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, now in stores, 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 3
Edited by Walter Hooper, Harper SanFrancisco, 2007, Part 7

In my book (see above), I say on page 163 (referring to a seeming error in the Narnian Tale The Voyage of the Dawn Treader): "The Slip Up Archive points out that in the first of three chapters about the invisible creatures their leader tells the Narnians that as they are invisible so are their weapons. but the second sentence of the next chapter reads, 'it was very funny to see the plates and dishes coming to the table and nothing carrying them.'" And in my reading in the Lewis Letters last week, I discovered a follow up on this alleged "slip up" that illustrates exactly why anyone who sets out to write a new book about Lewis now that all of his collected letters are available must read them before proceding (this third volume of letters was not, by the way, in print yet when I was writing The Everything Guide to CSL and Narnia). In a letter to a schoolboy fan from Virginia on May 16, 1958, Lewis explains the alleged inconsistency between the weapons being invisible in the hands of invisible adversaries while the plates and dishes in the same hands were visible: "Magic is a rum [queer] thing and does not always work out as we would expect. I can only suggest two possible reasons why they saw the plates but not the weapons.

"1. A Weapon is much more connected with a warrior than a plate is with a waiter. A sword or spear may have a name. It is a trusty old friend — fits the hand — has stories told about it etc. But a plate is passed from hand to hand, and one plate is as good as another. Do you think if one was invisible oneself one's invisibility would be more likely to flow over into the weapon one grasped than into the plates one was merely carrying?

"2. Perhaps it was not true that the spears were really invisible till they left the hand. A spear pointed at me would not be easy to see in any case. I would need to be looking in exactly the right place at exactly the right moment. And of course if my enemy were invisible I would not know where to look."

C. S. Lewis
 portriat by Val Craig Murray1954 continued

To Mary Margaret McCaslin, August 2, p 501: "God's presence is not the same as the feeling of God's presence and He may be doing most for us when we think He is doing least."

Same: "Be very regular in your prayers and communions: and don't value special 'guidances' any more than what comes through ordinary Christian teaching, conscience, and prudence.

"I am shocked to hear that your friends think of following me. I wanted them to follow Christ. But they'll get over this confusion soon, I trust."

To Chad Walsh, August 5, p 501, referring his acceptance of a new professorial chair at Cambridge University: "It's true. I become 'chair borne' and do less work for more pay."

To Cynthia Donnelly, August 14, p 502: "I think you have a mistaken idea of a Christian writer's duty. We must use the talent we have, not the talents we haven't. We must not of course write anything that will flatter lust, pride or ambition. But we needn't all write patently moral or theological work. Indeed, work whose Christianity is latent may do quite as much good and may reach some whom the more obvious religious work would scare away."

The rest of this letter also offers very good insights on Christians who write.

To Mrs. Sacher, August 18, p 504: "who knows if Hell is not, in fact, simply the working out of the soul's evil to its logical conclusions?"

A footnote on p 508 says: "Miss Margaret Radcliffe was a one-legged nurse who wrote to Lewis constantly. It was her ambition to live at The Kilns and look after him, and he had constantly to tell her that he did not need her help. Neither his letters nor hers survive. When Lewis died, she turned her attention to Warnie whom she also wanted to look after. He let it be known that if she moved to Oxford he would emigrate to Ireland."

A young woman whom Lewis corresponded with for years, Vera Gebbert, was getting a divorce when he wrote her on September 25 (p 509): "I'm afraid it would be sheer dishonesty to pretend that we now have any kitchen needs; this government has done a magnificent job in getting us on our feet again, and a few weeks back, we solemnly burnt our Ration Books. Everything is now 'off ration,' and though at first of course prices went up with a rush, they are now dropping. But cheer up, if our friends the Socialists get back into power, you will be able to exercise your unfailing kindness once more by supplying us, not with little luxuries, but with the necessities of life!"

To Mrs. Jones, September 27, p 510: "'Why has sex become man's chief stumbling block?' But has it? Or is it only the most recognisable of the stumbling blocks? I mean, we can mistake Pride for a good conscience, and Cruelty for zeal, and Idleness for the peace of God etc. But when Lust is upon us, then, owing to the obvious physical symptoms, we can't pretend it is anything else."

