Last 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.
In 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?
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.
It 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.
In 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.
Even 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.
These 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.