Saturday, March 17, 2007

With the passing of time C.S. Lewis’ shadow grows longer. Renowned as a literary scholar, science fiction writer, Christian apologist and children’s writer, Lewis himself has been the subject of a feature film (“Shadowlands”). His fantasy books for young readers, “The Chronicles of Narnia,” have been adapted to film several times, the most recent being Walden Media’s version of “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.”

(Production is underway for the second of the “Chronicles,” “Prince Caspian,” while work has also begun on a film version of Lewis’ “The Screwtape Letters,” missives of advice from a “senior tempter” in the “lowerarchy” of Hell to a demonic apprentice.) In the meantime, Lewis’ many books continue to sell briskly, and interest in the author’s life and influence remains high.

Now Lewis’ literary executor, Walter Hooper, has released the third and final volume of Lewis’ collected letters: a doorstop-size volume that encompasses the final 13 years of Lewis’ life (he died in 1963).

These were key years, for while many of Lewis’ best known works were behind him — including “The Screwtape Letters,” “Mere Christianity” and the “Ransom Trilogy” of science fiction novels comprising “Out of the Silent Planet,” “Perelandra” and “That Hideous Strength” — he wrote other minor classics during that time.

The years 1950 through 1963 were the years when Lewis published the seven-volume “Chronicles of Narnia,” his autobiographical “Surprised by Joy,” a long-awaited scholarly volume on English literature for Oxford University Press and his most accomplished (though curiously underrated) novel, “Till We Have Faces.”

It was the period in which he celebrated the publication of a work he had encouraged for many years, “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy, written by his friend J.R.R. Tolkien. It was the time in which this longtime Oxford don left the college he had worked at for 25 years to take the Chair of Medieval and Renaissance English, a position created especially for him, at Cambridge University.

During the 1950s this confirmed bachelor met and married an American divorcee, Joy Davidman Gresham, comforted and encouraged her through her struggle with bone cancer and then grieved deeply when she died in 1961.

The marriage between “Jack and Joy” began as an act of mercy but ended as a true marriage of love, though this took time to develop. It is amusing to read Lewis’ almost-offhand comment to mystery writer and Dante scholar Dorothy L. Sayers, announcing his marriage, in late 1956:

“You may see in the ‘Times’ a notice of my marriage to Joy Gresham. She is in hospital (cancer) and not likely to live; but if she gets over this go she must be given a home here. You will not think that anything wrong is going to happen. Certain problems do not arise between a dying woman and an elderly man. What I am mainly acquiring is two (nice) stepsons. Pray for us all, and God bless you.”

Interesting as well are three letters, included here, from Lewis to Joy’s ex-husband, Bill Gresham, which range in tone from gallantly kind to boldly defensive, as he encourages Gresham to cease trying to gain custody of his two sons, who feared him.

Lewis answered innumerable fan letters and in some offered spiritual counseling. He worried about the health and wanderings of his older brother, Warren, an alcoholic who tended to go on binges and require long periods of recovery. Finally, by a strange coincidence, Lewis died on the same day novelist Aldous Huxley died and John F. Kennedy was assassinated: Nov. 22, 1963.

In a fitting bookend to the present collection, the final letter Lewis wrote — the day before he died — was an answer to a letter from a boy who had asked him about “The Chronicles of Narnia.” He commends young Philip Thompson “on writing such a remarkably good letter; I certainly could not have written it at your age,” and adds: “It is a funny thing that all the children who have written to me see at once who [“The Chronicles’” Christ-figure] Aslan is, and grown ups never do!”

Nearly a decade earlier, the members of a fifth grade class in Maryland had written to ask Lewis several questions about Narnia and to describe his own appearance. After answering their questions about the “Chronicles,” he replied: “I’m tall, fat, rather bald, red-faced, double-chinned, black-haired, have a deep voice, and wear glasses for reading.”

Here and elsewhere in this collection, the reader is struck by the honesty and humility of Lewis’ responses to everyone who wrote to him — a hard task when a writer is regularly showered with praise.

As Lewis wrote to one correspondent who had thanked him for the strengthening effect of his Christian-themed books upon her life, he wrote, “As for my part in it, remember that anybody (or any thing) may be used by the Holy Spirit as a conductor. I say this not so much from modesty as to guard against any danger of your feeling, when the shine goes out of my books (as it will) that the real thing is in any way involved. It mustn’t fade when I do.”

The “Collected Letters” provide insight into Lewis’ generosity of spirit — and his insightfulness on many issues and literary works. In an informative letter written in 1956 to Father Peter Milward, he explained something of Tolkien’s mind in creating “The Lord of the Rings,” saying (using the abbreviations that characterized his letters):

“Tolkien’s book is not an allegory — a form he dislikes. You’ll get nearest to his mind on such subjects by studying his essay on Fairy Tales in the ‘Essays presented to Charles Williams.’ His root idea of narrative art is ‘sub-creation’ — the making of a secondary world. What you wd. call ‘a pleasant story for the children’ wd. be to him more serious than an allegory.

“But for his views, read the essay, wh. is indispensable. My view wd. be that 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.”

(The essay Lewis mentions, Tolkien’s “On Fairy-Stories,” is far more readily available to interested modern readers in a collection of short pieces of both fiction and nonfiction titled “The Tolkien Reader.”)

From the clues in these letters, and from the assertions made by Lewis’ biographers, it is apparent that there is an interesting book yet to be written on the relationship between Lewis and T.S. Eliot. Both men, stalwart champions of centricity and prudential wisdom, maintained a low-grade contempt for each other for many years, in part because Eliot’s Modernist aesthetic seemed to Lewis the antithesis of his own traditionalist ethic.

However, over time the two men developed a friendly, respectful relationship with the help of their wives, Valerie Eliot and Joy Davidman Lewis. It was Eliot who proved instrumental in publishing Lewis’ response to Joy’s death, a heartfelt volume titled “A Grief Observed.”

As a fascinating bonus within this volume, Mr. Hooper has included a slew of earlier letters that were, for various reasons, not included in either of the first two volumes.

For example, the remarkably challenging letters Lewis exchanged with his friend Owen Barfield during the 1920s in their so-called “Great War,” a debate through correspondence on whether imagination is a conveyer of truth.

Barfield won that exchange, in that he convinced Lewis that myth, imagination and truth are closely entwined — a revelation that liberated Lewis’ mind and led to his eventual embrace of Christianity, as well as his maturity as a scholar, writer, and man.

There is much more to savor here, including the letters of advice to men and women who’d asked for insights related to living a Christian life. All told, then, the third volume of Lewis’ “Collected Letters” verifies editor Walter Hooper’s claim that his friend was the last great letter-writer, whose kindness and (occasionally astringent) wisdom promise much for the reader who takes the time to savor these private thoughts of an extraordinary man, the self-styled “last of the dinosaurs.”

James E. Person Jr. is the author of the biography “Earl Hamner: From Walton’s Mountain to Tomorrow” (Cumberland House).

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