As part of an occasional feature I call “Throwback Thursday,” I want to roll back the calendar almost six years, to my early days as a blogger. “Throwback Thursday” 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.
I am reprinting this piece, in part, for self-abuse. I have lost fewer pounds and published fewer globe-shattering pieces than I would have wished in the years between. But I think this piece, though humorous, has a kind of nice point worth repeating. I have had “fan letters” since then, I suppose. I’ve also had trolls and salesmen and, at least once, what must have been a late-night drunk text from a reader. Not everything leads to a life change, but there may be a serendipity of correspondence beyond what our immediate eyes can see.
I have received two fan letters in my writing life thus far (in 2013). I know! Impressive, isn’t it?
I had published a little piece called “On Being Fat and Running” in Geez, a socially-engaged Christian magazine in the tradition of Adbusters. Within a few months, the article got picked up by the Utne Reader, so that my awkward reflections were no longer in the niche Geez market, but were now available to the hundreds of thousands Utne readers. I hit the big time, though I wish it had happened with a less personal, more impressive piece.
The piece caught people’s attention, which was great. I often get personal notes on my writing–the “good job!” kind of digital pat on the back. But this time I got two letters from complete strangers. I’ve got fans! Two of them.
The first fan effused over my work, how personal and well-written and courageous it was. Then she asked me how I got my start in writing and what she might do to further her own writing career. I read the email, and then laughed out loud. What was I supposed to say to her? It was a fluke! I wrote this piece, sent it out on a whim, and then it spun out. What could I tell her?
I told her the truth, and we began a great email discussion about writing resources. She taught me more than I taught her, I am sure.
That was fan #1. Fan #2 told me how great my work was, how courageous I was, and then told me about an absolutely free program on how I can lose weight in only three months.
Well, that’s it, isn’t it?
The fan letters took me by surprise (moreso the first one than the second). I wasn’t expecting any real response, and have come to hate email so much that I certainly didn’t expect anything good to pop out of that inbox.
But fan letters can lead to great things. C.S. Lewis wrote one to Charles Williams over his book, The Place of the Lion, just as Williams was writing to Lewis to congratulate him for his Allegory of Love. The mutual fan letters nearly crossed in the mail and began a lifelong friendship of ideas and stories.
In 1938, Lewis shifted dramatically in his career track. He published a short Science Fiction book, Out of the Silent Planet. As I argue elsewhere, this simple, creative space fantasy is quite a complex theological fiction–a philosophical novel that became widely read and widely reviewed.
As it turns out, most of the reviewers missed the theological or philosophical elements. In response to a fan letter by Sr. Penelope–an Anglican nun who becomes important to Lewis’ career and spiritual life–Lewis jokes that out of sixty reviews, only two picked up some of the key elements which he laced within the pages.
The fan letters from Sr. Penelope and Charles Williams were not the only influential ones. Quickly after he published Out of the Silent Planet, he received two important fan letters.
The first is from Evelyn Underhill, an important British religious writer, whose 1911 book, Mysticism, was phenomenally popular. She read Out of the Silent Planet and sent Lewis a note of thanks, part of which Walter Hooper records in The Collected Letters, vol. 2:
‘May I thank you for the very great pleasure which your remarkable book “Out of the Silent Planet” has given me? It is so seldom that one comes across a writer of sufficient imaginative power to give one a new slant on reality: & this is just what you seem to me to have achieved. And what is more, you have not done it in a solemn & oppressive way but with a delightful combination of beauty, humour & deep seriousness. I enjoyed every bit of it, in spite of starting with a decided prejudice against “voyages to Mars”. I wish you had felt able to report the conversation in which Ransom explained the Christian mysteries to the eldil, but I suppose that would be too much to ask. We should be content with the fact that you have turned “empty space” into heaven!’ (Bodleian Library, MS. Eng. c. 6825, fol. 68)
Lewis was evidently pleased by the letter:
Oct 29th 1938
Your letter is one of the most surprising and, in a way, alarming honours I have ever had. I have not been for very long a believer and have hitherto regarded the great mystical writers as a man in the foothills regards the glaciers and precipices: to find myself noticed from regions which I scarcely feel qualified to notice is really quite overwhelming. In trying to thank you, I find myself regretting that we have given such an ugly meaning to the word ‘Condescension’ which ought to have remained a beautiful name for a beautiful action.
