'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.
the Collected Letters of C.S. Lewis, Volume 3
Edited by Walter Hooper, Harper
SanFrancisco, 2007, Part 9
Jonal entry 1049 | April
A theme emerges in the Lewis letters: the letters are at their
best when he is solving problems for his correspondents, whether the problems
are matters of theology, spiritual betterment, ethics, or understanding an academic
process. In those letters we see Lewis shine; he doesn't count his words and his
writing at such points is as turgid as the best passages in his fiction.
mission of these extensive "notes" is set out in the introduction
of Part 1 of the notes for Volume 1, here.
To Dom Bede
Griffiths, OSB, February 8, p 704: "I'm reading Runciman's Hist. of the Crusades:
a terrible revelation the old civilisation of the E. Mediterranean destroyed
by Turkish barbarians from the East & Frankish barbarians from the West."
Jocelyn Gibb, February 21, p 711, "badinage" = banter, playful talk.
gout anglais = "English taste"
I love "badinage,"
a word I had never encountered that captures something that has always been part
of my speech patterns.
To Alastair Fowler, Feburary 29, p 714: W. H. "Auden
is a Christian and a Tolkienian."
To Mary Willis Shelburne, March 3,
p 716: "The Scotch run awfully true to type and never change. Edinburgh is
a wonderful city, with a castle on a crag and mountains beyond it all visible
from the main street. (I imagine Quebec being a bit like it, but I may be all
To Nan Dunbar, a student at Cambridge who had engaged Lewis
in an ongoing debate and became a friend: "We know from Dante that Statius
got to heaven: if we ever get there we can ask him which he meant." To which
a footnote reports: "This did not satisfy Dunbar, who replied that Lewis
being older was likely to meet Statius in Paradise or Purgatory
before she could get there. By that time Lewis would have argued Statius
into a corner."
To Mrs. Johnson, March 13, p 719: "Smoking [as
a vice] is much harder to justify. I'd like to give it up but I'd find this v.
hard., i.e. I can abstain, but I can't concentrate on anything else while abstaining
not smoking is a whole time job."
Same, p 720: "The doctrines
about the Blessed Virgin which you mention are R.C. doctrines aren't they? And
as I'm not an R.C. I don't see that I need bother about them. But the habit (of
various Protestant sects) of plastering the landscape with religious slogans about
the Blood of the Lamb etc. is a different matter. There is no question here of
doctrinal difference: we agree with the doctrines they are advertising. What we
disagree with is their taste. Well, let's go on disagreeing but don't let's
judge. What doesn't suit us may suit possible converts of a different type.
model here is the behaviour of the congregation at a 'Russian Orthodox' service,
where some sit, some stand, some kneel, some lie on their faces, some walk about,
and no one takes the slightest notice of what anyone else is doing. That
is good sense, good manners, and good Christianity. 'Mind one's business' is a
good rule in religion as in other things."
To Mary Willis Shelburne,
March 19, p 721: "As MacDonald says 'In holy things may be unholy greed.'
And by doing what 'one's station and its duties' does not demand, one can make
oneself less fit for the duties it does demand, and so commit some injustice."
Mary Willis Shelburne, March 20, p 721: "I didn't say 'great plays,' I said
GREEK plays (this is the trouble about my handwriting). It is not offensive to
assume that a lady doesn't read Greek not even in a University town! And
I have no 'cultureal activities.' I like the Bacchae because it's exciting, not
because it is loathsome word! 'cultured.' In fact, you misunderstood
To Owen Barfield, March 27, pages 724-730. The most noteworthy
thing here is the length of this letter, which is Lewis's detailed feedback on
a book manuscript he was reviewing for his close friend and legal counselor, Barfield.
"Idolic" = ...no online dictionary dares define this rather simple word,
but in context one story (from SF Gate) suggests it means "idol-like,"
and that's how I think Lewis is using it.
To George Sayer, March 29, p 731:
"There shall be a new mattress for the spare bed Joy Gresham told
us the truth about it, which your courtesy concelaed!"
at his worst can defeat any actors and any producer."
