The Beowulf author, Sir Thomas Malory, Jane Austen, William Morris, Charlotte Brontë, and Shakespeare. With the exception of Morris, who is merely an important author of his period, these are all canonical authors. Notably, though, these are all authors that Lewis talked about in a single four-page letter he wrote when he was almost 18. This 1 Nov 1916 letter gives us a peek Lewis’ teenage bookshelf and is filled with gems about reading and writing that will tell us a lot about the later Lewis as professional critic.
In this letter to his best friend, Arthur Greeves, Lewis begins in his strident, almost cocky and combative tone. It is a humorous irony that Lewis pins Arthur to the mat for setting Beowulf and Malory side by side, while spelling Beowulf wrong in the process. It isn’t the only spelling mistake or book name he gets wrong in this letter, so a gentle wink at Lewis’ expense is okay given the ribbing he gives Arthur.
Despite the fisticuffs tone, the letter has a number of perceptive points in it about reading. “It is always very difficult,” Lewis says, “to explain to another person the good points of a book he doesn’t like.” Very true, and we often find ourselves defending a book in a different kind of way when we are talking to an unsympathetic partner. Yet Lewis tries, and in doing so notes that Beowulf is a story from “a different world.” This is a critical feature of the books he loves, and suggests that both Austen and Malory are able to do the impossible: to create a fully realized fictional world of their own where, especially in Malory, the characters are old friends, the forests are familiar, and the dragons are real.
Even as a young reader, Lewis knew the critical elements of a successful fictional universe. Beyond the world-building elements he mentions, there are other literary elements captured partially in this paragraph:
If you are to enjoy [a book like Beowulf], you must forget your previous ideas of what a book should be and try and put yourself back in the position of the people for whom it was first made. When I was reading it I tried to imagine myself as an old Saxon thane sitting in my hall of a winter’s night, with the wolves & storm outside and the old fellow singing his story. In this way you get the atmosphere of terror that runs through it–the horror of the old barbarous days when the land was all forests and when you thought that a demon might come to your house any night & carry you off. The description of Grendel stalking up from his ‘fen and fastness’ thrilled me. Besides, I loved the simplicity of the old life it represents: it comes as a relief to get away from all complications about characters & ‘problems’ to a time when hunting, fighting, eating, drinking & loving were all a man had to think of it.
Lewis also never stopped talking about “atmosphere,” and never shook the idea that reading was an encounter that the reader was largely responsible for. The literary time travel Lewis attempts here hints at the kind of writing he would later do as a critic. In his work, Lewis predicted the world of “reader response,” and the great value there is looking at the reader’s experience of a book. But he also insisted on readers situating themselves in a frame of mind to appreciate the book in its original context (as impossible as that is to do fully). Most of his literary history had this goal in mind, and at least three books based on lectures were explicitly written to help students read the poetry of the past: A Preface to Paradise Lost (1939-42), Studies in Words (1956-60), and his career-long prolegomena lectures that became The Discarded Image (1963-64).
Here we also see Lewis’ lifelong belief that rereading is essential to a literary life. Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur, which was so formational for him, was even better at 17 than 15. He frequently said things like,
“Those who read great works, on the other hand, will read the same work ten, twenty or thirty times during the course of their life” (An Experiment in Criticism, 2).
Not just in letters where he constantly admits that he can’t say much about a book until he has reread it, Lewis’ only overt work in literary theory is about reading and rereading.
And, of course, we get to see some of Lewis’ favourite authors. He is still early in his exploration of Shakespeare–here he is only interested in The Winter’s Tale, A Midsummer Nights Dream, The Tempest, and the sonnets, though he forgets that he also loved Twelfth Night–and Brontë will not captivate him in the ways that others do. He had been crowing about Jane Austen all year, and even drew her into early attempts at fiction where he writes a Malory-styled character with a Morris-influenced psychology in an “old style” archaic language (and both Morris and Malory were adept at archaism when they wanted to be). These are foundational writers for Lewis.
There are some missing from his canonical teen bookshelf. In 1916 he discovered George MacDonald’s Phantastes, a book that changed his life. In the same month as this letter he reread Bunyan‘s Pilgrim’s Progress and recommended Milton‘s Paradise Lost, but he won’t read Dante for another three months. Earlier in the year he finished Spenser, finding him delightful and setting a life ahead of work in The Faerie Queene. Besides certain devotional and classical essentials Lewis would add to his bookshelf fifteen years later, these five authors go a good distance toward filling out the teenage bookshelf that formed his literary mindset for life.
