Why Didn’t Someone See it First? Discussing the Screwtape-Ransom Discovery

Ransom_CycleLast week I shared some research in The Screwtape Letters—research that has changed the course of my research. You can read it here, but basically it showed that C.S. Lewis was thinking about his work in ways we never knew. Between 1937 and 1945 he wrote a Trilogy around the character of Dr. Ransom, but he also wrote The Screwtape Letters and some other Christian books.

When you read The Screwtape Letters (1941) you see in the preface that C.S. Lewis is a character in his own book. He has discovered a series of demonic letters that give us a peak at the strategy that demonic tempters use to reduce our humanity and separate us from God. Lewis used a similar technique with Out of the Silent Planet, the SciFi novel he wrote a not long before (1937). Out of the Silent Planet was written as a novel, but was “really” a true story about Dr. Elwin Ransom’s experience. Lewis novelized the account of Ransom’s trip to Malacandra and published it as a fictional story. Out of the Silent Planet begins an interstellar counter-conspiracy that continues in Perelandra and That Hideous Strength. The Lewis characters is in the background in THS, but is part of the Perelandra narrative.

I don’t know of many that have made the link of Lewis’ technique of including himself as a character in his books as he does both in Ransom and Screwtape. As it turns out, there are more links between the Ransom Trilogy and The Screwtape Letters than we could have imagined.

screwtape letters cs lewis creepyIn a file at the Marion E. Wade Center, a C.S. Lewis archive in Wheaton, IL, there is a handwritten preface to Screwtape. Like the preface in your edition, the demonic letters are found, though not by C.S. Lewis. In this handwritten preface, the letters are found and translated by Dr. Ransom, Lewis’ protagonist in the SciFi books that come before and after Screwtape.

It is a transformational discovery. It changes the way we read the Ransom Trilogy—indeed, it means we don’t have a Ransom Trilogy, but a Ransom Cycle. We can read The Screwtape Letters as part of the conspiracy against the Silent Planet (Earth) that Ransom and his friends have to face. And, especially, we can reread the Ransom Trilogy in a Screwtapian way.

C.S. Lewis fans and scholars are intrigued by the idea that Lewis toyed with the idea of publishing The Screwtape Letters as part of the Ransom Universe (the Field of Arbol). I have a paper in draft form that starts to work out the implications. But there is a great question that has come from a number of sources. One blog commenter put it well:

While I find this fascinating, I also find myself slightly perplexed as to why it wasn’t noticed before. I mean, the handwritten preface didn’t fall out of an obscure book in the Bodleian library or turn up in a book gifted to one of Lewis’s collaborators (as is the case with the Tolkien map). It is in the Wade collection so shouldn’t it have been noticed?

screwtape feather by LewisHe is correct. The handwritten Screwtape preface is in the Wade. The amazing staff there can help you see it for yourself.

Even more than that, at least a dozen people have seen the Screwtape file. And these are smart people, leading C.S. Lewis scholars and careful researchers. Of these, only one researcher has talked about it in print. That scholar is Charlie Starr in his manuscript study, Light. Charlie, who is one of a group of scholars helping get Inklings manuscripts to public notice, mentions the Screwtape-Ransom connection in a footnote. There could be other scholars that have noted it—let me know if there were—but I haven’t seen any. I didn’t even see Charlie’s book until well after that fateful visit to the Wade.

Still, we are left with the question: why didn’t anyone else see the significance of this Screwtape-Ransom connection? Why did it take a religious studies scholar in 2012 to stumble upon it?

It isn’t because of the caliber of scholarship involved. As I’ve said, I found it by accident, and I am still really an emerging scholar. The people that looked at the file came with their own questions and probably did what they came to the Wade to do. They are good researchers, focussed on their tasks.

CS Lewis Apologetics Books Mere Christianity Miracles ScrewtapeIt also isn’t because the idea itself is without merit. I thought about this for a long time. Before publishing the Ransom-Screwtape preface in Notes & Queries in 2013, I talked to leading scholars in order to ensure that the publication had merit. This is not only a fun discovery, but it is one that lets us see Lewis’ writings in new ways, and helps us to think about how Lewis invented his fictional worlds.

Why has no one else every published this great discovery? The answer actually reveals one of the most beautiful things about academic research.