To the Milton Society of America, undated, October, p 516: "The list of my books which I send in answer to Mr. Hunter's request will, I fear, strike you as a very mixed bag." He elaborates on the role of the imaginative side of his personality in his writing, and says that, under Milton's influence he set out to be a poet but "with little success."

To Belle Allen, November 1, p 520: "It sounds absurd: but I've met so many innocent sufferers who seem to be gladly offering their pain to God in Christ as part of the Atonement, so patient, so meek, even so at peace, and so unselfish that we can hardly doubt they are being, as St. Paul says, 'made perfect by suffering.' On the other hand I meet selfish egoists in whom suffering seems to produce only resentment, hate, blasphemy, and more egoism. They are the real problem."

To Mary Willis Shelburne, November 1, p 521: "I have had to give up potatoes, milk, and bread: perhaps having to fast for medical reasons is a just punishment for not having fasted enough on higher grounds!"

Same: "Did I tell you I've been made a professor at Cambridge? I take up my duties on January 1st at Magdalene College, Cambridge (Eng.). Note the difference in spelling. It means rather less work for rather more pay. And I think I shall like Magdalene better than Magdalen. It's a tiny college (a perfect cameo architecturally) and they're so old fashioned, and pious, and gentle and conservative — unlike this leftist, atheist, cynical, hard-boiled, huge Magdalen. Perhaps from being the fogey and 'old woman' here I shall become the enfant terrible there.

"It is nice to be still under the care of St. Mary Magdalene: she must by now understand my constitution better than a stranger wd., don't you think. The allegorical sense of her great action dawned on me the other day. The precious alabaster box wh. one must break over the Holy Feet is one's heart. Easier said than done. And the contents become perfume only when it is broken. While they are safe inside they are more like sewage. All v. alarming."

To Dom Bede Griffiths, November 5, p 522: "The best Dickens always seems to me to be the one I have read last! But in a cool hour I put Bleak House top for its sheer prodigality of invention."

Same: "About death, I go through different moods, but the times when I can desire it are never, I think, those when this world seems harshest. On the contrary, it is just when there seems to be most of Heaven already here that I come nearest to longing for the patria. It is the bright frontispiece [which] whets one to read the story itself. All joy (as distinct from mere pleasure, still more amusement) emphasises our pilgrim status: always reminds, beckons, awakes desire. Our best havings are wantings."

Footnote on page 523: "On 11 November 1954, [Jocelyn] Gibb wrote to Lewis: 'The Associated Examining Board for the General Certificate of Education (Advanced Level) has adopted THE SCREWTAPE LETTERS as one of the set books in their English syllabus for the year 1955-56. I am sure you will agree that this is an excellent thing, not only for the sales of the book which will follow, but because of the places where the book will be used . . . I think you will be interested to hear that the company you keep with the other books on the syllabus is as follows: Erewhon — Samuel Butler, Decade of Decision — F. Hoyle, Literature and Science — B. Ifor Evans.'"

To Dorothy L. Sayers, November 14, p 525: "Surely a poet does add to himself by the poem. (We know better what we mean, and we mean it more, if we can express it in a poem)."

A footnote on p 525, quotes Sayers from Introductory Papers on Dante: "There seems to be a kind of conspiracy, especially among middle-aged writers of vaguely liberal tendency, to forget, or to conceal, where the doctrine of Hell comes from. One finds frequent references to 'the cruel and abominable medieval doctrine of hell,' or 'the childish and grotesque medieval imagery of physical fire and worms.' People who write about Dante are often concerned to sneer at him, or alternatively to pity him, for being compelled by 'the crude superstition of his age' to believe in these things under menace of excommunication and torture . . . But the case is otherwise; let us face the facts. The doctrine of Hell is not 'medieval': it is Christ's. It is not a device of 'medieval priestcraft' for frightening people into giving more money to the Church: it is Christ's deliberate judgement on sin."

