Jon Kennedy
Jon Kennedy

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'C. S. Lewis Overflow
Jon Kennedy's latest book is The Everything Guide to C.S. Lewis and Narnia, due in stores in March 2008, from Adams Media, F&W Publications. This series of articles is thinking inspired by readings in Lewis's work that didn't fit into the book. Click here for a list of all articles in the C.S. Lewis Overflow series.

Notes from the Collected Letters of C.S. Lewis, Volume 1
Edited by Walter Hooper, Harper SanFrancisco, 2004

After eleven weeks, I have finished reading the first volume of Lewis's letters and this week and for the next three or more weeks I'll share the passages I marked for further reference, with any comments that come to mind. Some of these are self-explaining. Some seem to foreshadow positions Jack (as C. S. Lewis signed virtually all of the letters in this first volume) continued to champion for the rest of his life, like the fourth paragraph below critical of "modern education." But more of them show a somewhat self-centered and self-important youth, as Jack himself says in discussing the early letters to his friend Arthur Greeves in one of the closing letters in this first volume of the three collected volumes of correspondence. Some are items that reveal either strengths or chinks in his character or that seem inconsistent with the character we've come to know in the half-century since his death. And some, like the first one, are just informational tidbits that may have come from Jack or his quotation of others, or footnotes by the collection editor, Walter Hooper. Some are definitions of terms Jack uses that weren't clear to me when I first read them. Arthur, of course, is Arthur Greeves; "Papy" is Jack's father, Albert Lewis, and Warnie is his brother, Warren. This covers only the first one-third of the more than 1000 pages.

Sir Walter Raleigh (1851-1922) was the first Professor of English at Oxford (1904) p vii.

"I was acquainted with the theory of essay writing, in however crude a form, at an age when most boys hardly know the meaning of the word." To Papy, 8/7/13, p 28. Goes on to describe the Irish as "a race rich in literary feeling and mastery of their own tongue." Dundela (the suburb of Belfast the family lived in) and "Leeborough" (Jack's and Warnie's nickname for their house, Little Lea) breathed a unique "literary ether."

C. S. Lewis portriat by Val Craig MurrayMirabile dictu, Latin, "Wonderful to relate," footnote p 37.

From Malvern College, February 1914, to Papy: "How can people advocate a 'modern' education? What could be better or more enjoyable than reading the greatest masterpieces of all time, under a man who has made them part of himself?" p. 49.

Though they were not yet fast friends, Jack wrote a lengthy letter to Arthur Greeves from Malvern College on June 5, 1914 (age 15), p. 58.

" come to my point: the great revelation of the book [The Upton Letters] is the statement made somewhere that we 'ought not to write about our actions but about our thoughts.' How wonderfully true...." To Papy, June 22, 1914, p 61.

After forming the bond of their friendship, the first letter to Arthur was September 26, 1914, from Great Bookham, p 70. "In Greek, I have started to read Homer's Iliad...." p. 71.

A rare expression of specific political opinion: to Papy, November 3, 1914, regarding the forced resignation of a Royal Navy officer because of his German background: "because a number of ignorant and illiterate clods (who have no better employment than that of abusing their betters) so choose, he must resign. This is what comes of letting a nation be govered by 'the people.' 'Vox populi, vox Diaboli,' we might say, reversing an old but foolish proverb," p 88. Vox Diaboli would be the voice of the Devil.

"It is the immemorial privilege of letter-writers to commit to paper things they would not say: to write in a more grandiose manner than that in which they speak: and to enlarge upon feelings which would be passed by unnoticed in conversation." To Arthur, November 10, 1914, p 91.

"Malory's Morte D' really the English national epic...." to Arthur, November 17, 1914, p 94.

"Morte D' really the greatest thing I've ever read." To Arthur, February 2, 1915, p 104.

"proseur," p 106, = a pretentious word for a writer of prose, especially artful prose (?) p 106.

The "n-word," to Papy, February 13, 1915, p 107.

P. 115, Jack wrote "The Hills of Down," a poem about County Down, Ireland, in 1915. It appears in his Collected Poems (1994), p 115.

"I don't really quite understand good painting," to Arthur (who was an aspiring artist at the time and sold paintings later on), p 122.

"It is hot as our future home down below, here," to Arthur, May 15, 1915, p. 123.

"I like sleeping late," to Arthur, p. 133.

" sixteen we will do much for excitement, a new experience," to Papy, July 28, 1915, p 140.

" the greater includes the less, the passion of a great mind includes all the qualities of the passion of a small one." To Arthur, October 12, 1915, p 146.

