C. S. Lewis — The School Years

1908 — Shipped Off To School

Shorts, a blazer and sand shoes are replaced by thick dark clothes, an Eton collar, boots and knickerbockers, and worst of all; the bowler hat feels like it is made of iron. Lewis had read that some boys in the same predicament welcomed the change as a sign of growing up, but he didn’t.

 

Nothing in my experience had ever suggested to me that it was nicer to be schoolboy than a child or nicer to be a man than a schoolboy.

My father, whom I implicitly believed, represented adult life as one of incessant drudgery under the continual threat of financial ruin. In this he did not mean to deceive us. Such was his temperament that when he exclaimed, as he frequently did, There’ll be nothing for it but the workhouse, he momentarily believed, or at least felt, what he said. I took it all literally and had the gloomiest anticipation of adult life. In the meantime, the putting on of the school clothes was, I well knew, the assumption of a prison uniform.

This was his attitude as he embarked on the next phase of his life the school years.

“Belsen”

The description of the first school he attended is fascinating for me to read because it is so far removed from my experience that I can hardly imagine what it was like to be thrown into that situation at 10 years old. He doesn’t name the schools he attends by their proper name, but gives the pseudonyms. In this case he has taken the name of a notorious German concentration camp: Belsen.

The school had about 18 pupils enrolled of which perhaps half were boarders like him. One was allowed a bath once a week. He was made to do Latin exercises when he first entered school (his mother had already been teaching him the language) and he was still doing them when he left in 1910. He didn’t feel any progress was made while there in any of his studies. He called the well-used canes that hung in the single classroom the only stimulant to study in the whole school. The staff consisted of the headmaster, who was also the proprietor, his son, and an usher (who I believe was a teacher of the younger pupils).

The school was by no means a picnic. Lewis recounts being the pet or mascot of the headmaster  a dubious status that kept him out of trouble — at least he didn’t receive beatings like some of the boys did. He remembers one classmate who received beatings regularly. In one instance this boy was made to bend down at one end of the classroom while the headmaster (a huge man) would run at full speed from the other end and smack him on the butt with the cane. He later figured out that the headmaster’s pets all came from poorer families or were otherwise from a lower class. The only reason he could think of for the caning described earlier was that this classmate was the son of a dentist.

Such was the life of a student, at least in this particular school. Lewis doesn’t mean to lump all of them together and say they were all the same, he liked some more than others, but he doesn’t have much good to say about sending a child away from home to a boarding school. Some schools may not have been as bad as others, but there were still the instances of hazing and downright cruelty by either the teachers or the preferred students. At times, the headmasters knew about the pecking order and at least condoned it, if not outright encouraged it.

The Importance of Belsen

In spite of the horrors of this first school, Lewis says that it was at Belsen that the most important thing in his life was to happen to him: it was here that he became an effective believer.

He was made to attend church twice each Sunday and being a Protestant from Ulster, this high Anglo-Catholic service caused him to react strongly against it. For one thing, the rituals of the church were a part of the English atmosphere that he hated so much.

I suspect he held the tradition of boarding school to be the cause of his leaving Ireland at a tender age and anything associated with that event was probably in the sights of his hatred. I am not sure if it was the country, England, that he hated or if it was the mere fact that he had to leave his home to get an acceptable education. When children don’t want to do something they often make up their minds to hate everything that is connected with that activity or situation. In Lewis’s case, he didn’t want to leave his home in Ireland and so, everything that had anything to do with the school experience was fair game for his hatred. Can’t really say that I blame him, can you?

 

However, it was his attendance in that church which brought him to Christianity. He believes the burning of candles and incense and the vestments and hymns probably helped to curb that hatred, but more than these outer actions and sights, it was in this church that he heard the doctrines of the faith spoken by men who believed them. He began to seriously pray and read the Bible and attempt to obey his conscience.

 

Lewis on boarding school life:

Life at a vile boarding school is, in this way, a good preparation for the Christian Life, that it teaches one to live by hope. Even, in a sense, by faith; for at the beginning of each term, home and holidays are so far off that it is as hard to realize them as to realize heaven.

There were other casualties as a result of attending that first school. The Joy that we have talked about before and that Lewis thought was so important was not only absent from his life, but was forgotten. Additionally, his imaginative life declined and he credits this school for that decline.

What Affect did this have on the Narnia Series?

 

If you pay close attention when reading The Chronicles of Narnia, you will begin to see how the events we have covered so far worked to shape Narnia.

Of course, when he was a child he had already started writing stories about Animal-land complete with histories and maps and talking animals and so forth. His career as a novelist had already begun and while he wouldn’t admit it, they did play a role in the creation of Narnia.

Certainly, the death of his mother and the pain he witnessed her going through, as well as his own feelings about losing her, were reflected in The Magician’s Nephew. In that book the main character’s mother is also ill and it is basically assumed that she would never recover. Yet, he went on a quest to find some cure for her and in the end it was Aslan who provided that.

In the same book, perhaps we can see the uncle as having many of the traits of the headmasters Lewis had at the schools he had attended. He was mean-spirited, cowardly, self-serving and ambitious. Let’s consider, too, the first king and queen of Narnia. These were common people who were good and practical and were not presumptuous of their position much like the folks took care of him and his brother in their childhood their own nanny, for example.

In The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe we are very aware of the feelings of the Pevensie children when they are shipped off to a large house in the country and away from their own home and city. It wasn’t boarding school, but it still felt like prison to them and they didn’t appreciate being ripped away from their own home, but there was nothing to do about it. It was for their own good to get away from London and the bombing that was happening to that city during the war.

With Prince Caspian, we see many things going on. It is a statement on the state of the church and the people in the church — that is one level — but coming from the angle of what effect his childhood experiences had on his writing, we again see his attitude toward being sent off to a boarding school. The children are moping around the train station, waiting for their respective trains, waiting to be separated from one another for a school year then they are whisked away to Narnia.

It is interesting how Lewis changes the attitudes and the level of maturity of the children once they have spent some time in Narnia. When they first arrive, they are children, haggling and unsure of themselves. The more time they spend there and have to make decisions, however, the more they mature into decisive and thoughtful people. It seems that Lewis is saying that school does not necessarily enhance the development of a child; instead, it is practical experience that does this.

Take as an example, too, Caspian’s nurse who taught him about Old Narnia against the wishes of the King. It is not the formal education sponsored by the king that taught him the truth, but it was learning what the nurse knew through her own experience and knowledge. The same can be said about Dr. Cornelius’s influence on Caspian, when he replaced the nurse.

Look back to Lewis’s days at Belsen. He says that when he first started there, he began his education in Latin by doing exercises (I am assuming such wonderful things as conjugating verbs and declining nouns) and when he left two years later, he was doing the same exercises without so much as reading a Roman author. A poor substitute for actually learning something.

To be fair, Lewis did take into account the fact that the headmaster’s wife died during his last year there and he says that the headmaster basically lost his mind. It conjured up memories of how his own father acted when Lewis’s mother died. He attributes some of the headmaster’s behavior to this tragedy.

One Final Thought to Close:

I wonder if Narnia, itself, is Lewis’s way of expressing the abstract feeling of Joy he felt as a child and then later in his life? It might be something to think about between this and the next entry on Surprised by Joy. We still have another school (at least) that he talks about and the major turning point that happened as a result of his attendance there.

 

Thank you for reading.

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