The answer is this: One of the most important features about academic research is that each researcher brings his or her unique set of experiences and questions to the data that is in front of us. While you might think it is tough to add much to Shakespeare studies or certain historical fields (burnt over regions of research), I am always amazed at how a new set of eyes on an old question can bring new life to a subject.

old biblesIn my case, I was a biblical studies specialist in the larger field of theology. I had a general B.A. in Bible, then focussed on New Testament exegesis for my master’s degree (exegesis is where we use a number of techniques to decide what a text means). The techniques include history, sociology, anthropology, philosophy, language and linguistics, literary criticism, and the tools of the study of religion. We try to determine what a sacred text might have meant in its original context (exegesis), and how it works in our world today (theology and application).

I decided in 2011 to use the same biblical studies tools in my approach to the study of Lewis and the Inklings. In my masters thesis I had studied the origins of antisemitism in biblical texts. One of the tools in my toolbelt was to look at how St. Paul wrote 1 Thessalonians. In writing this letter he created a “fictional world” much like fantasy writers do. He took the events of real history, and discussed them in a way that put certain emphases on particular points. This creation of a symbolic world is what Lewis did when he made the Ransom Cycle. The difference is that most of the events in Lewis’ fictional world never happened in space-time, whereas most of the events Paul references did happen.

I was primed to think about how we make the worlds we write about—whether it is in a letter to a friend, a sacred text, or a fantastic story. So when I opened up the file and saw a name from one fictional universe (Ransom of the Field of Arbol) connected with another fictional universe (Screwtape of the Lowerarchy of Hell), I immediately saw the implications.

sorina higgins chapel of the thorn charles williamsEven then, I needed some confirmation. After staring at the material for an hour or two, puzzling things out in my head, I turned to the researcher sitting beside me. She happened to be Sørina Higgins, working on the important Charles Williams Thorn project. She agreed then that “this changes everything.” So I set to work on the Screwtape-Ransom work.

It could be that if Sørina or Charlie had been sitting with the Screwtape file at the Wade, asking questions of world-building, they would have immediately seen the significance that I saw. Or perhaps not, despite their great skills. I saw the Charles Williams Thorn manuscript, and still Sørina was able to make connection I hadn’t imagined. I too saw some of the manuscripts that Charlie talks about in Light—as had a few others. Yet it was only Charlie who pursued it to its end.

Each researcher is unique. Charlie, an English professor and fantasy writer, has become an expert in Lewis’ handwriting simply because it needed to be done, and he could do it. I would be a good person to test Charlie’s system, but not to create it. Sørina, an Inklings scholar, poet, and intellectual curator, has been working for years to make Charles Williams—the oddest and least accessible Inkling—just a little bit more approachable. I will add little bits to Williams’ scholarship, but she is one of its transformational features.

Oxfordshire, Oxford, Magdalen College IIThese are just three examples of academics working in connected fields. I know of dozens of others in Lewis & Inklings studies that are making these kinds of unique contributions. Think of the millions of people in thousands of fields who have dedicated their lives to using their own gifts, experiences, and research questions for the purpose of new discovery. It’s an amazing thought, and a key reason we need to encourage research even when financial times are tight.

My hope is that my background in biblical studies and theology, as well as my experience as a pastor, policy writer, teacher, novelist, and father, will help contribute to the world of Inklings studies. In any case, my individual approach allowed me to see in a flash the imaginative possibilities of a little bit of C.S. Lewis’ hen-scratching.

That is why I saw what others didn’t see. Not because of the clarity of my vision but because of the focus of my lenses.

Ransom_Cycle_CS_Lewis

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About Brenton Dickieson

“A Pilgrim in Narnia” is a blog project in reading and talking about the work of C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and the worlds they touched. As a "Faith, Fantasy, and Fiction" blog, we cover topics like children’s literature, apologetics and philosophy, myths and mythology, fantasy, theology, cultural critique, art and writing. This blog includes my thoughts as I read through Lewis and Tolkien and reflect on my own life and culture. In this sense, I am a Pilgrim in Narnia--or Middle Earth, or Fairyland. I am often peeking inside of wardrobes, looking for magic bricks in urban alleys, or rooting through yard sale boxes for old rings. If something here captures your imagination, leave a comment, “like” a post, share with your friends, or sign up to receive Narnian Pilgrim posts in your email box. Brenton Dickieson is a father, husband, friend, university lecturer, and freelance writer from Prince Edward Island, Canada. You can follow him on Twitter, @BrentonDana.
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41 Responses to Why Didn’t Someone See it First? Discussing the Screwtape-Ransom Discovery

  1. traildustfotm says:

    Thank you Brenton, for lighting up my enjoyment of the Ransom novels once more. I’m inclined to think that Lewis also wrote his friend Tolkien into the stories, under the name of Ransom, a philologist.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Well, you are very welcome. It is my pleasure–both as an enjoyer of these books, and as an educator.
      I think it is fair to say that Ransom in OSP is very Tolkien-like. What about the other books?