Note on p 148: William H.F. "Bill" Patterson...wrote A Glossary of Words in Use in the Counties of Antrim and Down (1888) [and he] was addicted to puns and was a recognized Strandtown wit. Jack calls him "a joy for ever, is he not? —to himself."

"Kipling is one of those writers who has the misfortune in common with Longfellow, of always being known and liked for his worst works." To Papy, November 11, 1915, p 149.

Though he became known as an opponent of free verse, Jack refers in a letter to Papy of November 15, 1915, to "the excellent blank verse poem...." (Blank verse, developed in the Italian Renaissance, has rhythm but no rhyme; free verse, a twentieth century innovation, has neither rhythm or rhyme.)

"I think my new 'find' is quite as good as Malory or Morris himself. The book, to get to the point, is George Macdonald's 'Faerie Romance,' Phantastes, which I picked up ...last Saturday...whatever book you are reading now, you simply MUST get this at once...." To Arthur, March 7, 1916, p 169-70.

"Perhaps one of these days you may even make a Christian of me." Op. cit., p. 171.

"Don't you loathe 'funny' poetry?" To Arthur, March 14, 1916, p 173. (John Whitcomb Riley?)

"Isn't it funny the way some combinations of words can give you—almost apart from their meaning—a thrill like music? It is because I know that you can feel this magic of words AS words that I do not despair of teaching you to appreciate poetry: or rather to appreciate all good poetry, as you now appreciate some." To Arthur, March 21, 1916, p 175.

"Terreauty (a word I've coined to mean terror and beauty)...." op. cit., p 176.

"...the worst of a book with a plot is that when the plot is over, the obvious 'fixing up' is desperately tedious." To Arthur, May 30, 1916, p 186.

"I came on a phrase in Maeterlinck the other day which just suits my views about youth and silly scientific learning. 'L'ignorance lumineuse de la jeunese,' the luminous ignorance of youth is exactly our strong point, isn't it?" To Arthur, June 6, 1916, p 190.

"It doesn't matter what we write (at least this is my view) at our age, so long as we write continually as well as we can. I feel that every time I write a page either of prose or of verse, with real effort, even if it's thrown into the fire next minute, I am so much further on." To Arthur, June 14, 1916, p 193.

"I do really want to see something of yours, and you must know that it is impossible to write one's best if nobody else ever has a look at the result." To Arthur, June 20, 1916, p 194.

"Of course it is a small point, but don't you think 'that' is more simple, natural, and dignified than 'which'?" To Arthur, June 28, 1916, p 201 (a point I have made to my writing students for the past thirty years—jk).

"I have learnt by now that whatever plans you make in this world, everything always turns out quite differently...." To Arthur, July 4, 1916, p 205.

"...the primitive savage idea [was] that everything has a spirit (just as your precious Jehovah is an old Hebrew thunder spririt)...." op cit., p 206.

"You are rather naive in telling me that you 'have to sit for a minute thinking' and 'find the same word coming in again' as if these weren't the common experiences of everyone who has ever written. ...As to the 'sitting for ten minutes,' I don't believe that good work is ever done in a hurry: even if one does write quickly in a burst of good form, it always has to be tamed down afterwards. I usually make up my instalment in my head on a walk because I find that my imagination only works when I am exercising." To Arthur, July 11, 1916, p 210.

Refers to "the artist Beardesley" (Beardsley), p 211.

"...we very rarely succeed in finishing a first work. If you saw the number of 'beginnings' I have made!"

Reference to Letters from Hell, translated from German to English and published by Macmillan in 1911. Says the editor, Walter Hooper: "Who knows? the book may have played some part, years later, in the genesis of Lewis's Screwtape Letters (1942)." p 215.

"I don't think I should advise [that you read] Milton: while there are lots of things in him you would love—the descriptions of Hell and Chaos and Paradise and Adam and Eve and Satan's flight down through the stars, on the other hand his classical allusions, his rather crooked style of English, and his long speeches, might be tedious. Besides, it is written in blank verse (without rhymes) and people who are beginning to read poetry don't usually care for that." To Arthur, July 25, 1916, p 220.

"My father seemed in very poor form when I got home, and fussed a lot about my cold: so everything is beastly, and I have decided—of course—to commit suicide again." To Arthur, September 9, 1916, p 222.

Note by Walter Hooper on p 228: "Wan Jadis is a young man in Lewis's 'Bleheris.' ...this 'sweet and comely youth' is caught in a swamp named the 'Grey Marish.' Lewis was later to use the name 'Jadis' in the Chronicles of Narnia for the Queen of Charn who becomes the White Witch."