Clearly, this coming of age period was foundational to Lewis’ lifelong work in letters. Recognizing that calendars are arbitrary things, I still thought it would be interesting to list the books that Lewis read in 1916, according to letters to Arthur and his father. No doubt there are many books that aren’t mentioned, but the list gives us a bit of a sense of the reading that formed his young adult mind.
- Spenser’s Faerie Queene (1590s)
- Charlotte Brontë, Jane Eyre (1847)
- Algernon Blackwood, The Education of Uncle Paul (1909)
- John Ruskin, The Political Economy of Art = A Joy for Ever (1857)
- George MacDonald, Phantastes: a Faerie Romance (1858)
- Gawain and the Green Knight (14th c.)
- Sir Walter Scott, Rob Roy (1818)
- Geoffrey Chaucer, The Canterbury Tales (late 14th c.)
- George Bernard Shaw, Love Among the Artists (1914)
- Pindar, Odes (470 BCE)
- Sir Philip Sidney, The Countesse of Pembrokes Arcadia (1590)
- Apollonius Rhodius, Argonautica (c. 295–215 BCE)
- William Makepeace Thackeray, The History of Pendennis (1849–50)
- William Shakespeare, Twelfth Night (1602)
- Algernon Blackwood, The Complete John Silence Stories (1908)
- William Makepeace Thackeray, The Newcomes (1855)
- Jane Austen, Sense and Sensibility (1811)
- Algernon Blackwood, Jimbo: A Fantasy (1909)
- John Milton, Paradise Regained and Minor Poems, ed. F.E. Bumby (17th c.; 1910)
- Sir Thomas Malory, Le Morte d’Arthur (1485)
- William Morris, The Defence of Guenevere and Other Poems (1858, 1875)
- Horace Annesley Vachell, The Paladin, As Beheld by a Woman of Temperament (1909)
- James Boswell, The Life of Samuel Johnson (1791)
- Percy Bysshe Shelley, Prometheus Unbound (1820)
- Mary Augusta Ward, Lady Connie (1916)
- Valdemar Adolph Thisted, Letters from Hell (1866)
- Letters from Dorothy Osborne to Sir William Temple: 1652–4, ed. E.A. Parry (1888)
- Laurence Sterne, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, 9 vols (1760–7)
- A number of pieces in The Spectator by and about “A Student in Arms”
- Charlotte Brontë, The Professor (1857)
- John Bunyan, The Pilgrim’s Progress (1678; 1684)
- Sebastian Evans, The High History of the Holy Graal was translated (from the first volume of Perceval le Gallois, with illustrations by Edward Burne-Jones (1898)
- Geoffrey Chaucer, The Minor Poems, ed. Walter W. Skeat (late 14th c.; 1888)
- Edward Clodd, Memoirs (1916)
- W.B. Yeats, The Collected Works in Verse and Prose of William Butler Yeats (1908)
I also thought it would be helpful to include the entire letter, taken as usual from the brilliant three-volume collection edited by Walter Hooper. The errors are original in the letter, and the “J” signature is shorthand for “Jack.” In this period Lewis was writing a four-page letter of 800-1000 words to Arthur every Tuesday night at 10pm for about an hour (though this one may be Wednesday).
In each of the letters of the period, Lewis talks about Arthur’s previous letter, what they are reading, some adventures in walking through the countryside or collecting books, news about new records or performances they have attended, and literature they are working on. At this point, Lewis is madly preparing to sit for an Oxford entrance examination in December, so there isn’t much walking. And after leaving a project he spent six months working on, Lewis is struggling with what to write. As a result, the letter is mostly about reading. For the last year or so, Lewis had been calling Arthur “Galahad” after the chaste Arthurian knight–another indication of the imaginative worlds in Lewis’ study.
1 November 1916]
My dear Galahad,
I can’t let it pass unchallegend that you should put ‘Boewulf’ and ‘Malory’ together as if they belonged to the same class. One is a mediaeval, English prose romance and the other an Anglo Saxon epic poem: one is Christian, the other heathen: one we read just as it was actually written, the other in a translation. So you can like one without the other, and any way you must like or dislike them both for different reasons. It is always very difficult of course to explain to another person the good points of a book he doesn’t like. I know what you mean by that ‘crampy’ feeling: you mean there are no descriptions in Beowulf as in a modern book, so little is told you & you have to imagine so much for yourself.
Well, for one thing, remember that nearly all your reading is confined to about 150 years
of one particular country: this is no disgrace to you, most people’s circle is far smaller. But
still, compared with the world this one little period of English literature is very small, and tho’ you (and I of course) are so accustomed to the particular kinds of art we find inside it, yet we must remember that there are an infinite variety outside it, quite as good in different ways.
