Academic journal article Mythlore

"That Most Unselfish Man": George Sayer, 1914-2005: Pupil, Biographer, and Friend of Inklings

Academic journal article Mythlore

"That Most Unselfish Man": George Sayer, 1914-2005: Pupil, Biographer, and Friend of Inklings

Article excerpt

GEORGE SAYER IS A SUPERB EXAMPLE of one of the greatest blessings of an academic life: a student who becomes, in time, a good friend. His 1988 biography of C.S. Lewis, Jack: C.S. Lewis and His Times, is rightfully respected as the best of the many recollections of Lewis's life, a final act of loyalty and love. He likewise was a friend of J.R.R. Tolkien, and it was his encouragement that led Tolkien to resubmit The Lord of the Rings for publication when he had despaired of ever seeing it in print. An occasional Inkling, he was, in Lewis's apt description, "that most unselfish man" (Letters 577). No fewer than thirty letters in The Collected Letters of C.S. Lewis Volume III attest to his generosity and the affection Lewis felt for him. Like many a man blessed with great teachers, he became a remarkable teacher himself. None of those who met him will ever forget him.

George Sydney Benedict Sayer was born June 1, 1914, in Bradfield, Berkshire, the son of an irrigation engineer whose work abroad included projects in Egypt. During the hot seasons there, George was sent back to England for schooling. Christopher Mitchell, director of Wheaton College's Marion E. Wade Center, writes that he described "his first schooling experience, a pre-prep school in Eastbourne, as brutal and abusive, similar to what Lewis himself experienced at Wynyard. His prep school, located in the northern regions of Perthshire, Scotland, was an improvement--there he was 'merely bored'" ("Profile" 35).

Sayer first met Lewis and Tolkien during Michaelmas term at Magdalen College, Oxford, in 1934. His preface to Jack described his first encounter with Tolkien, "a neat, grey-haired man with a pipe in his mouth and a puckish face" (xv) waiting outside Lewis's rooms in New Buildings 3.

Lewis, he wrote, was "a heavily built man who looked about forty, with a fleshy oval face and a ruddy complexion. His black hair had retreated from his forehead, which made him especially imposing" (xv). Lewis asked Sayer to name poets he admired and enjoyed. Citing G.K Chesterton, George began quoting The Ballad of the White Horse from memory:

        'The great Gaels of Ireland
        Are the men that God made mad.'
      I got no further on my own, for with gusto and a glowing face he
   declaimed the next lines with me.
        'For all their wars are merry
        And all their songs are sad.' (xvi)

When Sayer emerged, Tolkien spoke:

'How did you get on?' he asked.

'I think rather well. I think he will be an interesting tutor.'

'Interesting? Yes. He is certainly that. You'll never get to the bottom of him'. (xvii)

C.S. Lewis's latter-day secretary Walter Hooper, who had urged Sayer to write Jack, wrote that "[d]uring his third year in Oxford he realized that Lewis was a Christian, and in his own search for truth he was led to the Catholic Church. He took his BA in 1938 and his MA in 1947. Over time, his friendship with Lewis led him to become friends with [Lewis's older brother] Warnie Lewis, [Lewis 'adopted' mother] Mrs. Janie Moore, and [her daughter] Maureen Moore as well" (C.S. Lewis: A Companion and Guide, 723).

Sayer converted in 1935. Dr. Mitchell states that

   George's attempt at finding some religious direction before coming
   to Oxford had left him spiritually confused. Part way through his
   course of study at Oxford his confusion gave way to a clear sighted
   faith through the spiritual counsel of a Catholic priest. "I was
   walking along St. Giles street," George recalls, "when, attracted
   by the atmosphere of a Chapel of the Black Friars, I rang the bell
   and asked to see a priest." George was introduced to Father Victor
   White, who over the course of time gently and skillfully led him
   into the Christian faith. George's conversion introduced a new
   dimension into his relationship with Lewis, for although Lewis
   never brought Christianity up in his tutorials his faith was quite
   evident on the level of friendship. … 
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