I am glad you mentioned the substitution of heaven for space as that is my favourite idea in the book. Unhappily I have since learned that it is also the idea which most betrays my scientific ignorance: I have since learned that the rays in interplanetary space, so far from being beneficial, would be mortal to us. However, that, no doubt, is true of Heaven in other senses as well!
Again thanking you very much,
Yours very truly,
This correspondence would be long remembered by Lewis. In response to a later letter by Underhill (Jan 16th, 1941), Lewis wrote:
“Your kind letter about the Silent Planet has not been forgotten and is not likely to be. It was one of the high lights of my literary life.”
Another lifelong friend was made through a fan letter, though the writer was a student at Oxford and sat in Lewis’ lectures. The letter-writer, Roger Lancelyn Green, had some good knowledge about SciFi lit, and sent Lewis a note looking for more background to Out of the Silent Planet. I do not have the young student’s letter, but Lewis’ response makes it easy to read the basics of what Green was asking:
Dec. 28th 1938
Thanks for kind letter. I don’t think letters to authors in praise of their works really require apology for they always give pleasure.
You are obviously much better informed than I about this type of literature and the only one I can add to your list is Voyage to Arcturus by David Lyndsay (Methuen) wh. is out of print but a good bookseller will prob. get you a copy for about 5 to 6 shillings. It is entirely on the imaginative and not at all on the scientific wing.
What immediately spurred me to write was Olaf Stapledon’s Last and First Men (Penguin Libr.) and an essay in J. B. S. Haldane’s Possible Worlds both of wh. seemed to take the idea of such travel seriously and to have the desperately immoral outlook wh. I try to pillory in Weston. I like the whole interplanetary idea as a mythology and simply wished to conquer for my own (Christian) pt. of view what has always hitherto been used by the opposite side. I think Wells’ 1st Men in the Moon the best of the sort I have read. I once tried a Burroughs in a magazine and disliked it. The more astronomy we know the less likely it seems that other planets are inhabited: even Mars has practically no oxygen.
I guessed who you were as soon as you mentioned the lecture. I did mention in it, I think, Kircher’s Iter Celestre, but there is no translation, and it is not v. interesting. There’s also Voltaire’s Micromégas but purely satiric.
C. S. Lewis
We see in these letters Lewis’ increasing humility on the real physics of astronomy. But this letter was important to Lewis for deeper reasons, both literary and personal. Roger Lancelyn Green went on to be an important writer, both as a biographer of important authors–I just found on a friend’s reading table a copy of his Teller of Tales–and as a reteller of great legends like Robin Hood and King Arthur. Green did two biographies of C.S. Lewis, and was perhaps a part of the Inklings gathering at Oxford on occasion.
This letter not only initiated this literary relationship, but began a personal friendship that grew throughout the years. Green was with Lewis near the end of his life. Green and his wife vacationed in Greece with Lewis and Joy Davidman, who had married Lewis as she was dying of cancer. It is a fan letter begun well, and ended in a journey no one could have expected.
It is hard to know what I am recommending to the reader–if anything! But it is, perhaps, a hint of what a fan letter can do in an author’s life. Meanwhile, I have to send my credit card number to that free weight loss program. He is a discerning reader, after all.
I know of at least one other result of Lewis’s correspondence with Green. Years later, Green was able to put his professional acquaintance with Lewis to good use in his critical study “Into Other Worlds: Space Flight in Fiction from Lucian to Lewis”.
From reading this book, it’s clear Green took a lot of Lewis’s lessons and thinking to heart. There is one passage in all of “IOW” that sticks out the most as much for the connections Green establishes, yet doesn’t elaborate. He seems to want to give the reader just enough to start their own explorations with. The passages in question read as follows:
“The Man in the Moon might come down to Earth, but visits to his abode were unknown in the Middle Ages, until Lucian’s works came back with the Renaissance. But they cannot have seemed strange, since during the proceeding centuries several Saints, and a more mundane traveler or two, had made voyages almost as remarkable.