To Mary Van Deusen,
April 2, p 732: "Yes, certainly the thing is always to be seeking God's way
and I wish I lived up to this. As the author of the Imitation says
'If you seek Jesus in all things you will find Him in all things: and if you seek
yourself in all things you will find yourself, to your undoing.'" Thomas
a Kempis is the author of The Imitation of Christ, a classic work on the
Same: "And the whole modern world ludicroudly over-values
books and learning and what (I loathe the word) they call 'culture.' And of course
'culture' itself is the greatest sufferer by this error: for second things are
always corrupted when they are put first. Never forget this: souls are immortal,
and your children & grandchildren will still be alive when my books have,
like the Galaxy and Nature herself, passed away."
To Mary Willis Shelburne,
April 15, p 738: "Talking too much is one of my vices, by the way."
Mary Willis Shelburne, April 26, p 743: "Of course we have all been taught
what to do with suffering offer it in Christ to God as our little, little
share of Christ's sufferings but it is so hard to do. I am afraid I can
better imagine, than really enter into, this. I suppose that if one loves
a person enough one would actually wish to share every part of his life: and I
suppose the great saints thus really want to share every part of his life:
and I suppose the great saints thus really want to share the divine sufferings
and that is how they can actually desire pain. But this is far beyond me. To grin
and bear it and (in some feeble, desperate way) to trust is the utmost most of
us can manage. One tries to take a lesson not only from the saints but from the
beasts: how well a sick dog trusts one if one has to do things that hurt it! And
this, I know, in some measure you will be able to do."
Krieg: April 27, p 744: "Your mother tells me you have all been having chicken
pox. I had it long after I was grown up and it's much worse if you are a man for
of course you can't shave with the spots on your face. So I grew a beard and though
my hair is black the beard was half yellow and half red! You should have seen
To Miss Wilson, April 28, p 745: "I doubt whether you will
see any more children's stories from me: I took the form up because it seemed
suited to something I had to say, and having said that, I lay it down. But of
course it is nice to be pressed!"
A footnote on p 747 notes that Lewis's
Till We Have Faces was dedicated to Joy Davidman. George Sayer's biography
of Lewis gives Joy much credit for enabling him to write the book which he had
been contemplating for years.
To Arthur Greeves, May 13, p 749: "After
9 months of perfect tee-totalism (we flattered ourselves it was a real cure) W.
has started drinking again and the elaborate joint holiday he had planned for
us in summer will probably have to be cancelled."
Same, p 750: "My
Doctor friend says that the latter [referring to Surprised by Joy] leaves
out too much and he is going to supplement it by a book called Suppressed by Jack!"
Mary Van Deusen, May 751, p 751: "We all in one sense 'believe' we are mortal:
but until one's forties does not really believe one is going to die? On the edge
of a cliff can't one believe, and yet not really believe, that there's no danger?"
Valerie Pitt, May 17, p 752: simpliciter = simply, summarily
"Whether the invocation of saints helps one's devotions or not (it wouldn't,
I believe, help mine) I don't see how it helps the theoretical problem."
Mary Willis Shelburne, May 21, p 755: "What a horrid adventure. To meet unrestrained
anger in any human being is in itself always very shocking. I think the effect
may be partly physical. Have you noticed how one angry man bursts out (say in
a crowded 'bus) and a tension comes over everyone? Indeed one nearly becomes equally
angry oneself. When one gets this shock along with injustice of course there is
a compound reaction."
Same: "oh, what a business life is. Well,
both you and I have most of it behind, not ahead. There will come a moment that
will change all this. Nightmares don't last."
To John Crow, May 28,
p 757, Lewis describes himself as "an author who is no v. accurate scholar
in his own works." A footnote reports that John Crow was an Oxford scholar
who later became an English Professor at the University of Pittsburgh. My favorite
English teacher at the University of Pittsburgh was a John Crow, but not this
John Crow. Close, but...some hundreds of pages later there will actually be a
correspondent to Lewis who I was acquainted with.
To Keith Masson,
June 3, p 758, in reply to a question about masturbation as a problem dealt with
by many young Christians: "There is, first, a difference of approach. You
rather take the line that a traditional moral principle must produce a proof of
its validity before it is accepted: I rather, that it must be accepted until someone
produces a conclusive refutation of it.
