Walter McGehee Hooper | March 27, 1931 – December 7, 2020
There will be many good words written and excellent scholarly accounts published regarding Walter’s legacy and his extraordinary accomplishments in the literary world as a man of letters. He will be referred to as Walter Hooper or Hooper in the accepted convention of obituaries and tributes. What I am writing here is not an obituary or formal account of Walter’s legacy, but a personal reflection to be shared among friends who know Walter and love him, not simply as the legend of C.S. Lewis fame, but as a friend, collogue, and mentor. Here he will be referred to simply as Walter, as a friend loved and spoken of by another friend, the way he signed his letters to us.
Except in the circle of literature-loving Lewis and Inklings scholars and readers, his name is likely not to be recognized in most households. Walter was a quiet man who contented himself to serve another man’s name and legacy, and who changed not only the readership of 20th century Christendom but in ways incalculable also changed the world as we know it.
In an exchange recently with a friend, I mentioned I did not regard C.S. Lewis as my hero. Lewis is someone more foundational and even ‘organic’, if I can use that term. Lewis is in so many ways, the soil out of which I sprang. My roots are in him like soil and passing through him into Christ. His role in my formation is more as guide, anchor, point of origin and orientation, and most certainly an on-going companion. Walter Hooper, however, was always my hero. He is still. That he was also my friend on any level still astonishes me.
A penchant for friendship
I met Walter in July of 2005 at The Kilns, Lewis’s home in Oxford. I’m not sure that my heart could have held any more happiness than it did that night. It was an extraordinary evening, a magnificent gift of the C.S. Lewis Foundation. Walter was a legend by then in Lewis and Inkling circles, of course, and in my wildest dreams, I could not imagine any kind of friendship would be extended to me by him. I had read virtually every forward written by Walter, every book, every interview I could find. I loved his gracious, elegant writing and gift for clarity and understatement, his skill with nuance and assumption of intelligence in the reader. I loved the stories about him, the role he played in stewarding Lewis’s work, the way he carried it forward constant and undimmed. I loved that his eyes had looked in Lewis’s eyes and they had been actual friends. I loved what that friendship blossomed into and how it expanded over time and space and numbers of those included in that circle. Walter’s penchant for friendship, in fact, was one of his defining qualities and one he shared most in common with Lewis. Warm, gregarious, other-focused attention. Lewis made a point of elevating others in his conversations and drawing them out, and while he certainly loved to debate it was never with the intention of diminishing his opponent as a human being. Walter carried on likewise. He listened attentively as though what each person said was as important and fascinating as anything thing he’d ever heard. He made you feel as though you were just the very person he most wanted to see. One of the qualities I love most dearly about Walter is that he did not make others feel invisible. He offered each of us the benediction of being important.
Serving in bright shadow
Contrary to what has been and will continue to be widely written of Walter Hooper, I would argue that he did not give his life to serving the legacy of C.S. Lewis. As is so often the case, while it is factual, that statement is not really the truth. Even though Walter said himself that his “life work” was to edit Lewis’s literary remains, his true and whole life’s work was to serve Christ as Saviour, Friend, Lord, and King. That service, which preceded and undergirded all else, included championing Lewis’s literary works and his reputation. In every capacity that he served, Walter served Christ first and last.
Walter said something to me years ago that I did not make the connection to then or recognise the meaning of it. I had asked him if it had been a burden to serve another man’s legacy instead of pursuing his own, to live out his life in another man’s shadow as it were. As kindly as he had answered others who put that same question to him, Walter replied, “Not at all. It has been wonderful because it was a bright shadow. I wouldn’t have had it any other way.” He didn’t elaborate further then and I’ve never heard him elaborate on that elsewhere. He made no literary reference. At the time, I thought he meant Lewis’s bright shadow, as maybe he meant me to think. I’m still a little embarrassed that I didn’t realize that he was speaking of what Lewis himself had called the bright shadow.
That name comes from Lewis’s description of his experience in reading George MacDonald’s Phantastes – the book he famously said baptized his imagination and where he encountered the presence of holiness. In Surprised by Joy, Lewis describes his experience of reading Phantastes like this: “But now I saw the bright shadow coming out of the book into the real world and resting there, transforming all common things and yet itself unchanged. Or, more accurately, I saw the common things drawn into the bright shadow.”
There is a real consolation for me though in reading Lewis’s words that shortly followed. He wrote, “It is as if I were carried sleeping across the frontier, or as if I had died in the old country and could never remember how I came alive in the new. For in one sense the new country was exactly like the old. I met there all that had already charmed me in Malory, Spenser, Morris, and Yeats. But in another sense all was changed. I did not know (and I was long in learning) the name of the new quality, the bright shadow, that rested on the travels on Anodos. I do now. It was Holiness.”
