Pilgrimages are journeys that we all undertake in some form or another. Often pilgrimages are a religious journey but the word pilgrimage also best describes that which are secular undertakings.
Whether our pilgrimage is to a country, a town, a graveside or in my case to a pub in Oxford the significance is a personal one – whether we visit the grave of Johnny Rotten from the band the ‘Sex Pistols’ or the grave of Saint Francis of Assisi, the reasons and the homage we pay are personal and subjective.
C. S. Lewis who is best known for his seven books collectively known as ‘The Narnia Chronicles,’ many books of ‘Popular’ Christian Theology and some important academic works has always been a favourite author of mine. I read reasonably widely and it would be Lewis that I can say with confidence I have read most of and about. His writings spoke to me at an important era in my life and still does in many ways. To know so much about another person who lived a life almost in another time and half a world away is an interesting and very valuable experience but difficult really to fully put into words. I think in the early days of reading his work there is the naïve admiration of the ‘groupie’ type. Later there is the appreciation of having a connection with the details of another life which is overwhelmingly human just like ones own. After many years of reflection there is a much more critical and appreciative assessment of his work and its meaning. This assessment sees him as human, flawed as we all are, but appreciative of the fact that he shared so much of his human, religious and intellectual insights.
In 2006 as part of a tour of Europe and a shorter tour of England I went specifically to Oxford to visit the place where Lewis lived and worked for the greater part of his life. I looked around Magdalen College where Lewis was a Don of Medieval and Renaissance Literature and strolled around “Addison’s Walk” a lovely leafy walk around a deer farm next to the college. It was here in 1931 that Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien and Hugo Dyson had an important walk together where they had a conversation about myth and metaphor which, “helped Lewis to come to understand that mythology has an important position in the history of thinking. It was this realization that helped him across his last philosophical hurdle”, in his acceptance of Christianity.
Lewis and his friends also met regularly in a local pub in central Oxford called “The Eagle and Child” which they referred to affectionately as “The Bird and Baby”. It was to this pub that I also made a pilgrimage. The beer and the meal was very good.
In the corner of the pub where Lewis and his friends (aka the “Inklings”) met are photographs, plaques and a framed note signed by all the Inklings congratulating the proprietor for the quality of the beer. A copper plaque on the wall reads:
"C. S. Lewis, his brother W. H. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien. Charles Williams and other friends met every Tuesday morning, between the years 1939 – 1962 in the back room of this their favourite pub. These men, popularly known as the “Inklings” met here to drink Beer and to discuss, among other things, the books they were writing."
Are pilgrimages worth the time and effort? Yes definitely, and I will be making many more.
To honour, to appreciate, to doff ones cap, to remember, to give thanks, to bend ones knee, to make a personal pilgrimage are all things we can do in celebration of the important influences on our lives. It's a sentimental thing to do, but totally harmless.
And to raise a glass of good Oxford beer to the memory of C. S. Lewis is no bad thing at all.