Christopher Mitchell, Stratford Caldecott: Requiescat In Pace

2014 was a year that I will remember in large part because of the sudden death of two men, Christopher Mitchell, longtime director of Wheaton College’s Wade Center who had moved to Biola’s Torrey Honors Institute, and Stratford Caldecott, a Research Fellow at St. Benet’s Hall, Oxford, the editor of the Humanum Review, and co-editor of Second Spring. Prof Mitchell, age 62, died suddenly 10 July of a heart attack on a fishing trip; Dr Caldecott struggled with cancer for several years before his death 17 July at 60 years.

I was not close to either man. Both changed my life significantly, however, by their work and their kindness, Stratford through his correspondence, Chris Mitchell in his example, encouragement, and in his suggestions in person and email for my studies.

I ‘met’ Stratford Caldecott soon after Hidden Key to Harry Potter was published in 2003. The Potter Panic was at its height and he and his wife, Leonie, were the Catholic voice of sobriety and sanity in the UK. Stratford read my book, which, mirabile dictu, was available in London, and he dropped me a ‘thank you,’ which, given his standing in the traditional Christian world and among Tolkien scholars, was no small thing to me. I have always suspected that it was through him that Fr Fleetwood in the Vatican received a copy of Hidden Key that year.

Three typical exchanges with Dr Caldecott:

I wrote to ask him once why, after studying with and working alongside Philip Sherrard, an Orthodox Christian of note, he had converted to Catholicism. Sherrard’s Lineaments of a Sacred Tradition and Church, Papacy, and Schism are cogent arguments against heterodoxy and Catholicism in particular. His response? “The West has changed too much, too quickly, and the East not at all, even when necessary. And I found the Catholic position on the filioque convincing!”

When Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows was published, he wrote me the day he finished: “Well done!  You were so right about so many things.” That meant a lot, almost as much as his kind words when my Order of the Phoenix prediction that Dumbledore would die came up as short as it had.

The funniest — and briefest — note he sent was “No pelican” after he read Beedle the Bard. I had made an aside that the only animal in the ‘Symbol of Christ’ menagerie that Rowling had not used in Harry Potter canon was a pelican. Stratford seemed disappointed that she didn’t work one into her fairy tale set.

But let me repeat, we were not close in any sense of personal friendship. His books, all startling and bracing in their clarity and correction of our mundane misperception of what is real in the world — Beauty for Truth’s Sake, Beauty in the Word, All Things Made New, The Power of the Ring (his Tolkien book of note), The Seven Sacraments, andThe Radiance of Being: Dimensions of Cosmic Christianity made him my mentor for constant reference, in every subject of note my master, not a “buddy.”

For Harry Potter fans and serious readers of fantasy fiction, I recommend the essays available online as introductions to his work, most notably, ‘Speaking the Truths Only Imagination May Grasp‘ and ‘Landscapes with Dragons and Angels: Finding the Wise Imagination in Children’s Literature.’ For his thoughts on death as he prepared for it, see ‘Search for the Secret of Life and Death.’ For his obituaries and his remarkable wish-come-true as he lay dying, read this and this and this and this.

I joked too often when sharing the ‘No pelicans’ story with friends and audiences that ‘Stratford Caldecott’ is a name too English to be non-fiction or even realist fiction. I know that if you read or have read anything this brilliant man wrote, you will understand that he was well named; he explained ideas and the world as we know it with a directness that bordered on the fantastic.

Christopher Mitchell I did meet, more than once, at Wheaton’s Wade Center, at the New York C. S. Lewis Society, and at Torrey. But we weren’t friends, except as much as Chris Mitchell was a very good friend to anyone needing or just wanting his help. A St Andrews University PhD in theology, he carried himself with the humility and graciousness of a person in service, a brilliant butler, if you will. That is no small achievement when you are the smartest man in the room, as Chris almost always was, and a real testimony to the depth and reality of his living faith and trust in Christ.

Both times I visited the Wade, once for research, once to speak, Dr Mitchell made a point of catching up with me in his upstairs office, asking what I was working on, and offering his thoughts, advice, and, as important, his encouragement. The first time I was neck deep in the literary alchemy of C. S. Lewis’ Space Trilogy and the second time I was giving a talk on the Narniad novels’ ring structures and alchemical relationships.