And a second also quotes Sayers: "There is an interesting difference between Dante's conception and that of the Moslem writer Ibn Arabi . . . In Ibn Arabi's Heaven, envy is excluded, apparently, only by ignorance and lack of imagination. But in Dante's Christian Heaven, it is excluded by love. The lower know that the higher exist, and 'it is a joy to the whole realm': they look up the ranks of the great ones soaring above them, and are filled with rapture and love. They envy them no more than you or I envy Dante or Shakespeare for being great and glorious. Why should they envy, or why should we? We are thrilled with delight to know that beings so noble can exist.'"

Both of these expressions of Orthodox conviction sound very "Lewisian."

To Jill Freud, November 15, p 528: "Warnie will pass on your warnings and hints about Susie [Jill Freud's dog] to Paxford [the gardner, handy man, and sometimes chaffeur of The Kilns], but points out that the result will be very like talking into a disconnected telephone!"

To Dorothy L. Sayers, November 22, p 529: "The inaugural [celebration of his appointment at Cambridge] is not till the 29th so I don't know how it went. That's the trouble with our kind of time." Lewis is jokingly contrasting "our kind of time" with Narnian time or "time" in God's perspective.

To Sheldon Vanauken, November 23, p 531: "If you can bear, will you tell me your news. If she has gone where we can find no anxiety about her, then I must feel anxious about you. I liked you both so well: never two young people more. And to like is to fear. Whatever has happened and in whatever state you are (I have horrid pictures in my mind) all belssings on you." Vanauken had lost his beloved wife Davey. He later immortalized their love and her in his autobiographical book that reads like a novel, A Severe Mercy. I first read it becamse it contains all of Lewis's letters to him (and them both) and it immediately became one of my favorite books.

To Carol Jenkins, November 30, p 534: "percipient" = capable of being perceived, especially readily and keenly.

To Walter Hooper, November 30, p 535: "We should, I believe, distrust states of mind which turn our attention upon ourselves. Even at our sins we should look no longer than is necessary to know and to repent them: and our virtues or progress (if any) are certainly a dangerous object of contemplation. When the sun is vertically above a man he casts no shadow: similarly when we have come to the Divine meridian our spiritual shadow (that is, our consciousness of self) will vanish. One will thus in a sense be almost nothing: a room to be filled by God and our blessed fellow creatures, who in their turn are rooms we help to fill. But how far one is from this at present!" This was Lewis's first letter to Hooper, who later became his secretary and is the editor of the Collected Letters. A footnote says: "During his service in the US Army, 1954-6, he began corresponding with Lewis."

To J. B. Phillips, December 3, p 536. Lewis declines an invitation to speak proffered by the famous author of translations of the Bible into modern English.

To Arthur Greeves, December 4, p 537: "Yes: the move looms large and black — all the things to 'see to' and all the decisions to make."

To Don Giovanni Calabria, December 5, p 540: "The Christian Faith, as I think, counts for more among Cambridge men than among us; our Communists are rarer and those plaguey philosophers whom we call Logical Positivists are not so powerful." This was Lewis's last letter to his dear pen-friend in Italy because, unbeknownst to him Fr. Calabria had passed away before receiving this letter.

To Vera Gebbert, December 17, p 543: "Wd. you believe it: an American schoolgirl has been expelled from her school for having in her possession a copy of my Screwtape! I asked my informant whether it was a Communist school, or a Fundamentalist school, or an R.C. school, and got the shattering answer 'No, it was a select school.' That puts a chap in his place, doesn't it!" Two guesses: The problem with the book may have been with the name "Screwtape," which did sound rather edgy in the 1950s. And a "select school" may have been comparable to "charter schools" in some U.S. states these days.

To Edna Greene Watson, December 18, p 544: "Can there, one wonders, be any truth in the story that the atom bomb is slowly altering the climate of the world?"

To Edward A. Allen, December 20, p 545: "I am entirely in agreement with him, and so no doubt are you; war cannot be eliminated until original sin is eliminated."

To Jane Douglass, December 21, p 546: Lewis was recommending books and essays by J.R.R. Tolkien. On The Lord of the Rings trilogy he says, "Booksellers will tell you it is a juvenile, but this is untrue."