Something clearer emerges to me about Lewis and Walter from this reflection. In the years that followed their first meeting, Walter wasn’t merely serving Lewis’s legacy. Walter had arrived just in time to receive the torch of the Bright Shadow from Lewis to carry it forward. They were men both “looking along the beam” at the same object of Love. Echoing Lewis’s experience of “What, you, too?” from so many years before with his friend Arthur Greeves, Walter and Lewis shared a bond. A bond that defied easy expression in a friendship that defined Walter. He was serving with Lewis as men-at-arms and fellow comrades. Equals. One after the other, both after the same object of Love and the same longing of their souls. Like Lewis before him, Walter served the bright shadow of Christ. When he said it was wonderful he meant it. It wasn’t an empty accolade. It is a thing of joy and wonder to serve the Holy I Am.
Ripe for Dismissal
Walter contracted Covid-19 in the week to 10 days before his home-going, but to say he “died from Covid” is a distorted statement. It implies that he was struck unexpectedly and that he died a suffocating and wretched death. Walter was frail, worn down by time, loss, and heartache, and he bore the marks of having served through a long life. He had suffered several serious illnesses over the past 8 years and was in a sharp decline previous to his contracting Covid-19. In fact, though he did struggle through some of it, reliable accounts from close friends tell us that at the end he passed as I believe he wanted to, peacefully and in a deep readiness.
Walter was not a man tragically slain in the prime of his life, with his work only partially finished. There is a real beauty to be acknowledged and marvelled at in the wholeness of Walter’s life – the long faithfulness, the constancy, and the generative fullness of it. He kept his eyes fixed on the prize. He served with his whole heart over decades of pursuing a single object of adoration: Christ Jesus, Lord and King. Walter was a meticulous scholar, and though soft-spoken and courteous, he was also undaunted and as fiercely focused as a knight on the field of battle. He performed his life work of stewarding Lewis’s work and legacy, not as a quivering, hero-worshipping, promoter but as a man captivated bone-deep with the love of the same object that Lewis loved. Walter was “looking along the beam” with Lewis while Lewis lived on earth, and Walter received the baton to carry that vision forward, looking along that same beam for the next 57 years. He passed it on more generatively than we can now calculate.
What mattered to Walter was that he was faithful.
He lived a whole life – a long life full of friendship, beauty, love, excellence, battles fought and won, struggles faced and borne with patience, courtesies and kindnesses shown, encouragements given, grace extended and received, integrity and duty kept, promises honoured. What Walter had to give; he gave wholly. Tasks, roles, duties, and calling – he fulfilled them all. He reached something many do not – fullness. Maturity. Walter was ripe and fully grown. As friend Malcolm Guite commented to me that Lewis’s term for coming to the fullness of age and maturity, having fulfilled a term of service, was “ripe for dismissal.” Walter was ripe for dismissal and has fully earned to right to be relieved of duty, to enter rest and receive his reward.
What is most difficult to say about Walter is what we’ve lost in his departure. For now, we’ve lost touch and sight of our soft-spoken champion, our sweet friend. Because Walter lived to offer benediction, we’ve lost also a kind of fatherly covering, a generational banner over us. In this sense, we have become orphaned. Walter was the patriarch of our tribe while he lived in a way no one else could be really. He was the guardian of the torch and while he encouraged and urged so many of us in our writing and studies, he carried that torch as he was appointed and assigned. Now, just as it had been passed to Walter from Lewis, so does it pass to us from Walter. How shall we bear it? Bravely, generously, kindly, cheerfully, and faithfully, I pray!
Because I love Walter, I do not want him back. I want to be where he is. I want to have tea with him again and laugh about stories and watch his eyes dance in merriment. I want to listen again to him telling sly jokes, sometimes so refined that they go over my head. I want to see him whole and strong with all his magnificent memory at his swift disposal. I’m sure that he and Jesus are laughing together and making merry. I imagine that the tea is perfect and plentiful. And I imagine his sitting room is filled with priceless books, a lovely fireplace, at least two good reading chairs (one for himself and one for a friend), and the walls are a perfect scarlet red.
Worthy of your attention:
Author’s Note: This piece by Jacob Imam is my favourite tribute and remembrance of Walter to date for both the warmth and beauty of the writing, and the relationship that is reflected in it.
The featured portrait images of Walter Hooper used here are (c) of Lancia E. Smith and used with permission for Cultivating.
Please contact Lancia directly via the Cultivating website should you wish permission for use of any of these images. Thank you!
Lancia E. Smith is an author, photographer, teacher, and business owner. A grateful lover of the Triune God, Lancia is the Founder & Executive Director of Cultivating & The Cultivating Project. She has served in executive management, church leadership, and numerous boards over 30 years. She & her husband Peter have parented 7 children, and have a flock of grandchildren. Lancia loves design, beautiful typography, gardens, being read aloud to by Peter, & every book she ever read by C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and George MacDonald.