C.S. Lewis’ Book that Is Not a Book: Letters to Malcolm, Chiefly on Prayer

I am writing an article for Touchstone Journal in Canada about C.S. Lewis’ Letters to Malcolm. In 1949, an American reader suggested his next book should be on prayer. Lewis declined, saying

“I don’t feel I could write a book on Prayer: I think it would be rather ‘cheek’ of my part” (9 Aug 1949 letter to Mary Van Deusen).

But something must have triggered Lewis in that letter. Lewis talked about the book in 1953 letters to Chad Walsh and St. Giovanni Calabria about problems of prayer he was thinking through. One of these problems he brought to a group of clergy in “Petitionary Prayer: A Problem Without an Answer,” and he ends this way:

“I come to you, reverend Fathers, for guidance. How am I to pray this very night?” (Christian Reflections, 151).

All of that activity in 1953, but the book never materialized. In early 1954, Lewis writes his religious friend and mentor, Sr. Penelope, admitting that he had to abandon the project because “it was clearly not for me” (15 Feb 1954 letter). In the decade that follows, though, Lewis became the famous Narnian author, a Cambridge professor, the author of his academic magnum opus and a dozen other books, a memoir writer, a lover, and a widower. It is a lot of life to live through, and as he was recovering from his loss of Joy, he returned to the topic to write a cheeky book on prayer, Letters to Malcolm.

In doing so, Lewis returned to the letter style of writing that worked so well for The Screwtape Letters. To get some of the technical side of what epistolary fiction looked like for Lewis, see Charles Huttar’s “The Screwtape Letters as Epistolary Fiction” in the Journal of Inklings Studies (2016). Not many people include Letters to Malcolm in Lewis’ fiction as the fictional veneer is, admittedly, pretty thin. I teach a class at The King’s College each winter on the fantasy and sf of C.S. Lewis, but we don’t include this book. I think most people read it as a peculiar and curious text about prayer—though I think it is really a work of speculative theology by a mature Christian thinker with prayer as the steadying thread throughout the narrative.

However, I think we move too quickly past the fiction. The entire book is a one-sided correspondence with a fictional friend—someone close enough that he can give advice to, and someone he cares enough to spar with, someone he “nearly came to blows” and that experience made their friendship stronger (92). “Nothing makes an absent friend so present as a disagreement” (3), Lewis writes, and a give-and-take, back-and-forth style continues throughout the book.

There is debate, but the friendly dialogue also allows for moments that personalize the book. Just as Lewis is tuning himself up for a big theological debate, the fictional Malcolm gets news that his son may have a life-threatening health diagnosis:

What froth and bubble my last letter must have seemed to you! I had hardly posted it when I got Betty’s card with the disquieting news about George-turning my jocular reference to his descendants into a stab (at least I suppose it did) and making our whole discussion on prayer seem to you, as it now does to me, utterly unreal. The distance between the abstract “Does God hear petitionary prayers?” and the concrete “Will He-can He-grant our prayers for George?” is apparently infinite (40).

And this is one of the strengths of the book: the personal connection with Malcolm—including dinner plans and train schedules—roots the discussion, so that there is an easy, organic movement between abstract questions and concrete concerns.

Perhaps the real-life friend is Owen Barfield, or an Inklings mesh-man, but the fictional encasement of the book goes further. Making Letters to Malcolm a fictional correspondence instead of a straight-on nonfiction approach is a really intriguing move.

For one, Lewis admits in the text, “I have never met a book on prayer which was much use” (62). Lewis is here thinking about his own intellectual class, so in some ways Letters to Malcolm is the bookend to A Pilgrim’s Regress—two thinly veiled fictions of Lewis’ thoughts written to a very specialized group of academics, writers, theologians, and public intellectuals.

But I think Lewis is also setting himself against books about prayer by specifically undercutting his own work.

“If I am right…” (34) Lewis says as one of several moments where he pulls back from the kind of assertive teaching that fills much of his Christian writing. The Lewis of Malcolm is not the didactic, pedantic, narrow-visioned absolutist, as Screwtape is. Lewis reminds Malcolm that his thinking is just a “guess” (60-61), that “I don’t at all know whether I’m right or not” (33), and consistently asks for ideas from the near-silent Malcolm. “Guesses,” are, Lewis admits of his speculation, “only guesses. If they are not true, something better will be” (124). While Lewis is limited in his understanding now,

“If I ever see more clearly I will speak more surely” (73).

I suppose this is intellectual and theological humility, but I think it is also a smart writing move that is tucked into the “fictional” aspect of the book. In this book on prayer, Lewis writes, “however badly needed a good book on prayer is, I shall never try to write it” (63). Is this not a book on prayer? We see this rhetorical device throughout:

I were preaching it in public, instead of feeding it back to the very man who taught it me (though he may by now find the lesson nearly unrecognisable?), I should have to pack it in ice, enclose it in barbed-wire reservations, and stick up warning notices in every direction” (91).

