Thursday, March 15, 2007

'The Collected Letters of C.S Lewis Volume 3 (1950 – 1963)'

A few brief comments

So. The final volume of C.S Lewis's unpublished writings. 2,000 pages; an awful lot of letters. And that's only the tip of the iceberg: Lewis is always apologising for being so brief, explaining that this is the eighth or tenth letter he has had to answer this morning.

'Had to answer.' Lewis hates Christmas because he 'has to' reply to the hundreds of letters he gets during the season. He 'has to' send detailed hand-written thank-you letters to all the Americans who send him parcels during the post-war shortages (even when they send him things that no civilised man could want, like headed note-paper.) Some people might think that the only duty a writer has to his readers is to write; that what the people who sent him fan letters and even the ones who send generous gifts really deserve in return is a new novel; a new radio-broadcast, a new volume of pithy religious essays. Instead yet he spends his time trying to act as an agony aunt to the Mary van Deusen's and Vera Gebbert's of this world. It isn't always clear exactly what personal problems they are actually experiencing; but clearly, Lewis is the only person on earth who can help with them. Lewis seems to find it a chore to write these pastoral letters, and he isn't always very good at it; so he assumes that it must be his duty.

This is a sad book. Sad, because it is the last time we will be able to read a 'new' book by C.S Lewis. Sad, because the first time he mentions that he's met up with a nice American poet called Joy Gresham, we know how the story is going to end. Sad, because, by the age of 60 Lewis already regards his life work as finished and is quite looking forward to dying. (If he had lived to be 80, then he might have told us what he thought of the hippy movement, Mrs. Thatcher, Star Wars; there might be TV footage of him speaking; he might have appeared on 'Question Time.') The world weariness of these letters seems almost paranoid. It was a good joke to say that he was a caveman or a dinosaur; maybe there really was some kind of historical continuity with classical world that was only broken by the Great War; maybe he really did feel like a man out of his time. But it isn't funny to hear him telling Tolkien that a recommendation by C.S Lewis will damage his new book; or telling Dorothy Sayers that he doesn't know enough about Dante to write a preface to her translation, and anyway, such a preface would make her look ridiculous; turning down a CBE because it would give ammunition to people who think he is turning out Tory propaganda; and over and over again, warning people that he has so many enemies that his name on a book will probably only harm it. Tolkien accepted his MBE, and was very moved by his meeting with the Queen. Lewis would have been too, but he somehow preferred the persona of the fossilised dinosaur churning out homely wisdom from a badly heated cottage.

And sad because of a sense of, well, waste. Oscar Wilde put his genius into his life, and his talent into his books. Lewis's life's work was to mark essays by bored public school boys; his spare time he devoted to answering letters from total strangers. He slogged away for 20 years at 'The Oxford History of English Literature in the Sixteenth Century Excluding Drama': has anyone read it? Is it even in print? Did he successfully prove that the renaissance never happened in England (or if it did, it had no importance?) The 'excluding drama' part is particularly pathetic. The one really interesting thing about sixteenth century literature is the drama; but someone other than Lewis was commissioned to do the Shakespeare volume.

And yet. Lewis's blurb for 'Till We Have Faces' says that he first thought of a novel based on Cupid and Psyche while he was an undergraduate, so he had in a way been working on it for his whole life. That's probably true of most of his work: he dashed off the 'The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe' in a few weeks, but only because he had been thinking about fairy tales and medieval allegory for decades. (He first read 'The Fairy Queen' as a schoolboy. He is probably unique in the whole history of literary criticism in that he wished that it had been twice as long.) So perhaps the fact that he spent every morning reading and answering letters from ordinary, and sometimes rather silly, members of the public was what enabled him to write so cleverly, and often cruelly, about ordinary human stupidities in 'The Four Loves' and 'The Great Divorce'.

Several times in the 50s, Lewis says that he wants to write a book about praying; but each time he gives up: he knows what he wants to say, but he can't find a form in which to say it. Right at the end of his life, he works out how to overcome the problem. He composes a series of letters to an imaginary correspondent.

In Letters Vol 3, Lewis mentions or alludes to a number of interesting subjects, including:

A correspondent asks Lewis if social planning by governments (rationing in time of war, free health care, and so on) is a bad idea because it 'removes the natural consequences of sin'. Lewis says that removing the natural consequences of sin is a perfectly Christian thing to do, provided 'the means by which you remove them are not in themselves another sin'.

'It is merciful and Christian to remove the natural consequences of fornication by giving the girl a bed in a maternity ward and providing for the child's upkeep and education, but wrong to remove them by abortion and infanticide.'

Since Lewis was certainly a Christian and arguably a conservative, it is curious that this is the only reference to abortion in his letters. One might almost think that he didn't regard it as the single most important issue facing Christians today.

Fifty pages of Lewis's side of a debate with Owen Barfield about 'anthroposophy' were omitted from volume 1 but are added as an appendix to volume 3. I couldn't make head nor tale of them.

In volume 1 and 2 Lewis went to see 'Snow White' (liked the animals, hated the dwarves) and 'King Kong' (liked the island, hated New York). According to Douglas Gresham, he also saw 'Fantasia' (hated the cherubs.)

