On Wednesday I wrote about “How 1950s SciFi Superstars Helped C.S. Lewis Fall in Love with Science Fiction Again“–a blog that has been trending since. It was intriguing to see how the quality of Ray Bradbury’s writing, the generosity of Anthony Boucher’s critical eye, and the tenacity of Arthur C. Clarke’s vision were influential not just for boys like me reading library copies in his farmhouse bedroom, but also for leading lights like C.S. Lewis.
In the blog I quoted some of Lewis’ ideas about Arthur C. Clarke from a letter. As it turns out, this letter contains what is an unguarded and glowing review of Clarke’s 1953 Childhood’s End. It is also the first letter remaining that C.S. Lewis wrote to Joy Davidman-Gresham, the woman who would within a couple of years absolutely capture the old bachelor’s heart. I thought it would be intriguing to quote the whole letter, taken from Walter Hooper’s collection.
As far as I can remember you were non-committal about Childhood’s End: I suppose you were afraid that you might raise my expectations too high and lead to disappointment. If that was your aim, it has succeeded, for I came to it expecting nothing in particular and have been thoroughly bowled over. It is quite out of range of the common space-and-time writers; away up near Lindsay’s Voyage to Arcturus and Wells’s First Men in the Moon. It is better than any of Stapleton’s. It hasn’t got Ray Bradbury’s delicacy, but then it has ten
times his emotional power, and far more mythopoeia.
There is one bit of bad execution, I think: caps 7 and 8, where the author doesn’t seem to be at home. I mean, as a social picture it is flat and stiff, and all the gadgetry (for me) is a bore. But what there is on the credit side! It is rather like the effect of the Ring–a selfriching work, harmony piling up on harmony, grandeur on grandeur, pity on pity. The first section, merely on the mystery of the Overlords, wd. be enough for most authors. Then you find this is only the background, and when you have worked up to the climax in chap 21, you find what seems to be an anti-climax and it slowly lifts itself to the utter climax. The first climax, pp 165–185 brought tears to my eyes. There has been nothing like it for years: partly for the actual writing–‘She has left her toys behind but ours go hence with us’, or ‘The island rose to meet the dawn’, but partly (still more, in fact) because here we meet a modern author who understands that there may be things that have a higher claim than the survival or happiness of humanity: a man who cd. almost understand ‘He that hateth not father and mother’ and certainly wd. understand the situation in Aeneid III between those who go on to Latium & those who stay in Sicily.
We are almost brought up out of psyche into pneuma [spirit]. I mean, his myth does that to us imaginatively. Of course his own thoughts about what that higher level might be are not, in our eyes, very new or very profound: but that doesn’t really make so much difference. (Though, by the way, it wd. have been better, even on purely literary grounds, to leave it in its mystery, to philosophise less.) After all, few authors’ glosses on their own myths are as good as the myths: unless, like Dante, they take the glosses from other men, real thinkers. The second climax, the long (not too long) drawn-out close is magnificent.
There is only one change (in conception) that I wd. want to make. It is a pity that he
suggests a jealousy and a possible future revolt on the part of the Overlords. The motive is so ordinary that it cannot excite interest in itself, and as it is never going to be worked out the handling cannot compensate for the banality. How much better, how much more in tune with Clarke’s own imagined universe, if the Overlords were totally resigned, submissive yet erect in an eternal melancholy–like the great heroes and poets in Dante’s Limbo who live forever ‘in desire but not in hope’. But now one is starting to re-write the book….
Many minor dissatisfactions, of course. The women are all made up out of a few abstract ideas of jealousy, vanity, maternity etc. But it really matters v. little: the thing is great enough to carry far more faults than it commits. It is a strange comment on our age that such a book lies hid in a hideous paper-backed edition, wholly unnoticed by the cognoscenti, while any ‘realistic’ drivel about some neurotic in a London flat–something that needs no real invention at all, something that any educated man could write if he chose, may get seriously reviewed and mentioned in serious books–as if it really mattered. I wonder how long this tyranny will last? Twenty years ago I felt no doubt that I should live to see it all break up and great literature return: but here I am, losing teeth and hair, and still no break in the clouds.
And now, what do you think? Do you agree that it is AN ABSOLUTE CORKER?