“If one said this in public one would have all the Freudians on one’s back” (34).

Lewis goes further, saying that “in a book it would need pages of qualification and insurance” (21)—but this is not a book, of course, so he’ll just leave the problem as it is. The sum total of the rhetorical effect is that Lewis is writing a book on prayer that is not, in his mind and hopefully in the mind of the readers, a book on prayer.

The importance is key, for

“in a book [on prayer] one would inevitably seem to be attempting, not discussion, but instruction. And for me to offer the world instruction about prayer would be impudence” (63).

It would be “cheeky” of him to write a book about prayer just as I would never write a blog post about prayer. This is the elegant irony of the whole epistolary project. He is being cheeky here in the way he presents the fiction, and this allows him to ask questions about humanity, society, God, time, work, sin, and the church in the context of a conversation about prayer–without having to speak dogmatically as he does in books like The Four Loves or much of Mere Christianity. He is playful in those books and in most of his fiction, flirting with speculative theology while trying to root himself to Christian orthodoxy. It is that rooted experimentation laced with humour and hopeful invitation that draws me to Lewis’ theological project.

The rhetorical device that says that “this book is not a book” reveals a kind of reluctance in Lewis’ public writing. We see this in the prefaces to The Problem of Pain and the early BBC talks. The Malcolm conversations about the puzzles of prayer, as a result of the fictional framing, create a deepened sense of reluctant contribution: “I have found no book that helps me,” Lewis admits, and goes further:

I have so little confidence in my own power to tackle them [i.e., difficult questions about prayer] that, if it were possible, I would let sleeping dogs lie. But the dogs are not sleeping. They are awake and snapping. We both bear the marks of their teeth. That being so, we had better share our bewilderments. By hiding them from each other we should not hide them from ourselves (57).

While some might balk at an author who undercuts his own book, I think this gives Malcolm a real-life feeling rooted not just in speculative ideas but in everyday experience. Rather than a book for payer from an expert, with a robust conscious and a healthy self-image Lewis is able to write,

I haven’t any language weak enough to depict the weakness of my spiritual life. If I weakened it enough it would cease to be language at all. As when you try to turn the gas-ring a little lower still, and it merely goes out (113).

While some find this off-putting and want to seek the experts on prayer and the saints who have trod many ways of devotional life, I admit in the article I am writing that prayer is a real struggle for me. I am pleased to enter this conversation with Lewis and Malcolm because, frankly, he is able to admit his weakness while still inviting deeper thinking and greater living. I find this combination is in many places in Letters to Malcolm, but this one works to close this post. Here Lewis links his own bereavement of Joy and Malcolm’s anxiety about losing his son to illness. It is here we see that sharing darkness has its own advantages to the bright ways lit by the experts:

I am, you see, a Job’s comforter. Far from lightening the dark valley where you now find yourself, I blacken it. And you know why. Your darkness has brought back my own. But on second thoughts I don’t regret what I have written. I think it is only in a shared darkness that you and I can really meet at present; shared with one another and, what matters most, with our Master. We are not on an untrodden path. Rather, on the main-road (44).

I think we should attend seriously, then, to what Lewis is doing when he writes a non-book book on prayer.

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8 Questions about the Problem of Susan Narnia Debate, or How to Read Well

Kat Coffin’s brief article last week on “The Problem of Susan” is the hottest post of 2019. “How do you Solve a Problem like Susan Pevensie?” has been discussed in the blog comments and in various forums, sometimes with a certain degree of heat and not a little frustration (I’m pleased with the discussion on this blog, though a friend said I sounded abrupt … I didn’t feel abrupt!). The post has received comments from leading Lewis scholars through to Lewis fans, from long-time readers and first-time commenters.

I have entered that conversation in small ways, but I was mostly curious about how it played out. I am working on a theory of reading based on C.S. Lewis’ own approaches that is meant to challenge current trends while also responding to the way we think about texts and authority today. Based on the comments, my challenge of contemporary theory will interest some, but won’t go far enough in challenging what seems like a lot of silliness and not a little impertinence among those who teach and write about books today–particularly in activist, university, and church circles.

Since that theoretical bun is still in the oven, and because I am still eyeballs-deep in editing my current project, a “spiritual theology” of C.S. Lewis, I wanted to respond in a longish but breezy note, laying out what I think are some of the key questions about how we approach a problem like Susan . These questions, I think, also cover other problems in reading, such as:

  • when Lewis introduces a Christian concept that readers find troubling or inviting (like questions of predestination, God and time, universalism, etc.);
  • when he plays with gender ideas that we find offensive or odd in light of the current age (such as his distinctions between sex and gender, his SciFi play-time with what gender can mean, his confirmation and bending of hierarchy, the ways he upsets or confirms tiresome sex-defined roles, etc.); and
  • when our culture is going to produce readers who simply cannot read the words of the past the same way (like Lewis’ rampant use of “gay” and “make love” in Narnia, or how an American reader simply cannot read “black man” or “black dwarf” and not bring in racial terms Lewis wouldn’t have had access to, or how the literary foundation of our education has changed and we no longer share the same stories behind the stories).

