OXFORD, England — Walter Hooper sits on a bench in the dark-wood recesses of the Eagle and Child pub like a man seated on a church pew. The lights are dim in this 17th century tavern where writers C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien and fellow "Inklings" used to do their literary wrangling in the 1940s. Although it is nearly lunchtime, the room is hushed as a chapel.
Hooper is an American-born Lewis apostle who has labored for the last 35 years as biographer and editor of the author's posthumously published works. "Lewis was good at explaining things you thought were obvious," he whispers. "He was able to convince you of the truth."
Not all Lewis admirers see the truth as he did, but his books have become enormously popular among Christian evangelicals and secular parents alike, and the 100th anniversary of his birth this Sunday is being celebrated with a host of activities on both sides of the Atlantic.
Britain's Royal Shakespeare Company is putting on an adaptation of Lewis' "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe," and the Royal Mail has printed a stamp commemorating the classic, a children's allegory of the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ. On the commercial front, London's biggest toy store, Hamleys, is throwing a 100th birthday party in honor of Lewis, while New York publishing house Harper-Collins has brought out an oversized centenary edition of the "Chronicles of Narnia," which includes "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe" and six other books on the mythical land of Narnia.
Even Oxford University, which has always held its former don of English literature at arm's distance, found itself host to an international conference in his name this summer. The Oxford University C.S. Lewis Society is holding a series of lectures on the author, although his nonacademic books are deemed too "modern" to receive much attention from the English lit department--a judgment that Lewis the scholar of medieval literature would have shared.
What the atheist turned Christian author might have considered the greatest honor to his legacy came from an even more unlikely quarter--the Domino's Pizza chain. Billionaire founder Tom Monaghan announced after reading Lewis' treatise on pride in "Mere Christianity" that he would sell the fast-food empire, donate proceeds to charitable causes and dedicate himself to good deeds.
Contentious Debate Spills Out of Academia
But along with the public accolades, some of the contentious debate surrounding Lewis, his literature and popular theology has spilled out of academic circles and into the mainstream press. Writing in the London daily newspaper the Guardian, children's author Philip Pullman bemoaned all of the centenary hoopla and said: "The interesting question is why. What is there in this tweedy medievalist that attracts such devoted (and growing) attention?"
Acknowledging that Lewis had a way with words, Pullman went on to accuse him of misogyny, racism and excessive violence in the Narnia books, which he called "one of the most ugly and poisonous things I've ever read."
Moreover, he charged that Lewis--subject of the 1993 Richard Attenborough film "Shadowlands" and of several warring biographies--is becoming as big a myth as the mythological characters in the stories he wrote.
"I haven't the slightest doubt that the man will be sainted in due course: The legend is too potent," Pullman wrote.
Lewis devotees would deny that they have elevated the author to such heights, but they do seem to have spawned a Lewis cult, particularly among his U.S. followers.
The American magazine Christianity Today hailed Lewis in its September issue as "the Aquinas, the Augustine and the Aesop of contemporary evangelicalism." His writing table, chair and childhood wardrobe are on display at Wheaton College in Illinois. And in Southern California, at St. Luke's Church in Monrovia, Lewis' image is etched into an 8-foot-high stained-glass window.
Hundreds of C.S. Lewis foundations, societies and Internet Web sites have sprung up in the United States. American pilgrims make up the majority of visitors to Lewis' Oxford residence of more than 30 years, the Kilns, which has been bought and restored by Americans.
On a windy fall afternoon, Nancy Bevilacqua of Gettysburg, Pa., arrived at the red-brick house in the suburbs of Oxford with her husband. A counselor and Roman Catholic student of theology, Bevilacqua said the couple had spent a wedding anniversary visiting Wheaton and the wardrobe thought to have inspired the entrance to Narnia. They wanted to see the Kilns on Lewis' centenary.
"It's kind of like a shrine. . . . Why do people go to Lourdes?" Bevilacqua asked cheerfully, referring to the French town whose shrine to the Virgin Mary draws thousands of pilgrims a day.
Such comments would have brought a shudder to the man known as "Jack" among friends, according to Lewis' stepson, Douglas Gresham, a Christian lay minister in Ireland.