“Collected Letters of C. S. Lewis, Vol. I: 1905-1931″ reviewed

The Collected Letters of C. S. Lewis, Vol. I: Family Letters: 1905-1931. Edited by Walter Hooper. Harper Collins. 983 pp.

Volume I of III

Volume I of III

At 983 pages, excluding the helpful biographical appendix, this is a pretty big book—and it’s just the first of three volumes of C. S. Lewis’s collected letters.  The man wrote a lot and this volume contains 95% of the extant letters that he wrote between 1905, when he was seven years old, and the fall of 1931, shortly after his conversion to Christianity.  While tedious at places, it contains interesting biographical details and accounts of his early life and reveals an impressive intellect and strong personality.

Much of the material is, of course, quite quotidian.  One letter, sent from school in January 1915 to his father, says “Yes; I did change my socks. No; there are no holes in my shoes. Yes, thanks, I have plenty of warm underclothing.” (101)  Almost half of the letters in the first 200 pages were sent to his father and until he became a fellow at Magdalen College, Oxford requests for funds were a staple of his letters, along with itemized lists of expenses for which the money was needed.  His father, a solicitor, once apparently suspected Jack (as all of C. S. Lewis’s friends and family members called him) of cheating him out of about £1 and Lewis wrote a point-by-point letter arguing that the charge was illogical and contrary to the facts;  it was  probably more than what was called for (see p. 135-6).

The author’s mother died when he was ten and when reading his letters to his father, one wishes to have the other half of the conversation and to know more about just what sort of relationship they had.  Lewis wasn’t above pointing out how smart he was.  To his father he says he  “often wonder[s] how you came to have such a profound and genuine philosopher for your son, don’t you?” (85).  They often debated abstract matters, Lewis once claiming that “no further disputation is possible after my crushing and exhaustive demonstration” (93) and elsewhere that “one of these days you will come round and ‘see my point’” (213).  These seem likes things one would write to an equal, not a parent.

Probably 90% of the letters in the first third of the book are either to his father or to his lifelong best friend, Arthur Greeves, with whom he shared many interests in music and literature.  Lewis similarly thought he won all of the arguments with Arthur: “How funny that I always prove everything I want in argument with you but never convince you! … be good and talk sense the next time you do me the honour of arguing with me” (129-130).  Of course, their relationship was very close and their philosophical conversations were vigorous but never mean spirited.  Some of the most interesting exchanges they had concerned religion and Christianity.  Lewis was, of course, an atheist from the age at which he was first able to form his own beliefs and make his own decisions and Arthur was a Christian, though he played relatively little direct role in Lewis’s later conversion.  The two best letters to examine for Lewis’s beliefs at this period are the ones to Greeves dated 12 October 1916 and its follow up dated 18 October of the same year.  To quote the former at length:

You ask me my religious views: you know, I think, that I believe in no religion. There is absolutely no proof for any of them, and from a philosophical standpoint Christianity is not even the best.  All religions, that is, all mythologies to give them their proper name are merely man’s own invention—Christ as much as Loki. …

… Superstition of course in every age has held the common people, but in every age the educated and thinking ones have stood outside it, though usually outwardly conceding it for convenience.  … ones views on religious subjects don’t make any difference in morals, of course. A good member of society must of course try to be honest, chaste, truthful, kindly etc: these are things we owe to our own manhood & dignity and not to any imagined god or gods.

Of course, mind you, I am not laying down as a certainty that there is nothing outside the material world: considering the discoveries that are always being made, this would be foolish. Anything MAY exist: but until we know that it does, we can’t make any assumptions.  The universe is an absolute mystery: man has mad many guesses at it, but the answer is yet to seek.

Lewis also pointed out how ideas of God evolved throughout the Hebrew scriptures from a tribal diety to a universal one (206) and often took opportunities to tweak Arthur, for instance pointing out that another person is “a rather violent athiest, so I suppose I shall meet him by ‘the fiery, flaming flood of Phlegethon” (240).

Lewis in 1947

Lewis in 1947

These disagreements notwithstanding, Lewis and Greeves had much in common.  Many of their letters involved planning visits to each other, and discussing the good times they enjoyed in each other’s company.  And it is almost disconcerting the vast number of books that Lewis mentions reading in his letters and the analysis he brings to them, frequently recommending works to Arthur. Lewis was not found of Thucydides, who he called “a desperately dull and tedious Greek historian” (145)—an assessment I disagree with—and also disliked Cicero and Demosthenes.  He did, however, enjoy The Histories of Herodotus, who he said pleasantly combined both history and romance (284), and also recommended The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon (447).