In this volume, he goes to see 'Forbidden Planet' but is unimpressed:

'A post-civilisation version of 'The Tempest' with a Robot for Caliban, a bitch for Miranda, all sympathy for Alonso against Prospero. The contrast between the magnificent technical power and the deplorable level of ethics and imagination in the story was what struck me most. But the modern 'serious fiction' -- E Waugh and all that – seems to me equally deplorable.'

I think that would look pretty good on the cover of any DVD version of the movie: 'As deplorable as Evelyn Waugh' – C.S Lewis

Incidentally, the introduction to the current Penguin edition of the 'The Tempest' mentions that Hollywood produced a science fiction version of the play called 'The Silent Planet.' Lewis might have been amused.

In 1956 'The Last Battle' won an award for children's book of the year. Illustrator Pauline Baynes wrote to congratulate Lewis on his medal.

Lewis replied:

'Is it not rather 'our' medal? I'm sure the illustrations were taken into account as well as the text.'

However, when Lewis's publisher asked him how he would feel about an omnibus edition of Narnia without any pictures at all, Lewis replied:

'I am not greatly enamoured of the illustrations. (Faith, 'twould be easier to be enamoured of her that made them.)'

He tells George Sayer that Baynes is 'completely ignorant of animal anatomy' and tells his publisher 'I wish you would take an afternoon off and conduct Miss Baynes around the zoo.' But he is extremely tactful to Baynes herself about her shortcomings. He says things like 'You do each book a little better than the last' and 'If only you could take six months off and devote them to anatomy, there's no limit to your possibilities' and 'I say, you have learned something about animals in the last few months, where did you do it?'

The reason Lewis can't bring himself to criticise Baynes is that she is a 'timid, shrinking young woman' – only 27 when he first meets her.

'When criticised (she) looks as if you'd pulled (her) hair and given (her) a black eye. My resolution was exhausted by the time I'd convinced her that rowers face aft and not, as she thinks, forward.'

'Criticism could only be hinted at, and approval had, on a second shot, to be feigned. At any real reprimand she'd have thrown up the job: not in a huff but in sheer, downright, un-resenting, pusillanimous dejection.'

And anyway, he has heard that she badly needed the job because she had an ageing mother to support.

Lewis is similarly tactful to a girl named Jane Gaskell whose fantasy novel ('Strange Evil') was published when she was only fourteen years old. Lewis says that the book is 'a quite amazing achievement'; but adds 'On the other hand there is no reason why your next book should not be at least twice as good,' before gently tearing it to shreds.


A regular correspondent is sad over the death of her cat. Lewis says it's okay to love an animal.

'No person, animal, flower or even pebble has ever been loved too much – i.e more than every one of God's works deserves.'

And she shouldn't feel guilty about having had the cat put to sleep:

'Rather rejoice that God's law allows you to extend to Fanda that last mercy which (no doubt quite rightly) we are forbidden to extend to suffering humans.'

Which is an interesting take: euthanasia may be a good thing in itself, which God for some reason prohibits. In July 1963, Lewis nearly died, and said several times over the next few months that he regretted having been brought back from the point of death since he would presumably have to go through it again before too long.

If you can both kill a beloved pet and regret your own survival, would Lewis have been open to persuasion on the subject of, say, assisted suicide for the desperately ill? (Lewis is capable of surprising us on these kinds of issues: he once wrote an essay in which he argued that vivisection was only probably wrong.)


In 1948, G.E.M Anscombe and C.S Lewis had a public debate about Lewis's book 'Miracles' at the Oxford Socratic Club. Anscombe, who herself believed in God, famously tore Lewis's arguments to pieces.

A.N Wilson thinks that this encounter caused Lewis to abandon the whole idea of a rational defence of Christianity. Certainly his post-1948 religious essays are much more inclined to be devotional and even mystical than his pre-1948 writings. In this volume, he is always being asked to give religious talks, and always replies that 'the well is dry'. He does have rather an odd idea that you can't speak twice on the same subject: he even declines to re-record the 'Mere Christianity' broadcasts – which were transmitted live and never committed to vinyl -- because it would be too obvious that he was repeating himself. But even taking this into account, it is clear that he thinks that Lewis-the-apologist represented a brief period in his life, which is now over.

He is modest about his evangelistic powers. You or I might think that someone who quotes so much Aquinas and Augustine is something of an expert, but Lewis saw himself as very much an amateur: in his 40s he said that it was 'too late' to become an expert in Biblical studies. (This, from a man whose approach to writing a book on 16th century English Literature was to set down and read 16th century English literature. All of it.) Being relatively ignorant, a perfectly ordinary Anglican helping other perfectly ordinary Anglicans is the role he prefers to play. He thinks that, because he is a teacher, he has the knack of explaining things; and he thinks that there is a need to translate religious ideas into the language of ordinary people.

In 1950 writes to the secretary of the Socratic Club with a list of possible speakers for the next terms meetings. He suggests asking Miss Anscombe to give a paper on 'Why I believe in God'.

'The lady is quite right to refute what she thinks bad theistic arguments, but does this not almost oblige her as a Christian to find good ones in their place: having obliterated me as an Apologist, ought she not to succeed me?'

It is very easy to mock editor Walter Hooper for his obsession with adding footnotes to Lewis's letters. If a schoolgirl writes to Lewis to tell him how much she liked the Narnia stories, Hooper considers it vital for us to know which school she went to, what university she subsequently attended, who she married, where she is living now, and her address at the time of the letter. If Lewis alludes to the Bible or Shakespeare, Hooper is on hand to tell us that the phrase 'one flesh' comes from Genesis 2.24; that 'Miranda is a character in 'The Tempest'.

