C. S. Lewis. The Collected Letters of C. S. Lewis. Edited by Walter Hooper. 3 vols. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2004–2007. 4,064 pp.
Volume 1: Family Letters, 1905–1931 (1072 pp.)
Highly recommended. What a delightful, insightful man.
Hats off to Walter Hooper for all he has done to further C. S. Lewis’s works. (Michael Ward explains how difficult it was for Hooper to edit Lewis’s letters.)
Here are some excerpts from Lewis’s letter. I’ll list the date of the letters so that you can calculate his age (Lewis was born on November 29, 1898; he converted to theism in 1929 and to Christianity in 1931):
- To his father (2/16/1914): “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?” (1:49).
- To his childhood friend Arthur Greeves (9/26/1914): “In Greek, I have started to read Homer’s Iliad” (1:71).
- To Arthur Greeves (9/27/1916): “Unless you are a person with plenty of spare time and real knowledge, it is a mistake to keep dogs—and cruel to them” (1:226).
- To Arthur Greeves (10/12/1916): “I beleive [sic] 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” (1:230–31).
- To his father (6/29/1919): “My friends tell me that I am at a disadvantage for literary success because I lack the ‘gift of self advertisement’. My only reply—not expressed aloud—‘thank heaven’!” (1:457).
- To his father (6/17/1921): “I can only find three motives for publishing anything—fame, money or reputation, in the narrower sense that may help ones career indirectly” (1:551).
- To his brother (7/1/1921): “the trouble about God is that he is like a person who never acknowledges one’s letters and so, in time, one comes to the conclusion either that he does not exist or that you have got the address wrong” (1:555).
- To Owen Barfield (6/19/1930): “a lascivious man thinks about women’s bodies, a lascivious woman thinks about her own” (1:904).
- To Arthur Greeves (10/1/1931): “I have just passed on from believing in God to definitely believing in Christ—in Christianity. … My long night talk with Dyson and Tolkien had a good deal to do with it” (1:974).
- To Arthur Greeves (10/18/1931): “the story of Christ is simply a true myth: a myth working on us in the same way as the others, but with this tremendous difference that it really happened …” (1:977).
- To his brother (11/22/1931): “We didn’t stir till about 9 the Sunday morning, he being delighted with the unaccustomed absence of a restless child (how do married men live?) …” (2:18).
- To Dom Bede Griffiths (4/4/1934): “I should rather like to attend your Greek class, for it is a perpetual puzzle to me how New Testament Greek got the reputation of being easy. St Luke I find particularly difficult. As regards matter—leaving the question of language—you will be glad to hear that I am at last beginning to get some small understanding of St Paul: hitherto an author quite opaque to me. I am speaking now, of course, of the general drift of whole epistles: short passages, treated devotionally, are of course another matter. And yet the distinction is not, for me, quite a happy one. Devotion is best raised when we intend something else. At least that is my experience. Sit down to meditate devotionally on a single verse, and nothing happens. Hammer your way through a continued argument, just as you would in a profane writer, and the heart will sometimes sing unbidden” (2:136).
- To a man who invited Lewis to speak at a meeting (7/16/1946): “I am primarily an arguer not an exhorter and my target is the frankly irreligious audience: nor do I ever speak my best in a v. large hall with an atmosphere of enthusiasm in it” (2:718).
- To Dorothy Sayers (9/2/1946): “apologetic work is so dangerous to one’s own faith. A doctrine never seems dimmer to me than when I have just successfully defended it” (2:730).
- To Edward A. Allen (5/29/1948): “‘Just what a Don does?’ Like a woman, his work is never done. Taking ‘tutorials’ occupies the best part of his day, i.e. pupils come in pairs, read essays to him, then follows criticism, discussion etc; then he gives public lectures in his own subject; takes his share in the business of managing the College; prepares his lectures and writes books; and in his spare time stands in queues” (2:855).
- To J. R. R. Tolkien after Lewis had finished reading the typescript of Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings (10/27/1949): “I have drained the rich cup and satisfied a long thirst. Once it really gets under weigh the steady upward slope of grandeur and terror (not unrelieved by green dells, without which it wd. indeed be intolerable) is almost unequalled in the whole range of narrative art known to me. … It will rank, along with the Aeneid as one of what I call my ‘immediately sub-religious’ books” (2:990–91).
- To Roger Lancelyn Green, who had just written a blurb for Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (4/4/1950): “I don’t really understand Blurbology” (3:19).
- To Mary Van Deusen (7/12/1950): “the New Testament does not envisage solitary religion: some kind of regular assembly for worship and instruction is everywhere taken for granted in the Epistles. So we must be regular practising members of the Church” (3:68).
- To Ruth Pitter (1/6/1951): “what is the point of keeping in touch with the contemporary scene? Why should one read authors one does’nt like because they happen to be alive at the same time as oneself? One might as well read everyone who had the same job or the same coloured hair, or the same income, or the same chest measurements, as far as I can see” (3:83).
- To Carol Jenkins re Aslan (1/22/1952): “I pronounce it Ass-lan myself. And of course I meant the Lion of Judah” (3:160).
- To Vera Gebbert (7/28/1952): “Does anyone in America understand American politics? Certainly no one over here can make out what is happening, in spite of numerous inspired articles by so called experts; people who pretend to know all about it” (3:219).
- To George Sayer re when Joy Gresham stayed at the Lewis home over Christmas break (12/23/1952): “Perpetual conversation is a most exhausting thing” (3:271).