Same: "For me the real evil
of masturbation wd. be that it takes an appetite which, in lawful use, leads the
individual out of himself to complete (and correct) his own personality in that
of another (and finally in children and even grandchildren) and turns it back:
sends the man back into the prison of himself, there to keep a harem of imaginary
brides. And this harem, once admitted, works against his ever getting out
and really uniting with a real woman. For the harem is always accessible, always
subservient, calls for no sacrifices or adjustments, and can be endowed with erotic
and psychological attractions which no real woman can rival. Among those shadowy
brides he is always adored, always the perfect lover: no demand is made on his
unselfishness, no mortification ever imposed on his vanity. In the end, they become
merely the medium through which he increasingly adores himself. Do read Charles
Williams' Descent into Hell and study the character of Mr. Wentworth. And
it is not only the faculty of love which is thus sterilized, forced back on itself,
but also the faculty of imagination.
"The true exercise of imagination,
in my view, is (a) To help us to understand other people (b) To respond to, and,
some of us, to produce, art. but it has also a bad use: to provide for us, in
shadowy form, a substitute for virtues, successes, distinctions etc. which ought
to be sought outside in the real world e.g. picturing all I'd do
if I were rich instead of earning and saving. Masturbation involves this abuse
of imagination in erotic matters (which I think bad in itself) and thereby encourages
a similar abuse of it in all spheres. After all, almost the main work of
life is to come out of our selves, out of the little, dark prison we are
all born in. Masturbation is to be avoided as all things are to be avoided
wh. retard this process. The danger is that of coming to love the prison."
Mrs. Steed, June 6, p 760: "The most generally useful of G.M.'s work is the
3 vols of Unspoken Sermons. I fear it is long out of print. A good second-hand
bookseller (say, Rogers of Newcastle on Tyne) might be able to get you a copy.
Another good one (in verse) is The Diary of an Old Soul. These for works
of direct teaching.
"The imaginative works, which were of immense use
to me, might not be so for all readers. The ones I wd. most recommend are Phantastes,
Lilith, Curdy and the Goblins, The Princess and Curdy, and
The Wise Woman."
To Mary Van Deusen, June 18, p 762: "I
envy you not having to think any more about Christian apologetics. My correspondents
force the subject on me again and again. It is very wearing, and not v. good for
one's own faith. A Christian doctrine never seems less real to me than when I
have just (even if successfully) been defending it. It is particularly tormenting
when those who were converted by my books begin to relapse and raise new difficulties.
I know you pray for me: bear all these harrassings in mind." What Lewis says
here is the opposite of my writing on "apologetic" topics thinking
through difficult questions and working them through to written narratives seems
like a tonic to my faith.
To Joan Lancaster, June 26, p 766: "If you
become a writer you'll be trying to describe the thing all your life: and
lucky if, out of dozens of books, one or two sentences, just for a moment, come
near to getting it across.
"About amn't I, aren't I,
and am I not, of course there are no right and wrong answers about language
in the sense in which there are right and wrong answers in Arithmetic. 'Good English'
is whatever educated people talk: so that what is good in one place or time wd.
not be so in another. Amn't was good fifty years ago in the North of Ireland
where I was brought up, but bad in Southern England. Aren't I wd. have
been hideously bad in Ireland but was good in England. And of course I just don't
know which (if either) is good in modern Florida. Don't take any notice of teachers
and text-books on such matters. Nor of logic. If is good to say 'More than one
passenger was hurt' although more than one equals at least two and therefore
logically the verb ought to be plural were not singular was! What
really matters is:
"1. Always try to use the language so as
to make quite clear what you mean and make sure yr. sentence couldn't mean anything
"2, Always prefer the plain direct word to the long, vague one.
Don't implement promises, but keep them.
"3, Never use
abstract nouns when concrete ones will do. If you mean 'more people died' don't
say 'mortality rose'
"4. In writing. Don't use adjectives which merely
tell us how you want us to feel about the thing you are describing. I mean,
instead of telling us a thing was 'terrible,' describe it so that we'll be terrified.
Don't say it was 'delightful': make us say 'delightful' when we've read the description.
You see, all those words, (horrifying, wonderful, hideous, exquisite) are only
like saying to your readers 'Please will you do my job for me.'