And so, if you suddenly go back to an Anglo-Saxon gleeman’s lay, you come up against something absolutely different–a different world. If you are to enjoy it, you must forget your previous ideas of what a book should be and try and put yourself back in the position of the people for whom it was first made. When I was reading it I tried to imagine myself as an old Saxon thane sitting in my hall of a winter’s night, with the wolves & storm outside and the old fellow singing his story. In this way you get the atmosphere of terror that runs through it–the horror of the old barbarous days when the land was all forests and when you thought that a demon might come to your house any night & carry you off. The description of Grendel stalking up from his ‘fen and fastness’ thrilled me. Besides, I loved the simplicity of the old life it represents: it comes as a relief to get away from all complications about characters & ‘problems’ to a time when hunting, fighting, eating, drinking & loving were all a man had to think of it. And lastly, always remember it’s a translation which spoils most things.
As to ‘Malory’ I liked it so awfully this time–far better than before–that I don’t know what to say. How can I explain? For one thing, to me it is a world of its own, like Jane Austen. Though impossible, it is very fully realized, and all the characters are old friends, we know them so well: you get right away in those forests and somehow to me all the adventures & meetings & dragons seem very real. (I don’t beleive that last sentence conveys my meaning a bit) Then too I find in it a rest as you do in Scott: he (M. I mean) is so quiet after our modern writers & thinks of his ‘art’ so little: he is not self-conscious. Of course he doesn’t describe as Morris does, but then he doesn’t need to: in the ‘Well’ you feel it is only a tale suddenly invented and therefore everything has to be described. But the Round Table is different: it was a hundred years ago & shall be a hundred years hence. It wasn’t just made up like an ordinary tale, it grew. Malory seems to me almost a historian: his world is real to me, his characters are old friends whom you get to know better & better as you go on–he is a companiabl author & good when you’re lonely.
I suppose this sounds all rot? But after all when you say it ‘doesn’t suit you’ you strike at the root of the matter. Perhaps you can’t enjoy it just as I couldn’t enjoy Green’s Short History it is not my fault that I don’t like oysters but no reasoning will make me like them. This controversy has proved even more expansive than the other: if you had given me any excuse for going on with the ‘exaltation’ one I’m afraid I should never get to bed tonight.
By the way I suppose at 10 o’clock when I am beginning your letter you are just getting into bed? Remember at 10 next Wednesday night to imagine me just spreading out your one in front of me and starting to jaw. But seriously, do I bore you. I have taken up such reams about ‘Boewulf’ etc. It is easy to explain a thought, but to explain a feeling is very hard.
Last weekend I spent in reading ‘The Professor’. It forms a nice sort of suppliment to Villette–something [like] the same story told from the man’s side. I liked the description of Hunsden extremely & also the detestable brother. I do wish she had left out the awful poetry in the proposal scene: they are the worst verses in the language I should think. Its difficult to understand how a woman of Ch. Brontës genius could help seeing how bad they were. But on the whole it is a very enjoyable book, tho’ not of course to be compared with her other three. What did you think of it?
Yes, I shall be home for Xmas, rather earlier in fact. This exam. [to get into Oxford] will take place in the first week of December and when it is over I shall come straight home. I am beginning to funk it rather: I wish you were in for it with me (so as to be sure of one, at least, worse than myself). I wish I could see ‘The Winter’s Tale’: it, ‘The Midsummer’s Nights Dream’ & the Tempest are the only things of Shakespeare I really appreciate, except the Sonnets. It is a very sweet, sort of old fairy-tale style of thing. You must certainly see it.
As to Bennet’s book, if a person was really a book-lover, however ignorant, he wouldn’t go and look up a text book to see what to buy, as if literature was a subject to be learned like algebra: one thing would lead him to another & he would go through the usual mistakes & gain experience. I hate this idea of ‘forming a taste’. If anyone like the feuilletons in the ‘Sketch’ better than Spenser, for Heaven’s sake let him read them: anything is better than to read things he doesn’t really like because they are thought classical. I say, old man, it’s beastly kind of you to keep the ‘Country of the Blind’ till I come. Of course if you hadn’t told me I should have thought you would throw it off the top of the tram. Ha-Ha-Ha-Ha, likewise He-He-He! (You do love that sort of writing!) By the way why do you call it your dog if it lives at Glenmachen? I suppose in the same way as you like Shakespeare but I don’t like reading him? Can’t write more to night, your last letter was very short–