“Visits to Heaven and Hell are, strictly speaking, outside the scope of this book, and so is St. Brandan’s Atlantean isle somewhere between Moy Mell, home of the Daoine Sidh of Gaelic tradition and the Garden of the Hesperides of which Homer told.
“But the Apocalyptic Journey into Space has a certain connection with the voyages of such adventurers as Domingo Gonzales and Cyrano de Bergerac. These stem from the Revelation of St. John, who became almost a professional guide to such travelers, though the Patriarch Enoch in a Jewish work of much the same date was led by the Angel Raphael. Enoch came, on his way through the circles of Heaven, ‘far to the east of the earth, and I came to the Garden of Righteousness’.
“This is the Earthly Paradise, usually situated at the world’s eastern verge, and tenanted by the Phoenix who sits on his Tree above the Well at World’s End. But there was some confusion of paradises, and a charming Anglo-Saxon writer, in a work know as “The Phoenix Homily’, told how the angel took St. John and brought him to Paradise…which is neither ‘in Heaven nor on Earth’, but ‘hangeth most wonderfully between Heaven and Earth’, and is forty fathoms higher than the highest level reached by Noah’s flood…The Apocalyptic journey dies hard, and when Ariosto came to send his brave and adventurous knight Astolpho to the Moon in his chivalric epic “Orlando Furioso” at the beginning of the sixteenth century, the influence was still strong – and St. John was still the Heavenly Guide (23-4)”.
What Green has done here is to establish a literary thread running from the Bible, to ancient myth, to Renaissance poetry, and all the way up to the modern Science Fiction tale. He posits as a literary tradition that has been lost, and partly rediscovered and revitalized by authors like Lewis.
f nothing else, “Into Other Worlds” can stand as a testament to the kind of value that can come from the simple exchange of fan mail.
That’s real interesting that your friend owned a copy of Green’s “Tellers of Tales”. I am curious as to which edition they owned. My own copy goes up to 1968.
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Thanks for this very interesting addition! Does Green mention Willem Bilderdijk’s Kort verhaal van een aanmerkelijke luchtreis, en nieuwe planeetontdekking, uit het Russisch vertaald [= something like ‘A short account of a notable journey through the atmosphere and discovery of a new planet, translated from the Russian’] (1813)? I’m not sure if it has been translated into, or otherwise much discussed in, English, but it has enjoyed popular reprints and a scholarly edition in Dutch (and a Project Gutenberg transcription). And it is fascinating and delightful.
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I’ve never seen the connection. But I also don’t know what resources we have for Green’s letters and papers (though he published a tonne).
Sadly, no, I didn’t run into Bilderdijke at any point in Green’s book. Green covers a scope more suited to H.G. Wells and Edgar Rice Burroughs. His take on the latter is pretty amusing, though.
Thanks! Interesting that Lewis said, “I once tried a Burroughs in a magazine and disliked it.” I just went looking and found that Tolkien had apparently read a fair bit of Burroughs (with whom I have not properly caught up, despite a boyhood full of Tarzan movies – only learning of the Barsoom/Mars series later):
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Prof. Dickieson, D. L. Dodd,
Sorry for the late reply. The link provided about Tolkien and Burroughs is helpful in a pretty relevant way. It turns out Rateliff is repeating a sentiment raised quite a while ago. Here is what Green has to say about Burroughs as an author from “Into Other Worlds”:
“Edgar Rice Burroughs (1875-1950) is an author hard to criticize. In 1914, three years before “A Princess of Mars”, appeared his first book, “Tarzan of the Apes” in which he created a character whose adventures was to continue in twenty-one sequels and who has ‘won his way to the mythical’. John Carter is merely Tarzan without the apes; the strong fighting man of incredible courage and no subtlety. Adventure and excitement, with love as the prize, is all that goes to make up any book by Burroughs – coupled with a truly amazing power of invention which can stimulate the imagination, though he had little of that deeper quality himself (129)”. “But to the schoolboy in his early teens, Burroughs can open magic casements with the best – on perilous seas at least, though hardly upon faery lands forlorn. I could still take high honors in (a) set of the first dozen Tarzans and half that number of Martians…a recent cartoon in “Punch” (April 11th, 1956) proves that others have also come under (Burroughs, sic) sway, and Shelob in “The Lord of the Rings” is so like the Siths of the Barsoomian caves that an unconscious borrowing seems probable (130)”. “Those of us who read him at the right age owe a great debt of gratitude to Edgar Rice Burroughs, even though we must now revisit the Mars of John Carter, the Jungles of which Tarzan was lord, or Pellucidar the land at the Earth’s core, only with the aid of memory, lest the old bright enchantment fade quite away into the mists of past experience (132)”.