Don't use words too big for the subject. Don't say 'infinitely' when you mean
'very': otherwise you'll have no word left when you want to talk about something
To Mary Willis Shelburne, July 5, p 767: "As
some one says 'The Devil used to try to prevent people from doing good works,
but he has now learned a trick worth two of that: he organises 'em instead.'
footnote on p 768 recalls that in That Hideous Strength Lewis used the
phrase "old women of both sexes." I had heard the same phrase used by
one of my divinity school professors and have to wonder now if he had been reading
That Hideous Strength.
To Ruth Pitter, July 9, p 769, referring to
an invitation both of them had to an event with the Queen: "Do you play croquet
with the Queen on Thursday. (Croquet is not mentioned in the invitation but I
am well-read enough to know that a royal garden party will involve hedgehogs,
flamingos, soldiers, Headsman, and the grin of a Cheshire cat)."
Ruth Pitter, July 14, p 771: "I was one of 8000 guests and also that the
Queen was present, a fact of which I had no evidence from my own experience."
Arthur Greeves, July 19, p 772: A reference to Port Noo, "a fishing harbour
in Gweebarrra Bay on the west coast of County Donegal."
Knight, July 26, p 773: "Let's hope he [presumably an author, Anastatius
Kircher] has got through the gate where all depends on becoming like a little
child, not on being a savant...but he must have had some shocks."
Christopher Derrick, August 2, p 774: tout court = without qualification
or more information.
Same: "All universities are now N.I.C.E.'s..."
NICE was the scientific conspiracy to take over the world and remake it after
its vision in Lewis's That Hideous Strength.
Same: "You ought
to have been spending (if you haven't already done so) on Tolkien's 3 vol. Lord
of the Rings the time you spent on OHEL. The Lord is the book we have
all been waiting for. And it shows too, which cheers, that there are thousands
left in Israel who have not bowed the knee to Leavis...." Leavis was the
founder of an approach to English studies that opposed the historical narrative
approach Lewis preferred.
To Mary Willis Shelburne, August 3, p 775: "When
I have been really wicked & angry, and meant to be nasty, the other party
never cared or even didn't notice. On the other hand, when I have found out afterwards
that I had deeply hurt someone, it had nearly always been quite unconscious on
Same, p 776: "I read Don Camillo some years ago,
but can't imagine how it could be made into a film. I suppose they will drag some
love story into it? (But then I'm as you know, rather allergic to films)."
"As the only two good lines in one of our bad hymns says 'Fear Him ye saints
and you will then have nothing else to fear.'"
Same, "And always
remember that poverty & every other ill, lovingly accepted, has all the spiritual
value of voluntary poverty or penance."
To Mrs. Frank Jones, August
4, p 777: "I quite agree with you about Time which I always thought
a rather horrid paper: but then most papers, in all countries, are rather horrid.
The comfort is that they are mostly not true!"
To Mrs. Johnson, August
7, p 778: "Your Mother in Law has done good to the whole circle by the way
she died. And where she has gone I don't doubt she will do you more still. For
I believe that what was true of Our Lord Himself ('It is expedient for you that
I go, for then the Comforter will come to you') is true in its degree (of course,
an infinitesimal degree in comparison, but still true) of all His followers. I
think they do something for us by dying and shortly after they have died which
they couldn't do before and sometimes one can almost feel it happening.
(You are right by the way: there is a lot to be said for dying and being
born at home)."
To Mary Willis Shelburne, August 18, p 782:
"Rather rejoice that God's law allows you to extend to Fanda [her cat] that
last mercy which (no doubt, quite rightly) we are forbidden to extend to suffering
To Stephen Schofield, August 23, p 782: "One must distinguish
'approving absolutely' from 'approving as the lesser evil under certain conditions.'
All war, like all lawsuits, results from greed, selfishness, or ill faith on one
side or both. Therefore God disapproves of them. But granted that someone's greed,
selfishness or ill faith, has started the thing, does God think the work of a
good soldier or a good lawyer is a less evil than letting the aggressor have his
"From the fact that neither St. John the Baptist nor Christ disapproved
of soldiers as such, I conclude the answer is Yes. By the Christian ideal of the
Christian at arms in a just cause I mean the Knight as he is pictured in
all the romances of the Middle Ages."