The talk would never have happened except for Chris’ generosity to an Inkling Studies novice and for the strong push he gave me in our first meeting to pursue structure in Lewis, Tolkien, and Williams, a subject he thought the most neglected in their work. Except for his confidence that I was on to something important and was equal to the exploration, I have to doubt I would have done the work I have in these areas.

Mitchell Obituaries? Look here and here and here. I don’t think any of them, sadly, capture the genial, fraternal luminescence of the man. As head of the Wade Center, the Mecca of global Inkling studies, and as editor of Seven, Chris knew everyone who has working, writing, and studying in the works of CSL, Tolkien, Charles Williams, Chesterton, Dorothy Sayers, George MacDonald, and Owen Barfield. More striking, they all knew Chris and, in my experience, they all, from the lowliest high school Hobbit reader to men and women who lived with the giants, liked Chris and valued his friendship and guidance.

One story to illustrate this point. I was at Biola/Torrey and the director of the Institute walked me back to my room after I’d given a talk. I mentioned what I was working on — rings in Lewis’ work — and what Chris Mitchell had told me about structure, that it was worth pursuing. Forgive me, but I knew, if the don I was with thought I was crazy, dropping Chris Mitchell’s name and support might temper his negative reaction. Instead, he swore me to confidentiality and told me that Prof Mitchell almost certainly was coming to Torrey to teach.

The obvious excitement he was feeling about this possibility was something I shared, something anyone who spent time with Christopher Mitchell felt. Here was a love and a willingness to help that is so rare that you look forward with no small eagerness to your next meeting. Scroll down to and read Lewis scholar Jim Como’s tribute here; it catches the brilliance, both in the sense of warmth and light, that was Christopher Mitchell.

While writing this, I listened to a talk Chris gave at the Wade Center on Tolkien and Fairy Stories. I still can’t believe he’s gone.

So, 2014 was a good year in many respects, I’m sure. I think I will remember it in years to come, though, largely for the loss of two men I did not know well and wish I had known better and whom I will wish I still had the chance to speak with again. I can thank God and their families, of course, for the great gift it was to know them both even as I did. Requiescat in pace, Stratford and Christopher. Memory Eternal.


  1. Wow, more books to add to my to-read list.
    Have you written anything on the literary alchemy/ structure of the Space Trilogy or the Narniad? I would love to read it!

  2. Have you written anything on the literary alchemy/ring structure of the Space Trilogy or the Narniad?

    Look for it this coming year!

  3. I neglected links to Chris Mitchell’s work and the many moving tributes to him online. Here are a few of the best:

    ‘C. S. Lewis Minute’s interview with him at and about the Wade Center

    C. S. Lewis Institute’s YouTube Series of Lectures on Mere Christianity

    Chris Mitchell on C. S. Lewis: The Magic Never Ends

    iTunes: Chris Mitchell’s Lectures at Seattle Pacific University on Lewis, Tolkien, and the Inklings

    Seven Lectures Chris Mutchell gave at Biola University (video)

    Tributes from:

    Fred Sanders, Biola (Torrey)

    The C. S. Lewis Foundation: Andrew Lazo

    Kalimac’s Corner (DB)

    Matt Jenson, Biola

    ‘Lauriel Frodo,’ a student and fellow archivist with Chris Mitchell at the Wade Cemter:

    I could go on, and have been reminiscing through a lot of memories in the past week that I don’t have time or space to share here. But the more I think about it, the more I think that the apt statement for Chris Mitchell which his family, friends, colleagues, and anyone else who shared time with him could say sums him up the best is: that he embodied and shared the Love and Joy of God in a rare and extraordinary way. A way that made you hunger to know that God better, and eager to be with Him in heaven. Chris talked about heaven more than anyone else I know; hence I have great comfort and joy knowing that he is indeed where he always longed to be, as he would say, “at the end of the day.” For the first time in my life, that place feels more real and closer because I know Chris is there. He took part of me, and parts of many others, with him.

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