Reviewed by Cynthia L. Haven In January 1949, when C.S. Lewis was only 50, he thought his life was over. "I feel my zeal for writing, and whatever talent I originally possessed, to be decreasing; nor (I believe) do I please my readers as I used to." The unassuming Oxford don once said he'd be remembered as "one of those men who was a famous writer in his forties and dies unknown."
Then he began having nightmares about lions.
The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, which was written quickly and published in 1950, became an enduring success. "I don't know where the Lion came from or why he came," Lewis wrote later. "But once He was there He pulled the whole story together, and soon He pulled the six other Narnian stories in after him."
Some of the era's most magical children's literature and science fiction came from the pen of this unprepossessing professor of medieval and Renaissance literature; modern Christianity's most approachable and eloquent apologias were articulated by this former atheist. Yet despite international fame, to all external appearances, he led an uneventful, bookish life.
This last volume of his Collected Letters covers not only the Narnia novels but his brief marriage to the divorced American writer Joy Davidman; his major work of criticism, English Literature in the Sixteenth Century; and the overdue professional recognition he won when he was granted an endowed chair at Cambridge after years of snubs at Oxford, where he remained a lowly, overworked tutor.
Editor and friend Walter Hooper calls him "one of the last great letter-writers" -- the last of a generation who did not lift a telephone receiver when he had something to say or tap out e-mails on a computer keyboard. Some of the recipients richly merited his ink: the detective novelist, theologian and Dante translator Dorothy L. Sayers; St. Giovanni Calabria of Verona (correspondence in Latin); T.S. Eliot; the sci-fi maestro Arthur C. Clarke; and the American writer Robert Penn Warren. In these letters, Lewis swaps quips in Latin and Greek and quotes Spenser, Statius, Beowulf, Horace, Wordsworth, Terence and Augustus. Other letters were from cranks, whiners and down-and-out charity cases; he answered them all.
"The pen has become to me what the oar is to a galley slave," he wrote of the disciplined torture of writing letters for hours every day. He complained about the deterioration of his handwriting, the rheumatism in his right hand and the winter cold numbing his fingers. In the era of the ballpoint, he used a nib pen dipped in ink every four or five words.
The letters undermine the myth of a scholarly bachelor idyll. The enemies of peace were in his own household -- especially Janie Moore, the mother of a fellow soldier killed in World War I, sometimes referred to as his "mother" and by Warren as a "horrid old woman." "Strictly between ourselves," Lewis wrote to a friend, "I have lived most of it (that is now over) in a house wh. was hardly ever at peace for 24 hours, amidst senseless wranglings, lyings, backbitings, follies, and scares," he wrote. "I never went home without a feeling of terror as to what appalling situation might have developed in my absence. Only now that it is over (tho' a different trouble has taken its place) do I begin to realize quite how bad it was." His brother Warren's chronic drunkenness was the "different trouble." Oxford was no refuge; when Lewis assumed the Cambridge post, it ended "nearly thirty years of the tutorial grind," exhausting donkey-work that regularly burned 14 hours a day.
He summarized the net result: "I am a hard, cold, black man inside and in my life have not wept enough." That problem, at least, was soon to be solved -- taking us to the biggest riddle of his life. Lewis's romance, immortalized in the movie "Shadowlands," is touted as one of the great love stories of the century. But as we read it in real time, Lewis more resembles a schoolboy who doesn't want to be seen walking home with a girl.
It's not at all clear why. Joy Davidman had been a Yale Younger Poet, cherry-picked by Auden, and held a master's degree from Columbia. Even Lewis's biographer and chum George Sayer, otherwise hostile to Davidman, describes her as an attractive, "amusingly abrasive New Yorker." Yet Lewis, in letters, had clumsily referred to her as "queer," "ex-communist, Jewess-by-race, convertite."
Under her influence, Lewis wrote his finest novel, Till We Have Faces. Yet he worried that the quotation on the title page -- Shakespeare's "Love is too young to know what conscience is" -- might be too close to the dedication. "Otherwise, though the lady would not, the public might, think they had some highly embarrassing relation to each other." Embarrassing? Like their wedding a week before, on April 23, 1956?
Davidman was diagnosed with cancer that summer, and Lewis finally 'fessed up with a wedding announcement the following Christmas. "You will not think anything wrong is going to happen," Lewis wrote to Dorothy Sayers. "Certain problems do not arise between a dying woman and an elderly man." Problems? Like sex? At times, he seemed to pass the marriage off as an act of charity.
In a sense it was -- but not in the way others guessed. Although many have impugned the motives of Davidman, the reason is revealed in a footnote: Lewis confided to his friend Sheldon Vanauken that he had married "to prevent the Government deporting her to America as a communist." She had been a prominent party member, and the congressional red scare was in full swing when she fled the United States.
Yet within a few months, Lewis was writing to Sayers, "My heart is breaking and I was never so happy before: at any rate there is more in life than I knew about." And elsewhere: "We are crazily in love."
A miraculous three-year remission ensued, providing the most blissful episode of Lewis's later life. Davidman died in 1960. Lewis followed on Nov. 22, 1963, the day President Kennedy was shot.
A humdrum life? Hardly. But most will read these letters for more than Lewis's life story. Through the triumphs and anguish, the frustrations and bereavement, Lewis's letters unspool his spiritual autobiography.
It's time to reclaim Lewis from the religious right, which has made of him an unlikely champion. The same audience would, perhaps, find it hard to square its adulation with his genuine curiosity about Hinduism, his love of The Iliad, his endorsement of Zoroastrianism as "one of the finest of the Pagan religions," and his eagerness to see more recognition for the Persian epic The Shahnameh. They might be more surprised that he supported his elder stepson's eventual entrance into a yeshiva. Lewis's religion was nuanced. He didn't believe in word-for-word inerrancy of the Bible, saying that too few "know by the smell . . . the difference in myth, in legend, and a bit of primitive reportage."
In any case, Lewis's wry, erudite, often spiritually profound letters are too good to be co-opted. He could be a bit of a prig, but his inner life is no dusty relic, irrelevant to our world today. In fact, in an era of New Age fuzziness, his mental clarity refreshes.
Reviewed by Cynthia L. Haven
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