In the late 1800s, Richard Lewis of Belfast, Ireland, built a large wardrobe for his family. He carved the oak pieces and assembled the cabinet using nails and hinges that he made himself.
The wardrobe was so spacious that his grandchildren, Warren and Clive (who went by Jack), used to hide and play in it with their cousins. Jack had a wonderful imagination.
“What if the wardrobe were magic?” he thought. “What if the wardrobe formed a gateway to a fantastic world of talking animals, sorcerers and mythological creatures?”
When he grew up, Jack — renowned Christian-allegorical writer C.S. Lewis — wrote a series of books inspired by his childhood make-believe games: The Chronicles of Narnia.
He moved the wardrobe to his own home and kept it in the front hall.
Ten years after he died, in 1973, that famous wardrobe was transported to the Marion E. Wade Center at Wheaton College, in Wheaton, Ill., where it stands today. The college, whose alumni include evangelical preacher Billy Graham, is 25 miles west of Chicago.
How would such a priceless literary artifact find its way to the campus of a small Christian college in an unassuming village in the Midwestern United States?
It started in 1952, when Clyde Kilby, professor of English at Wheaton, struck up a correspondence with Lewis.
The correspondence blossomed into a cordial friendship, not only with Lewis, but also with Lewis’ colleagues at Oxford University, including Catholic author J.R.R. Tolkien of The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit fame.
A few years after Lewis’ death in 1963, professor Kilby began The C.S. Lewis Collection at Wheaton College by donating many of his personal letters to the college. Over the years, the collection simply grew, as Kilby secured more acquisitions: letters, manuscripts, books from Lewis’ personal library and personal effects, such as Lewis’ pipe, fountain pen, desk and chair — and, of course, the wardrobe.
Since 1974, the collection has been funded by a large endowment bequeathed by the family of the late Marion E. Wade, a Chicago businessman, devout Christian and devotee of all things Lewis.
The scope of the carefully curated collection has also grown to include works and artifacts from another half-dozen British authors who have made substantial contributions to literature and Christianity.
“The Seven,” as they are called, are Lewis, Tolkien, Dorothy Sayers, Owen Barfield, Charles Williams, G.K. Chesterton and George MacDonald.
All were 20th-century authors and scholars, with the exception of MacDonald, who wrote in the 19th century but had a profound influence on Lewis.
Chesterton and Tolkien are notable as authors whose Catholic faith deeply informed their writing.
The Wade Center’s museum includes physical memorabilia from the seven authors and thematic exhibits on such topics as the authors’ childhoods and illustrations from their books.
But the pride and joy of the Wade Center is the Clyde and Martha Kilby Reading Room, which contains thousands of volumes from the authors’ personal libraries (many signed and annotated), folios full of their letters, all their published works, scholarly and popular treatments of their works, and books about their books.
Reading the Authors
On a recent visit, I almost didn’t know where to start, but soon I settled upon some letters of Tolkien’s, because I was so enchanted with his handwriting in the facsimiles of his letters in the museum.
Like all the authors, he wrote with a fountain pen, but this little passage from a letter to professor Kilby made me laugh (Tolkien complains about having to use a “biro,” a ballpoint pen):
“Excuse this Bilboesque scrawl. I have never managed to manage a ‘biro,’ and hotel inkpots are always dry, while I have had some disastrous experiences which prevent me carrying liquid ink in my luggage.”
The high school and college students who accompanied me to the center (members of a group of teen and young-adult fiction writers from my parish) read an illustrated edition of The Silmarillion, Lewis’ annotated teaching copies of Milton and Shakespeare, a collection of fold-out maps of Middle-earth and original manuscripts of Chesterton’s.
A visit to the Wade Center is truly a “literary pilgrimage” for all ages, from fans of the seven authors’ books to serious scholars.
There is the wardrobe that inspired the seven books about Narnia. There is the desk upon which Tolkien wrote, edited, typed and illustrated The Hobbit. There are the fountain pens he and the other authors used and the very letters written with those pens. I was so inspired by this that I went out and bought my own fountain pen and have tried to emulate Tolkien’s Elvish script.
When I got home, I decided to indulge my renewed interest in the seven Wade Center authors. I put the kettle on for a cup of tea, found my yet unread copy of The Silmarillion and curled into an armchair with it. The first chapter amazed me. I recalled something I had read in one of Tolkien’s letters that very afternoon: “Lux fulgebat super nos,” he wrote in Latin, which means, “Light shone upon us.” Tolkien then added, “Rapturous words from which sprang the whole of my mythology.”
Right after the Latin phrase, Tolkien had also written something that I assumed was Elvish, which he didn’t translate. Turns out, it was a fragment of Old English from a poem called Crist (Christ) by an Anglo-Saxon poet named Cynewulf:
Eala, Earendel, engla beorhtast
ofer middangeard monnum sended
“Hail, Earendel, brightest of angels
above the middle-earth sent unto men!”
So when Tolkien also noted, “Rapturous words from which sprang the whole of my mythology,” apparently he was also referring to that poem fragment.
My fellow fieldtrippers also were moved by the experience:
“I had no idea that there was such a treasure trove of history so close to where I live. It was great to see the writings and other belongings of so many great writers,” said Hannah Kubiak, my daughter, who is a college senior studying theater at Franciscan University of Steubenville. “The fact that ‘The Seven’ all knew each other makes me want to search out fellow writers and create a similar group for criticism and encouragement, a modern-day Inklings, if you will.”
As for Jake Bartely, a high-school senior from Westmont, Ill., “As a writer, it was inspiring to learn more about great authors like C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien and many more. It was great getting to read a few of the many things that they have written, too. I will definitely be going back soon to keep enjoying this great place.”
Clare Walker writes from
Photo used by permission of
The Marion E. Wade Center,
Wheaton College, Wheaton, IL
Marion E. Wade Center
351 E. Lincoln Ave.
Wheaton, IL 60187
Planning Your Visit
The Wade Center is open Monday through Friday, 9am to 4pm, and Saturday from 9am to 12pm. Check the website for special hours and closings.