Everest Collegiate teacher, Mr. Peterson, was invited to give a talk in Pinehurst, North Carolina to a book group that had coupled their reading of best-seller Becoming Mrs Lewis (Patti Callahan Henry, Harper Inspire) with the beloved Narnia classic Prince Caspian. Club hosts Sallie and Elton Trent grew up knowing an important figure in the world of C.S. Lewis: the late Walter Hooper of Reidsville, North Carolina, who served for a short time as Lewis’s secretary (but for a long time as executor of Lewis’s literary estate). Hooper was honored in both England and America for curating, editing, and publishing countless poems, books, lectures, and letters largely unknown at the time of the author’s death in 1963.
Becoming Mrs Lewis tells the story of C.S. Lewis’s marriage late in life to an American woman who had come to faith in part from reading Lewis. The focus is on his wife, but the author’s well-known faith is central to the story. Peterson’s talk focused on the curious dominance of images that are not obviously Christian in Prince Caspian: “There is a great forest of meaning that must not be missed by readers seeing tree after tree on just about every page in the book,” Peterson said. Prince Caspian is the only Narnia story that features trees so prominently, and the trees are portrayed as actual characters (silvans) – there are also “tree spirits” (dryads and hamadryads). Those who know the literary discoveries of Fr Michael Ward might know why this makes so much sense in Narnia, but Lewis is building on a well-established biblical and literary tradition when he writes trees that “move”.
Everest seniors who study British literature with Mr. Peterson recall a crucial phrase in Shakespeare’s Macbeth where “trees have been known to move and stones to speak’” In the same play, the tyrant is only vanquished with the appearance of “Birnam Wood” marching up “high Dunsinane hill” a sight accomplished by Malcolm’s army hewing down branches to disguise them in that attack. The spirit of the trees or “the green man” may also be foundational to “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” from the 14th century. These are not just part of a decorative motif, nor the vestiges of ancient paganism; rather, the tree imagery in these works is natural to their Christian character. The idea that all of creation “speaks” to the mind of the creator is clear. Writers like Lewis and Tolkien continue this tradition and build on the biblical example, which includes passages such as the one in Psalms where “the trees of the field clap their hands”.
Everest seniors also read Dream of the Rood, a work that C.S. Lewis (and Tolkien) particularly loved. “Rood” is the Anglo-Saxon (Old English) word for “root”. In this case, the word root stands for a “tree”. The dreamt of tree is a very special one that speaks profoundly to Christians because it is the true cross of Christ, but in that work the Rood also literally speaks and tells the dreamer the story of Jesus. Lewis follows a powerful literary tradition, but readers who do not know the sources of the tradition might miss some of the poetry.
Of course, one does not have to know everything Lewis was doing to love his books. Peterson’s long love of British literature grew from a single sapling: a perusal of a Lewis book in the aisle of a grocery store. After that, a lifetime trying to read every work referred to in Lewis’s many published books and scholarly writings. After Peterson’s talk, there was a lively discussion and questions were taken on many areas of interest from Lewis’s family to special collections containing manuscripts. In 2018, Peterson made a research trip to read Lewis’s handwritten notes between the covers of his Arden Shakespeare volumes. These were in the author’s rooms in Cambridge at the time of his death. They are now preserved in part of the Pepys Library, Magdalene College, Cambridge.