A Magical Literary Escape
The mythical worlds of C.S. Lewis and J.R. R. Tolkien come together at the Marion E. Wade Center in Wheaton
Photos used by permission of the Marion E. Wade Center, Wheaton College, Wheaton, IL
To reach the magical kingdom of Narnia, drive down Roosevelt Road, proceed north to Wheaton College and visit a museum that contains the dark, massive wardrobe that inspired author C.S. Lewis. The best-selling writer played in the wardrobe as a child in Ireland, and he imagined it as the portal to the magical world of Narnia in the The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Children often rush to it and carefully open its doors, half-expecting to catch a glimpse of snow, a lamp post or Mr. Tumnus, the chattering fawn.
The museum is part of the underappreciated Marion E. Wade Center, which houses the world’s largest collection of what Lewis read and wrote. Scholars flock here to pore over rare letters and documents. Devoted readers of Lewis visit to admire such piquant memorabilia as his writing desk, fountain pen, tea mug and ration card.
The books, papers and memorabilia of J.R.R. Tolkien, Lewis’ close friend and fellow scholar, also are housed at the center. The writing desk and dip pen with which he wrote The Lord of the Rings are displayed. “He liked to use that pen because he’d stop and think. He was able to reflect on what he was writing by using that kind of pen,” says Crystal Downing, co-director of the center along with her husband, David. Interestingly, one end of the pen is partially melted and discolored. “He would tamp down the tobacco in his pipe with it,” says Downing.
The center actually contains the books and papers of seven British authors: Owen Barfield, G.K. Chesterton, George MacDonald, Dorothy Sayers, Charles Williams as well as Lewis and Tolkien. All wrote on religious themes. Several were fast friends who regularly met in a writing group known as the Inklings. Holding 1,600 of their manuscripts, 26,000 of their letters and 3,000 books from their personal libraries, the center is the world’s preeminent archive of the influential writers.
Begun in 1965 in a much smaller space, the 13,000-sq-ft center grew out of the personal Lewis collection of Clyde Kilby, an English literature professor at Wheaton College. Kilby was one of the first professors anywhere to teach a course on Lewis. He met Lewis in 1953, corresponded with him and eventually befriended his brother.
Lewis died with little fanfare the same day in 1963 that President Kennedy was shot. But he remains wildly popular today. His Narnia books alone have sold more than 100 million copies and been the source of three blockbuster movies. Lewis, as well as Tolkien, most likely will continue to be highly relevant. Ironically, the fantasy worlds they created reveal timeless human themes.
“Lewis was astute about human psychology. He didn’t deal with contemporary politics. Politics is ephemeral. Human psychology is universal,” says Downing. “People in his books struggle with pride and lack of self-confidence. He deals with what it means to be human.”
Scholars find the resources at the center invaluable — at least 80 published books acknowledge the center’s assistance. Yet it’s also a place for commonplace book lovers. More than 12,000 people visited the center last year; the museum and lectures are free. There are frequent lectures, rotating displays, weekend discussion groups, children’s story time on Saturdays and children’s dramas. Among the current exhibits are Narnian artwork, an interactive film exhibit on Tolkien and the afghan and typewriter of Joy Davidman, the American writer who married Lewis late in his life and was portrayed by Debra Winger in the 1994 film “Shadowlands.”
The center has expanded its mission “to inspire acts of creativity,” says Downing. “We want to see fiction with the same psychological and sociological insight” as Lewis and Tolkien. But the art form does not have to be writing. Next fall the center will host a ballet inspired by The Great Divorce, Lewis’ allegorical Christian tale.Edit Module