Last week I had the great thrill to post that I had finished reading through C.S. Lewis’ works chronologically–from his earliest childhood letters and stories to his last letters, essays, and books. On Thursday I will post some practical ways that you too can do this reading project–whether you take a year, or 3 years (like me), or the better part of a decade.
By my very rough count, most of Lewis’ published work is made up of 60 books worth of reading, or about 21,000 pages, 5,000,000-6,000,000 words. Considering this corpus is made up of some of the most important Christian literature in the 20th century, foundational work in literary history and criticism, classic SF and dystopian books, and a series of fairy tales that changed children’s literature forever–not to mention thousands of letters that shaped the spiritual lives of friends and strangers–it is not a bad legacy of the pen. There are, by my count, 3,274 letters in print, plus another dozen or so unpublished letters that have circulated. Though this probably isn’t even 1/3 of the letters Lewis sent in his days, it is more than 3,500 pages of reading.
It is a lot of reading. To put it all in chronological order adds a layer of complexity to the project. Besides the sheer fun of it, why have I chosen to read C.S. Lewis chronologically? Here are some of my key reasons.
Bound by Honour
There is an important role for the blogger and social commentator these days. I write that way, working as a fan and critic, and thinking not just about books but about how stories work in our world. This is a faith, fiction, and fantasy blog, centering around the Inklings, their influences, and their emulators.
I have tried, though, to keep my work as a student and scholar of the Inklings just a few inches from my work as a blogger. Most won’t have noticed, but I have been very careful about making grand pronunciations about C.S. Lewis that aren’t confirmed by other scholars. I have made some hints here, a suggestion or two there. And I have made some mistakes. For the most part, though, I have worked to show new angles, not completely new interpretations. The papers I have published have been on teaching and the publication of manuscripts. It is only recently that I have published my own original work, like recent chapters on spiritual theology and Lewis’ critical approaches.
The reason I held back is because, as a scholar of C.S. Lewis, I am bound by honour to have read broadly and deeply in the man’s work. No matter how I approached reading Lewis, I needed to read just about everything I could get my hands on.
First Steps on a Well-Worn Road
Knowing that I was going to read everything that Lewis published, I had to begin somewhere. I had read Narnia, the Ransom Cycle, and Mere Christianity growing up. Many of us have, though I think the Ransom books are hidden SciFi/Dystopian early generation treasures. As I discuss here, it was The Screwtape Letters, The Great Divorce, and J.R.R. Tolkien’s “Mythopoeia” that drew me into Lewis studies–really a development from my teaching experience.
I found the mythmaking possibilities endless, but when I read Letters to an American Lady I knew I had to create a systematic approach to reading–and one that included letters, not just the published books and essays. I don’t know how other readers and scholars do it, but you could approach the material thematically (cultural criticism, spiritual direction, apologetics, writing themes, etc.). You could also come at Lewis and read him genre by genre, going little by little through his letters, poems, literary histories, book reviews, apologetics works, lectures, literary criticism pieces, anthologies and prefaces, SF books, short stories, children’s literature, and myth retellings. You could also read the books as they fall into your lap–a kind of serendipity approach guided by library catalogues, yard sales, bookstore specials, and friends foolish enough to loan out their books to you, a voracious reader.
I thought it made sense–and I still think it is the best way–to read chronologically. I knew enough about Lewis to know how to do this, and had an excellent library nearby. It meant beginning with juvenilia–my least favourite of his works–but it is a clear, systematic way to approach Lewis’ life and work.
The Man Behind the Mirror
We are reading because we enjoy the books: the stories, the words, the characters, the arguments, the particularly Lewisian way of looking at the world. You love Narnia, she loves classic Science Fiction, he is moved by the depth of the literary histories, they go to Lewis as an apologist and social critic, and I love the buried treasure in the reams of letters left behind. We read Lewis because we like his work.
But I was also reading because I wanted to get a sense of the man behind the letters and the images. Letter by letter, book by book, piece by piece I was building a picture in my mind of who C.S. Lewis was. I don’t ever intend to write a biography–at least not in the traditional sense. Before I could confidently speak to “Lewis’ Approaches to Spiritual Theology”–my PhD project in short form–I had to have a very clear idea of who Lewis was. Moving past the works left behind to the writer’s vocation is a dangerous project, but it is one I chose to undertake.
Reading chronologically allowed me to form my impression of the Narnian behind Narnia, the apologist behind the apologies, the man behind the myths.
