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The Actuary The magazine of the Institute & Faculty of Actuaries
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‘Is yellow square or round?’

My fantastical visit to Oxford began with a reading of A Grief Observed by CS Lewis. Within its astonishing 64 pages rests a lifetime’s heartache. The death of his wife, Joy, led Lewis to question his God in brilliant fashion but the futility of his examination was summarised by realisation that God’s enigmatic smile reveals not indifference but his incomprehension. Lewis writes: ‘Can a mortal ask questions which God finds unanswerable?… Is yellow square or round? Probably half the great theological and metaphysical problems are like that.’ AN Wilson’s penetrating biography, CS Lewis – A Biography, implies that, while Joy’s death was devastating, the recording of A Grief Observed was not just an expression of loss of love but also an outpouring of proper bereavement denied to Lewis after the death of his mother when he was a child. Both books are riveting. Wilson’s account of Lewis’s journey from his strong Ulster Protestant roots to atheism, to theism, and to Christianity is equally fascinating. One night in September 1931 Lewis dined with JRR Tolkien, a staunch Roman Catholic, at Magdalen College, Oxford and the dialogue there led to Lewis’s conversion from theist to Christian within nine days. Tolkien’s argument was that while Lewis had a receptive imagination which allowed him to appreciate myth, he became ‘rigidly narrow and empiricist’ in trying to understand Christianity. The point of the anecdote is that from that day Lewis’s creative juices ran free and, apart from his future writings as a Christian apologist, he also created a series of mythical adventure stories for children, the first of which was The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Tolkien’s lifelong devotion to mythology led to his obsessive creation The Lord of the Rings. Is it a tad ironic that two such brilliant, and Christian, dons should be renowned most for fantasy?

AwesomeIn a few hundred years from now someone will be scribbling a PhD thesis on the art phenomenon of the 20th and 21st centuries known as cinema. Having seen the The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King I wonder whether the author will regard Peter Jackson’s efforts as ground-breaking as those of DW Griffiths or Sergei Eisenstein – perhaps not, but he’s certainly surpassed John Ford, Cecil B De Mille, George Lucas, and Steven Spielberg. It’s a landmark in epic film-making and serves Tolkien well with jaw-dropping special effects and characterisations that are far from shallow. The long introduction and the coda ask much of a young popcorn audience.

National joysTom Stoppard’s 1972 play Jumpers is a far-too-clever satire on the life of dons but because of my background reading on Lewis I was up for it. In the production at the Lyttleton, Simon Russell Beale wanders the stage muttering ‘Is God?’ and generally propounds arguments which echo those Lewis had with Wittgenstein’s disciples. The play is a qualified tour de force and Russell Beale dazzling in the word play.Philip Pullman, educated at Oxford but not a don, uses the location for the massive trilogy His Dark Materials, an antithesis of the works of Lewis and Tolkien. This is Lyra’s Oxford. Pullman writes of the overthrow of God and the establishment of the Republic of Heaven and describes parallel universes accessed by means of The Subtle Knife (so much more portable and convenient than the back of Lewis’s wardrobe). Interestingly, Channel 4’s recent series, The Theory of Everything, outlined the latest string theory suggesting our universe has 11 dimensions and that other universes might lie very close to ours on parallel membranes. My interest in K-theory and non-commutative geometry is non-existent and I’ve no wish to try the maths involved.The adaptation of His Dark Materials at the Olivier is an astounding experience consisting of two three-hour plays. It’s not poetic, the plot is full of (black?) holes, but I have never seen such use of the revolving stage and I fear that very few other theatres, if any, could emulate Nicholas Hytner’s complicated and breathtaking production. The costumes are beautifully created; the puppetry exquisite (especially the miniature Gallivespians); and Jonathan Dove’s music unobtrusive and atmospheric. Whether you need to find an excuse, such as a granddaughter, to attend is a matter of choice but miss it at your peril (and be warned that there is a gruesome torture scene or two). It’s magnificent theatre and six hours of pure escapism. This is why we have a National Theatre – a full house of all ages rapt in a good yarn.

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