I am glad to say that he has now learned the difference between the ontological argument and the cogito.

I sometimes wonder if Hooper thinks that we will be reading the Letters of Saint Jack long after we stop reading Shakespeare and Milton. Or does he think that, with the demise of Great Western Man, Shakespeare has already been forgotten?

However, Hooper's pedantry sometimes pays off. In a letter to the Church Times, Lewis draws a donnish distinction between 'invocation' and 'devotion'. Just because the Church of England permits the 'invocation' of saints, it doesn't follow that it permits 'devotion' to them. If it did then it would also follow that you should 'approve devotions to stars, frosts and whales.'

I have always thought that Lewis simply meant that if you can pray to one of God's creations (exceptionally good humans) then what logical objection is there to praying to any other of God's creations: a fish or a snowstorm, for the sake of argument. But Hooper points out that he is in fact making a clever reference to the Book of Common Prayer, which quotes a passage from the Apocrypha: 'Oh ye stars of heaven, bless ye the Lord...Oh ye Frost and Cold, bless ye the Lord...Oh ye Whales and all that move in the water, bless ye the Lord...'


A correspondent wants to know how we should think about God. Lewis says that the Bible depicts a God who can be compassionate and furious, who can change his mind, and who feels things in his gut. This is clearly a mythological, imaginative picture which cannot literally be true. But the more philosophical version of God, -- absolute being, first cause, that which sustains all things in being by his love -- is an abstract concept, and that can't literally be true either. We can't imagine what God is really like; but we can't conceptualise it either.

Lewis adds, devastatingly, that if we decide that the abstract symbol for God is superior to the mythological symbol then we 'think that the symbol we have made is better than the symbol he has made.' This is a brilliantly Lewisian manoeuvre: to first accept that the Bible-God is 'only' a symbol, and then to assert the primacy of that symbol. It's what makes Lewis worth reading; it sends us back to the Bible with a slightly changed perspective.

Lewis wrote this letter only 10 days after his wife had died. It is worth pondering that in 'Grief Observed' he rejects the idea of God as a sadist because it is 'too anthropomorphic.'

One day, someone will write a short play about William Gresham, the first husband of C.S Lewis's wife. They could call it 'Penumbra' or 'Eclipse' or some other word that doesn't quite mean the same as 'shadow.' He's the almost invisible presence in the story of Lewis's last years, and it is uncomfortable to think of him too much.

William Gresham seems to have wanted his divorce from Joy to be amicable. He suggests that he and Joy should live close together so that both parents could maintain contact with their sons. But Joy takes David and Douglas to a foreign country, while she is still legally his wife, at least partly with a view to meeting a famous author to whom she has been sending fan-mail. Bill can't have been indifferent when he hears that she has cancer; and it isn't completely unreasonable for him to think he might get custody of his sons should she die. The two letters which Lewis writes border on emotional bullying:

'Your letter reached Joy after a day of agony. The effect was devastating. She felt that the only earthly hope she now has had been taken away. You have tortured one who is already on the wrack, heaped extra weights on one who is being pressed to death.'

Bill gives in. He doesn't try to get custody of his children. He hears of his ex-wife's death in a two line letter from Lewis. When he visits his sons in England they are (according to Douglas Gresham) strangers to him. He returns to America. He finds out that he too has cancer. He takes his own life.

By all accounts, he behaved very badly: he openly cheated on his wife while they were married, and was violent towards his sons. But he paid a very heavy price. And when all is said and done, he did introduce the word 'geek' into the English language.

It's very painful to watch Lewis's relationship with Joy as it emerges here in 'real time'. 'Shadowlands' has made the story uplifting: Lewis knows that he will only have a limited time with his wife but accepts that 'the pain then is part of the happiness now.' After a short grey afternoon of the soul, he gets over it, to the extent that he can teach Doug to dive, or revisit heavenly places he visited with Joy, depending on whether you run with Joss Ackland or Anthony Hopkins.

But in these letters, it seems that Lewis believed, or persuaded himself to believe, that the laying-on-of-hands by Rev. Peter Bide had facilitated a genuine miracle; that Joy, although lame, was cured; and that God had given him in later middle-age a kind of happiness that he had missed out on when he'd been younger. When he realises that, despite a three year remission, Joy still has cancer, it doesn't feel at all like Job's Sufferings. It's more like watching a small child having its only toy taken away. Letters to strangers, which always finished 'I will of course have you daily in my prayers,' start to say 'Please pray for Joy'. But we know, and Lewis must have known, that this time it isn't going to make any difference.

Lewis writes to his regular correspondents about his bereavement; and naturally, some of what he says anticipates insights from 'A Grief Observed': grief is a process, not a state; it feels like being afraid; he remembers Joy best when he misses her least. But nowhere in these letters is there any hint of the 'crisis of faith' which the book describes. He doesn't remotely suggest that he is being tempted to think that God is evil. If this was a real crisis, and not just a thought experiment, then it must have been very brief indeed.