In my view, Lewis is a tremendously relevant writer because he gives us engaging stories, rooted so deeply in literary, classical, and biblical soil-beds that they have the potential to transform everything we see about life. I think Narnia is “radical” both in the old sense of rooted and the new sense of disturbing and revolutionary. Lewis, I believe, offers Christians who read his work a way out of their current cultural quagmire in a way that will deepen their faith and decrease the disrepute the Anglo-American church has brought upon itself in the world. But to see it we have to become better readers. These questions are tuned to this particular argument—the Problem of Susan—and to Narnia, but they can be adapted for any reading of a past writer.

  1. What is the Distinction between Sexism and Misogyny?

This will be a different question in other discussions, but I am amazed that no one stops to ask what we even mean by terms like “sexist,” “misogynist,” “egalitarian,” “hierarchy,” “democracy,” “feminist” and the like. Does “misogynist” mean “woman-hater” as the term presumes, or are we using it differently? Do critics of Lewis mean that he actually hates women, or that his text invites hatred toward women? We need to define what we mean if we want to mean anything.

What was curious to me was how many people in online forums responded to Kat’s post by saying “Lewis was not a misogynist.” Intriguingly, Kat was offering a feminist defence of Lewis, so it means these folk have been primed for a fight about this term. The term is used as a weapon, at times, for silencing authors who no longer fit in our dominant understanding of morality. But other sides can weaponize words too. How often is the word “feminist” used for male-bashing, hardline, tunnel-visioned radical readings? That’s about as true of feminism as reducing “evangelical” to money-hoarding, gay-hating, sex-obsessed, prejudice-troving troglodytes.

And beyond all this, the term “sexism” is worth thinking about. I would have defined sexism as “prejudice, stereotyping, or discrimination against women” growing up, but the term has changed. We recognize anti-male or anti-boy sexism now, and we are much more in tune with the systematic sexism of our world—how the system seems bent against one sex or (more recently) the other. To say that Lewis is “sexist” under the old definition is not that surprising. He uses stereotyping frequently, and believed at times in certain gender roles. Future generations will say the same of us in ways that we can’t see now. It isn’t a very interesting term. But the emerging definition about ideology and worldview is worth talking about intelligently.

  1. How do Biography and Public Teaching Fit Together?

Good Lewis scholars work hard to integrate biography and public writings. When they do this well, they come up with different responses. Most male biographers don’t feel much need to bring up sexism or gender concerns, but women critics are really engaged in the question. Mary Stewart Van Leeuwen argues that Lewis is a “man better than his theories,” who has theories about hierarchy and gender but treated women with equality and respect. Monika Hilder is pretty convincing in arguing that Lewis’ fiction is entirely about rethinking gender categories in a surprisingly subversive way that brings fresh air into the conversation.

There are not-great examples too. Kath Filmer is one of the most intelligent readers of Lewis I have read, but her method is terrible. She says that Lewis masks and mirrors his own fears and prejudices in his fiction. Intriguing idea. But she offers no biographical support to make her argument stand on evidence, and no other way to weigh her argument except her own assertion of the facts. On the opposite side, William Gray’s work shrinks Lewis across the decades, integrating biography and fiction to offer a psychological reading of a little boy looking for his lost mum. It’s a pretty weak result.

These imbalances in bio/writing integration show we need to be good, strong readers of Lewis. So if someone says, “passage A is clearly about X, Y, and Z,” we have ways of testing that claim outside of the reader’s own analysis.

  1. Is Lewis’ Theology of Gender “Merely Christian”?

This is a tough one. One of the most awkward passages in Mere Christianity—a classic now, and a book that has transformed thousands of lives—is his treatment of husband-wife roles in chapter 16. Lewis offers there a separation of legal (state) and religious (church) marriage that is certainly not a view held by all Christians in all times—Lewis’ definition of “mere Christianity.” What about his particularly reading of male headship in marriage? Is that the centre of the faith and the avoidance of side issues that Lewis desired for his project? And although he talks about “universal charity” in that chapter, he makes very non-universal statement, like his “foreign policy” role for men because women fight for their family against the world, but the “function of the husband is to see that this natural preference of hers is not given its head. He has the last word in order to protect other people from the intense family patriotism of the wife.” What local nonsense in a book meant to be a “ubique quod ab omnibus” teaching.

If Michael Ward is right about the medieval background to Narnia—and in that point he is on the mark—then we have to ask about how his restoration of specifically medieval hierarchy in Narnia and the SciFi books is meant to be universally Christian. Add to this his gender play in the Ransom Cycle and we have serious questions for Lewis about his “merely Christian” views of sex and gender.