To Sheldon Vanauken, August 27,
p 783: "...perhaps we shall get high." Presumably Lewis meant by "getting
high" what a later generation might call "get jiggly."
"At the moment the really important thing seems to be that you were brought
to realise the impossibility (strict sense) of rejecting Christ." In a note
on the letter (recorded in a footnote) Vanauken said that discouragement had led
him to resolve to reject Christ, "but found he could not do so."
Chad Walsh, September 8, p 785: "By all means use me as a reference if you
can't find anyone better."
Same: "Both Joy and my brother wd.
send messages if they were here, but, you see, they ain't!"
Willis Shelburne, September 8, p 785: "All that side of life is to me simply
a terrifying mystery." That side of life was "Business."
p 786: "that journalists can be saved is a doctrine, if not contrary to,
yet certainly above, reason!" Lewis never seems to acknowledge that one of
his main heros, G. K. Chesterton, was a journalist, or more properly a "super-journalist."
"P.S. I doubt if you'll find any Leprechauns in Eire now. The Radio
has driven them away."
To Jocelyn Gibb, September 11, p 787: "but
one does, in this land, get sick of always stout or whisky but never Beer."
Father Peter Milward, SJ, September 22, p 789: "a good myth (i.e. a story
out of which ever varying meanings will grow for different readers and in different
ages) is a higher thing than an allegory (into which one meaning has been put).
Into an allegory a man can put only what he already knows: in a myth he puts what
he does not yet know and cd. not come to know in any other way."
footnote on this letter gives a good definition of how Lewis defined allegory
(and why his definition excluded his own works from that category).
Bodle, October 3, p 792: "I admit I've been lucky, in another way, by always
having people to discuss with, and I don't wonder you feel the lack of it."
To which 99 percent of the writers in the world would probably shout "Hear,
To John Lawlor, October 4, p 793: "By the way, my medieval
mission at Cambridge is, so far, a flop d'estime. A few dons come to my
lectures but far fewer undergrads. I've never had such small audiences before.
Must be frightfully good for me." flop d'estime = "acclaimed
To Kathleen Raine, October 5, p 794: pis aller = last
To Mary Van Deusen, October 8, p 795: "In modern English 'I
envy you' is used to mean "I'd like to be doing what you're doing' or even
'I congratulate you.' What the moral Theologians meant by the 'sin of Envy' (Invidia)
was grudging the other things one hadn't got oneself and hating the others
for having them wanting to scratch another girl's face because she was
prettier than you, hoping another man's business wd. crash because he was richer
than you and so forth."
Same: "One is almost relieved to
hear that your poor ex-Rector was not (as he seemed) wicked but only desperately
ill. We know so little: 'judge not.'"
To Vera Gebbert, October 18,
p 797: "One always disapproves of all holiday-makers except oneself!"
Mary Willis Shelburne, October 20, p 798: Lewis declines to make a proper reply
to Shelburne's letter because "I am all embroiled with affairs arising out
of a friend's sudden illness, and v. much distressed." The "friend"
was his legal or "registry" (but not "sacramental" or "Christian")
wife, Joy Davidman, who had just been diagnosed as dying of cancer.
Edwards, October 20, p 799: "I suppose there are 3 conditions: unfallen,
fallen, & redeemed."
Same: "Our job is not to try to
recover the unfallen stage but to go on to the redeemed one."
p 800: "Of course enjoying equipment or motoring is not a sin. The
point I wanted to make is that excessive excitement about gadgetry and the belief
(Weston's belief) that the possession of, say, wireless & aeroplanes, somehow
makes one superior to those who lack them & even justifies one in conquering
such people, is bosh. My motto wd. be 'Have your toys, have your conveniences,
but for heaven's sake don't start talking as if those things really mattered as,
say, charity matters.'
"As for 'giving up' things well, when
we've given up all our sins (the things everyone knows to be sins), we
can think again! The problem will not be immediate. The devil is fond of distracting
us from our plain daily duties by suggesting vague and rather faddy ones, you
To Katharine Farrer, October 25, p 801: "budgaries"
= budgerigars, parakeets, "budgies"
Same, Lewis refers to "our
innocent little secret," being his and Joy's "registry" marriage
in order to enable her to stay in England when the government declined to renew
her visitor visa.
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