The volume also contains a smattering of references to historical events, such as the appearance of Comet Halley in 1910 (14), the Battle of Jutland (204), and the 1918 influenza epidemic (416, 430, 442).  Regarding World War I, Lewis echoes the sentiments of his tutor, William Kirkpatrick (the inspiration for the Professor in The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe) and wrote in 1914, when the war was only three months old, that

one of the most serious consequences of this war is what Kirk calls ‘the survival of the unfittest’[.] All those who have the courage to do so and are physically sound, are going off to be shot: those who survive are moral and physical weeds—a fact which does not promise favorably for the next generation.

(Lewis would follow his older brother, Warnie, into the army and was injured in combat.)  Anyway, Lewis seemed to be something of an elitist, which is perhaps easier to understand if one remembers his privileged upbringing and education.  For instance, he criticizes a list of the 100 best books, saying he “abominate[s] such culture for the many, such tastes ready made, such standardization of the brain” (581) and elsewhere praises aristocrats for “having tradition in [their] outlook” and rues “the influx of commercial democracy” (746).  But a few months later he writes that “the aristocracy was not a bit better than the plutocracy that has replaced it” (772).  And while he evinces some disdain for socialism in several letters (see pp. 441 and 544), he wrote Arthur in 1917 saying “I am a bundle of contradictions, but I must say socialism does interest me.”

When you think of the way labourers in the factory live at home,—men & women slaving from half past five in the morning to six at night at hard, monotonous work in hideous rooms full of shrieking machinery year after year, with never a moments pleasure except when they are drunk (and you can’t blame them) it really does make you feel that the whole thing is wrong. Are you ashamed to think of us], blessed prigs, with our books and music and little grumbles about nothing, dawdling along … while half or more than half the people are slaves.  As much slaves as ever there were in Rome, their only liberty being to starve when the torture becomes unbearable!

Like all of us, C. S. Lewis was a product of his own time.  Thus, some of his letters from this period seem to reflect some of the racial views held by many of the time.  When writing to his brother who was serving in the Army in Sierra Leone, Lewis wrote “What a queer thing that black man … is: he’s been there as long as anyone else and has never adapted on quarter of a step.  Perhaps the really strange thing is that others have” (538).  Elsewhere, he refers to “an atrocious little blackguard of a French nouveau riche boy with negro blood in him and the manners of a swine” (613) and is critical of Chinese culture (see pp. 710-11 & 720n).

Magdalen College, Oxford, where Lewis was a fellow while many of these letters were written

Magdalen College, Oxford, where Lewis was a fellow while many of these letters were written

He was also not entirely comfortable around women, again probably because of his upbringing (his mother died in his childhood, he had no sisters, and he attended all boys schools).  For instance, when he was “bothered” into teaching a class of young women he writes to his father that teaching “girls, if one considers only their faculties, … might seem an easy task.  But then they would be reading for the same exams as the men: and that being so, the ‘weakness of the sex’ (assuming that they are dunces) would make the proposition all the tougher” (598).  He also wrote that “as a general rule, women marry their tutors,” but he wasn’t worried because in his class “the pretty ones are stupid and the interesting ones are ugly, so it is alright” (667).  As an Oxford don, he said he “did [his] duty” in voting for a resolution that “the university has a right to remain predominantly a men’s university” and was happy that it passed, being concerned that Oxford might become “the women’s university” and Cambridge “the men’s university” (702-4).  He also comments that “that mixture of Northern respect and Oriental suppression” is “not a bad answer” to “the female sex” (771).  These are all views which we would not be likely to entertain today.  However, he did say that women write very good novels (910).

Speaking of Lewis’s views of women somewhat naturally raises another topic dealt with in his early letters: sadism. Most fans of his work probably have no idea that Lewis entertained sadistic fantasies.  To quote from one of his biographies, C.S. Lewis: Creator of Narnia by Michael White,

In a letter written in January 1917 Lewis begins to explain that he is writing the letter on his knee and this seemingly innocent comment leads him on to a discourse on whipping and spanking.  He declares: “Across my knee … of course makes one think of positions for whipping: or rather not for whipping (you couldn’t get any swing) but for that torture with brushes … very humiliating for the victim”  Soon he was signing his letters to Greeves “Philomastrix” (“lover of the whip”) and detailing gruesome fantasies involving Arthur’s younger sister, in which he whipped her “for the good of her soul”.  In other letters he described a particularly beautiful girl he had seen in Oxford and what pain she would have suffered if she had received only half the torment he had inflicted on her in his imagination. (p 47)