  1. Did C.S. Lewis Grow in his Views?

In his most popular writings, Lewis is invested in this particular view of marriage with male as head and secretary of foreign policy, while women submit to their husbands and operate and the secretary for national defence. Lewis found hierarchy beautiful and worked that idea into his work. Some flavours in a recipe, though, are delicate: too much crème de menthe can ruin the whole batch. We are bound to ask about hierarchy, gender, and sex roles because Lewis talks about them everywhere.

But is there a change? In 1939-42 he can write,

“whether the male is, or is not, the superior sex, the masculine is certainly the superior gender” (A Preface to Paradise Lost).

He can talk in Mere Christianity about male headship in marriage, where equality cannot work. But by the time he is writing his memoir in 1960 about his relationship with a woman who loved and challenged him, he writes:

What was H.[Joy] not to me? She was my daughter and my mother, my pupil and my teacher, my subject and my sovereign; and always, holding all these in solution, my trusty comrade, friend, shipmate, fellow-soldier. My mistress; but at the same time all that any man friend (and I have good ones) has ever been to me (A Grief Observed).

So when we say, “Lewis believed X,” we need to make sure that is something that hasn’t grown, deepened, lessened, or otherwise changed in him. His ideas of forgiveness deepen, and he seems to have been adapting his understanding of science and faith as the decades moved on. Before we pronounce judgement, we need to be clear.

  1. Have we Negotiated the Personal Heresy?

The Personal Heresy was a book Lewis co-wrote that argued that when we read, we cannot presume that we know the poet through the poetry. There are some limits to Lewis’ view. Virginia Woolf reminds us that the fact that we know so little of Shakespeare tells us a lot about Shakespeare. Yet, he must have been a funny person. He was well-read and bright, and must have bridged some degree of space between the aristocracy and the streets. Poems and novels are not complete masks of an author.

But neither are they always mirrors. Lewis reveals himself everywhere in his fiction, but should we read the smoking room, clubbable, academic sexism of Screwtape as Lewis’ own? Some have, and I think they completely misunderstand: Lewis uses sexism in The Screwtape Letters precisely to show the self-delusion of Screwtape. What about the gender roles in That Hideous Strength? or the complete reversal in Till We Have Faces? or the growth of characters in Narnia, so that Lucy moves from healer to warrior, and Jill becomes a brilliant scout? Are these Lewis’ own beliefs about restriction and liberation?

Maybe, but you better do some work to make sure you are misrepresenting the character’s point of view for the author’s.

  1. When Society Changes and Books Don’t, How Do We Prepare Readers for Troubling Aspects?

I think this is a discussion we have to have in culture. Lately, the ALSC has decided to dig up the bones of Laura Ingalls Wilder and posthumously burn her as a heretic. Leaving behind this whitewashing of the catastrophic European and North American treatment of indigenous peoples, and forgetting the Personal Heresy for a moment, what do we do when we are reading aloud to a child and there is something terrible on the page? As parents and educators, we are always negotiating this. I read Morte Darthur and Huckleberry Finn aloud to Nicolas when he was young, and in each book I moved past a couple of moments because of violence or words that I don’t feel comfortable saying.

There is violence and racism that past cultures have found normal or problematic enough to talk about—sometimes working as prophetic correction of our own ideas. But words like “gay,” “make love,” “queer,” “black,” “dark,” “white,” “hysterical,” and dozens of others have changed in forms. We can bemoan the verbicidal nature of our age and the way that activists like conservative Christians or anti-racists or feminists or Marxists transform these words. But the fact of word evolution remains.

So an open question remains about how we as teachers, parents, literary critics, uncles, aunts, grandparents, good neighbours, social media engagers, and good-book givers deal with texts when words have moved on. I strongly suggest that Jill Pole did not have sex with a bunch of giants in The Silver Chair, but kids giggle when that bit is read. The “black dwarf” of Narnia refers to beards, but that term cannot be read today in the same way when almost all black dwarfs are evil or rebellious in Narnia.

To read well means, for those of us inviting others to read, to do something in preparing readers. What is that something?

  1. What are Authentic Ways to Read a Text?

There is sometimes pushback on my blog because I continually use methods of reading that make readers of the great tradition of Western literature uncomfortable. In particular, on the Problem of Susan, I invited a feminist critic to say of Susan what I could have said, but I wanted her critical point of view and her experience as a woman to speak to the piece. This use of reading theory frustrates some of my readers.

I won’t defend my use of critical tools here. But I want to acknowledge their critique with what I think to be a verdant question: What are authentic ways to read Narnia (or any particular text)? I think there are inauthentic ways, methods of reading that grind against the texture of the text-world. I don’t believe that every reading is valid—though Lewis argued that the reader’s response is critical to how we talk about these things.

So I think that when someone offers, say, an Eastern Orthodox reading of Narnia, or a feminist critique, or a consideration of political values, it is worthwhile for them to talk about why this reading resonates with the text.

On the Problem of Susan, there really are questions that are open. When he finished The Last Battle, Nicolas (now 14, and a good reader) asked at the dinner table, “Is Susan Pevensie in hell?” I quipped back, “What? Because she missed a train? Some train!” But that child reader has intimated—with many children—something jarring in the text. So I’m glad we can talk about this, and I hope critics of Lewis don’t see Kat’s post as a sheer, naïve defence. I think it is a good reading, and I would take it further on that line.