To I.O. Evans, December 22, p 547: "There was a grain of seriousness in my rally against the Civil Service. I don't think you have worse taste or worse hearts than other men. But I do think the State is increasingly tyrannical and you, inevitably, are among the instruments of that tyranny."


To Mary Van Deusen, January 19, p 555: "I've had 10 days at Cambridge and am liking it v. much. Oh yes, I loved 'my own little circle' at Oxford alright: but there were a good many other intersecting and adjacent circles."

To Mary Willis Shelburne, January 29, p 557: "the pen has become to me what the oar is to a galley slave: then (God be praised) influenza and long half-comatose days in bed."

To Father Peter Milward, SJ, February 2, p 558: "I suppose (as God turns all His punishments into blessing) the loss of our original unambiguity of speech may have been one cause that drove us into poetry?"

To John Gilfedder, February 5, p 559: "Perelandra wd. never be filmed or acted because nudity is an essential element in it."

To Alastair Fowler, February 22, p 568: "pignora" = "wife and child," "family"

To Martyn Skinner, February 27, p 573: "Dom Bede dined with me in Cambridge last Friday. I know no one who has so steadily improved with years: he is a good advertisement for the monastic life."

To George Sayer, February 29, p 573, "We must console ourselves with the reflection that Lent is obviously a good time for this particular ailment."

Same, referring to Warnie's drinking: "he has never had a year of such long debauches or so frequent as this."

Same, "souvergnetee" = probably a variation on sovereignty

To Mrs. D. Jessup, March 3, p 574: "I don't think yr. question wheher these ones were brought into your life by 'a whimsical fate' or by God, need detain you long. Once one believes in God at all, surely the question is meaningless? Suppose that in a novel a character gets killed in a railway accident. Is his death due to chance (e.g. the signals being wrong) or to the novelist? Well of course, both. The chance is the way the novelist removes the character at the exact moment his story requires. There's a good line in Spenser to quote to oneself: 'It chanced (almighty God that chance did guide).'"

To Mrs. Johnson, March 2, p 575: "I got a letter from someone asking me if the Silent Planet was a true story. It's not the first I've had. So I'm beginning to think that some people (and if you don't look out I'll have to include you!) just don't understand what fiction is.

"When you say what's untrue with the intention of making people believe it, that's lying. When you say it without such intention, that's fiction."

Same, p 576: "a story is only imagining out loud."

Same: "It is right and inevitable that we shd. be much concerned about the salvation of those we love. But we must be careful not to expect or demand that their salvation shd. conform to some ready-made pattern of our own. Some Protestant sects have gone v. wrong about this. They have a whole programme of 'conviction,' 'conversion' etc marked out, the same for everyone, and will not believe that anyone can be saved who doesn't go through it 'just so.' But (see the last chapter of Problem of Pain) God has His own unique way with each soul."

Same: "What we practice, not (save at rare intervals) what we preach is usually our great contribution to the conversion of others."

To Ruth Pitter, March 5, p 577: "The maker of elder flower wine is G. Sayer, Hamewith, Alexandra Rd. Malvern, a Roman Catholic, a master at Malvern, a former pupil of mine and the most unselfish man I have ever gone about with. Like Long John Silver he has 'a face as large as a ham.'"

To Mrs. Johnson, March 16, p 580: "a housewife's work [is] . . . surely, in reality, the most important work in the world."

Same: "We wage war in order to have peace, we work in order to have leisure, we produce food in order to eat it. So your job is the one for which all others exist."

To Helmut Kuhn, March 18, p 582: "The Great Divorce . . . is the most unpopular of my books in this country."

To Mary Van Deusen, March 19, p 583: "I feel I can't write well enough to live up to" the stationery she had sent him.

Same: "Every meal can be a kind of lower sacrament. 'Devastating gratitude' is a good phrase: but my own experience is rather 'devastating desire' — desire for that-of-which-the-present-joy-is-a-Reminder."

To Mary Willis Shelburne, March 21, p 587: "We were talking about Cats & Dogs the other day & decided that both have consciences but the dog, being an honest, humble person, always has a bad one, but the Cat is a Pharisee and always has a good one. When he sits and stares you out of countenance he is thanking God that he is not as these dogs, or these humans, or even as these other Cats!"

