C.S. Lewis: Sixty Years of Letters – A Thematic Overview

The Collected Letters of C.S. Lewis, Volumes 1-3 (Harper San Francisco, 2004, 2004, 2007)

Reviewed by Jessica Shaver Renshaw

“I think you and I ought to publish our letters (they’d be a jolly interesting book by the way)…”

— C.S. Lewis, age 17, to Arthur Greeves, March 14, 1916

I’ve wondered what C.S. Lewis was like as a person.  He was a colossus as thinker and author, able to sever knots of intellectual and theological difficulty (and stuffiness) with insightful words, offering truth in clear, sensible, emotionally satisfying chunks.

I’ve often thought he would have been an intimidating man to hang out with.  He and his wife Joy played Scrabble in five languages, including Chaucerian English.  Lewis kept up a correspondence with an Italian priest in Latin, the only language they had in common.  Of the hundreds of books in his library, a visitor could pick one at random, start to read aloud any sentence – and listen to Lewis quote the rest by memory.

I couldn’t possibly match the breadth of his literary allusions, his powers of articulation.  And then there’s his early snobbery, when he felt that Americans and women were inferior beings.  I am both.  He preferred the camaraderie of men, especially accompanied by a pint in a smoke-filled pub.  He would have awed me and I would have bored him.

But by reading his letters, I can look over his shoulder as he writes.  I can stop him and say, “So that’s where you got the idea for Aslan.”  Or I can ramble contentedly with him on walking tours through England on winter mornings with mist as “tangible as treacle” or on summer evenings with golden light so “liquid” one can almost drink it.  Through his letters I can become his friend, without his even knowing I’m there.

C.S. (“Jack”) Lewis would have had no patience with what we are about to do: discuss his personal life.  “I have no natural curiosity about private lives,” he wrote to one friend and to another, “…we begin thinking about the private life of the actors when the play ceases to grip us.”

In response to a request for “background information” from an American minister in 1948, the British author of The Screwtape Letters, Mere Christianity, A Space Trilogy, and The Chronicles of Narnia, wrote back, in a rare burst of pique, ‘Ought you, as a Pastor, to encourage the public demand for quite irrelevant facts about authors?… I can’t abide the idea that a man’s books shd. be ‘set in their biographical context’ and if I had some rare information about the private life of Shakespeare of Dante I’d throw it in the fire, tell no one, and re-read their works.”  In the same letter he declared, “…the only thing of any importance (if that is) about me is what I have to say.”

But since, at 17, he was the first one to suggest publishing his letters and since in those letters he gives us glimpses of his private life, he might not mind our extracting from them what he had to say about himself.

Now edited and annotated, The Collected Letters of C.S. Lewis (HarperSan Francisco, 2004, 2004, 2007) show the progression of the man intellectually, professionally, and spiritually.  The three volumes, totaling 3,600 pages, consist of Family Letters 1904-1931; Books, Broadcasts, and the War 1931-1949; and Narnia, Cambridge, and Joy 1950-1963.

To children, Jack described himself at 55 as “tall … double-chinned, black-haired, have a deep voice, and wear glasses for reading.”  “I look awful.  Imagine a marsh-wiggle gone fat and red in the face.  And deaf and bald.  I talk far too loud.”  He excused himself from his goddaughter Sarah’s confirmation with “I am afraid you might have found me very shy and dull.”  He called himself and brother Warnie “two crusted old batchelors,” “old square-rigged type(s),” “quiet ruminants.”

He couldn’t drive, couldn’t type: “I’m no good at any sort of machine.” An abnormality in his thumbs made him “clumsy,” “unhandy and messy.”  He couldn’t tie knots.  When “putting up a parcel … (i)t always looks like a bundle of old clothes … and my fingers are covered with sealing wax.”  Why did I become a writer? Chiefly, I think, because my clumsiness of fingers prevented me from making things in any other way.”

To the Milton Society of America in 1954, he described himself more seriously.  His books may appear “a very mixed bag” but they have “a guiding thread”: “The imaginative man in me is older, more continuously operative, and in that sense more basic than either the religious writer or the critic.  It was he who made me first attempt (with little success) to be a poet.  It was he who, in response to the poetry of others, made me a critic… It was he who, after my conversion led me to embody my religious belief in symbolical or mythopoeic forms, ranging from Screwtape to a kind of theologized science-fiction.  And it was, of course, he who has brought me, in the last few years to write the series of Narnian stories for children… because the fairy-tale was the genre best fitted for what I wanted to say.”