  1. How do we Read Authors from Other Times and Places?

Why is this not an active question in culture and university? The presumption for Laura Ingalls Wilder is that if she said terrible things about native peoples, we just put her in a box and drop her off the wharf. L.M. Montgomery will be next: I can point out the passages but won’t. Virginia Woolf, the most important feminist of her generation, said terrible things about women in her fiction, has truly troubling passages about black and other colonial peoples, and didn’t like “feminism.” Is she the next light that should be extinguished by the smart folks of our day?

I’m not going to provide the full answer here for this point. I am very much engaged in a fight against racism and sexism. I teach about Canada’s (and the UK’s) terrible treatment of our aboriginal peoples here. Yes, it is bad in the US, but Canada’s policy to “kill the Indian to save the child” combined with Britain’s boarding school system to create childhood torture chambers for myriads of children. The church in Canada may never recover for what we have done, and I want us to recognize when authors of the past contribute to terrible, terrible things.

But I am very uncomfortable with how we are reading books from cultures that are not our own. How much abuse by colonialists, educators, anthropologists, activists, health workers, and missionaries has come about because we have treated people from other cultures as needing to be civilized—to be brought into the light of our own views? In reading people from other times and places, have we forgotten that hard-won lesson?

The current witch-hunt (and wizard-hunt) against distasteful authors of the past and in other places completely undercuts the liberal-progressive desire to transform our social space into a place of freedom and beauty. In this puritanical moment of social shame, it is a hypocrisy that might undercut our entire quest for justice and liberation.

So this question is essential to reading.

The Conclusion of the Matter

I don’t care at all for Laura Ingalls Wilder, or whether some people crucify Montgomery or stone Woolf in the streets. And if people want to read Narnia as a text of oppression, all the power to them. Or defend Lewis, believing that he should face no scrutiny or hard questions. Narnia has been joy for many millions and liberation for uncountable legions of readers young and old, and has created brilliant conversations of depth the world over. Whatever. Read away as you like.

But consider reading well, please. There really are bad feminist readings of Narnia, as there are bad Christian readings and hasty considerations of race, gender, and social formation in many of our great works. Attend to the text, use evidence to support your views, read in a diverse community that will say to you “here your vision is limited,” and communicate your findings well. There is the text, attend to it.

Some of Lewis’ own work is a distraction. I think the Susan treatment is both inelegant and inorganic to Narnia as a whole, breaking the “once a queen of Narnia, always a queen” principle in the text. But the magic of Narnia is much deeper than that moment. Likewise, his “foreign policy” approach to marriage has caused millions of Christians (and readers who tossed the book at this point) to miss what is his absolutely central perspective in Mere Christianity: “a thing will not really live unless it first dies.” That’s right there in the “Christian Marriage” chapter and would transform not only our own marriages, but our whole families, friendships, churches, neighbourhoods, and governments, if we could only see it.

I believe that Lewis invites a revolutionary perspective that challenges contemporary culture and offers a deep critique of Christians today. If we could only see it. My hope is that thinking about these eight questions will make us better readers so that we can see the vision Lewis has of what life is really about.

Posted in Original Research, Reflections, Thoughtful Essays | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 37 Comments

How do you Solve a Problem like Susan Pevensie? Narnia Guest Post by Kat Coffin

Every few years or so, I’ll get a PM on my Twitter or my Tumblr that asks what is essentially the same question.  These followers know my love of all things C.S. Lewis, particularly the Chronicles of Narnia, have heard me wax poetic about gender theory, and have heard me scream about feminism in varying posts or tweets.  All of these factors lead to one question:

How do you solve a problem like Susan Pevensie?

Oh, Susan.  The most maligned and misinterpreted of Pevensies.  And, incidentally, my favorite character.  Let’s talk a moment about these misinterpretations, particularly the ones that have absorbed themselves into the popular consciousness despite how many times I yell about them on Twitter.

In a Time Magazine interview, J.K. Rowling described her debt to C.S. Lewis.

“I found myself thinking about the wardrobe route to Narnia when Harry is told he has to hurl himself at the barrier in King’s Cross Station—it dissolves and he’s on Platform Nine and Three-Quarters, and there’s the train to Hogwarts.”

However, she points out that there were aspects of the Narnian chronicles that bothered her.  She also points out that Susan Pevensie

“…is lost to Narnia because she becomes interested in lipstick. She’s become irreligious basically because she found sex. I have a real problem with that.”

On that note, Philip Pullman penned an angry Guardian article where he claimed that for Lewis, a girl’s achieving sexual maturity was

“so dreadful and so redolent of sin that he had to send her to Hell.”

To address this, we ought to look at the problematic scene in question, from the final Narnian Chronicle, “The Last Battle”.