      Like

      • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

        It has been said (I can’t remember by whom – first? – and quite possibly by different people independently) that the Ransom of THS is more Charles-Williams-y than Tolkien-y. (I think I have also encountered the speculation that this was one of the things that annoyed Tolkien in terms of what he seems to have taken to be the influence of Williams on THS.) Maybe someone should try to get David Bratman to say a word about Ransom, if he doesn’t happen to chime in himself after reading this post-and-comments. Looking his “Annotated Bibliography” up again, here

        http://home.earthlink.net/~dbratman/infiction.html

        I see he updated it this past May and that he notes “Gervase Mathew suggests he shows elements of Tolkien and Owen Barfield as well” in a context in which he also refers to work by Diana Pavlac Glyer.

        Like

        • I don’t remember who first talked about that shift of character from Tolkien to Williams. I know that David Downing talks about it. There are only a handful of real studies.
          I don’t know David Bratman. He is referenced negatively in Sam Joeckel’s “The CSL Phenomenon.” And he’s in Bruce Edwards’ book, I think. Did you know he just passed? (Edwards, not Bratman).
          If you know him, invite him to chime in!

          Like

          • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

            No, I had not heard or seen the sad news that Bruce Edwards passed away: thank you for telling me (and probably many more of us; I see from Wikipedia it was on 28 October).

            I don’t know The C.S. Lewis Phenomenon (thought from the blurb on Amazon it sounds interesting), but from all I’ve read by David Bratman and conversations and correspondence had with him, I can’t imagine how anyone could reference him negatively! I’ll e-mail him see if he’d like to chip in (I ought to, anyway, as I’ve got a suggestion for him to ponder for his Bibliography which I’ve been meaning to make for ages).

            Like

            • I did not know Bruce Edwards, besides some email chats. Sad news. He took the time to message me when the original Screwtape preface was published–an important role for a senior scholar.
              The CSL Phenomenon is both excellent and highly critical. The author finds the cutting off of some biographers–Beversluis, Wilson especially–tiresome and unhelpful. That’s the reference. I haven’t got an opinion on that point myself. I have only glanced at Beversluis, and Wilson is always slippery. Bratman seems to have a particular gift for collecting and curating–another important sholarley role!

              Like

  2. Charles Huttar says:

    I found this fascinating, both because I know the other scholars mentioned (and have reviewed their work) and because of its astute account of the research process, which dovetails with my own experiences over many years but have never seen explained so clearly.

    Like

    • Thanks Charles! I’ve been cooking that idea for a while and finally found a place to talk about it. I think most people don’t really know what a professor/scholar does (especially an independent one like myself).

      Like

  3. veldez says:

    I’d like to an add a thank-you as well. Very encouraged to go back and re-read the Space Trilogy as well as Screwtape with fresh perspective. Plus those books are just great reads! I’m trying to read the Arthurian legends and poetry by Williams and Lewis, but it has been a start/stop journey so far.

    Like

  4. tphillman says:

    It’s precisely this sort of discovery that answers the question of why we bother to keep studying these works and authors: there is always something more to be found, sometimes something that the author intended, sometimes something that he didn’t, and sometimes something that he “unintended” — that is, changed his mind about. What an interesting and useful time you can have exploring the differences between the Space Trilogy with, and without, The Screwtape Letters added. Why did Lewis think to connect them? Why did he decide to abandon, or perhaps leave “silent” the connection?

