are. There’s a lot of work done for them.
MN: You mentioned that your favorite Lewis book was That Hideous Strength. You also jokingly said at last night’s presentation that if you could force everyone, even at machine gun point, to read one book by C.S. Lewis, it would be The Abolition of Man. Why is that?
WH: I think because the west is in the grip of relativism. We believe that everything that happens is personal. I think if you had to say what is wrong with the west, I would say the belief in personal autonomy. We’ve seen it affecting marriages, friendships, the law, affecting everything. If I said, “It’s wrong for these people to commit adultery,” you might say, “That’s up to them.” I don’t think it is up to them. I think the way we behave even in our own homes affects the whole world. And I was deeply moved when Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, (the present pope Benedict the XVI), went in 1988 to Cambridge, England, where he gave a talk to the Cambridge Catholic Society devoted to The Abolition of Man. Well, I realized then that he was very interested in the same problem that Lewis had tackled years before that. In fact, in 1941, Lewis devoted his first series of talks, the Mere Christianity series, to the moral law, or natural law as it’s called. So here was Lewis, already ahead, being very prophetic, talking about relativism and natural law. And I think one of the reasons they elected Benedict XVI was because he himself had said in the conclave, “One of the greatest dangers of today is the dictatorship of relativism.” And there was Lewis, sixty years before, dealing with it.
MN: You’ve done all this work editing Lewis and it’s been a colossal work, twenty to thirty volumes, and definitely a work in the service of furthering the Christian faith, so personally I want to thank you for that.
WH: Thank you very much.
MN: Absolutely. So where do you see yourself going from here? More work on Lewis or maybe something unrelated to Lewis?
WH: Well I remember when my friend Owen Barfield became my age, well, I think he probably continued to work a little bit longer, but anyway there came a period when he wouldn’t. He was too old to take on some huge project that would last for years. So what he did and enjoyed were what he called “backwards” and “forwards.” This was just his nickname for writing forewords and afterwords for other people’s books. And I think maybe the only thing I’m really good for these days is backwards and forwards! And I’m very touched when people ask me to write a foreword for their book. There may be no more suggestions that I write any more, but I have written a few. And the nice thing about it is that I don’t have to spend years on it. I can see an end to it. And I’m just so touched that people would ask me to do it. So at least there’s that. Besides that, I keep a diary, a day-to-day diary.
MN: How long have you done that?
WH: I’ve been doing the day-to-day diary since 1974. By 1996, I had covered 25 volumes, but I just simply didn’t have the time to keep going. And I had been watching an American program called Doogie Howser, MD about a 16 year-old doctor, which I thought just an amusing idea. Anyway, he ended every program by writing his diary on the computer. And at first I thought, “Shame on him!” But then I thought, “Maybe he’s got the right idea,” so I began in October 1997, I think it was, or 1996, writing it on the computer. I thought this would save time, but really in the end I spend more time nowadays. But it has the advantage that you can include emails and add photographs. So actually, I now spend a lot of time both writing the diary and trying to edit the diary. About every three months, I add an index, photographs, and all that and then print it and have it bound. When I get back to Oxford, I’m going to try to complete the indexing of volume 26. Which only goes up to December of 2003! So I’m six years behind with the editing. Whether I’ll ever catch up I don’t know.
MN: That’s all I have. I appreciate you taking the time to talk to me.
WH: What a kind interview and you didn’t try to trip me up or make me look a fool.
MN: I have no point in doing so.
WH: I’m glad, you know?
MN: Well thank you.
WH: My pleasure.