On January 7, 2015 the air temperature was a whopping 1 degree Fahrenheit, and that’s without the wind chill factor. Whatever. Here in Chicago we eat that kind of weather for breakfast, especially when compared to the weather almost exactly one year previously:
So instead of spending my day off wrapped in a warm, fleecy blanket sipping cups of steaming, hot herbal tea, I went with 3 students who are members of SPLANCHNICS, a young adult fiction-writing workshop I lead.
Where did we go? To see the wardrobe, of course. Not just any wardrobe, but The Wardrobe, as in the one built by C.S. Lewis’s grandfather, kept in the home Lewis grew up in, and later moved to his home near Oxford University and kept in the front hall. The one that inspired The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. And we also saw the very desk upon which J.R.R. Tolkien wrote, edited, typed and illustrated The Hobbit. These wonderful objects of literary memorabilia are in the permanent collection of the Marion E. Wade Center, on the campus of Wheaton College in Wheaton, Illinois.
The collection began in the 1950s, when Dr. Clyde S. Kilby, a professor of English at Wheaton College, began corresponding with C.S. Lewis. They wrote each other letters right up until Lewis’s death in 1963. By that time, Kilby was also friends with Tolkien, and actually assisted in the compilation and editing of The Silmarillion.
Kilby donated his Lewis letters to Wheaton College, and they were originally housed in the college library. In 1974, the family of the late Marion E. Wade (a Chicago-area businessman and fan of C.S. Lewis) donated the funds to create a dedicated center for the growing collection that by then included letters, manuscripts, books, and artifacts from seven authors the collectors considered of monumental importance to modern British literature and Christian thought: C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, Charles Williams, G.K. Chesterton, Dorothy L. Sayers, Owen Barfield, and George Macdonald. At the Wade Center, they are affectionately called “the Seven,” (as in “the Seven have left Minas Morgul.” Just kidding.)
The Wade Center, nestled unobtrusively in the cozy campus of Wheaton College, contains one of the most complete collections of C.S. Lewis documents and memorabilia in the world, including hundreds of letters, over 2,000 volumes from his personal library, and many of his personal effects:
The Wardrobe is definitely a highlight of the visit…
The Center also has one of the largest collections of “Chestertonia,” (G.K. Chesterton stuff), and all sorts of things owned by Tolkien and Sayers and the other authors.
The Kilby Reading Room, however, is the real treasure of the Wade Center. They have at least one copy of every book written by the seven authors, vast scholarship by and about them, hundreds of letters, original manuscripts, inscribed and annotated books from the authors’ personal libraries—it’s a vast collection. I was so entranced by the authors’ handwritten letters that I bought myself a fountain pen. When I got home, I started reading The Silmarillion, and rewatched the special features documentaries about Tolkien in my Lord of the Rings DVDs.
The Seven are:
Owen Barfield, 1898-1997
Not well-known by the general public, but his writing and scholarship had an enormous influence on both Lewis and Tolkien. He was one of The Inklings, the informal literary society of which Lewis, Tolkien, and Charles Williams were also members. The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe is dedicated to Barfield’s daughter, Lucy.
G.K. Chesterton, 1874-1936
Prolific author of fiction, essays, political and social commentary, poetry, Christian apologetics, you name it. For many years, he gave very popular talks on BBC Radio. He’s famous for wittily turning common sayings on their heads. (“If a thing is worth doing, it’s worth doing badly.”) His most well-known works include the Father Brown mysteries, The Man Who Was Thursday, and Orthodoxy. His book The Everlasting Man influenced C.S. Lewis profoundly.
C.S. Lewis, 1898-1963
The author whose works inspired Professor Kilby to start the collection at Wheaton College. He was a professor of English literature at Oxford University, and, like Chesterton, wrote Christian apologetics (Mere Christianity, The Screwtape Letterx, others) and gave well-received talks and radio addresses. His fiction includes The Chronicles of Narnia, a trilogy of science fiction novels known as the Space Trilogy, and an excellent fantasy novel called Till We Have Faces.