His earliest loves lasted his whole life.  His first extant letter written when he was nearly eight years old begins: “My dear Warnie[,] Peter [Jack’s canary] has had two un-fortunate aventures since I last wrote, however they came out all right in the end…”  He goes on to describe other animal “aventures,” fun with fireworks and apples at Halloween, studies in French and Latin: “Tomorrow I decline that old ‘Bonus,’ ‘Bona,’ ‘Bonum’ thing…”

Observations about animals, seasons, scholarship – these themes echo throughout his letters for the next 57 years.  As Jack wrote of his friend Arthur Greeves’s letters, his own are “full of enthusiasm about books and music and scenery” as well as “walking tours,” seasons, “bathing,” animals, and writing – marvelous, lengthy descriptions from which deciding which gems to offer in  a review like this one is hopelessly (and frustratingly) limiting.

Volume 1 closes with Jack embracing a new love, Jesus Christ, which will permeate everything he writes from then on.  Each new radio broadcast or publication brings him increased numbers of invitations to write and speak (many from America), almost all of which he turns down as redundant.  There are book galleys to edit, personal requests for advice, unsolicited poems and stories to critique, and “a great number of theological letters … which can’t be neglected because they are answers to people in great need of help & often in great misery.”  Many of these letters are too carefully reasoned for a mere extract to do them justice.

By the end of Volume 2, letter-writing consumes more and more of his time, giving him less time for the things he loves to do: the conversations with peers, the walking tours, the trips back to Ireland.  He is increasingly becoming the “crusted old batchelor.”  His peeves are becoming more evident: correspondence; cities; TV; newspapers; modern novels, poetry, and theology; movies; Americans.

Two new loves revived Lewis in the last 13 years of his life (Volume 3).  He accepted the invitation from Magdalene College of Cambridge University to assume the Chair of Medieval and Renaissance English, a position created for him (although, ironically, he did not believe in the Renaissance), and he married Joy Davidman Gresham.

Joy Gresham came into his life and his letters in December 1952.  She went from being “a guest, asked for one week but staying for three, who talks from morning till night,” to “a visitor…very nice but one can’t feel quite free,” to “a lady from New York,” to “our queer Jewish, ex-Communist, American convert…at any rate, not a Bore.”

During that time his attitude toward America softened, probably without his realizing it.  But he still didn’t realize he was falling in love with an American.  On August 1, 1953, Jack wrote Mary Willis Shelburne, “I do most heartily agree that it is just as well to be past the age when one expects or desires to attract the other sex.”  Three years later she was the second correspondent to whom he confided (with no intervening mention of Joy, love, courtship or marriage in his responses to her frequent letters), “I may soon be, in rapid succession, a bridegroom and a widower.” But, there was a reprieve in that timeline.

Joy had a remission, and during that period Lewis wrote to Dorothy Sayers, “We soon learn to love what we know we must lose… My heart is breaking and I was never so happy before” and a week later, “The house ripples with laughter and esoteric jokes… O God, if there were no such thing as the Future!”  Of their “belated honeymoon” to Ireland in July 1958 (it was his first flight: “after one initial moment of terror, enchanting”), Jack wrote, “We visited Louth, Down, and Donegal, and returned drunk with blue mountains, yellow beaches, dark fuchsia, breaking waves, braying donkeys, peat-smell, and the heather just then beginning to bloom.”

After her death in July 1960, he called her “my dear Joy” and “the great love of my life.”

His nearly 60 years of letters show that people became more important to Lewis as he matured.  At 16, he wrote Arthur, “I find that the people whose society I prefer to my own are very few and far between.”  At 33, he wrote, “(T)here is hardly a year in which I do not make some real friend.  I am glad to find that people become more and more one of the sources of pleasure as I grow older.” By the age of 37 he could write, “(F)riendship is the greatest of worldly goods.  Certainly to me it is the chief happiness of life.  If I had to give a piece of advice to a young man about a place to live, I think I shd. say, ‘sacrifice almost everything to live where you can be near your friends.'”

Of his friend J.R.R. Tolkien, whom he called Tollers, “I don’t think Tolkien influenced me, and I am certain I didn’t influence him.  That is, didn’t influence what he wrote.  My continual encouragement, carried to the point of nagging, influenced him v. much to write at all with that gravity and at that length.  In other words I acted as a midwife not as a father.”