"You ask me my religious views: you know, I think, that I believe in no religion. There is absolutely no proof for any of them, and from a philosophical standpoint Christianity is not even the best. All religions, that is, all mythologies to give them their proper name are merely man's own invention—Christ as much as Loki. Primitive man found himself surrounded by all sorts of terrible things he didn't understand—thunder, pestilence, snakes, etc.: what more natural than to suppose that these were animated by evil spirits trying to torture him. These he kept off by cringing to them, singing songs and making sacrifices, etc. Gradually, from being mere nature-spirits these supposed being(s) were elevated into more elaborate ideas, such as the old gods: and when man became more refined he pretended that these spirits were good as well as powerful." To Arthur, October 12 (?) 1916, p 230-31.

"That the man Yeshua or Jesus did actually exist, is as certain as that the Buddha did actually exist: Tacitus mentions his execution in the Annals. But all the other tomfollery about virgin birth, magic healings, apparitions and so forth is on exactly the same footing as any other mythology." To Arthur, October 18, 1916, p 234.

"...if you were not my best friend I should almost suspect you of wilfully misunderstanding me through temper." Op cit., p 235.

Page 240: "how hight he?" "Hight" is "an archaic word for call, or name."

"...the Arthur myth [i.e., King Arthur and the Knights of the Roundtable] is Welsh." to Arthur, November 8, 1916, p 249.

Jack was probably reflecting interwar attitudes toward America and Americans among the British, writing to Arthur (November 29, 1916, p 259): "I intend to read all Hawthorne after this. What a pity such a genius should be a beastly American!"

Dreading the entrance exams for Oxford at age 18, he ended a letter to Arthur with, "I wish I were dead—" (November 29, 1916, p 260).

Even when an atheist, his morality was praised, at least by a fellow atheist, his tutor of the time, William Thompson Kirkpatruck, who is quoted by editor Walter Hooper as writing to Jack's father, "Now to whom is Clive indebted for his brains? Beyond all question to his father and mother. And I hold that he is equally indebted to them for those moral qualities which though less obvious and striking than the intellectual, are equally necessary for the accomplishment of any great object in life—I mean fixity of purpose, determination of character, persevering energy..." p 263-64.

Jack refers in a letter to Warnie, January 1917, about his listing Malvern College as his public school, despite having left it to go to study with a tutor before graduating there (p 265): "I quite agree with what you say about "C. S. Lewis (Malvern). Though of course I pulled a long face about it, I took very good care that Malvern should appear in the form I filled up: moreover, when people asked me what Coll. I was at I replied in the best manner 'Mawan': I saw no need to add 'two years ago.' It has been very comfortable at K's but there's no need to publish the fact: indeed I have now got to that stage when I am beginning to sentimentalize about the Coll...."

To Arthur, January 28, 1917, p 268 and 69, two fairly transparent references to his sadistic fetish regarding love interests, both in angle brackets (meaning they had been deleted from and later restored to the text).

To Arthur, January 31, 1917, p 270 and 71, three references to his sadistic proclivities, all in angle brackets (meaning they had been obscured from and later restored to the text). This is the letter which Jack signs "Pilomastix," meaning "fond of the whip." That, also, is in angle brackets. In a follow-up letter a week later (February 7, p 274), Jack says "My own is only a harmless piece of Greek affectation: 'philo' is the same word you see in 'philosopher' 'philologist' etc., and means 'fond of' while <'mastix' is the ordinary word for a whip.>

To Arthur, February 1, 1917, p 272, mentions a ("silly") book, The Talking Horse, which may have played some role in Jack's later creating The Horse and His Boy, the Narnian Chronicle that is about two talking horses. He also mentions Arthur's objection to his cigarette smoking in the context of reporting that he had taken up smoking a pipe.

On p 276 approximately 15 letters that Arthur had obscured are forever indecipherable. In this letter (February 15, 1917), as many others in this period, Jack addresses Arthur as Cher Ami (French for "dear friend"). In it, he also says (p 277), "Sweet lord! how one does want to read everything." And, "One sort of music still holds me as much, or indeed more than ever—piano music." A reference by Jack to Percy Bysshe Shelly and he both having been at University College, Oxford, is accompanied by a footnote by the editor on the same page: "Shelley was expelled from University College in 1811 for circulating a pamphlet, The Necessity of Atheism (1811)...." Jack seems to be making the point that his atheism was "cool."

A reference to "a certain lady" to Arthur (February 28, 1917, p 283) is the first allusion, though an oblique one, to a possible affair or erotic fantasy of Jack's. He says: "The gods>—whom I'm always abusing—certainly produced a masterpiece in her: even to see her walk across the room is a liberal education. Ah me, Of course I don't say that it is quite my own ideal type of beauty. But then who ever is? After all 'The love that I shall never see' is better both in body and soul than all the real women on earth."

