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Kirkpatrick and MacPhee

The Lewis Legacy-Issue 82, Autumn 1999 The C.S. Lewis Foundation for Truth in Publishing

by James O’Fee

Lewis’s fiction is partly biographical. Lewis’s Ransom resembles another philologist, J. R. Tolkien, and the influence of Tolkien on Lewis is well-known. Not so well-known is the debt that Lewis owed to his private tutor, W. T. Kirkpatrick.

Kirkpatrick was a freethinker and atheist, although he had once qualified as a Minister in the Irish Presbyterian Church. So why in That Hideous Strength, at the climax of his Space Trilogy, did Lewis place MacPhee — a character who by common consent Lewis bases on Kirkpatrick — at the heart of the godly group which acts to save the world from the devil and devilry?

Lewis learnt the art of argument, which the ancients called Rhetoric, from his freethinking tutor. When Lewis came to Kirkpatrick, Lewis was already an Atheist, so Lewis’s step towards Atheism owes nothing to Kirkpatrick’s “high, dry” variety. Lewis does not describe Kirkpatrick as a mocker or scoffer of religion (what Screwtape called “jargon not argument”), so it is possible that Kirkpatrick regretted his loss of faith. Indeed, Lewis’s description of Kirkpatrick as a human reasoning machine seems to leave out feelings, the human soul, and joy.

It was joy and the logical conclusions that flowed from it that brought Lewis back to faith against his own wishes and desires. Perhaps Lewis thanked Kirkpatrick for developing his rational faculty, the faculty that made Lewis a Christian again. Ironically, it was the same faculty that had propelled Kirkpatrick away from it.

In MacPhee Lewis made his own kind of tribute to his tutor, whom he and his father and brother always remembered fondly.

Co-incidentally, or perhaps not, Lewis dedicated That Hideous Strength to another Ulster Presbyterian, Janie MacNeill, whom Lewis described as a “true, sometimes a grim, daughter of the Kirk” and “the broadest-spoken maiden lady in the Six Counties”. Janie’s speech was larded with Scotticisms forbye, so perhaps Lewis regarded Janie as an Ulster Scot, forbye.