“Sir,” said Tirian, when he had greeted all these. “If I have read the chronicles aright, there should be another. Has not your Majesty two sisters? Where is Queen Susan?”

“My sister Susan,” answered Peter shortly and gravely, “is no longer a friend of Narnia.”

“Yes,” said Eustace, “and whenever you’ve tried to get her to come and talk about Narnia or do anything about Narnia, she says, ‘What wonderful memories you have! Fancy your still thinking about all those funny games we used to play when we were children.”

“Oh Susan!” said Jill, “she’s interested in nothing nowadays except nylons and lipstick and invitations. She always was a jolly sight too keen on being grownup.”

“Grownup, indeed,” said the Lady Polly. “I wish she would grow up. She wasted all her school time wanting to be the age she is now, and she’ll waste all the rest of her life trying to stay that age. Her whole idea is to race on to the silliest time of one’s life as quick as she can and then stop there as long as she can.”

“Well, don’t let’s talk about that now,” said Peter.

Fair point, Peter.  Let’s talk about it now.

To respond to Philip Pullman, anyone with basic reading comprehension skills can see that Susan is NOT sent to Hell.  There is quite a difference in being sent to Hell and being absent from the final adventure.  Susan was left alive in this world.  Lewis wrote in a letter that she grew up to be a “silly and vain young woman” but that she “had plenty of time to mend.”

Susan was not left behind.  She chose not to be present in The Last Battle.  To deny her that choice robs her of her own agency, her own right to make bad choices and deal with consequences.

As for the accusations of sexism, I will grant that Lewis was not perfect in terms of gender.  There are reams and reams of problems in the Cosmic Trilogy (for as much as I love them) and my final senior thesis dealt with three of Lewis’ worst short stories.  (In terms of gender, that is.)  And while I would never dare to call the Narnian chronicles the Holy Grail of “Unproblematic”, I think the accusations of sexism are unfair.

I strongly, strongly dispute the idea that the “lipsticks and nylons” line in The Last Battle was sexist.  Susan’s fatal flaws were her trying to “act grown up”, not her being sexually active or femininely vain.

The first time we meet her, in The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe, her very first lines show her “trying to act grown up”.

“We’ve fallen on our feet and no mistake,” said Peter. “This is going to be perfectly splendid. That old chap will let us do anything we like.”

“I think he’s an old dear,” said Susan.

“O, come off it!” said Edmund, who was tired and pretending not to be tired, which always made him bad-tempered. “Don’t go on talking like that.”

“Like what?” said Susan; “and anyway, it’s time you were in bed.”

“Trying to talk like Mother,” said Edmund. “And who are you to say when I’m to go to bed? Go to bed yourself.”

This expands into a literal arc for Susan and foreshadows her exclusion from the final Chronicle.  We see this in the next novel, Prince Caspian.

In Prince Caspian, Lucy attempts to convince her siblings that she has seen Aslan and that Aslan wants them to follow Him.  None of the Pevensies are able to see him so they doubt Lucy, choosing to make their own decisions—particularly Susan.

The first time Lucy sees Aslan, the others outvote her and proceed a different route.  The second time, Lucy announces she will be following Aslan whether they come or not.  Susan insists Lucy was dreaming and progressively gets nastier as they follow her.

Susan was the worst. “Suppose I started behaving like Lucy,” She said. “I might threaten to stay here whether the rest of you went on or not. I jolly well think I shall.”

But as they walk, all of the Pevensies begin to see Aslan.  Susan sees him last.  And then:

“Lucy,” said Susan in a very small voice.

“Yes?” said Lucy.

“I see him now. I’m sorry.”

“That’s all right.”

“But I’ve been far worse than you know. I really believed it was him—he, I mean—yesterday. When he warned us not to go down to the fir wood. And I really believed it was him tonight, when you woke us up. I mean, deep down inside. Or I could have, if I’d let myself. But I just wanted to get out of the woods and—and—oh, I don’t know. And whatever am I to say to him?”

These lines are key to Susan’s entire characterization.  What’s more, this entire scene foreshadows exactly what happens to Susan in The Last Battle.  It’s not about Lewis being afraid of female sexuality (he wasn’t, I point to Joy Davidman’s personal and explicit letters about their married life as evidence), it’s about Susan “trying to act grown up”.  A form of superiority, of pride—something Lewis himself struggled with all his life. Lewis said,

“When I was ten, I read fairytales in secret and would have been ashamed if I had been found doing so. Now that I am fifty, I read them openly. When I became a man I put away childish things, including the fear of childishness and the desire to be very grown up.”

This is a particular theme of Lewis’ we encounter in his works time and time again.  People acting “too grown up”.  We certainly can be bothered by Susan’s exclusion from the final chapter.  After all, she is my favorite character.  And there’s something to be said about the fact that by the end of the Chronicle, she has lost her entire family and is left alone in the world.  But this was not a “punishment” for going to parties or wearing lipstick or having sex.  The invitations and lipstick (and perhaps the sex) were secondary to the bigger flaw—Susan’s pride and her mocking her siblings for playing with childish things.