    Like

    • I agree 100%. It is also why we need courageous people to do these things:
      -become teachers
      -become researchers
      -read and write in their spare time
      -join school boards or run for office to value education
      -raise children and grandchildren to adore curiosity
      -read good books
      -give away good books
      -donate to libraries
      -donate to research enterprises in the low ($1000) and larger ($1m+) levels
      -donate to universities that explore ideas
      -petition governments and business to engage in higher education
      -donate to or volunteer at archives
      -dialogue with network engage scholars (as I try to be)

      Like

    • Charles Huttar says:

      And of course, what light does this shed on the place of “The Dark Tower” in the whole ultimately unanswerable question (but both tempting and legitimate for us to delve into) of what went on in Lewis’s mind in the years between “OSP” and “THS”?

      Like

      • Lewis’ mind–as tempting as it is to conjecture–is what we want of a leader and thinker: a complex place. But the Screwtape preface does show that Lewis experimented with the Ransom world in ways that did not go to print. That supports the Dark Tower experiment.

        Like

    • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

      I can imagine someone noticing the draft “Preface”, thinking the ‘unintending’ is definitive, and not going on to record that conclusion explicitly anywhere in print.

      There is, of course, also the matter of the ‘unpublished’ in the sense of someone possibly having noticed, but not published anything making this more widely known. The remark and invitation, “There could be other scholars that have noted it—let me know if there were”, point to yet another possible situation – that of the published-yet-still-not-widely-known.

      My friend, the Rev. Dr. Ian Graham, was just reminding me (in conversation, and pretty much in passing) of some, and telling me of more, about his work on possible Old Icelandic terminology for liturgical dress, which is included in his Oxford D.Phil thesis, but on which he never published separately. How many have noticed it, where it is so usefully to be found?

      Like

      • I hope there are others that have done so. What are the chances that I bumped into the only reference? Well, there is a fair chance, but not a good one I think.
        Anyone? Bueller?

        Like

        • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

          You may well have bumped into the only one – it’s a funny old world! It is such an exciting datum, you’d think anybody who’d noticed would have bruited it about vigorously!

          Liked by 1 person

  5. Reblogged this on The Oddest Inkling and commented:
    Here is Brenton Dickieson’s second post about his cosmic discovery in “The Screwtape Letters.” It also discusses my work on “The Chapel of the Thorn” a little bit. Enjoy.

    Like

  6. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    An aspect not explicitly accented in this post, is that the Ransom Screwtape Preface brings together the (guardian-angel) angelology of Letter 31 and the Ransom Trilogy angelology, which, by way of the ‘Numinor’ reference in the THS preface had already in some sense brought together the Tolkienian ‘Middle-earth’ Ainur-Maiar-Valar angelology and that of the Trilogy.

    I was wondering aloud – quite inconclusively – in conversation with Dr. Michael Ward the other day (upon whose Planet Narnia I had only just begun, at last) about what, if any, possibilities there were of Williams’s Place of the Lion angelology and the worlds and angelology in the Narnia stories being further linked up with these.

    I wonder what light Charles Huttar has shared, or having might soon, somehow, like to share, from his Inklings angelological studies, much of the matter of which, if I am not mistaken, have not yet been published (though who knows how much I’ve missed, which has)?

    Like

    • I haven’t made the Eldil-Tolkien Angelology connection. Angelology isn’t actually a strength, but I did do a Screwtapian reading of the demonic oppression in PErelandra chs. 1 & 2. (paper to come!)

      Like

      • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

        Hurray – I look forward to it!

        And, do you have any published or posted version of your discussion of St. Paul creating a “fictional world” using the events of real history in writing 1 Thessalonians? It sounds fascinating. (It might be interesting to compare with Eric Voegelin’s work, among others, on the combination of fiction, dialectics, and mythopoesis in Plato’s dialogues!)

        Like

        • Charles Huttar says:

          I too was intrigued by both of Brenton’s remarks, the 1 Thessalonians analysis and the forthcoming paper on chaps. 1&2 of “Perelandra.” I deal v. briefly with the latter (but from another angle) in a paper forthcoming in “Sehnsucht”:, “How Much Does THS Owe to Charles Williams?” I note the similarity of “Lewis”‘s reluctance to get “drawn in” to these mysterious experiences (which is clearly a part of the barrage of temptation that he undergoes during the dark walk to Ransom’s cottage) and Jane Studdock’s fighting against getting “drawn in” to the St. Anne’s community. I contrast this with Mark’s eagerness for the Inner Ring, first at Bracton and then at Belbury — till he finally is also drawn in to St. Anne.s. I note also the similarity of Jane’s pilgrimage (with differences, of course) to that of Damaris in Williams’s “The Place of the Lion.”