Would the Real C.S. Lewis Please Step Forward?
As I was trying to form an image of who C.S. Lewis was, I wanted to avoid two crucial errors.
First, I didn’t want to fall into any one C.S. Lewis myth. Lewis has been taken up, for good and ill, by so many others. I have seen him identified by evangelicals, progressive Christians, Orthodox believers, Catholics sure he was close to returning to the fold, fantasy writers, animal rights activists, theistic evolutionists and young earth creationists, Tolkienists, Jungian psychologists, atheists with a grudge, atheists still hoping for an autograph, and the 22 people in the world certain that Lewis was right (or wrong) about Paradise Lost and know why.
I could not protect myself from all views of history and letters, but as much as I could I wanted to form my sense of Lewis for myself, without help from biographers, critics, fans, and historians. So I read C.S. Lewis work first, and then turned to what others said about him.
Second, I did not want to fall into the trap of imagining Lewis as a static character. It is a bare fact that the man who toyed with sadomasochism as a priggish undergrad wrote a layman’s commentary on the Psalms, lectured on Marxism, helped instigate a cultural return to Spenser, preached a return to Christ on the BBC, and wrote a series of children’s stories that created a framework of possibility for future fantasy writers. To freeze any one of these images into “The Real C.S. Lewis” is to reduce a complex figure into a cartoon.
I read chronologically so that as I grew to understand the heart of the man, I also saw how he changed and grew throughout the years. Finally, once I had a good image of Lewis in my mind (at about 1945), I started reading biographies and secondary literature. Even then, I was selective, weighting my reading heavily to Lewis’ own work and words.
The Dip of the Pen
Lewis once said–I can’t remember where right now–that he liked using a dip pen to write because it slowed him down. The pen paced his work as he paused every 5-10 words to sketch out the ideas in his mind. This is part of the reason why Lewis was able to create brief, tight work largely in a single draft.
Reading chronologically gave me the same sort of biographical experience. Going month by month, year by year, allowed me to explore areas that were uncertain to me. As they became relevant, I also did research into apologetics, epistolary fiction, the 16th century and the reign of the Tudors, WWI and WWII, the Oxbridge educational systems, literary theory, and etymology.
Reading Lewis caused me to discover or rediscover Jane Austen, Jonathan Swift, Milton, Dante, Homer, Samuel Richardson, H.G. Wells, G.K. Chesterton, George MacDonald, T.S. Eliot, F. Anstey, Arthur C. Clarke, Brian Aldiss, John Christopher, E.R. Eddison, George Orwell, Charles Williams, Owen Barfield, Dorothy L. Sayers, Virginia Woolf, as well as Arthurian traditions and the metaphysical poets. I also read much of Warren Lewis’ diary, and letters by Joy Davidman, Dorothy Sayers, and J.R.R. Tolkien–three great minds it was a privilege to creep.
Reading slowly enough to supplement that reading with other works has been a rich experience.
That, then, is why I chose to do a chronological reading of C.S. Lewis. I think it was worth it, and am excited to try this project on other writers of history.
You don’t say much about reading the poems. It certainly has become easier to approach them chronologically since Don W. King’s edition appeared at the first of 2015. (I think a process of dating the ones he couldn’t date–at least tentatively–is on-going.) I suppose you read the poems as books of poems appeared.
Thanks Joe. The poems were a challenge. I had the books of poetry, plus 2 articles by Don King over the years with “lost poems.” But King’s book didn’t come out until I had only a decade left of reading, or less. And Lewis was mostly done writing lyric by then.
I hope to talk about this on Thursday’s post.
That suggests you read (maybe) his section “Poems 1950-1963” after King’s book appeared. That’s 22 pages, More specifically, 1950–3 poems; 1951–2 poems; 1952–5 poems; 1953–2 poems; 1954–8 poems; 1955–1 poem; 1956–5 poems; 1957–1 poem; 1958–1 poem; 1959–1 poem; 1960–4 poems [3 of them 1960? by King]; 1961–0 poems; 1962–0 poems; and 1963–2 poems [one of them 1963?]. (I wonder what happened in 1954 to make him so productive?) Of course, some of the poems are easily tied to the period–the squib to Ruth Pitter, the love poems to Joy Davidman, the Narnian poem (King misplaces the other Narnian poem), etc., but some have no “cause” that I know of. Anyway, an interesting group.
That reminds me: some of the Joy poems were in the McGrath volume, so I used that as a source. What makes King’s work great is that even though we may miss a few, we have most of what we need.