This is not to say that Lewis was a perfect feminist and that there are zero problems with his female characters.  What I would give for someone to chat with me about Jane Studdock or the Green Lady.  How I hunger for a complicated, nuanced debate about Orual.  But it always comes back to Susan.

Particularly annoying because the hyperfocus on Susan tends to ignore the other dynamic and interesting female characters in the Narnian chronicles such as Lucy, Jill, Polly, and Aravis.

But that’s how we solve the problem of Susan.  By adding more feminist readings of his work.  Once we get past this Susan stumbling block, we can really start complicating the discussions.   

Kat Coffin (@KatinOxford) is a part-time serious academic and full-time writer/musician, currently residing in St. Louis, Missouri.  Her academic field specializes in the works of C.S. Lewis and gender theory.  She completed her second fantasy novel last year and it is being shopped between publishers.  When she’s not writing dry twenty-page essays on the evolution of C.S. Lewis’ female characters or writing stories about the horrifying and hilarious ramifications of demon summoning, she enjoys long car rides, playing guitar, a good stout, and tearing her hair out over politics.  She is in the process of applying to several programs for her PhD and is a contributing author on Fellowship & Fairydust. Kat blogs at: https://phoenixinoxford.wordpress.com/.

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Affirming Creation in the Lord of the Rings #earthday

Perhaps it isn’t that surprising that J.R.R. Tolkien’s books are so environmentally sensitive. Like Sam Gamgee, Tolkien loved things that grow and good tilled earth. He loved walks–long walks beyond his garden through English towns and villages and vast, untouched countrysides. His Middle Earth writings are layered with a rich and expansive architecture of nature.

Perhaps his books are so environmentally rich because he saw the results of the industrial revolution first hand. In his mind, WWI, with its crush of men like bags of bones scattered upon a pulverized Europe, was the natural end of an absolute human commitment to bend Nature to the will of economy and progress. In France, Tolkien saw only black mud stained with blood, and he felt that rapid urbanization and industrialization would lead to about the same result.

What’s so surprising about Tolkien’s love for creation, however, is how very prophetic it is. His creation care is not merely about the love of growing things, but about a sensitive, living balance between all living things. Legolas laments that,

“No other folk make such a trampling…. It seems their delight to slash and beat down growing things that are not even in their way.”

And it is Treebeard the Ent who divines what Saruman’s real purpose is:

“I think that I now understand what he is up to. He is plotting to become a Power. He has a mind of metal and wheels; and he does not care for growing things, except as far as they serve him for the moment. And now it is clear that he is a black traitor.”

Saruman is a traitor because he has turned from a caretaker of creation to its overlord. In the end, all the industry of Man cannot withstand the equilibrium of the nature he intends to bend to his will. It is not merely magic and cunning and the force of men that tips the balance of the war on two fronts in The Two Towers. It is nature taking up the battle that changes everything.

It is a lesson that we might do well to remember.

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C.S. Lewis’ 1st SciFi Fan Letters, from Evelyn Underhill and Roger Lancelyn Green

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.

being-fat-and-runningI 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. out of the silent planet by c.s. lewis 2003Lewis 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
Dear Madam
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,
C.S. Lewis

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.”

Roger Lancelyn Green Robin HoodAnother 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

Roger Lancelyn Green King ArthurWe 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.

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Joe Hoffman on Statistical Analysis, and the Future of the Humanities

Last week I wrote about “Some Follow-up on the Statistical Analysis of C.S. Lewis’ Letters.” I posted it as a preliminary, a placeholder one might say, as I can’t dive deep into the spreadsheet-lined offices of the large complex of research rooms I have in my mind. I’m just too busy.

As often happens, though, there was some follow-up by readers of A Pilgrim in Narnia. One of these is Joe Hoffman, our local neighbourhood physicist, fencing-expert, gardening, blogging, IT expert. Joe’s thoughts often cut to the bone, and his work can expand that of others (like mine here in “That Hideous Graph”). As we are thinking about digital humanities work, we often hit limitations, as he talks about here. Joe notes that:

When scientists think of a question that we don’t have enough information to answer, the next step is to figure out an experiment that will give us the other things we need to know. In humanities, going and getting more information is a lot less likely.

I wanted readers to see this follow-up because, frankly, even with the limitations of data, we could be better at thinking about experiments to consider proposals about history, biography, and the worlds of letters and literature.

But there is more. Joe’s confidence for the 20th century is, of course, higher than the 12th. But he makes an intriguing prediction about the 21st century, where data mining will make digital humanities land on a far more scientific basis.

It is a great point–and one that I was limiting myself by. It has taken me years to read all of C.S. Lewis’ archives, even though most of it is lost. Imagine if it was all on a hard drive somewhere: Every email he wrote, every draft, all his bills, all his syllabi and outlines and false-starts. Social media posts and tax forms. To do lists and editorials he chose not to send. Spotify lists and eyeglass prescriptions and instructions for growing sprouts in the window. A letter of complaint to the inventor of the catheter. And so on. The data possibilities are massive, huge.

