The Great Knock of Surrey

C S Lewis Saturday

thegreatknockOn 26th September 1914, we find a fifteen year old C S Lewis writing a happy letter to his friend Arthur Greeves. Following an unhappy career in England’s private school system, ‘Jack’* had just spent his first week with his new private tutor – William T Kirkpatrick, ‘The Great Knock’ as the Lewis family called him.

Albert Lewis could not have sent his son to a better teacher, for Jack Lewis was a budding intellectual and Kirkpatrick a most rigorous thinker – he was just what Lewis needed in order to grow up in mind as well as body.

William Kirkpatrick lived in Great Bookham, Surrey. After meeting Lewis at the railway station, they began walking down the platform together. As they did so, Lewis started chatting, ‘making conversation’ as he puts it in his autobiography Surprised by Joy. This led him to declare his surprise ‘at the “scenery” of Surrey; it was much “wilder” than [he] had expected.’

“Stop!” shouted Kirk with a suddenness that made me jump. “What do you mean by wildness and what grounds had you for not expecting it?”. I replied I don’t know what, still “making conversation.” As answer after answer was torn to shreds it at last dawned upon me that he really wanted to know. He was not making conversation, nor joking, nor snubbing me; he wanted to know. I was stung into attempting a real answer. A few passes sufficed to show that I had no clear and distinct idea corresponding to the word “wildness”, and that, in so far as I had any idea at all, “wildness” was a singularly inept word. “Do you not see, then,” concluded the Great Knock, “that your remark was meaningless?”
(Surprised by Joy, Chapter 9)

If Kirkpatrick had left the matter there, he would have proved himself to be a singularly bad teacher. But he didn’t. Lewis recounts that he ‘analysed my terms,’ then proceeded ‘to deal with my proposition as a whole’ asking such basic questions as ‘On what had I based… my expectations about the Flora and Geology of Surrey?’. Lewis admits that it had never occurred to him that he needed to base his thoughts on anything at all. As a result of this dissection, Kirkpatrick said to Lewis, ‘”Do you not see… that you had no right to have any opinion whatever on the subject?”‘.

Kirkpatrick was very blunt, but spoke truly. Lewis responded to that and his positive attitude enabled him to become the great thinker and writer of later years.

Meanwhile, on 26th September 1914, the young Lewis was rejoicing in the ‘wide expanse of rolling hill and dale, all thickly wooded with hazel and pine’, Great Bookham’s ‘quaint old inn that might have stepped out of the ‘Vicar of Wakefield’, and a church that dates from before the conquest’.

After thanking Greeves for sending him a copy of The Country of the Blind, and Other Stories by H G Wells, Lewis tells him that he is reading The Iliad for his Greek class. It must have been a very exciting time indeed to be Jack Lewis. Outside was beautiful, autumnal countryside (‘How I wish that I could paint!’); inside were ‘fine, simple, euphonious lines,’ that rolled on ‘with a roar like that of the ocean’.

* Lewis’ full name was Clive Staples Lewis but had only responded to the name of Jack since childhood

The above photograph of the Great Knock and his wife comes from L’Èvvìvo: l’uomo che non vole moirire

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