To Mr. Allcock, March 24, p 587: "The doctrine of purgation after death is one of the many held by the Roman Church which I consider to be intrinsically probable but which, since it is not clearly stated in Scripture, nor included in the early creeds, I do not think they have any warrant for enforcing. I repudiate their practice of defining and systematising and continually enumerating the list of things that must be accepted. But that is quite consistent with my believing, as private speculations, some of the things they accept as revealed certainties. For of course one may 'assert' (in the sense 'hold as private opinion') lots that one does not 'believe' in the sense of holding as faith. E.g. I personally on general historical grounds may 'believe' that our Lord could speak a certain amount of Greek...?"

To Katharine Farrer, April 2, p 590, referring to his current book project, Till We Have Faces: "it is the story of every nice, affectionate agnostic whose dearest one suddenly 'gets religion,' or even every luke warm Christian whose dearest gets a Vocation. Never, I think, treated sympathetically by a Chritian writer before. I do it all thro' the mouth of the elder sister. In a word, I'm v. much 'with book': Juno Lucina fer opem." The latter is "goddess of childbirth, help me."

To Jill Freud, April 6, p 591: "Tryfidds" = refers to the book, The Day of the Triffids, by John Wyndham, which Freud had loaned him.

To Sheldon Vanauken, April 6, p 592: "once we have accepted an omniscient and providential God, the distinction we used to draw between the significant and the fortuitous must either break down or be restated in some v. much subtler form. If an event coming about in the ordinary course of nature becomes to me the occasion of hope and faith and love or increased efforts after virtue, do we suppose that this result was unforeseen by, or is indifferent to, God? Obviously not. What we should have called its fortuitous effects must have been present to Him for all eternity. And indeed, we can't suppose God saying (as a human artist might) 'That effect, though it has turned out rather well, was, I must admit, no part of my original design.' Then the total act of creation, including our own creation (wh. is going on all the time) meets us, doesn't it? in every event at every moment: the act of a Person dealing with persons and knowing what He does. Thus I wouldn't now be bothered by a man who said to me "This, which you mistake for grace, is really the good functioning of your digestion.' Does my digestion fall outside God's act? He made and allowed to me my colon as much as my guardian angel."

Same, p 593: "There is great good in bearing sorrow patiently: I don't know that there is any virtue in sorrow just as such. It is a Christian duty, as you know, for everyone to be as happy as he can. But you know all this already."

To Dorothy L. Sayers, March 6, p 596: "I hope you've read Joy Davidman's Smoke on the Mountain an ex-Communist, Jewess-by-race, convertite, on the X Commandments and, I think, really good."

To Harry Blamires, April 6, p 597: "Pubs don't open till 7 on Sundays."

Letter to Valerie Pitt, April 20, p 598, gives Lewis's views on asceticism.

To Rhona Bodle, April 28, p 600: "It certainly seems v. hard that you shd. be told to arm the young against Venus without calling in Christ. What do they want? I suppose the usual twaddle about bees and orchids (as if approaching a subject by that devious route wd. make any possible difference either good or bad). And indeed now that contraceptives have removed the most disastrous consequence for girls, and medicine has largely defeated the worst horrors of syphilis, what argument against promiscuity is there left wh. will influence the young unless one brings in the whole supernatural and sacramental view of man?"

To Alastair Fowler, April 30, p 601: "I'm afraid nature never meant me for a scholar."

"I was taken to a pub in London in the Vac. where all S.F. writers congregate every Thursday night: a merry party. They're all v. young."

—Webmaster Jon Kennedy

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Today's chuckle

We were talking about Cats & Dogs the other day and decided that both have consciences but the dog, being an honest, humble person, always has a bad one, but the Cat is a Pharisee and always has a good one. When he sits and stares you out of countenance he is thanking God that he is not as these dogs, or these humans, or even as these other Cats!

— C.S. Lewis

Thought for today

When you say what's untrue with the intention of making people believe it, that's lying. When you say it without such intention, that's fiction.

— C. S. Lewis (1898 - 1963)

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