"For Catullus (you saw him in my big Medici volume) though I have only read a third or so of him, is to me one of the really sacred poets, some of his tiny little things leave me really breathless—in particular one bit about that wander-lust feeling in the Spring, which he describes beautifully; in fact he is one of my gods, I put him on a level with Morris or Keats," p 288.

Referring to his and Arthur's sharing of their sexual "secrets": "In a way we have spoiled our paradise. All the same, having gone thus far, there is no good trying to go back—it would be horrible to keep an artificial silence and feel that there was something there all the time. Let us talk of these things when we want, but always keep them on the side that tends to beauty, and avoid everything that tends to sordid-ness Cher ami, please don't think this is preaching. I don't pretend that I have done so any better than you..." p 288.

P 289 "When God can get hold of a really first rate character like Charlotte Bronte to torture, he's just in his element: cruelty after cruelty without any escape."

P 290 "I have finished 'Paradise Lost' again, enjoying it even more than before. Really you must read it sometime soon. In Milton is everything you get everywhere else, only better. He is voluptuous as Keats, as romantic as Morris, as grand as Wagner, as wierd as Poe, and a better lover of nature than even the Brontes."

To Arthur, April 28, 1917, p 298, from OxfordL "Later on, as I get to know more people, perhaps I shall find some real friends here also."

Later on the same page, a reference to masturbation (all the Lewis experts seem to agree): <(No--not since I came back. Somehow I haven't even thought of it.)>

To Papy, May 3, 1917, from Oxford: "Beyond the 'commons' mug of ale supplied with our lunch, bread and cheese, I see no drinking here." He was 18 at the time.

To Arthur, May 6 1917, p 301: "I hope you are still on half time and are having some nice afternoons <(--in that way?)> in the garden." In this section of the correspondence, oblique references to "it" and "that" are thought to be referring to masturbation, which is reinforced by the fact that Arthur had obscured the words that are in angle brackets.

To Arthur on May 13, 1917, he describes swimming in the river at Oxford in the nude, p 304. Same page: "Oh, Galahad, you simply must come up after the war. This at present is only a shadow of the real Oxford, yet even so I never was happier in my life." In a footnote on the same page an acquaintance of Jack's from this time "recalls that Lewis in 1917 'could join in any discussion on any subject and talk fluently and knowledgeably; he was particularly interested in those early days in religion and was particularly challenging in his scepticism.'"

To Arthur on May 20, 1917, p 307, he expresses pleasure that Arthur is enjoying reading Milton: "Don't you love all the descriptions of Hell? (Item. When reading about the Shetlands in 'The Pirate' [by Sir Walter Scott] I was disconsolate because I thought I should never see them. In reading about the scenery of Hell, I need have no such uneasiness!)

Later on the same page: "How I like talking!"

To Arthur, May 27, 1917, p 310: "there is no doubt, ami, that the Irish are the only people: with all their faults I would not gladly live or die among another folk."

To Arthur, June 3, 1917, p 313: "<Butler tells me that the person to read on my subject is a Frenchman of the 17th century called the Visconte de sade>: his books, however, are very hard to come by."

Same letter, p 314: "I quite agree with you that cards are the most utter and senseless and losing waste of time ever invented, and I never play them from inclination but only because you can't go on refusing the same people if you have nothing to do."

To Arthur, June 10, 1917, writing about his recently begun officer training regime before going into the military to serve in World War I: "(days of trench digging and route marching under a blazing sun are a fine cure for tendencies in THAT direction)..." Later: "...for the first time in my life, I was royally drunk. ." Later: "The story that you have a headache after being drunk is apparently quite a lie <(like the other one about going mad from THAT)>."

In a letter to Arthur, July 8, 1917, p 323-25, he describes the "love" he has developed for University College. "I love every stone in it." And he describes a lonely tour he took of the nearly deserted college (as most undergraduates at the time were gone to the war), falling asleep on a bed in an unlocked room, and finding his way to a dark attic where he was mystified for a time by a "thumping" which turned out to be the ticking of the big college clock.

To Arthur, August 4, 1917, p 333, on the matter of "style" in prose writing: "For every thought can be expressed in a number of different ways: and style is the art of expressing a given thought in the most beautiful words and rythms of words. For instance a man might say 'When the constellations which appear at early morning joined in musical exercises and the angelic spirits loudly testified to their satisfaction.' Expressing exactly the same thought, the Authorized Version says 'When the morning stars sang together and all the sons of God shouted for joy.' Thus by the power of style what was nonsense becomes ineffably beautiful. See?"

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