Several years before, Lewis had tried to help Sheldon Vanauken after the death of his wife. He suggested that he re-read Dante's 'Paradiso', and directs him to the passage where 'Beatrice turns her eyes away from Dante 'to the eternal Fountain' and Dante is quite content.' This is, of course, the passage Lewis quotes at the end of 'Grief Observed': Poi si torno all eterna fontana.

The editor and provider of footnotes knew Lewis for three months and thirteen days, during most of which time, Lewis was seriously ill.

They first meet on June 7th 1963. On July 12th Lewis was taken to hospital, and on July 16th he was thought to be dying. On July 26th, Hooper moved into a spare room at Lewis's home. There was also a full time nurse in residence, but Lewis's brother Warren was being treated for alcoholism in Ireland. (At no time was there a Walter/Jack/Warnie household: so far as I can tell, Hooper didn't meet Warren until Lewis was dead.)

On July 18th, Lewis told his ex-pupil George Sayer that he had 'engaged Hooper as his secretary'. This may have meant no more than 'he is helping me out with my correspondence'. During his illness, Hooper certainly wrote several letters on Lewis's behalf, which would have been Warren's job had he been present and sober. Hooper left the Kilns at some point before September 20th.

Lewis is always very kind to his friends, but he does seem to write an unusually affectionate letter to Hooper. 'Don't ever doubt that the day of your return, whenever and on whatever condition, will be one of rejoicing to me. Your absence makes a cavity like a drawn tooth.' After an exchange of letters, it was agreed that Hooper would come back to England in the new year (1964), work full time as Lewis's secretary and receive a modest salary.

In the event, less than two months after Hooper left the Kilns, C.S Lewis was dead.

My favourite letter in the canon remains the one to the mum who's little boy is worried that he loves Aslan more than Jesus. Lewis reassures them that 'God knows quite well how hard we find it to love Him more than anyone or anything else, and He won't be angry with us as long as we are trying' and that in any case, since Aslan and Jesus are, in a sense, the same, it doesn't make much sense to worry about loving one more than the other.

He concludes:

'If I were Laurence I'd just say in my prayers something like this: 'Dear God, if the things I've been thinking and feeling about those books are things You don't like and aren't good for me, please take away those feelings and thoughts. But if they are not bad, then please stop me from worrying about them. And help me every day to love you more in the way that really matters far more than any feelings or imagination, by doing what you want and growing more like you.' That is the sort of thing that I think Laurence should say for himself; but it would be kind and Christian-like if he then added 'And if Mr Lewis has worried any other children by his books or done them any harm, then please forgive him and help him never to do it again.'....He must be a corker of a boy: I hope you are prepared for the possibility he might turn out a saint. I dare say the saints mothers have, in some ways, a rough time.'

Never fails to bring a tear to my eye.


C.S Lewis enjoys 'Winy ille Pu'.

'Could anyone but an Englishman have conceived a Latin version of a children's book in such extremely advanced Latin that only an adult could possibly read it? I like that absurdity.'

And he corresponds with an Italian priest, Don Giovanni Calabria, in Latin, even managing a pun:

'Vestri sinistrales (ut ita dicam) athiesmum suum confitentur, immo jacant, lupi sunt et lupi esse videntur.':

('Your leftists/Sinisters (to put it like that) declare their atheism. Even boast of it. Wolves they are an wolves they are seen to be.')

'We got the letter from Las Vegas all right, and thought that between gambling (the most uninteresting of all vices: wine, women and murder I can understand, but roulette – the vapidity of it!) and the glaring hideousness of the decorations and surrounding desert and its neighbouring explosions, L.V was about the nearest thing to a nightmare we'd ever heard of. Did you like it'?

Several letters to Lindskoog, (nee Stilwell) are reproduced in this volume.

Walter Hooper is not completely infallible as an editor and annotator. In the biographical appendix Hooper mentions that Lindskoog wrote two books about Lewis: 'The Lion of Judah in Never-Never Land' and 'C.S Lewis: Mere Christian' as well as 'Creative Writing: For People Who Can't Not Write', and 'A Parent's Guide to Books For Kids.' But for some mysterious reason, he omits 'The C.S Lewis Hoax', 'Light in the Shadowlands', and 'Sleuthing C.S Lewis' from the list.

These books allege that Lewis's biography was falsified, and some of his posthumous papers forged, by, er, Walter Hooper.

In 1956 an American suggested to him that 'masturbation being a very pressing concern for very many young people (if no others) should be dealt with more frankly.' (According to a footnote, the same writer thinks that it has now been dealt with a good deal too frankly.)

Lewis takes the line that what he primly calls 'the act' is not a sin, and certainly not injurious to health, but that sexual fantasies are a bad idea. This isn't simply a case of committing adultery in the heart. The point of sex is that it encourages you to get out and interact with people of the opposite gender – and, in the natural course of events, positively forces you to interact with children and grandchildren! Masturbation, on the other hand, provides 'a harem of imaginary brides' which 'works against (you) ever getting out and really uniting with a real woman.' Worse, if you misuse the imagination in this way, you will be encouraged to misuse it in other ways: for example, you'll also end up daydreaming about what you would do if you were rich 'instead of earning and saving.'

This is very good sense on the assumption that masturbation is, (like watching 'Doctor Who') an esoteric hobby practised only by a few pathetic recluses. If, on the other hand, nearly everybody does it, then it can't really cut everybody off from human society. Did Lewis think that he was unusual because he had masturbated as a teenager? Was this what he had in mind when he told Barfield that his boyhood had been unusually depraved?

