Idea-Seeds in C.S. Lewis’ Letters (Throwback Thursday)

This summer I introduced an occasional feature I call “Throwback Thursday.” This is where I find a blog post from the past–raiding either my own vault or someone else’s–and throw it back out into the digital world. This might be an idea or book that is now relevant again, or a concept I’d like to think about more, or even “an oldie but a goodie” that I think needs a bit of spin time.

This post comes from the second anniversary of my blog in August 2013. When I wrote it I was at August 1937 of my project of reading Lewis Chronologically. I had just finished reading The Allegory of Love (1935) and Out of the Silent Planet (1937), and I was nearly complete The Personal Heresy (1933-9) and the 1930s pieces that would become Rehabilitations and Other Essays (published in 1939). 

As I paced my chronological reading project to Lewis’ letters, I got to know them intimately. What I noticed then and still see in Lewis’ work is that he will often try out an idea for a book or line of argument while writing a letter. No doubt he did this in everyday conversations too, but we have the letters and so that is where our attention goes. I don’t know which comes first: Does Lewis use the letter to test an idea? Or does the correspondence trigger something that will eventually become a book or essay? I suspect both are true, and in this short post, we see some of these emergent ideas. At the end of this piece I talk about the trails that Lewis leaves for us. Intriguingly, on the winding path of a PhD project, these are the breadcrumbs that I am still following into the wood of Lewis’ imaginative work. 

collected-letters-c-s-lewis-box-set-c-s-paperback-cover-artOne of the reasons I like reading C.S. Lewis’ letters is that I get to see hints of ideas that will one day become books. Except for some pretty boring entries in his 20s, we don’t have Lewis’ diaries and most of his notebooks aren’t published. So what we have most to go on are the little ideas that pop up in his letters to friends, colleagues, and fans.

One of the friends is Leo Baker, a teacher and Anthroposophist that Lewis had gone to Oxford with. In a 24 Jun 1936 letter talking about Lewis’ The Allegory of Love, Lewis offers a hilarious self-deprecating apology for the length of his new book. Then he turns to Baker’s personal issues:

I am greatly distressed to hear that you are still suffering….

I must confess I have not myself yet got beyond the stage of feeling physical pain as the worst of evils. I am the worst person in the world to help anyone else to support it. I don’t mean that it presents quite the intellectual difficulties it used to, but that my nerves even in imagination refuse to move with my philosophy. In my own limited experience the sufferer himself nearly always towers above those around him: in fact, nothing confirms the Christian view of this world so much as the treasures of patience and unselfishness one sees elicited from quite commonplace people when the trial really comes. Age, too–nearly everyone improves as he gets old, if this is a ‘vale of soul making’, it seems to, by round and by large, to be working pretty well. Of course I can’t hazard a guess why you should be picked out for this prolonged suffering.

I am told that the great thing is to surrender to physical pain–I mean not to do what’s commonly called ‘standing’ it, above all not to brace the soul (which usually braces the muscles as well) not to try to ignore it: to be like earth being ploughed not like marble being cut. But I have no right to discuss such things on the basis of my very limited experience.

The Problem of Pain weeping CS LewisIn these words, we see the beginnings of Lewis first apologetics book, The Problem of Pain (1939-40). The book argues for a Christian response to thoughts about pain with Lewis’ own admission that thinking about pain as a philosophical problem is a lot different than actually living through it.

“when pain is to be born, a little courage helps more than much knowledge, a little human sympathy more than much courage, and the least tincture of the love of God more than all” (Preface to The Problem of Pain).

Perhaps it is conversations like those with Baker combined with the ill-health of people in his household and the looming prospect of war that turned Lewis to a book of apologetics that is surprisingly personal. Lewis’ works of nonfiction emerge in the letters, but the germ of some of Lewis’ characters also appear there. In a June 1937 letter to Dom Bede Griffiths–a student of Lewis’ who became a monk–we see the character of Weston from Out of the Silent Planet. Weston is a megalomaniacal genius who would sacrifice the environment or humans or the people of other worlds or “savage” societies in order to extend his particular idea of the human race. Here is what Lewis wrote to Griffiths about nine weeks before completing Out of the Silent Planet:

I was talking the other day to an intelligent infidel who said that he pinned all his hopes for any significance in the universe on the chance that the human race by adapting itself to changed conditions and first planet jumping, then star jumping, finally nebula jumping, could really last forever and subject matter wholly to mind.