          Like

          • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

            Hurray! Something else to look forward to! What a good subject to see being tackled!

            Liked by 1 person

          • Charles I look forward to the Sehnsucht paper. I think the parallel you outline here is worth exploring. I hope you have shown some restraint in psychologizing Lewis’ own connection to these narratives. It is easy to ask whether he is Mark or Jane, or himself in Perelandra, or Damaris. He did say in a letter that he identified with that “bitch” Damaris, but I think writers identify with their characters. My inability to write an effective Screwtape isn’t because I don’t understand temptation. I surely do. The combination of self-critique and self-restraint with the elegance of brevity is the challenge.

            Like

            • Charles Huttar says:

              I’m not sure that “identify with” is a very helpful term. Did Shakespeare identify with Iago? I think we need a term less ambiguous. How does this relate to negative capability? Would something like “imaginative sympathy” be at all useful?

              Like

              • No it isn’t a helpful word. Moreover, we all can identify with our opposites as much as our avatars.
                What I mean is this: I am anxious when people reduce C.S. Lewis’ psychology to a particular character trait by making primary identifications to the character. Is Lewis more like Mark or Jane? I would answer Yes and No, rather than either-or.

                Like

              • Charles Huttar says:

                Jesus “identified” (in some fashion) with Judas. In what way does “Love your neighbor as yourself” entail “identify”?

                Like

          • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

            I think I first encountered in the writings of Metropolitan Anthony Bloom (an Inklings, and, I think, especially Williams, lover) the suggestion to read Parables and other Biblical (hi)stories by putting yourself imaginatively in the place of various people in them. Maybe something like that is a useful approach to author and characters, too. If you seem to discern a primary authorial identification with a particular character, it is both worth taking that seriously while also examining the relation to other characters. In THS, Mark seems to me in some ways distinctly like the young Lewis, but Dr. Dimble in other ways distinctly like the older Lewis. Then again, Miss Hardcastle could be seen as extrapolating and carrying further the impenitent young Lewis’s conscious enjoyment of cruelty. And so on (is Merlin in his degree a nice, worked-out anticipation of Lewis’s dinosaur imagery in his Cambridge Inaugural?).

            Liked by 1 person

        • You know, that’s a good idea. I’ve held that paper for nearly a decade. I’ve presented in Charlottetown on rhetoric in 2011 and in Belgium in 2014 on epistolary fiction. I should just get the stupid paper to some editor somewhere! It’s a bit long and burdened with footnotes, as us exegetes are wont to do. It’s why we hate MLA formatting!
          Meanwhile, I should blog it, if I can find a way to do it simply. As you notice, I try to do a blog that is not academic writing, but based on academic work.
          We have a Voegelin scholar at UPEI (Ron Srigley), and I’ve never been drawn in to Voeglin–partly from ignorance on my part, partly from a lack of interest in Plato, and partly because I feel like Voeglin is trying to be intentionally standoffish! I’m sure I will repent one day and submit to the text itself.

          Like

          • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

            Hurray, again!

            (Also, hurray for footnotes! – The Rev. Dr. Graham (mentioned above) was reminding me of a thoroughly satisfying one in his thesis which economically explores a topic for the length of a page before concluding it must remain open.)

            Voegelin drives various people up the wall – for different reasons, at least one of which, the elaboration of technical vocabulary, I savour gleefully (for better or worse). He can combine breath-taking suggestions of arrogance with what seems a real humble readiness to learn and change in response to new arguments and insights. ‘We Voegelinians’ can seem a bizarrely mixed bag, too…

            Among (ahem) the things I should scan for you, is (perhaps) a paper bringing Tolkien, Voegelin, and George Grant together in contrast to Schopenhauer, Nietzsche and Heidegger…

            Like

            • Well there are 6 giants all lined up on either sides of a table! George Grant I do like, and have considered following him up more–he is Canadian, and once I’m an established scholar there is likely to be a small grant somewhere.
              But those 6 gentleman are a lifetime of reading!

              Like

          • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

            Well, quite! The extent of my reliance on Grant and Voegelin is clear and explicit, though I tried to read in Nietzsche (and Schopenhauer as quoted favourably by him) and Heidegger, by way of seeing for myself. And Grant (a Tolkien fan) has his own points of difference with Voegelin, too… Still, I’ll let you try to see what you think of it, sometime.

            Like

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