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Walter Hooper, champion of C.S. Lewis, dies at 89

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MorningbirdPhoto | Pixabay CC0

John Burger - published on 12/09/20

The Catholic author dedicated his life to promoting the works of the Christian apologist and writer of the Narnia series.

Walter Hooper, an American who worked briefly for the writer C.S. Lewis and went on to be his biggest champion, died Monday in Oxford, England. Hooper, 89, had contracted COVID-19.

Hooper’s life was one of transformation, from his decision to cross the Atlantic from his native United States in order to assist Lewis at the end of his life, to his conversion to Catholicism in 1988. 

Born in Reidsville, North Carolina in 1931, Hooper studied English and education at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. After a stint in the Army, he taught at the University of Kentucky. 

According to Christianity Today, he first heard of Lewis at a campus ministry, where a football player introduced him to The Screwtape Letters

“Hooper was fascinated by the story, but the university bookstore didn’t carry The Screwtape Letters or any other works by Lewis,” CT recounted. “The store did sell J. B. Phillips’s colloquial modern translation of the biblical epistles, Letters to Young Churches, which had an introduction by Lewis. The introduction, which made an argument about how God entered into the world through the Incarnation and comes to us still in everyday, prosaic language, changed Hooper’s life.”

“I’d never met anybody who believed that way,” Hooper said. “I was determined to have more words by this man.”

In 1963, while working on a book about Lewis, he went to Oxford to meet him. Lewis received him graciously in his home, and the two finished three pots of tea while conversing. The famous author then invited him to have a beer with his literary group known as the Inklings at a local pub. Hooper felt the need to draw closer to Lewis and offered his help answering his mail. He agreed to return in an official capacity when he was done with his teaching in Kentucky. 

Controversy

That November, Lewis died, and Hooper was asked to return and help with the literary estate. He also worked to keep Lewis’s works in print. 

“When he saw a British bookshop clearing out its stock of Lewis’s titles, he decided he needed to fight to keep the works in print and promote Lewis’s legacy,” CT said.

Hooper ended up writing a biography of the author of The Narnia Chronicles, editing more than 30 collections of Lewis’s writing, and publishing four volumes of his letters.

He also brought out an obscure Lewis science fiction work called The Dark Tower, and this action became the subject of controversy. Lewis scholar Kathryn Lindskoog charged that several writings, including The Dark Tower, may have been products of a hoax. 

Hooper’s defenders, though, included Lewis’ stepson, Douglas Gresham, as well as a former student, Alistair Fowler, who said that years before Hooper was involved with the estate, Lewis had discussed fantasy fiction projects, including The Dark Tower.

Road to Rome

Though he had become a clergyman in the Church of England, Hooper grew increasingly uneasy with the direction of Anglicanism, and in 1988, became Roman Catholic. According to CT, Hooper said he thought Lewis might have done likewise if he had lived into the 1980s. 

The Church of England was “unravelling,” Hooper told the National Catholic Register. “Anglicanism seemed a mess, in which its members said conflicting things about abortion and many other things.”

Writer Jacob Imam remembers observing Hooper’s faith up close. Imam, a Muslim preparing to become a Catholic, met Hooper while he was studying at Oxford.

“It was his quiet, constant piety and his deep love of Jesus in the Holy Eucharist that impressed me and all those who came to know him as the man in the front-left pew of the Oxford Oratory,” Imam wrote at New Polity. Hooper was the sponsor at his Confirmation. 

Imam noted that in the late 1960s, Hooper received a request from the office of the Archbishop of Krakow, Poland, to translate Lewis into Polish. About a decade later, that archbishop, Karol Wojtyla, became Pope John Paul II. 

In 1984, while he was still an Anglican, the Lewis expert got to meet John Paul. 

“When the pope walked into the room it was as if Aslan himself had arrived,” Hooper once related, referring to the Christ figure in the Chronicles of Narnia. “He was the most intensely masculine creature I had ever seen — and this was after he had been shot.” 

Brandon Vogt of Word on Fire Catholic Ministries recalled meeting Hooper on a visit to England last summer.

“Nobody has done more to spread Lewis’ legacy than Walter, who served as Lewis’ secretary and literary trustee,” Vogt wrote on Facebook this week. “Walter collected and arranged many of Lewis’ writings after Lewis passed, including scores of essays, speeches, stories, and poems. He also accomplished the herculean task of editing Lewis’ collected letters, thousands of correspondence over four thick volumes.

“If you’ve ever read ‘God in the Dock’ or ‘The Weight of Glory’ or any other major collection of Lewis’ writings,” Vogt said, “you have Walter to thank.”

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