Lewis is writing in 1956, when he has a close friendship with Ruth Pitter and when his relationship with Joy Gresham is about to turn into a full-blown romance. He's got much more freedom to interact with women, and indeed people, since the death of Mrs. Moore. Is he looking back regretfully on 20 years of life as Mrs. Moore's surrogate son; realising that during this time he turned in on himself sexually and imaginatively, and wishing that he had got a life much earlier?

'After all, almost the main work of life is to come out of our selves, out of the little, dark prison we were born in. Masturbation is to be avoided as all things are to be which retard this process. The danger is of coming to love the prison.'

Can anyone read this and not think of the poem, addressed simultaneously to God and Joy Gresham?

' I cannot crawl one inch out of my proper skin:
I talk of love – a scholars parrot may talk Greek –
But self-imprisoned, always end where I begin.'

Lewis's adopted mother: her son, Paddy, was a friend of Lewis who died in World War I.

In the early days, they may have been lovers, but by the time of this volume, Mrs. Moore is old and sick. In 1950 she goes into a nursing home suffering from Alzheimers. Lewis visits her every day, turning down speaking engagements so as not to disappoint her. But in 1951 he reports frankly:

'There has been a great change in my life owing to the death of the old lady I called my mother. She died, without apparent pain after many months of semi-conscious existence, and it would be hypocritical to pretend that it was a grief to us.'

A poet. Lewis once said that she was the kind of woman that he could have imagined marrying, an oddly Gilbertian way of putting it.

Lewis tells Pitter frankly that he didn't get on with a poem of hers in which an earwig conceives a sort of courtly love for a fine lady. He says this is prejudice on his part:

'a: My imagination goes easily to humanised mammals but stops dead at humanised insects. b: I can't bare the least suggestion (however sportive) of love affairs between different species or even between children. It is one of the many things which for me sinks 'Tom Sawyer' so far beneath the divine 'Huckleberry'. But as I can't give you any reason for the second – I think I could for the first -- this doesn't help you very much.'

His reason for not liking anthropomorphic insects is, presumably, the one he gives in 'Surprised by Joy': he has a phobia because as a toddler he was terrified by a picture of a giant spider in a children's book. But what could possibly be the reason for his dislike of stories of child-love; and for him thinking them as unnatural as stories about inter-species romance? Obviously, it couldn't be related to his memories of the combination of paedophilia and bullying at his boarding schools, because that had no long term effect on him whatsoever...

There's an article called 'Delinquents in the Snow' in which Lewis regrets the fact that he isn't allowed to thrash the boys who vandalized his shed, in the course of which rant he remarks that, of course, he has less to complain about than Mr. Pilgrim. In 'Reflections on the Psalms', he tries to mitigate the terrible cursing passages by asking us to imagine what had been done to the Psalmists by their oppressors.

'Take from a man his freedom or his goods and you may have taken his innocence, almost his humanity, as well. Not all the victims go and hang themselves like Mr. Pilgrim; they may live and hate.'

I think I had assumed that 'Mr. Pilgrim' was a character in Bunyan. In fact, in one of his really quite helpful footnotes, Hooper explains that Lewis is talking about one Edward Pilgrim. In 1954 Romford Council slapped a compulsory purchase order on this Mr. Pilgrim's garden, basing the price on its value to a farmer (nil) rather than to a property developer (lots and lots). Mr. Pilgrim didn't know about the plans until the deadline for lodging an appeal against them had already passed. He was so miffed that he hanged himself, and was turned into a symbol of resistance to socialist tyranny by, er, the 'Daily Express'.

When Lewis's publisher said that the reference in 'Psalms' might be a bit obscure, Lewis replied: 'If my book dies soon the memory of Pilgrim will outlive it and no note will be needed: if, on t'other hand, it prove aere perennius , school editions will explain him and we shall have done our bit towards eternising the infamy of his persecutors.'

Today, this text is fulfilled in your hearing.

Lewis was a professional pedant about language, so it is surprising to find him opposing spelling reform, not because it is newfangled, but because there is no particular reason why we should all spell words the same way.

'Who would be a penny the worse if though and tho, existence and existence, sieze, seize and seeze were all equally tolerated....This would save children and teachers thousand of hours' work. It would also force those to whom applications for jobs are made to exercise their critical faculties on the logic and vocabulary of the candidate instead of tossing his letter aside with the words 'can't even spell.'

Lewis calls it scientifiction, which was already very anachronistic by the 50s.

He doesn't like science fiction stories which turn out to simply be spy stories or gangster stories set in space. He is very much a purist on this point. He objects to story by one Kris Neville set in a brothel on Mars because:

'In a work of art all the material must be used; if you write a historical novel, the period must be essential to the effect; what's the excuse for locating one's story on Mars unless Martianity is through and through used?'

He goes so far as to say that 'human interest' is only permissible if it arises from the emotional reaction of the characters to their strange situation: he tells Arthur C Clarke off for introducing a sub-plot about a hoax and a theft into a story about an alien marooned on earth. I guess he has a point: lots of 50s sci-fi was basically just cowboy stories with ray guns instead of six shooters. But Lewis he is surely wrong to say:

'Bigness itself is of no imaginative value: the defence of a 'galactic' empire is less interesting than the defence of a little walled town like Troy.'

