E.V. resident to be warden of C.S. Lewis’ home - East Valley Tribune: Get Out

E.V. resident to be warden of C.S. Lewis’ home

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Posted: Friday, June 27, 2008 12:06 pm | Updated: 11:26 pm, Fri Oct 7, 2011.

Her passion for the works of the 20th-century Christian writer C.S. Lewis has taken Donna McDaniel to England 11 times.

Lawn Griffiths on Spiritual Life

Her passion for the works of the 20th-century Christian writer C.S. Lewis has taken Donna McDaniel to England 11 times.

Lawn Griffiths on Spiritual Life

Now the Scottsdale woman has been chosen to be the warden of “The Kilns,” the home of Lewis in Oxford, England.

Her one-year assignment in the restored home where the prolific writer worked will allow her to mix with Lewis scholars and aficionados, under the direction of the C.S. Lewis Foundation, based in Redlands, Calif.

Lewis, whose name routinely can be found on the lists of the century’s greatest Christian thinkers, may be best known for “The Screwtape Letters,” “Mere Christianity” and his classic, seven-book children’s fictional series, “The Chronicles of Narnia,” including “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.”

The Arizona Science Center in Phoenix opened an exhibit June 8, “The Chronicles of Narnia: The Exhibition,” a 10,000-square-foot show with $2 million worth of props from the two Narnia films, “Prince Caspian” and “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.”

The Disney film props will be on view daily through Oct. 26.

The Narnia phenomenon has spawned a veritable subculture in film, academia and the arts and a kind of children’s literature cult.

Historians never overlook the fact that Lewis’ death on Nov. 22, 1963, just short of his 65th birthday, was overshadowed by the assassination that day of President John F. Kennedy, not to mention that “Brave New World” author Aldous Huxley also died on that date.

“When I was in my early teens, I read 'The Screwtape Letters,’ and I was so amazed,” McDaniel remembers. “So I just started reading anything of his I could get my hands on.”

While raising her five children, McDaniel read “all the Lewis 'Chronicles’ to them until the older ones didn’t like the way I pronounced the names,” McDaniel said. Names like Prunaprismia, Reepicheep or Puddleglum. So her older children proceeded to read “The Horse and His Boy,” “The Voyage of the Dawn Treader” and others to younger siblings.

It was 1997, and McDaniel’s children were in high school and college, and she read about plans to mark the 100th anniversary of the birth of Lewis, a native of Belfast, Ireland. She was intrigued with a centennial tour that was planned, but its $10,000 cost was beyond her means. At the same time, her brother-in-law, Robert Smyth, producing artistic director of Lamb’s Players Theatre in Coronado, Calif., was writing a play based on a Lewis novel. McDaniel wrote the C.S. Lewis Foundation and told them of her devotion to the writer’s outpourings and asked them if “they could use the skills that I had.”

That led to her getting a $1,000 scholarship to work at that summer’s Lewis conference, while her husband, recognizing her enthusiasm, agreed to pay for her trip to England. “I went by myself in the summer of 1998 for the centennial, and it was just grand,” she said. She experienced bona fide “Lewis enthusiasts” who have studied, embraced and manifested the writer’s religious concepts in their lives.

For McDaniel, the highlight of the conference that drew more than 500 was the world premier presentation of the Lamb’s Players production, “Till We Have Faces,” in which her sister, Deborah Gilmore Smyth, also had a role. “It was a wonderful ending to the conference, so I was hooked,” she said.

Ralph Wood, Baylor University theology and literature professor, called Lewis “the chief Christian tutor to the 20th century” and a “strident scholarly giant in the midst” of “pygmies on the Oxford English faculty” who took offense to his “unembarrassed confession faith.” Much was made of Lewis’ zeal for Christianity after losing his faith as a teen and re-converting to Christianity at age 30 through the influence of such friends as J.R.R. Tolkien, who wrote “The Lord of the Rings.”

“In his own words, he was the most reluctant convert to Christianity because he was very, very disillusioned when his mother died,” McDaniel said, explaining that it came at a critical time when he was 10. At 15, he rejected his faith and turned to mythology and the occult and was fascinated with literature about animals with human characteristics and was soon writing and illustrating his own fantasy stories.

“He and his brother (Warren) put together incredible stories of kids, which led to writing the 'Narnia’ chronicles and his science fiction,” she said.

McDaniel returned to The Kilns for a month in 1999 to work on major restoration of the house, which had undergone enormous change during the years it was owned by others. “It was called a 'Vacation With a Purpose,’ ” and she had the task of laying a new floor and putting up a fence. She was back for the dedication of the restoration in 2002. The home was bought in 1988 by the C.S. Lewis Foundation, a nonprofit group that is not permitted to pay staff, so all are volunteers.

“The Kilns is used as a residence for scholars,” McDaniel said, noting that three conferences are planned for the coming year. Invited scholars pay to stay and hold their gatherings at the home, which is named for the kilns that once fired bricks on the property.

During her year as the warden, McDaniel will have a wide range of tasks, including administrative duties related to guests, providing tours to people who come to see the house and providing hospitality. Also arriving at The Kilns in the coming months will be a couple of newlyweds both working on advanced degrees at Oxford. “We will eat together, and we will be able to sort of be like a family,” she said. “The house is very unique. It has six bedrooms, and each bedroom has its own sink and mirrors” plus wardrobes. But it has only three toilets and one shower and tub “so you’ve gotta work together and stand in lines. There is a great kitchen with a wonderful old stove that I don’t know how to work yet.”

McDaniel won’t be paid and must account for her own food provisions and a bicycle.

The C.S. Lewis Oxbridge Summer Institute July 28 to Aug. 8 will be split between the campuses of Oxford and Cambridge and will attract hundreds of scholars, artists, clergy, students and Lewis enthusiasts (www.cslewis.org).

She said a gathering of C.S. Lewis enthusiasts is “better than being at a class reunion. ... There is something about that kind of community that is so rich,” she said.

McDaniel reads the “Narnia” books every four or five years. “When I get to the end of 'The Last Battle,’ I am just sad because I have enjoyed them so much.”

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