George MacDonald, 1824-1905
MacDonald is the only one of the seven who was not a 20th century author. He wrote in the 19th century. He’s not a household name like a few of the others, but he had an enormous influence on Lewis and Chesterton especially. He’s sometimes called “the father of the Inklings.” His children’s books are At the Back of the North Wind, The Princess and the Goblin, and The Princess and Curdie, and his fantasy novels are Phantastes and Lilith. C.S. Lewis wrote, “Picking up a copy of Phantastes one day at a train-station bookstall, I began to read. A few hours later, I knew that I had crossed a great frontier.” G.K. Chesterton said that MacDonald’s The Princess and the Goblin “made a difference to my whole existence.”
Dorothy L. Sayers, 1893-1957
Dorothy L. Sayers is familiar to many mystery readers as the creator of amateur sleuth Lord Peter Wimsey. Her translation of Dante’s Divine Comedy is considered one of the best. As a woman in those days, she was not admitted to the exclusively male ranks of The Inklings, although she was friends with C.S. Lewis and Charles Williams. She, like Lewis, and Chesterton, was a “lay theologian” and wrote Christian non-fiction, The Mind of the Maker being the most notable example. Her essay “The Lost Tools of Learning” serves as a manifesto for the classical education and home-schooling movements.
J.R.R. Tolkien, 1892-1973
With the publication of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien might be single-handedly responsible for the entire genre of modern fantasy literature–or at least its 20th-century revival. He was a linguist, a philologist, and a professor at Oxford University. He worked on his magnum opus on and off for decades. The Silmarillion was published after his death (and we owe his youngest son Christopher a great debt for all the work he did compiling his father’s piles and piles of notes, fragments, and stories, some finished and some unfinished, into publishable form.) What I find interesting about Tolkien is that he did not set out to be a fiction author, but he created Elf languages just for fun and then constructed a fictional world to explain the development of the languages. As an exercise in world-building, Middle-Earth is an incredible achievement.
Charles Williams, 1886-1945
Williams made his living as an editor at Oxford University Press, but his real profession–his true vocation, perhaps–was scholar and author. He was a “lay academic:” he wrote, published and lectured on scholarly topics even though he lacked a university degree. He was also an accomplished poet and author of “supernatural thrillers” (The Place of the Lion, War in Heaven, Descent Into Hell, others). And, like Lewis, Chesterton, and Sayers, he was a “lay theologian:” Descent of the Dove: A History of the Holy Spirit in the Church and He Came Down From Heaven.
The Marion E. Wade Center An excellent and absorbing website. For each author, they have a “Where to Begin Reading” section, which is nice because some of the authors a bit obscure, and some are so prolific one hardly knows what to read first. The links I’ve provided below are not exhaustive, but they’ll get you started.
Into the Wardrobe: A C.S. Lewis Website C.S. Lewis’s stepson Douglas Gresham has written an introduction to this site.
“A Literary Pilgrimage” An article I wrote for the National Catholic Register.
“Things Altogether Unexpected” a video produced by the Wade Center in 2012 to commemorate the 75th anniversary of The Hobbit.
 SPLANCHNICS stands for Society for the Preservation of Literature, the Arts, Numinosity, Culture, Humor, Nerdiness, Innovation and Creativity in Storytelling. Sometimes I forget what all the letters stand for and substitute “Inspiration” for “Innovation.”
The use of the word “splanchnic” as an anagram name for a club is not original with me. It was the name chosen in the 1980s by a literary society under the sponsorship of Dr. U. Milo Kaufman, professor of English at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. They came across the word “splanchnic” during a game of Dictionary and it just snowballed from there. (“Splanchnic” is a real word — it refers to a major artery and vein in the body that bring blood to and from the intestines.) Yes, I was a member, but I joined the group after they had already chosen the name. I took two classes from Dr. Kaufman: Science Fiction and The Literature of Fantasy. They were two of my favorite college courses ever. I still have my notes.
Did you like this article? Would you like to receive a note when new articles are posted? All you have to do is enter your email address in the box below. I don’t post terribly often, so there’s no danger of your email inbox getting swamped. And I promise — no spam! 🙂