E.E Smith is probably not such a good writer as Homer. But don't the Lensmen stories depend on their scale for their dramatic effect? Kim Kinnison's adventures would feel quite different if he chased enemies across America instead of across The Universe.

Still, Lewis is pretty good at spotting a winner. In one of the few extant letters to his wife, he raves about Arthur C Clarke's 'Childhood's End'.

'It is quite out of the range of the common space-and-time writers, away up near Lindsay's 'Voyage to Arcturus' and Wells 'First Men in the Moon'. It is better than any of Stapleton's... It is rather like the effect of the 'Ring' – a self-riching work, harmony piling up on harmony, grandeur on grandeur, pity on pity...'

Which some people might think was overdoing it a bit.

He also likes 'The Silver Locusts', although there is a sense of damning with faint praise:

'Most of the genre is abysmally bad...But Bradbury has real invention and even knows something about prose.'

Lewis declines an invitation from Clarke to speak at the Interplanetary Society.

'Probably the whole thing is only a plan for kidnapping me and marooning me on an asteroid. I know the sort of thing.'

C.S Lewis published the diary he wrote in the weeks after the death of his wife as 'A Grief Observed'. He submitted it to Faber (not his usual publishers) under the pseudonym 'Dimidius'. Anyone at all familiar with Lewis's writing could have spotted the style at 20 paces, and Faber director T.S Eliot deserves some kind of award for his letter to Lewis's agent:

'We are of the opinion that we have guessed the name of the author. If, as you intimate, and as I should expect from the man I think it is, he does sincerely want anonymity, we agree that a plausible English name would hold off enquirers better than Dimidius. The latter is sure to arouse curiosity and there must be plenty of people amongst those who know him, and perhaps even among the readers of his work who do not know him, who may be able to penetrate the disguise once they set their minds working.'

The book was eventually published under the name N.W Clerk (N.W = Nat whilk, 'I know not whom.') Lewis didn't try very hard to keep his identity a secret: when his publishers forward a letter addressed to Mr. Clerk, Lewis signed his reply C.S Clerk before crossing out the C.S and changing it to N.W.

Since I started this last April Fools, I should probably note that Lewis complains that an elvish flying contraption in Jane Gaskell's fantasy book feels too modern because it contains, among other things 'restaurants' and 'lavatories'. Since what Gaskell wrote was 'a sort of stall where food could be purchased' and 'bath-houses' I think this confirms that Lewis used 'lavatory' in a non-euphemistic sense – a place for washing, not a latrine.

In recalling a walking holiday with Barfield, Lewis refers to having used a 'quirinal'; and when Joy is bedridden, they refer to her 'invalid female urinal' and her bedpan as 'Ariel' and 'Caliban' respectively (which is actually quite funny).

It has sometimes been said that Lewis was not interested in politics. ('Jack was about as apolitical as it is possible to be...his politics were Christianity' – Douglas Gresham, on the Lewis usenet group.) In these letters, Lewis takes a consistently party-political stance about the post-war Attlee government and the welfare state. He is inclined to think that the Labour Party kept food rationing going after the war, not because of any actual shortages but because they wanted to control what people ate 'for their own good'. Although he is bored by the '51 election campaign ('everything possible seems to have been said by every possible candidate, and the reiteration becomes wearisome') he takes an unashamedly pro-Tory line:

'There seem to be good prospects of putting Labour out, in spite of the fact that they are promising the earth, whereas Churchill, with his usual good sense, is promising nothing but hard times.'

That Christmas, he thanks an American friend for a food parcel, which is particularly welcome:

'coming as it does at a moment when the new government – very properly, by the way – has refused to woo the electorate by playing Father Christmas with a food bonus.'

When another American tells him that she may come and live in the UK, he warns her that she won't like the weather, and adds:

'And we live under the constant threat of a socialist government, which would finish us off completely.'

However, in 1959 – when both he and his wife have been seriously ill – he comments to an American who has been struggling with medical bills:

'What you have gone through begins to reconcile me to our Welfare State of which I have said so many hard things. 'National Health Service' with free treatment for all has its drawbacks ...but it is better than leaving people to sink or swim on their own resources.'

This is a curious turn-around. Lewis has never disputed that the Welfare State genuinely alleviated poverty. But he thought that the a fear of poverty, and a state solution, had made people too willing to hand over their liberties to the government: if everyone's educated by the state and nearly everyone works for the state, who will dare to criticise the state? And in any case isn't power of that kind always abused? It isn't obvious why these arguments are trumped by the realisation that health care free at the point of need is a really, really good idea.

If any man shall add unto these things, God shall add unto him the plagues that are written in this book. And if any man shall take away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God shall take away his part out of the book of life, and out of the holy city, and from the things which are written in this book.

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Abigail Nussbaum said...

This is fascinating. Thank you, Andrew.

But you know, I think if I were dying, and had two small children, and felt that their surviving parent was unsuitable and perhaps even dangerous to them, and learned that he was planning to seek custody after my death, I might also feel that "the only earthly hope [I had] had been taken away." And if I were the spouse of such a person, I would probably feel free to use any level of harsh language, and several levels of harsh actions, to alleviate that fear.

Phil Masters said...

Skimming briefly out of outsider's casual nosiness; notes in passing...

There were a number of talking-heads TV programmes around in the '50s and early '60s. If there's no TV footage of Lewis, I'd guess that he may have actively avoided getting on TV.

