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A Lewis Scholar and a Character: Remembering Walter Hooper (1931-2020)

December 29, 2020


All of us who know and love the writings of C.S. Lewis owe a great debt to another figure, highly regarded in the field of Lewis scholarship but less well known to the wider world of readers: Walter Hooper. Over the course of six decades, Hooper served as literary advisor to Lewis’ estate, dedicating his life to editing, preserving, and sharing the work of C.S. Lewis. As just one example, when we pick up a volume such as God in the Dock or Selected Literary Essays—containing some of Lewis’ finest essays—we are benefiting from Walter’s work in tracking down and preserving material written for various newspapers and magazines that could otherwise easily have been lost or languished out of print. He co-authored an important early biography of Lewis. And it is from Walter’s labor of love that we have Lewis’s wisdom, wit, and insight in the Collected Letters (three volumes and nearly four thousand pages). For his many contributions to Lewis scholarship, in 2009 he received a richly deserved Lifetime Achievement Award from the Marion E. Wade Center. He died peacefully in Oxford on Dec. 7, 2020, aged eighty-nine, after having been ill for a while.

I first met Walter in 2012, at the Oxford Oratory, and in the years that followed I would often chat with him after weekday Mass. He would always greet me, on my return to Oxford on any given visit, with energetic warmth:  “It’s so good to see you! How have you been?” It struck me deeply that this gentle, elderly man had known Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien personally; there was a real connection, a direct continuity, with the authors whose work is the focus of my own scholarship. Their writings have touched millions, yet they too were flesh-and-blood people who had laughed and grieved, who had chatted with friends and walked along the streets of Oxford in damp and chilly English weather, who had prayed and worked faithfully without knowing, at the time, what their legacy would be.

Walter was, to use St. John Henry Newman’s words, “a link in a chain, a bond of connexion between two persons”—not just for me but for countless others around the world.

To gain more insight into this remarkable man, I had the pleasure of speaking with Dr. David Paul Baird*, a theologian, poet, and film critic who is also a past president of the Oxford C.S. Lewis Society and Walter Hooper’s godson.

How did you get to know Walter Hooper?

I met Walter after my first year studying at Oxford. I had rather unexpectedly been elected as president of the university’s C.S. Lewis Society, and shortly thereafter was invited to tea with what I would come to discover was one of the city’s living legends.

It puts me in mind of Walter’s own story of his first meeting with Lewis. Walter had been working as an academic in the US and flew out to the UK to interview Lewis. They drank pots and pots of tea, apparently, until Walter nervously asked for the bathroom. Lewis showed him into a room with only a bathtub (no toilet), and after some hesitation Walter returned to Lewis, who asked how he had enjoyed his bath. Walter admitted that it was not, in fact, a bath he had been after. Whereupon, Lewis let loose a roar of a laugh, saying, “Let that cure you of your damn American euphemisms! Now let’s begin again, what is it that you want?” After that, Walter ended up staying in Oxford as Lewis’ personal secretary and subsequent executor of his literary estate, resigning his university position and dedicating his life to collecting and curating Lewis’ works.

My first meeting with Walter was much less dramatic, but no less momentous. We talked and talked—at one point he directed me to a shelf of Lewis’ own copies of books (complete with Lewis’ own underlinings and marginalia)—and just before I left that afternoon, there was one more thing I thought to mention. I was aware that when he met Lewis, Walter had been an ordained Anglican clergyman, but had subsequently converted to Catholicism. I had been thinking quite a bit about the question myself at the time, so as something of an afterthought I told him that I was sort of, maybe, potentially thinking of walking down the same road. Without batting an eye, Walter invited me to Mass with him, and in due course stood with his hand on my shoulder as I was received into the Church.

Although by the end of his life, Walter was honored greatly for his contributions, his stewardship of Lewis’ legacy was not always easy. In fact, he went through a very painful stretch. Could you say a bit about that?

Yes, there was some controversy through the 80s and 90s when some critics claimed that Walter had himself fabricated some of Lewis’ posthumous publications. As a sweet, unassuming, and rather sensitive man, Walter took some of this to heart, to the extent that he suffered for years from a sort of chronic spiritual cramp or wound.

Notably, later in that period, Walter was asked to a private audience with the then-pope, John Paul II, who was a great admirer of Lewis’ The Four Loves. (Walter presented him with Lewis’ own copy of the text). Apparently the pope also commented on Lewis’ legacy, describing him as a man who knew his apostolate and did it.

Walter also once related how he was convinced at the time that if he could only physically touch the man latterly canonized as a saint, Walter’s spiritual wound would be healed. Walter took the pope’s hand, felt the burden lift, and in the same instant heard a grunt of pain from the pontiff, like he had been punched. Walter afterwards apologized to one of the pope’s assistants, who replied, “This happens all the time.”

Walter was something of an Oxford legend—but what was he like?

I came to discover that in any particular encounter with Walter, there were at least three distinct characters one might meet. Depending upon the weather, one might find Walter the charming and consummately considerate intellectual, Walter the vociferous critic of women bishops, or Walter the twinkle-eyed, mischievous schoolboy. In an evening of dinner and drinks, all three would generally make an appearance.

He loved his cats—Blessed Lucy of Narnia, for instance—with an almost comic deference. He also delighted in a good spot of silliness. One Christmas, Walter and I shared a cab to a holiday celebration at the Kilns—Lewis’ one-time Oxford home—where the whole drive Walter adopted the pretense that I was not there. He proceeded to speak of me to the cabby in the most glowing terms, among these the familiar compliment, “I think he’s the nicest man I have ever met.” I have it on authority that he said this about everybody.

Something of a legend, and also something of a character, to be sure! What would you say about his legacy?

It is fitting, I think, that when Walter was received into full communion with the Church, he chose the name Joseph. Much like St. Joseph, Walter gave something momentous to humanity yet did so out of the limelight.

Most people know very little about the man Walter Hooper, yet except for him would almost certainly know very much less about the work of C.S. Lewis. His legacy comes from his work of curation, courtesy, and hospitality, and I think that those of us whose lives have been changed reading Lewis can thank God for Walter, who, too, I believe, knew his apostolate and did it.

*David Paul Baird is Visiting Professor of Theology at Catholic Pacific College. He holds a PhD in Divinity from the University of St. Andrews, and degrees in English, philosophy, and theology from Wheaton College, University of Oxford, and the University of St. Andrews’ Institute for Theology, Imagination, and the Arts. A past president of the Oxford C.S. Lewis Society, he is also a published poet and a film critic for The B.C. Catholic. His writing and research focus on the intersections between traditional Christianity and contemporary culture, with particular interests in theological aesthetics, genre fiction, and film.