There seems to have been a shared experience of Burroughs writings among the Inklings. The final critical evaluation for them seems to be that he has talent of a kind, thought it can never quite reach the depths that would mark it all off as something worth revisiting. Green uses the word “invention” to describe Burroughs’s writings, and I wonder if that might be relevant. In his biography of “The Inklings” Humphrey Carpenter notes that they seem to draw a distinction between “invention” and “Inspiration”.
“Invented” stories, so this theory goes, may be good, and worth a revisit every now and then. However, the quality of an invented story seems to be such that it can never reach the heights of a “Kubla Khan” or the like. “Inspiration”, on the other hand is the mark of potential greatness in a story (and, on occasion, even in the writer). Here, we’re dealing with the masterworks like Rider Haggard’s “She” or the Platonic Myths. Such is the line of aesthetic distinction that the Inklings seem to draw when it comes to evaluating works of fiction. It is possible, based on the passages quoted above, that Green is putting these distinctions to good use.
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Thank you for these quotations – and your reflections!
That is an intriguing (practical) formulation, by Green: “we must now revisit the Mars of John Carter, the Jungles of which Tarzan was lord, or Pellucidar the land at the Earth’s core, only with the aid of memory, lest the old bright enchantment fade quite away into the mists of past experience”. The expectation that the still-living “old bright enchantment” based firmly in “past experience” yet lives vulnerably in “memory” alone, such that fresh rereading “experience” would be likely to kill grateful liveliness. This seems a widespread experience (in at least ’20th-c. readers’) – I wonder if anyone has surveyed it, anthologizing anecdotal evidence, etc.?
I have felt such a fear, where Lovecraft was concerned – but am glad I have gone back and reread him, with no such loss taking place. By contrast, I was astonished at how unreadable I found Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein when I tried to reread it – as I was simply expecting repetition of the original enjoyment. (I should try again!)
The Lewis brothers were such keen rereaders and re-enjoyers, though I feel sure I’ve also read C.S. Lewis say something somewhere about a possible winnowing effect, with reference to things that turn out not to stand up to rereading. But, did he always ‘risk’ that, or sometimes observe at least a caution in Green’s direction?
I came to Kipling’s Jungle Books late and the first Tarzan later still, and enjoyed all, and had a distinct admiration of the Tarzan – but think I would enjoy rereading Kipling (again) more… I wonder if this has something to do with that “Inspiration” and “invention” distinction?
And, I wonder how the whole ‘dynamic’ is affected by rereading books aloud to others, perhaps especially, children? (Does one ‘rekindle’ more easily when witnessing kindling initial enjoyment in others?)
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I think your comment is a bit more relevant in more ways than one.
In terms of Lewis and his brothers as skilled re-readers, and whether he might have taken any advice on how to go about all that from Green, I’m afraid I just don’t know, sadly. Though I have to admit the idea doesn’t sound so out of place enough for me to dismiss it as a possibility. The distinction does have a certain resemblance to the kind of graph Lewis tries to use to measure the literary value of various authors in “An Experiment in Criticism”.
As it turns out, in “Kipling and the Children”, Green brings up Burroughs once again, and makes the same distinction between Tarzan and Mowgli. He views the Jungle Books as definite works of “Inspiration”, and even compares them favorably with Narnia (119).