When I said that it was overwhelmingly improbable, he said Yes, but one had to believe even in the 1000th chance or life was mockery. I of course asked why, feeling like that, he did not prefer to believe in the other and traditional ‘chance’ of a spiritual immortality. To that he replied–obviously not for effect but producing something that had long been in his mind–‘Oh I never can believe that: for if that were true our having a physical existence wd. be so pointless.’

Was this encounter the invention of Weston that became a mental trigger that finally gave the imaginative energy for Lewis to write Out of the Silent Planet (and fulfill his wager with Tolkien)? Or had Lewis been working on Out of the Silent Planet and Griffiths’ letter became an opportunity to think through his encounter with the planet-jumping infidel colleague?

We cannot know. But a study could be made of all the idea-seeds that appear in Lewis’ letters. He was a percolator, someone who would have an idea and let in roll around his brain for a while. He would jot notes down, make false starts on stories and lectures, and write poems in the margins. And, of course, he would test his ideas out on others.

Which, if we can insert ourselves into Lewis’ story as an imaginative correspondents, leaves a trail for all of us.

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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35 Responses to Idea-Seeds in C.S. Lewis’ Letters (Throwback Thursday)

  1. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    Glad you reprinted this (with new intro) – lots to think about, here!

    With your attention to The Problem of Pain as a good example! Lewis’s “first apologetics book”, and, could we in another sense, say his first ‘philosophical book’ for publication (coming after the private ‘Great War with Barfield’ work – and his con- or reversion: “I don’t mean that it presents quite the intellectual difficulties it used to […]”)? But, as you so well say, “a book of apologetics that is surprisingly personal” – Lewis not only thinking in a ‘new world’, but finding how to live there humbly and helpfully.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I am so pleased that you are republishing early blog posts not least because I did not become aware of your blog until you had been writing it for a couple of years or so.
    I was struck by Lewis’s optimism about the beneficial effect of ageing and its attendant sufferings upon the human soul. I don’t know if modernity’s effects, in this case the unhappy belief that good health and vigour are a kind of right, have only recently touched older people, but my experience as a clergyman in recent years is that the majority of people seem to be surprised by their own ageing. This seems to extend to people of faith as well as those with none. When I encounter an older person who surrenders to their suffering with courage and faith it is an inspiring thing not least because of its rarity. I have reached an age now (63) when I begin to look at the experience of ageing with a certain curiosity. Apart from the occasional ache and pain I am blessed with good health but I know that old age is not so far over the horizon as it once was. I tell my elders that I am looking for good examples who will inspire me when the time comes for me to endure the trials that will come one day. This often has quite an effect as if the thought is quite novel that their trials have anything to do with any person other than themselves.

    Liked by 1 person

    • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

      I was struck by this observation by the Inkling-loving novelist, Elizabeth Goudge, in God So Loved the World: A Life of Christ (1951), ch. XI, “Calvary”, section 3 (in the context of Simon of Cyrene), “Sometimes when we think that there is no suffering that can come to us that Our Lord has not endured before us, we make one reservation. We say, ‘He did not have to be old.’ But in this falling beneath the cross Our Lord endured all that is miserable in old age. It is not being old in itself that hurts, it is becoming weak and not able to go on any more, and falling down ignominiously beneath burdens that you have carried successfully up till now, and then on top of all that having to be helped along the way to death by someone who perhaps does not want to help and only does it because they have got to. Our Lord may have died young, but there is nothing about old age that he does not know. Upon the Via Dolorosa he began in his own person the redemptive suffering of it, and the old everywhere, throughout time, carry on his work and ‘fill up that which is behind of the afflictions of Christ.'”

      Liked by 2 people

      • David, thank you so much for this. I did not know that Elizabeth Goudge admired the Inklings but I am not surprised. Her writings, especially The Little White Horse, played an important part in my daughters’ childhood and I will always be grateful to her for that. I have a particular affection for The Dean’s Watch. This particular reflection is profound and I will carry it with me on my pilgrimage, sharing it with fellow pilgrims and strugglers.


    • Thanks for the nice note, Stephen. It seems to me Lewis is more positive about ageing at this point than when he writes Screwtape. Did things change, or are there different ways of looking at it?
      I really have no idea of the way things look for older people. I do see lives that come to points of more simplicity. But perhaps I notice that because I am struggling with … anti-simplicity, I guess the word is! Older folk have inspired me betimes, but I don’t know enough stories.


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