Debbie Higgens, Ph. D., is a Professor of English at Southern Adventist University in Collegedale, Tennessee. She wrote this article describing her experience as a 2007 Scholar in Residence at the C.S. Lewis Study Centre at The Kilns (the former home of C.S. Lewis), Oxford, England. An edited version of this article also appears in our Winter 2008/2009 Newsletter, which can be found by clicking here.
“A PhD Journey by Way of Narnia”
by Debbie Higgens, PhD
Once upon a time a middle-aged lady arrived at the Sheldonian theatre for her first Oxbridge conference. It was the summer of 2002, and as Stan Mattson took her hand offering a warm greeting, he glanced down at the embroidered print name on her shirt and questioned, “Did you really attend the Gleneagles School of Falconry?” “Sure did,” she replied, and thus began years of friendship and support not only from Stan but from those at the C.S. Lewis Foundation.
With that greeting of Stan’s, my mind flashed back to 1994 when I paid my first visit to the Kilns. I walked up Lewis Close to the sound of hammers and the sight of people of various ages and types, all working together to restore C.S. Lewis’s beloved home. I had noted the progress on my next visit in 1997, and now I was attending the dedication ceremony celebrating the committed spirit of so many volunteers.
However, my story with the Foundation was just beginning. With names like Bruce Edwards, Hal Poe, and later, Joseph Pearce, I was quickly surrounded with support as I plugged my way through the upper end of my doctoral program: comprehensive exams and the ever-foreboding dissertation. Stan and the others encouraged me, prayed for me, pounded out ideas with me, and advised me through the process. All of this became especially important as I continued my recovery from brain surgery, worked back into full-time teaching, and then, later, struggled through Lyme disease treatments. Returning to full-time teaching and with Lyme treatments looming in front of me, I reached an impasse with my dissertation writing.
Then one day while catching Stan up on my progress, or rather lack of progress, he proposed the God-sent question, “Debbie, do you think you could get a sabbatical and live at the Kilns as a scholar-in-residence?” Stan then proceeded to explain to me the unique role of the C.S. Lewis Study Centre and the opportunities for research and writing while in Oxford. Subsequent events that I would label as miracles led to my Academic Dean’s approval of the sabbatical for the winter semester of the 2006/2007 school year.
Two weeks after completing the extensive three-month treatments for Lyme disease, I caught a flight to Oxford to begin my adventure of study, new friends, and new-found faith. I walked into the Kilns, suitcases in tow, and was immediately invited into the dining room for a wonderful lunch prepared by the warden, Teresa Kipp. At the table sat the rest of my new family: Chelsea, an Oxford student, and Bill Barryman from Holy Trinity Church, a frequent guest at the Kilns. Within the hour we had been joined by our next new resident, Rick Miller, a pastor on sabbatical from a Michigan church. And, thus, the journey began.
I settled into my requested room, Joy’s room, and after finding my way around Oxford, experienced the first and only snow of the season-and indeed realized I had entered into Lewis’s Narnia. In that spirit, I organized my notes and began chapter one.
I traveled into the city of Oxford to use the Bodleian library and conduct interviews with Anglo-Saxonists; in addition, I just “happened” to bump into people who knew J.R.R. Tolkien, soaked in the atmosphere of this most rare and delightful experience over many cups of tea in cafes, and of course, lunched at the Eagle and Child. I returned home in the evenings to the peace and quiet of the Kilns: surrounded by nature, a deer who slept outside my window, and the pond at the C.S. Lewis Nature Reserve. Sitting on the stone bench by the pond-the same bench where Jack and Tollers shared many a conversation-I processed my ideas. Many days I just remained at the Kilns, writing when I could and being nurtured back to health by Teresa’s skillful hands.
As I completed each chapter of my dissertation, a gong was rung in the hallway, and my new family gathered in the Common Room, snuggled up in their favorite spots, and listened to me read. Every so often while reading I would glance up at Pauline Baynes’ map of Narnia on the wall, smile, and then continue. The feedback and suggestions were beneficial, and with the invaluable aid of Kilns’ guest, Patricia Ralston, I was able to complete all seven chapters by the end of June. I returned stateside to make revisions, defend the dissertation “Anglo-Saxon Community in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings,” and graduate in August 2007. I had reached the mountain top, the pinnacle of achievement; a ten-year struggle which culminated in God opening the door of the Kilns in order to close the door on my doctoral program.
And as I shook Stan’s hand once again at Oxbridge 2008 this August, this time as a volunteer, I wore a new logo from the falconry school I attended in July to celebrate the completion of my degree.