Past Watchful Dragons Report

NarniaWeb Staffer Cymru got a chance to attend the Past Watchful Dragons conference and has written up a fantastic report:

This past week, beginning November 3, the doors were opened to Narnia and Middle-Earth. Belmont University in Nashville, Tennessee, hosted a conference which featured Inklings scholars from around the world talking about a various range of subjects in relation to their works for two and a half magic filled days. The wardrobe door was opened on Wednesday by C.S. Lewis stepson and author, Mr. Douglas Gresham.

If one has not had the privilege of meeting him, there is no amount of reading or research that will adequately prepare you for his charm. Dressed in riding boots and khakis from top to bottom suggesting that he was fresh from safari, this white haired, lion bearded man graciously greeted visitors in a reception room an hour before a banquet to be held in his honor. With a smile that seemed comfortable on his face and always shining in his clear, kind eyes, he accepted requests for photographs, autographs, and information about the upcoming film, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, his lifelong dream. I had heard recordings of Mr. Gresham’s voice prior to my brief meeting with him, but to hear it in person is a stunning privilege. The smooth timbre that fills it, makes it vibrate with wisdom, is hypnotic and I found myself lulled by the knowledge that he had been considered for the voice of Aslan. On a personal level and after listening at length to the majesty of his voice, I’m convinced the possibility would have been a marriage made in Narnia. Nervously handing him a copy of the beautifully written Lenten Lands and answering his question regarding the proper spelling of my name, I mention that I am a Senior Moderator at Narniaweb and some of us on the site had hoped that he might have been cast. A twinkle fills his eyes, and incidentally they strike me as the sort of eyes that often twinkle, and he begins to tell me that Neeson is a superb actor and doing a fine job – though perhaps not the sort of voice he had initially imagined. Then, with a benevolant grin says, “I’ll be appearing in a cameo.” The hook is set and my head bounces with that sort of fan bop that accompanies the word now emblazoned across my mind, “scoop!”

Later, sitting in a gleaming white room filled with white linens and crystal glass, the clinking of fine silverware, and gloriously tropical palms, the entire congregation of listeners sits beneath the music of his favorite stories about Jack and his mother at the Kilns, descriptions of his first encounter with Lewis, tales from the sets of Shadowlands starring Anthony Hopkins, and carefully chosen anecdotes regarding the forthcoming film. Skandar Keynes, who plays Edmund, is apparently 7 and one half inches taller since the film’s end, and Anna Popplewell (Susan) has blossomed beyond a young girl into a young woman. Andrew Adamson was a tour de force, directing the children and nearly 350 extras during an enormous scene, during Mr. Gresham’s first day on the set and, according to him, set his mind at ease at once regarding his capability to handle the task. In addition, Mr. Gresham said that the cast and crew were some of the most congenial he’d ever seen and during his visits he never heard a cross word among them.

Then, remarkably, he invited guests to walk to an open microphone for the next half an hour and ask any question. This led to an amazing maze of thoughts and stories and the guest of honor handled everything like a pro. I suppose he is. After that lengthy and gracious presentation, he then stayed at the conference late into the following day to sign copies of his new book about his stepfather called Jack’s Life. The book is accompanied by a DVD interview of Mr. Gresham and the title’s handwritten signature, he revealed to me while signing my own copy, was his own.

The next two days were filled with a myriad of classes ranging from discussions on Tolkien, Lewis, and the constellation of inklings surrounding them, as well as modern authors, such as Gaiman and Rowling, who have been impacted by their works. Further classes tried to extract connections to other classics that preceded the inklings and one paper in particular, which drew a connection between C.S. Lewis’ Til We Have Faces and Gaston Leroux’s The Phantom of the Opera, drew literal gasps from the audience. Christopher Mitchell, the Assistant Professor of Theology at Wheaton College, and the director of the Marion E. Wade Center, which houses a major collection of the books and papers of seven British authors including Lewis, Owen Barfiled, G.K. Chesterton, George MacDonald, Dorothy L. Sayers, J.R.R. Tolkien, and Charles Williams, led a prize session which explored the Christian impulse of C.S. Lewis and the impact it had on his writings. It was Mr. Mitchell’s belief that Lewis’ works may be more powerful to the modern generation than they even were during the age in which he lived.

Aside from the intellectual panels which jam packed the schedule, attendees were treated to a performance of An Evening With C.S. Lewis by actor David Payne, who has played Jack in a number of productions of Shadowlands. His performance, which was graced only by an armchair and a small endtable holding a pot of tea, was spectacularly personal and gave the audience the sense that had truly spent an evening in the living room of this amazing and humble author. The Glass Hammer gave an afternoon performance the following afternoon and then, the conference culminated Saturday night with a passion filled performance by the Nashville Symphony of The Lord of the Rings, featuring music from all three films and accompanied by a large screen which featured the moving artwork of Alan Lee.

The next morning, a happy group returned through the Wardrobe door carrying their goody bags, filled with numerous Lewis inspired treats. A cd recently released by Andrew Peterson (who actually attended the conference and three of my own classes) is rife with references to both Tolkien and Lewis to the point that it’s almost hard to take it all in. Perhaps my favorite song on the album is called Little Boy Heart Alive and features several lines to make Lewis’ fan’s hearts skip a beat: This is the Kingdom calling, Come now and tread the dawn and Met a kid at the railroad track, He had a stick and a nylon sack, I ran to the house to pack, I wanted to follow. Take a ride on the mighty lion, take hold of the golden mane, the is the love of Jesus, So good, but it is not tame. Ever the road goes on and on and on. And that’s only a small snip of the lyrics from Peterson’s The Far Country that are directly Narnia related. The entire album is dedicated to the impact that the works of the Inklings have had on his life. In addition to this delightful freebie, guests also received copies of Jonathan Rogers’ The World According to Narnia, miniature editions of the upcoming edition of Sacred History magazine which features a glorious artwork by Carly Castillion of Lewis himself, full color articles by Mr. Gresham and a myriad of information regarding the upcoming film including a small poster. The edition will be released for December 2005. In addition to freebies, the halls were lined with several booths offering Lewis and inkling books, a round the clock running trailer and small documentary on the album inspired by the film compliments of Narnia on Tour, and various other sundries which knew the art of singing to one’s pocket.

It is clear from the enormous response to this conference that the focus on these works is not merely a passing fad. The Inklings are on the move and they are deftly and swiftly making it Past Watchful Dragons.