English Literature in the Sixteenth Century Excluding Drama isn't in print, according to Amazon.

Jane Gaskell was still around and still writing, last I heard, so Lewis's criticism evidently didn't put her off. I've never read any of her stuff (except one bad comic strip in a fantasy small press magazine), but the Encyclopedia of Fantasy has an interesting note or two.

And when all is said and done, [William Gresham] did introduce the word 'geek' into the English language. Um, pardon? The OED traces it back to 1876 as a variant of "geck", which in turn goes back to at least 1515 (and later shows up in Twelfth Night). Okay, then it just meant a fool - but the "carnival stooge" meaning was in dictionaries by 1954.

I gather that Gresham wrote books about American carnivals, so he may well have made the term slightly more widely known. (It might be interesting to determine when its meaning went from "fool" to "sideshow freak" to "scrawny intellectual"; my copy of the OED is ignorant of the last, but has a 1916 quote which actually sounds quite modern.)

Bigness as a theme in science fiction is a subject in itself. Used purely to evoke a sensawunda without any other support, it just gets silly (ref. Perry Rhodan's galaxy-sized spaceships), and I could agree with Lewis on that - but used with more skill, it indeed has some effectiveness of its own. And E E Smith's skill famously lies not just in the scale of the events he describes, but in the jumps in scale; the universe isn't just big, it's always bigger than you thought (and the evil conspiracy is also bigger than you thought, but so are the forces of good).

Andrew Rilstone said...
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Andrew Rilstone said...

I understood that the first printed use of "geek" (in the "man who bites the heads of chickens" sense, granted) was in "Nightmare Alley"; obviously, Gresham was recording side-show slang, so maybe "introduced" was overstating it.

"Nightmare Alley" came out in 1946, so your '54 reference could have come out of the book. There is an article on Gresham in "Skeptical Enquirer" which suggests that he claimed to have invented the word.

ian said...

"He slogged away for 20 years at 'The Oxford History of English Literature in the Sixteenth Century Excluding Drama': has anyone read it?"

Well, yes.
Interesting reading (especially if one actually likes Renaissance, well, by then they were Reformation - period, but anyway- secondary epics).
That he had to dwell on the "drab age" at the same length as the golden one is another matter.

"Is it even in print?"
"Tolkien, in a letter to George Sayer as recorded in his biography JACK: A LIFE OF C. S. LEWIS, says that this is "a great book, the only one of his [Lewis's] that gives me unalloyed pleasure.""

Yossi said...

Fascinating and illuminating. Thank you.

Sylvia Drake said...

After a short grey afternoon of the soul, he gets over it

It is for such turns of phrase that I keep coming back here . . .

Phil Masters said...

I understood that the first printed use of "geek" (in the "man who bites the heads of chickens" sense, granted) was in "Nightmare Alley"; obviously, Gresham was recording side-show slang, so maybe "introduced" was overstating it.

The meaning of simply "a fool" demonstrably goes back far further, so Gresham might possibly have been the first person to adapt that to a sideshow freak. Or he might have invented the word independently (though the OED assumes that the two usages derive from the same source). Or, given that he seems to have been something of an expert on carnies, he may have been reporting an existing usage, and any apparent claim from him to have "invented" it was either a misunderstanding or a self-aggrandising fib.

"Nightmare Alley" came out in 1946, so your '54 reference could have come out of the book.

The '54 reference is to an American dictionary, so yes, the compiler of that could have drawn on Gresham, directly or indirectly - or found it independently.

Andrew Stevens said...

Mr. Rilstone is probably aware of some other details about William Gresham's life which might somewhat help us understand him. He had attempted suicide three years before he ever met Joy, and appears to have been prone to bouts of depression. After the divorce, he married Joy's first cousin, Renee Rodriguez, with whom he had been having an affair while Joy was vacationing in England. (Renee had also been in an abusive marriage during the affair. Gresham had been married and divorced once before Joy as well.) And when he killed himself during his cancer, he was also going blind, probably due to alcohol.

I concur that he paid a heavy price for his sins. Losing one's children is not to be scoffed at. I am certainly inclined to take Joy's (and Jack's) side, though. Mr. Gresham apparently wanted to change his alcoholism, his depression, and his abusiveness, but there is no indication that he was ever able to do so, despite Christianity and Alcoholics Anonymous. We can certainly pity the man. When sober, he was probably not that unpleasant a person.

Andrew Stevens said...

By the way, abortion wasn't legalized in Britain until 1967. By then, C.S. Lewis was four years dead. It is hardly surprising that he didn't consider it a pressing issue. That was one issue where society had not yet turned against him.

It is, of course, arguable whether abortion is murder. But if you believe that it is, it's hard to conceive of a more pressing issue. In the United States alone, there are 1.37 million abortions every year. That's compared to about 16,000 legal murders or 86 times as many. And America is justly criticized for its high murder rate.

It is, of course, perfectly all right to disagree with the pro-life side and claim that abortion is absolutely not any kind of murder. It is not all right, in my opinion, to pretend that they should be content merely with expressing their opinion that it is murder, but insist that they should pretend it's not important enough to do anything about it. Personally, I think Lewis would have been horrified by legal abortion, but that's just a guess.

Andrew Rilstone said...