Joe is right that there would be great data analysis possibilities, but the job of historian and biographer could become nearly impossible in the fullest sense of the task. When I ask myself, “what will the humanities be about in the future?”, I include digital humanities. But do our lives as digital natives actually negate the future of what would be the normal carrying on of the humanities tradition? Does the “data sample” of a figure’s life become so big we can no longer tell a story? Intriguing questions.

I guess I know why Terry Pratchett destroyed all his files! And yet, I have a sense of deep loss. I would love to know more.

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Some Follow-up on the Statistical Analysis of C.S. Lewis’ Letters

A few years ago I published “A Statistical Look at C.S. Lewis’ Letter Writing,” which is exactly what it sounds like. When I am not setting up lunch dates with Taylor Swift and hitting the books, I like to do a little nerd-number work. I just love spreadsheets, frankly. Besides the dizzying columns of numbers and the unlimited charts they (not me) can produce, I come to discern the truth about history or words or people in the numbers. I am not a magician when it comes to this data analysis. I have a friend who can look at a financial spreadsheet that is pages in length and immediately discern all the hidden secrets of a company. Me, the columns and graphics simply help me “see” my work in new ways.

This work–the cool kids are calling it Digital Humanities–has helped me in my work with C.S. Lewis to get a deeper understanding of his history and writing project, and works as a stable line when I want to suggest an experiment where we challenge what scholars assume (like here, where I want us to rethink the Narnia creation story). As C.S. Lewis is a pretty dynamic figure of the past, and as he wrote in a huge diversity of ways and about many different things, I want us to be pretty demanding about the evidence for thinking about him in new ways. Some data work can help with that.

Hence the statistical analyses of letters. I did that work pretty quickly, and admitted back when I published this in the heady of 2013 that it was provisional. It didn’t change the world According to blog stats more people commented upon the piece than actually read it. But I still have the charts I made on my wall to give me visual clues about the periods of Lewis’ life.

Recently, two pieces have emerged that works as a correction of my stats work in Lewis letters.

The first comes from a blogger named “klai.” I think “klai” is Dr. Samuli Kaislaniemi of the University of Helsinki, based on this previously unpublished letter by J.R.R. Tolkien to Arthur Ransome, which is pretty cool. A pingback popped up in my feed this week and I followed it back to this very intriguing blog-response to my work: “Counting correspondence, listing letters.” There kali spends a few lines offering a critique of my approach to letter counting. This is not a slam piece, but kali simply wants to use my work (which he is appreciative of) to test out our theory about these sorts of things. In particular, in offering an analysis of the 3,274 letters in three-volume letter collection by Walter Hooper, I am not giving a full picture. Instead, what I am looking at could be:

  1. the actual number of letters written by a writer during their lifetime; or
  2. a subset of (1), being the number of letters which survive; or
  3. a subset of (2), being the number of letters which we (or the editors, rather) know about.

I do warn the reader that I am only doing #3, but kali just puts this so much better. I’m not sure that #1 or #2 is ever possible in historical studies, so we are always dealing with #3. But it is worth noting for kali wants to know to what extent the extant letters in the collection represent the original letter-writing project of Lewis. Dr. kali then goes on to do some work with Tolkien’s letter collection. This blog is actually four years old, and I’m surprised I never saw it before, so I’m linking it now.

The second piece of work is by Henry Hyunsuk Kim, Associate Professor of Sociology at Wheaton College. Dr. Kim has recently produced an article in VII: Journal of the Marion E. Wade Center,C.S. Lewis: An Exploration through His Letters.” Though the article title is unremarkable, the work is worthy of note. Here is his abstract:

The impact of C.S. Lewis on literature, media, and theology has reached unparalleled status within certain Christian circles. Yet, how does one actually measure “influence” or “friendship”? It is problematic, not only in trying to operationalize “influence” and “friendship” but also because Lewis was a very private person, despite his public persona. Given these challenges, this paper explores Lewis’s “influence” and “friendship” through a series of specific questions. Rather than regurgitate the vast amount of extant works concerning Lewis this paper attempts to analyze Lewis’s letters via social network analysis or SNA. This is significant because to the best of my knowledge a respective study does not exist.

SNA, or Social Network Analysis, is super cool, and the editors of VII have chosen to link the paper for free even to nonsubscribers. Dr. Kim’s thesis is pretty intriguing, and this is a data-heavy piece. He does not connect back to my work at all, but suggests that I have over-counted the letters, basing his analysis on 3,218 letters.

I don’t have time to dialogue with either of these researchers as I am busy trying to pass a PhD. I need to recount the letters, rewrite my article to include the conclusions of kali and Dr. Kim, and see if I need to adjust my mental picture of Lewis’ work. That will have to wait, but I didn’t want you to have to wait. Enjoy these pieces and have fun in the digi-nerd-word-world.



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