With maturity also came humility.  In his 30s Jack looked back with “humiliation” at the letters he had written Arthur, recognizing in them “egotism” and “affectation”: “I seem to be posturing and showing off in every letter.”  During the period of his transition to Christianity, he wrote Arthur that pride was his “besetting sin.”  “I have found out ludicrous and terrible things about my own character…”

By 1940, he had apparently learned that lesson well.  Buried in a letter to Arthur, he mentioned what would become one of his finest and best-known works, “I have published another book, only a little thing called The Problem of Pain.”  When his godson wrote to congratulate him for being conferred with a doctorate, Jack deflected the praise, “The most interesting thing about that was the place I went to be made a Doctor – Saint Andrews.  It is a most lovely little town with the sea breaking just under the windows of some of the colleges.  There is a ruined castle and a ruined cathedral and miles and miles of sand…”

In later years, he would thank his fans with remarks like “There is a great element of chance in fame” or, in telling a child about his newest Narnian story, The Silver Chair, add, “Don’t look forward to it too much or you are sure to be disappointed.”  To Walter Hooper, who would become editor of his Letters, “I am glad if I have been the instrument of Our Lord’s help to you:  in His hands almost any instrument will do…”

Jack corresponded for years with a woman who was filled with anxieties and complaints.  Finally, weighed down with his own medical problems which would take his life five months later, he wrote a reassurance to her fear of death, “Don’t you think Our Lord says to you ‘Peace, child, peace.  Relax.   Let go.  Underneath are the everlasting arms.  Let go, I will catch you.  Do you trust me so little?'”  His letter must have been life-transforming, since eight days later he was able to write, “I am overjoyed at the blessed change in your attitude to death… now that you know you are forgiven…”

He, too, had had a similar experience with God’s forgiveness, believing in it for years before he felt it: “Then, one blessed day, it suddenly became real to me and made what I had previously called ‘belief’ look absolutely unreal.  It is a wonderful thing… This real belief in the truths of our religion is a great gift from God.”

In August 1963, Jack had a heart attack and was thought to be dying but (according to his brother) he regained consciousness “and asked for his tea.”  Home again, he wrote a friend, “It seems almost a pity, having reached the gate so easily, not to be allowed through-” Three months later, on November 22, he was “allowed through.”  His last letter, written the day before, was to a child: “… Thank you for telling me that you like my books, a thing an author is always pleased to hear.  It is a funny thing that all the children who have written to me see at once who Aslan is, and grown ups never do!”

“The good things even of this world are far too good ever to be reached by imagination.  Even the common orange, you know: no one cd. have imagined it before he tasted it.  How much less Heaven” (C.S. Lewis, 55, August 7, 1956).

What a zest for this life he had and what an eagerness for the next!  After reading almost all his books plus nine-and-a-half pounds of his personal correspondence, I’m sure when we do meet, I’ll feel right at home with Jack – and Joy.  We’ll have eternity to discuss substance; the chaff will blow away.  And we’ll all be awed by Jesus.

If you are interested in what Lewis says about himself in these Letters—-what he looked like, what he loved, hated, feared, regretted and didn’t understand–please click here to download a pdf of “The Passions of C.S. Lewis as Seen in His Letters,” by Jessica Shaver Renshaw.

As part of our continuing honeymoon, my husband Jerry and I enjoyed Oxbridge ’05 and the 2007 Sea Cloud Cruise along the coasts of Ireland and England, visiting places significant in Jacks life, hearing stories about him from Doug Gresham and examining his intellectual beliefs with Dr. Jerry Root and Dick Staub.

Coming from a family of authors I have been writing since my teen years and have written four books. Gianna: Aborted and Lived to Tell About It is a story about a two month old premature baby who survived a legal abortion.  I have also written Compelling Interests, about people impacted by abortion in very different ways and New Every Morning, about a daughter’s relationship with the father who molested her after he becomes senile. To Russia With Love, based on our voyage by yacht to the U.S.S.R. during the Cold War to protest their nuclear weapons, is out in Japanese translation but will be published in English soon.

2 thoughts on “C.S. Lewis: Sixty Years of Letters – A Thematic Overview

  1. Ron Ratliff

    What a wonderful summary of Lewis’s letters which I too have been gladly diving into for several years. Even though Lewis would cringe to think we want to know about him, I’d have to tell him, “Its all your fault because you are, in spite of what you say, a very interesting man. Your love of Christ shines through at every turn.” Thanks for sharing your journey with the letters.

  2. Rodney G Mackrill of Cape Town

    I have just completed CSL’s Inspirational Letters and it only confirmed for me the humility and gentleness of CSL. For me ,there is nothing stronger than gentleness.
    MY 18 year old grandaughter Kirsty , who was tragicallly killed on 5/07/2008 ,was an avid reader of CSL and it is sad that I only started reading his books after her death.
    I have found his books to be a tremendous source of consolation during this time.
    CSL cannot chide me for saying that Kirsty will be having an ‘ infinitely ‘ long discussion with him.

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