LITERATURE LETTERS

The Lion in Winter

Reviewed by Cynthia L. Haven
Sunday, January 14, 2007

THE COLLECTED LETTERS OF C.S. LEWIS

Volume III: Narnia, Cambridge, and Joy 1950-1963

Edited by Walter Hooper

HarperSanFrancisco. 1,810 pp. $42.95

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.


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