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The C. S. Lewis Centenary Conference

by Joan Marie Verba

Holding a C. S. Lewis Centenary Conference impressed me as a great idea, so on July 15, 1998, I found myself at Wheaton College for Mythcon 29. The weather stayed warm and mostly clear (except for a fierce storm Saturday night, which ripped one of the trees on campus in two), and the fine evenings were highlighted by the appearance of fireflies, adding to the festive atmosphere.

The main attraction of Wheaton College is the Wade Center, which is nestled in a corner of the second floor of the main library. It has a number of papers and personal items from Lewis, Tolkien, Owen Barfield, Dorothy Sayers, and related authors. Because of its reputation, I had expected an area the size of a museum, and was startled to find only 2 small rooms, each the size of the living room of an average home. Still, they did have Lewis’s wardrobe that his grandfather had made, Lewis’s writing desk, Tolkien’s writing desk, and other such items on display. Photographs, papers, and letters adorned the display cases. (In my opinion, Lewis’s handwriting is about as bad as Tolkien’s.)

While I was there, I took advantage of the opportunities provided by the Wade Center and reserved time to read an unpublished manuscript of Barfield’s (Eager Spring). The administrator in attendance very casually invited me to sit at Tolkien’s desk to fill out the required forms (which I happily did!), and presented me with the manuscript. The work appeared to be typewritten on a manual typewriter and included Barfield’s own handwritten corrections and amendments.

The official start of the conference was Thursday. The opening procession, as always, was full of attractive costumes and banners. The procession ended in the assembly hall, where Paul F. Ford gave a fascinating guest of honor speech making a connection between Lewis’s spiritual experiences and diving (as in swimming). As Chair of the Council of Stewards for this year, I gave a brief address about meeting the challenges of maintaining interest in the Inklings into the next millennium, and announced the latest book of the Mythopoeic Press, Chad Walsh Reviews C.S. Lewis. Jadis (Lynn Maudlin) made an appearance, scolding Conference Chair Diana Glyer about holding a conference in honor of Lewis, but Diana expertly sent Jadis on her way.

Afternoons were filled with programming. I attended some of the offerings and spent the remainder of my time at a table in the vicinity of the Mythopoeic Society table, where many came up and discussed various topics of interest. (For instance, a small group gathered around at one point to discuss the implications — Mythopoeic and otherwise — of Buffy the Vampire Slayer.)

I found the evening programming spectacular. The first night opened with a quintet playing Celtic music. After that was a dance demonstration, and an offer to teach English dancing following the evening program. I was tempted, but there was another event at the same time I wanted to go to. Berni Phillips sang Lewis Carroll songs, which were quite entertaining, and Terry Lindvall gave a presentation on Lewis and Humor (“you’d better be funny!” I heard someone warn him facetiously). Cary Hoagland also gave a dramatic reading of the winners of the contest to write a Screwtape-style letter. Three winners were read, each on a different night.

While sitting in the auditorium watching the performances, I was reminded of Patrick Stewart’s comment when he came to Minneapolis: the most lively part of the audience is always in the right front. And so it was here. They were very enthusiastic with their responses.

The highlight of the evening was a one-man performance of Lewis’s The Great Divorce by a Philadelphia actor, Anthony (Tony) Lawton. He played all the parts, and the performance was absolutely riveting (even the right side of the audience was silent in rapt attention). The extent of the appreciation was shown in that almost immediately afterwards buttons appeared saying “Tony Lawton Fan Club.” He wrote a nice note thanking us for all of our attention, which he posted on the dormitory’s bulletin board.

After the evening program was over, I returned to the dorm to take part in the Bardic Circle. Tim Callahan read his poetry; Diana Paxson brought her harp and played a short piece based on Lewis’s poetry; another fan brought his guitar and sang a song. I recited one of my exercises from voice class: a brief but heartwarming story about a man and his saw, in which there are essentially only two words: wood and saw.

The next evening featured a costume competition, in which Deb Jones won for “best of show” as Orual from Lewis’s novel Till We Have Faces, and conference chair Diana Glyer won a prize for appearing as “The Silver Chair.” This year’s Sizzling Egrets (Eleanor Farrell and Lynn Maudlin) reviewed, among other items, “Malacandra Attacks!” a fictional film version of Lewis’s Out of the Silent Planet, allegedly made by Ed Wood (rediscovered and remade by Tim Burton) and filled with wonderful cheesy special effects. Lynn Maudlin wrapped up the evening with her special songs, including one of her most notable songs, “If You Can’t Live Without Me, Why Aren’t You Dead?”

Saturday’s programming began with taped greetings from Owen Barfield (recorded prior to his passing late last year) and a guest of honor speech by Verlyn Flieger about the significance of Barfield’s work. Afternoon events included “The Dead Inklings” panel in which various individuals portrayed J. R. R. Tolkien, Dorothy Sayers, Charles Williams, and Warnie and Jack Lewis. They took questions from the audience, remaining in character. Later, Tony Lawton coordinated a dramatic reading of Barfield’s play, Orpheus.

Saturday evening was the banquet. We sang “Happy Birthday” to C.S. Lewis, and birthday cake was served. Traditional food sculptures were created: that evening, the head table was presented with “A Beef Observed,” “A Question of Thyme,” and a map of Perelandra rendered in leftovers. Verlyn Flieger excitedly accepted the Mythopoeic Scholarship Award for Inklings’ Studies for A Question of Time. The banquet speaker, David Payne, talked about his memorization of Lewis’s A Grief Observed, and how that had affected him and the audiences to which he had recited the work. After the banquet an amusing piece titled St. Cecilia’s Day 1963, in which Kennedy, Lewis, and Huxley met in the afterlife, was performed in the dorm.

Sunday was quite a day. The Mythopoeic Society members’ meeting was just after lunch, and as Chair it was my pleasure to preside. The members’ meeting was scheduled to last 90 minutes; since a number of members wished to discuss topics further, it lasted 3 hours. Many members had thoughtful suggestions as to what they wanted the Mythopoeic Society to do and how they wanted it to thrive. In particular, members were receptive to the idea of a Mythopoeic Society listserv (e-mail list), which may be implemented by 1999.

The Sunday evening program showcased the Not-Ready-for-Mythcon Players. The performance was essentially the X-Files meets That Hideous Strength: Scully and Mulder investigate the practices of the evil organization N.I.C.E.

In all, it was a most enjoyable and productive experience. I saw members that I haven’t seen face-to-face for some time, did a lot of fan networking, and I even bought the official t-shirt! My thanks to all who made Mythcon 29 possible!

Reprinted from the September 1998 issue (35:9) of Mythprint.