Arthur later scribbled through incriminating passages in the letters, but those passages are restored (and noted) in the volume presently being reviewed.  In 1931, Lewis wrote Arthur “I am now inclined to agree with you in not regretting that we confided in each other even on this subject, because it has done no harm in the long run—and how could young adolescents really be friends without it?”  (Incidentally, Arthur was homosexual and, presumably, indicated some of his fantasies to Jack.)  At the time, Arthur indicated concern about confiding such details to paper, but Lewis wrote “if any person did read out letters, he would be an ill-bred cad & therefore we shouldn’t mind what he say” (274).  Hopefully he would except the present reviewer and his audience.  The material is certainly salacious, but I wouldn’t characterize it as “gruesome” as White does.  In any event, after considering some possible sources of Lewis’s interest, the biographer points out that that as an adult Lewis was somewhat embarrassed by his interest and

As far as anyone knows, Jack’s attraction to sadism never strayed beyond his own imagination, but no one will ever know what went on behind closed doors later in his life.  For the eighteen-year-old at least, these sadistic musings went no further than that: onanistic fantasies and bravura to impress Arthur. (p 48)

Anyway, some of the most interesting letters occur near the end of the collection, around Lewis’s conversion to theism in 1929 and ultimately to Christianity in 1931.  The roots of his conversion, which are familiar to anyone who read his autobiographical Surprised By Joy, are evident in his earlier letters.  For instance, in 1916 he wrote Arthur saying “I know quite well that feeling of something strange and wonderful that ought to happen, and wish I could think like you that this hope will some day be fulfilled.”  And to another friend, Leo Baker, in 1921: “beauty seems to me to be always an invitation of some sort & usually an invitation to we don’t know what.”  Though an atheist from the time he could form his own views until about age 31, Lewis was never a materialist, the main species of atheist that one sees these days.  He always seemed to sense that there was a “more” or something beyond the purely material, and that is was ultimately lead him to theism and Christianity, a journey described in his highly recommended Surprised By Joy and hinted at throughout the present volume.

This probably explains the interest he entertained in his 20s in the occult and magic, which he called “the burning subject” of the time and that it was difficult to obtain even enough evidence to disbelieve (543).  He said that he had “no doubt” that some people could see the future (640) but that astrology was “all rot” (597).

Some of the best passages come from his own self examinations, where he identifies his main sin as pride—which he calls “the mother of all sins”—and that he also experiences lust, wrath, and envy.

What I feel like saying … is “things are going very, very well with me (spiritually).”  On the other hand, one knows from bitter experience that he who standeth should take heed lest he fall, and that anything remotely like pride is certain to bing an awful crash. … Yet as long as one is a conceited ass, there is no good pretending not to be. (877)

He confides to Arthur that

I catch myself posturing before the mirror, so to speak, all day long. I pretend I am carefully thinking out what to say to the next pupil (for his good, of course) and then suddenly realise I am really thinking how frightfully clever I’m going to be and how he will admire me.  I pretend I am remembering an evening of good fellowship in a really friendly and charitable spirit—and all the time I’m really remembering how good a fellow I am and how well I talked. (878)

He says that fighting pride is like fighting the Hydra, which grew a new head every time one was cut off: once you stop one line of prideful thinking one is tempted to be proud of doing so.  The argument will be familiar to those who’ve read Lewis’s popular works, like Mere Christianity.  He also discusses his attempts to cultivate “the blessed sense of charity, so rare in me,” writing about an experience after Christmas Eve service in 1929, when he could view “even my worst enemies in college [as] funny and odd rather than detestable” (852).

The editor takes the opportunity of Lewis’s conversion to Christianity to bring the volume to a close, and I must say I am interested in obtaining its sequel.  I am especially interested in seeing how his views and outlook may or may not change as a result of his new religious views.  I also expect that theology will be a much more prominent subject in the two later volumes, once he becomes a well known theologian and apologist.  This volume, which you have gotten only a not particularly representative sample of in the above, is good in its own right, but is only recommended for those already familiar with C. S. Lewis’s popular works, especially Surprised By Joy, who want to learn more about the person behind them.

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One Response to ““Collected Letters of C. S. Lewis, Vol. I: 1905-1931″ reviewed”

  1. omegamormegil Says:

    A great review. I found his quote about factory workers quite interesting.

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