There had been gradual liberalisation of the laws about abortion prior to the '67 act. When Lewis's father was born, a doctor could still be hanged for carrying out an abortion. Abortion to save a pregnant woman's life became legal in 1929, and abortion for psychological reasons (e.g as the result of a rape) in 1938. Either he doesn't regard these changes as particularly bad signs, or (always a possibility) he doesn't know about them because he doesn't read the papers.

Andrew Stevens said...

I was aware of the Bourne decision. Prior to the 1967 decision, there were about 10,000 abortions a year in Britain. It more than quintupled in 1968 and the trade in abortion reversed so that foreigners were coming to Britain for abortions rather than the opposite. (I believe prior to that, British women were going to Poland and Yugoslavia.) You're certainly right that legalization was a gradual process, but between '38 and '67, Britain was more or less in stasis. The '67 law removed virtually all remaining obstacles in one stroke (though not nearly as sweeping as Roe v. Wade was here in the States in '73, which, in practice, legalizes all abortions at any time for any reason, even though the language doesn't imply that).

I should say that I seriously doubt Lewis would have written about abortion much anyway, given his aversion to discussing hot political issues. However, at least one person wrote a book which argued that Lewis would have been in favor of abortion and I find this highly doubtful. Having said that, Lewis was, in spite of his critics' opinions, a complex thinker. He may very well have decided that abortion is wrong, but not necessarily insisted on a role for the state in preventing them.

Sam Dodsworth said...

As an aside, the idea that people ought to be punished for their sins in this world sounds like it ought to be a heresy of some kind. Maybe a corrolary of Pelagianism?

Andrew Rilstone said...

Well, if Tony Blair went to inspect the weapons of mass destruction that he's just bought, and while he was at the silo there was a terrible radiation leak causing his hair to fall our, his skin to blister, and causing him to die slowly and painfully over a number of years, a lot of people might say "Serve him right." But they probably wouldn't be expressing a serious metaphysical theory.

ian said...

Some versions of calvinism hold that belief; as does, indeed, most of the "karmic" sects.
Not to mention social darwinism.
Speaking of which, there have been attemptes to make Lewis creationist:
the fine difference between "evolutionism" and evolutionary theory proper quite going over their heads.
But then, thats what literalism is all about.

NickPheas said...
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NickPheas said...

It'd be nice to think that abortion was the most important debate affecting the church today. I found myself reading the letters page of the Times today (someone else's) and at least their readership still seem to think that it's the God given right to descriminate against pooftahs.

Its wonderful to read all this garbage. I'm sure their ancestors must have written letters about how St. Paul said it was alright to own slaves and so it was un-Christian of Mr Wilberforce to bring in his act.

Gavin Burrows said...

Well, if Tony Blair went to inspect the weapons of mass destruction that he's just bought, and while he was at the silo there was a terrible radiation leak causing his hair to fall our, his skin to blister, and causing him to die slowly and painfully over a number of years…

Right cause, wrong effect.

You’ve never wondered why he keeps saying “Bah!”, “Puny Gordon” and “Blair smash puny will of party”

ian said...

Noticed some parrallels to To Lovecrafts letters, by the way; he keeps on insisting that he lacks "the nervous energy" to do another story, and anyway, he is horribly incompetent, and everyone hates him... in several hundred letters, to his crowds of penpals, some of them containing ideas that are the basis of peoples entire careers.
A symptom of not being "part of ones times", one suspects.

Tom R said...

If Christians go by CS Lewis' writings to determine what is the most pressing issue facing Christians today, they should all be making sure our souls are shriven in case a German bomb falls on our house tonight, and telling atheists and skeptics that if only they _read_ the Gospels carefully they'll find that Jesus did in fact claim to be the Son of God, so there.

Moordarjeeling said...
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Moordarjeeling said...

(Just deleted a test posting.)

As for ENG LIT IN 16TH CEN, I have no idea whether it's in print, because I bought my copy new in hardback years ago and still have it. I think I read it all the way through at least once, and dipped in and out for years; delightful stuff.

David said...

Keen observations on Lewis's essential modesty. He kept up the pose of an amateur even in his professional work as a literary critic, perhaps partially because he took a "plain man" approach to literature, appreciating it as a pleasure-giving object rather than deconstructing it.

I suspect also that Lewis was horrified at his own pre-conversion egoism, and spent the rest of his life trying to atone for it.

But: you write of his OHEL volume, "has anyone read it? Is it even in print?" To the first, yes indeed. To the second, maybe not at the moment, but it certainly has been. You mourn, "The 'excluding drama' part is particularly pathetic. The one really interesting thing about sixteenth century literature is the drama; but someone other than Lewis was commissioned to do the Shakespeare volume," but that very omission underscores how this volume permits Lewis to do what he does better than any other critic ever born: write really interesting and captivating descriptions of boring and insignificant authors. What he might have said about Shakespeare would be not half so amazing as his ability to bring this crap to life. It's a service to literary history to tell us what was going on in a period we'd otherwise ignore.

"At no time was there a Walter/Jack/Warnie household: so far as I can tell, Hooper didn't meet Warren until Lewis was dead." This is correct. Warren met Hooper when Hooper came back from fulfilling his American commitments, in January 1964 I think. There's some stuff about this in the Lindskoog books, as well as many extremely interesting impressions of Hooper in the unpublished portions of Warren's diary.