Now, the topic of re-readability was brought up in relation to authors like Lovecraft, and the wider canvas of future generations. To give a brief summary, my thought is that before anything can be re-read it’s necessary to try and build up an actual enthusiasm for reading in the first place. The trouble with doing all that is that it is necessary in terms of the need for what E.D. Hirsch called “Cultural Literacy”. It’s something every civilization needs if it wants to continue functioning. Because of this, there remains the dilemma of what can be done for those who, for whatever reason, are not book or general arts inclined (though to be fair, every culture needs it’s craftsmen, just as it needs it’s poets, and I see no reason for a healthy balance between the two)? Also, there is what I consider the major problem of what seems a growing breakdown in enthusiasm for the arts by the next generation.
These are all summary views of a much larger matter. I don’t think I’m anywhere near reaching the end of this particular topic. It’s one that sort of made decide to try and tackle criticism in blog form. In particular, your comments sort of resonate with something I wrote about just recently.
I don’t know if I’m stepping out of bounds here or not. However, I’ve run across a book that is more or less able to stand as the near as perfect symbol for everything that is currently wrong or out of joint about the situation of the Arts in the beginnings of the 21st century. My thoughts, for better or worse, can be read here:
As I’ve said, what’s been raised here is a topic that is most likely an ongoing one. I think it’s one that both critics and artists are going to have to grapple with going forward. Of course, I could always turn out to be wrong. In some ways I hope that does turn out to be the case.
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Thanks for this! (Interesting to hear I independently reached a conclusion about Tarzan and Mowgli similar to Green’s!) There’s so much here – and in your linked post – inviting discussion… Lewis seems very easy going about not trying to force people to be interested in things, yet encouraging opportunities for interest and enjoyment – notably of reading. Who-all are today what kind of enjoyers of which verbal or visual things, to what extents? A weighty question to which I have no sense that I have much of an answer.
Your RP1 discussion reminded me in some ways of The Place of the Lion (1931), which I just finished rereading, and especially of Damaris Tighe’s real mastery of varied material, which is yet – or has become – misguided and in important ways superficial – and of Lewis’s discussion of this as applying to dangers to himself, in a letter (which I ought to reread!).
If I think of (1970s and) 1980s films, I immediately think of four by John Huston: The Man Who Would be King, Wise Blood, Under the Volcano, and The Dead, all of which are fine in themselves, and would (I think) easily send viewers off to read the original sources – and more Kipling, O’Connor, Lowry, and at least Dubliners, if they had not already. Curiosity could awaken and grow and be well nourished, beyond one’s expectations.
The superficial misuse it sounds like Halliday promulgated in RP1 might be undercut in practice by the inherent interest of such things and their depths and references – again, even fairly easily. Which is not to say a recondite sophisticated superficiality could not be sustained indefinitely. (What if there had been no crisis in The Place of the Lion?) Or, again, might not just collapse or implode. There is an interesting hopeful anecdote in Gilbert Highet’s Art of Teaching, which finds a kind of parallel in the original UK ending of Burgess’s Clockwork Orange, about boredom with destruction sometimes, at least, giving an opportunity to serious interest.
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This is in response to your comment below re: “RP1”.
I hadn’t thought of Damaris when writing that whole post, yet it does seems at least possible that such mental roadblocks can play a factor in it. What I’m thinking of here, in particular, is that scene in “Place of the Lion” where the archetypes are laying her house to siege, with Damaris caught up right in the middle of it.
What stands out most clearly to me of that scene is a line Damaris blurts out right in the middle of things. I can’t remember it with exactness off the top of my head, however it goes something like, “I’ve never had anything”, or, “I’ve never had anyone!”. In thematic terms, it’s an example of a character admitting to a fault or fundamental lack in her character that has caused her to stray far from any meaningful connection to the world and people around her.
Looked at from that perspective, I can see how maybe something similar is going on with the Cline text. The odd thing is how much more over the top the reality seems to the fictional Inkling supposal. The worst part, for me, is how it all seems to play into the worst stereotypes that have often surrounded the fans of pop-culture (i.e. that we’re socially backward et al).
Thanks for this extended quotation, Chris! I was actually just given this book last week. I’m hoping to see it this morning. It was that copy, I think. It’s in a box to sort but I’m not getting to it so I thought I’d drop this quick note in the meantime.
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