- To an 11-year-old girl from New York (6/3/1953): “As to Aslan’s other name, well I want you to guess. Has there never been anyone in this world who (1.) Arrived at the same time as Father Christmas. (2.) Said he was the son of the Great Emperor. (3.) Gave himself up for someone else’s fault to be jeered at and killed by wicked people. (4.) Came to life again. (5.) Is sometimes spoken of as a Lamb (see the end of the Dawn Treader). Don’t you really know His name in this world. Think it over and let me know your answer!” (3:334).
- To Phyllida (9/14/1953): “I don’t think age matters so much as people think. Parts of me are still 12 and I think other parts were already 50 when I was 12: so I don’t feel it v. odd that they grow up in Narnia while they are children in England” (3:362).
- To Ruth Pitter (12/21/1953): “Warnie … and I are dazed: we have had an American lady staying in the house with her two sons aged 9½ and 8. I now know what we celibates are shielded from. I will never laugh at parents again. Not that the boys weren’t a delight: but a delight like surf-bathing which leaves one breathless and aching. The energy, the tempo, is what kills. I have now perceived (what I always suspected from memories of our childhood) that the way to a child’s heart is quite simple: treat them with seriousness & ordinary civility—they ask no more. What they can’t stand (quite rightly) is the common adult assumption that everything they say shd. be twisted into a kind of jocularity” (3:390–91).
- To Joan Lancaster (12/7/1954): “I am so busy marking examination papers that I can hardly breathe! The very good ones and the very bad ones are no trouble, but the in-between ones take ages” (3:495).
- To Mary Willis Shelburne (3/21/1955): “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!” (3:587).
- To Mrs. Johnson (5/14/1955): “Far from having acquired a TV. set I’ve got rid of my wireless!” (3:608). [Reminds me of JP.]
- To Carl Henry re writing for Christianity Today (9/28/1955): “I wish your project heartily well but can’t write you articles. My thought and talent (such as they are) now flow in different, though I think not less Christian, channels, and I do not think I am at all likely to write more directly theological pieces. The last work of that sort which I attempted had to be abandoned. If I am now good for anything it is for catching the reader unawares—thro’ fiction and symbol. I have done what I could in the way of frontal attacks, but I now feel quite sure those days are over” (3:651)
- To Clyde Kilby (2/10/1957): “An author doesn’t necessarily understand the meaning of his own story better than anyone else …” (3:830).
- To Mrs. Johnson (5/25/1957): “Of course Heaven is leisure (‘there remaineth a rest for the people of God’):62 but I picture it pretty vigorous too as our best leisure really is. Man was created ‘to glorify God and enjoy Him forever.’63 Whether that is best pictured as being in love, or like being one of an orchestra who are playing a great work with perfect success, or like surf bathing, or like endlessly exploring a wonderful country or endlessly reading a glorious story—who knows? Dante says Heaven ‘grew drunken with its universal laughter’” (3:856).
- To Jane Gaskell (9/2/1957): “Never use adjectives or adverbs which are mere appeals to the reader to feel as you want him to feel. He won’t do it just because you ask him: you’ve got to make him. No good telling us a battle was ‘exciting’. If you succeeded in exciting us the adjective will be unnecessary: if you don’t, it will be useless. Don’t tell us the jewels had an ‘emotional’ glitter; make us feel the emotion. I can hardly tell you how important this is” (3:881).
- To Mervyn Peake (2/10/1958): “I like things long—drinks, love-passages, walks, silences, and, above all, books. Give me a good square meal like The Faerie Queene or The Lord of the Rings. The Odyssey is a mere lunch, after all” (3:919).
- To Lee Turner re Bible translations (7/19/1958): “As for translations, even if one doesn’t know Greek (and I know no Hebrew myself) we have now so many different translations that by using & comparing them all one can usually see what is happening” (3:961).
- To Corbin Scott Carnell (10/13/1958): “You could hardly, among literate people, find a man who is less ‘in the swim’ or ‘up to date’ than I am” (3:980).
- To Thomasine, a child in seventh grade (12/14/1959): “It is very hard to give any general advice about writing. Here’s my attempt.
(1) Turn off the Radio.
(2) Read all the good books you can, and avoid nearly all magazines.
(3) Always write (and read) with the ear, not the eye. You shd. hear every sentence you write as if it was being read aloud or spoken. If it does not sound nice, try again.
(4) Write about what really interests you, whether it is real things or imaginary things, and nothing else. (Notice this means that if you are interested only in writing you will never be a writer, because you will have nothing to write about …)
(5) Take great pains to be clear. Remember that though you start by knowing what you mean, the reader doesn’t, and a single ill-chosen word may lead him to a total misunderstanding. In a story it is terribly easy just to forget that you have not told the reader something that he needs to know—the whole picture is so clear in your own mind that you forget that it isn’t the same in his.
(6) When you give up a bit of work don’t (unless it is hopelessly bad) throw it away. Put it in a drawer. It may come in useful later. Much of my best work, or what I think my best, is the re-writing of things begun and abandoned years earlier.
(7) Don’t use a typewriter. The noise will destroy your sense of rhythm, which still needs years of training.
(8) Be sure you know the meaning (or meanings) of every word you use” (3:1108–9).
And here is an engaging three-part interview with Walter Hooper by Eric Metaxas:
- The Life and Faith of C. S. Lewis is a decent 55-minute documentary. And there is a 29-minute abridged version.
- Diabolical Ventriloquism: A 1-Sentence Summary of Each of Screwtape’s Letters
- Ten Narnia Resources
- Live Like a Narnian
- C. S. Lewis at War: The Dramatic Story Behind Mere Christianity
- George M. Marsden, C. S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity: A Biography, Lives of Great Religious Books (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2016). Justin Taylor interviews Marsden about the book here.