I keep trying to get the third volume of Lewis’ collected letters, but they seem to be out of print, and the ones I look at at Amazon are at ridiculous prices. The cheapest is over $500. Have you had similar experiences?
Funny, I’m writing about that at this very moment! I blogged about it here: https://apilgriminnarnia.com/2013/01/23/a-bargain-at-twice-the-price/.
Keep your eyes open. You will likely find it at a local bookstore or estate sale.
I suspect that when volume 4 comes out in 2-3 years, they will release vol 3 again. It’s too big for softcover (methinks).
I just looked on Amazon.ca. The cheapest price is $1,000.00, the most expensive $4,300.00. I have Volume 3 on my Kindle, but I think I’ll wait for a re-release until I buy a hard copy. :-Z
Yes, definitely wait.
On a complete different note, I attended a university lecture (Inklings Institute Lecture by Ron Dart) last night that dealt with the relationship between C.S. Lewis & Dom. Bede Griffiths. It was very interesting, but of particular interest was an argument (through correspondence), that Dart spoke about, among some of Lewis’ friends and followers including Griffiths, Sheldon Vanauken, Kreeft (I think) and a few others, about Lewis’ faith. Or perhaps you could call it a heated discussion. In any case, apparently there is a Canadian C.S. Lewis Journal which is the only place where this correspondence has been published, and there might be some other original “stuff” contained in it. He also showed us a Toronto Lewis journal that he said his mother helped start. You may already know about these journals, but if you want any other information, let me know!
I’d like to hear more about that. There isn’t a catalogue of the CanCSL Journal, as far as I know. I have a handful of copies, but don’t know that one. A Toronto library has the CanCSLJournal, and there was a Toronto society, but I haven’t seen the papers. Do you know what the content was of the letters?
The Canadian CSL Journal ran from 1979-2001, so I’m assuming that there are TONS of journals. The letters, I believe, were from various people (including Vanauken) trying to “co-opt” Lewis, after his death, to their religion and Bede Griffiths stepped in and said, “Wait a minute. I knew Lewis for 40 years; you don’t understand him at all.” It was a very lively “discussion” and the only place the correspondence was published was in those journals. He mentioned this correspondence briefly, however, as the lecture covered the whole span of Lewis and Griffiths relationship. In any case, Ron Dart has all the journals that were published. He is very knowledgeable and would probably know if there are any other “nuggets” in these journals. He did bring a couple of the Toronto journals, but I’m not certain if he has access to all of them or what they contain.
There are many interesting lectures being hosted by the new Trinity Western Inklings Institute: http://www.twu.ca/research/institutes-and-centres/university-institutes/inklings-institute-of-canada/default.html Let me know if you need any other information!
(P.S. I found this article by Dart on the relationship between Lewis & T.S. Eliot. Oh, rabbit trails! http://www.clarion-journal.com/clarion_journal_of_spirit/2008/12/ts-eliot-and-cs-lewis-discord-and-concord-by-ron-dart.html )
Do you know if they were taping the talk? Coast BC is a tough commute on a work night from PEI!
I am part of the society though.
The journal was pretty crazy. It was in the 80s like a zine–cut and paste articles and photos and letters. There were legal notes from the CSLewis companies to cease and desist on certain materials, and conversations about plagiarism, and all sorts of things.
Thee question of whether Lewis was “really” Roman Catholic at the end of his life has been ongoing for 50+ years. I even heard one person say, “C.S. Lewis would have become RC if he hadn’t been Irish”! We have moved to the realm of the non-falsifiable. He is in the mists of legend for some.
One professor said he taped the talk, but no one (including the lecturer) realized it so I have no idea what they plan to do with it. Do you want me to find out?
It’s fascinating how Lewis (or his legend) seems to resonate with so many people/denominations. They also spoke of Timothy Ware (I think that was his name) who argued that Lewis was closet-Orthodox. 🙂
Ah, yes, I looked through the membership list and found your name. There doesn’t seem to be much on the IIoC webpage to get news, but I think there’s lots going on behind the scenes.
I can contact Ron Dart for the deets if I need to. I have read Ware’s “The Orthodox Way.” I wonder if he was a little tongue in cheek. John Stackhouse remarks in a lecture how everyone takes up Lewis. My first draft of a PhD proposal was “Evangelical Appropriation of C.S. Lewis”–there is a story to tell there somewhere.
Okay, sounds good. I’m about 5 min. from Trinity, in case I can ever be of use. 🙂
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