As I browsed eBay not long ago, I came across a 78 rpm recording of a lecture by C. S. Lewis. I assumed that it was a mistake or that the seller was trying to defraud an unwitting public. I knew Lewis well enough to know that he had never made a 78 rpm recording for general distribution, much less one produced by something called the Joint Broadcasting Committee. I also knew that Lewis never delivered a lecture on the subject “The Norse Spirit in English Literature.” At least, I knew we had no evidence of such a lecture. Fortunately, curiosity got the better of me, and I bought the record from the dealer in Iceland.
Over the years, I have assembled a significant collection of items related to C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien, and their literary friends. I regularly mount exhibitions for universities and major municipal libraries to spur interest in the Inklings, especially when the secular market is all abuzz when a new Lewis or Tolkien movie is released. At one time, collecting letters, manuscripts, first editions, and other artifacts and ephemera was a slow process that depended upon visiting faraway places with strange sounding names. But all of that changed with e-commerce, which led to this unusual recording being in my possession.
And what an unusual find it turned out to be. I discovered some things about a secret episode in Lewis’s life that few, if any, people knew about.
In His Majesty’s Secret Service
How Lewis came to be recruited and by whom remains a secret. The records of the Secret Intelligence Service, known popularly as MI6, remain closed. Perhaps one of his former pupils at Oxford recommended him for his mission. It was an unusual mission for which few people were suited. J. R. R. Tolkien had the knowledge base for the job, even beyond that of Lewis, but Tolkien lacked other skills that Lewis possessed. Perhaps someone had heard Lewis lecture on his favorite subject in one of the two great lecture halls in the Examination Schools building of Oxford University. At a time when Oxford fellows were notorious for the poor quality of their public lectures, Lewis packed the hall with an audience of students who were not required to attend lectures. In the 1930s, Lewis was the best show in town. Somehow Lewis had developed the skill to speak to an audience and hold them in rapt attention, in spite of his academic training rather than because of it.
The first thing I discovered was that the Joint Broadcasting Committee was an arm of British secret intelligence that served a propaganda purpose by broadcasting to people in occupied enemy territory during World War II. Until now, the general public and the world of scholarship had no idea that C. S. Lewis began his wartime service by undertaking a mission for MI6. Long before James Bond, Lewis rendered service to this clandestine branch of British Intelligence, which was so secret for so long that few people knew of its existence, and few of those knew its actual name. Alternatively known as Military Intelligence, the Secret Service, and MI6, its actual name may be the Secret Intelligence Service. Ian Fleming gave the head of this spy network the code name of M, but in real life he is simply known as the Chief. When Lewis came on board at the beginning of World War II, it was still a fledgling group of amateurs desperately working to save their island home from disaster.
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Hal Poe is the Charles Colson Professor of Faith and Culture at Union University in Tennessee. He is the author of a number of books, including The Inklings of Oxford: C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien, and Their Friends (Zondervan).