Sunday, May 28, 2017

Little-known Lewis letters

I happened upon a copy of Richard Purtill’s C.S. Lewis’s Case for the Christian Faith on Friday. A first edition, 1981. Fairly early in Inklings criticism. It’s not a book I was familiar with, but I know Purtill from a couple of his other books, Lord of the Elves and Eldils: Fantasy and Philosophy in C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien (1974) and J.R.R. Tolkien: Myth, Morality, and Religion (1984). Even though Lewis’s Christian apologetics are not my primary interest, what sold me on taking this book home was the dust-jacket promise of quotation from unpublished letters. Even better, the notes at the end of the book clearly identify each unpublished letter by date and recipient, and best of all, there were 15 of them.

Now I fully expected that some of these letters had probably been published since 1981, but the chance of finding some interesting material not otherwise available was worth a few dollars. I wasn’t disappointed. 10 of the 15 cited letters were printed in collections published after Purtill’s book, but 5 were not, and as far as I know, have never been and therefore might only be available to the public in this one book. There are all sorts of valuable nuts squirreled away in old, out-of-print books, aren’t there? [Actually, it looks like you can still by this book for Kindle and in a softcover Ignatius Press reprint edition. But so many others have actually gone out of print.]

I’ve gone through them one by one, and as a public service, I’d like to share my findings with you. I checked Walter Hooper’s revised and enlarged edition of Letters of C.S. Lewis and the three-volume The Collected Letters of C.S. Lewis. I didn’t exhaustively search other Lewis references such as Hooper’s Companion and Guide or any of the biographies; it’s possible one or more of these letters is quoted in one of those works. If anyone is aware of one, please do let me know. Likewise, if I have somehow missed one in the works I did check.

Here is each reference in order:

Chapter 1

To Miss Rhona Bodle, 11 March 1945
This letter was subsequently printed in The Collected Letters of C.S. Lewis, Vol. 3, but it is there dated 11 April 1950 — a significant disagreement.

To Sister Madelva, 19 March 1963
This letter was subsequently printed in The Collected Letters of C.S. Lewis, Vol. 3, but dated 3 October 1963 — a smaller disagreement than the previous letter but placing it much closer to the end of Lewis’s life. One would have to check the dates in the original letters to be sure, but I expect Purtill is the one who is wrong.

To Ruth Pittinger, 17 July 1951
This letter was subsequently printed in The Collected Letters of C.S. Lewis, Vol. 3, but the recipient is Ruth Pitter, not Pittinger. Another strike against Mr. Purtill’s attention to detail.

Chapter 2

To Miss Jacob, 3 July 1941
So far as I know, this letter has not been printed anywhere else. Here is the quotation:
There might be good superhuman beings of limited power (I suspect there are millions). What is this power limited by? I suppose by the general nature of things. Alright. Now is that general nature of things itself a conscious being or the work of chance? If the latter, then how did it produce the superhuman good being? Just by a lucky fluke? If the former, then a conscious being further back, the ultimate one, is what we call God and the whole problem is about Him. (qtd in Purtill, p. 16)
To Dom Bede Griffiths, 7 January 1936
This letter was subsequently printed in The Collected Letters of C.S. Lewis, Vol. 2, but dated one day later, 8 January 1936.

Chapter 3

To Sister Penelope, 30 December 1950
This letter was subsequently printed in Letters of C.S. Lewis, rev. and enlarged ed., and in The Collected Letters of C.S. Lewis, Vol. 3.

To Miss Jacob, 15 August 1941
So far as I know, this second letter to Miss Jacob has not been printed anywhere else. Here is the quotation:
I do feel very strongly the difficulty you raise, “If man fell, then man must be made of poor stuff, and why did God make him so?” But then I am always pulled up by realizing that when I am arguing this way I am actually denying freedom. We are saying, “If he fell he was made of poor stuff.” Does that imply “If he had been made of good stuff he could not have fallen?” If not the whole argument collapses: for if a creature made of good stuff could fall the fact of man’s falling does not prove he was made of bad stuff. If so (i.e. if it does imply this) then we are saying that a really good creature would be incapable of moral choice — which is almost saying, “A good creature means a creature incapable of real goodness.” For surely power to be good and to be bad go together, and when you remove one you remove the other? E.g. take away a creature’s sexuality and you have made not only chastity but unchastity impossible for it. Every new faculty opens up new possibilities both of good and of evil. I don’t think that we show any particular personal stupidity in forgetting this: the truth is that freedom and choice, though we all believe in them are strictly incomprehensible to the human mind. You start by admitting them: but when one tries to think of them one always lets them slip through one’s fingers. (qtd in Purtill, p. 38)
Chapter 5

To Mr. Canfield, 28 February 1955
So far as I know, this letter has not been printed anywhere else. Here is the quotation:
I’m not a fundamentalist in the direct sense: one who starts out by saying, “Everything we read is literal fact.” The presence of an allegorical or mystical element in Genesis was recognized by St. Jerome. Origen held Job to be a moral fable not a history. There is nothing new about such interpretation. But I often agree with the Fundamentalists about particular passages whose literal truth is rejected by many moderns. I reject nothing on the grounds of its being miraculous. I accept the story of the Fall, and I don’t see what the findings of the scientists can say either for or against it. You can’t see for looking at skulls and flint implements whether Man fell or not. But the question of the Fall seems to me quite independent of the question of evolution. I don’t mind whether God made Man out of earth or whether “earth” merely means “previous material of some sort.” If the deposits make it probable that man’s physical ancestors “evolved,” no matter. It leaves the essence of the Fall itself intact. Don’t let us confuse physical development with spiritual. (qtd in Purtill, p. 57–8)
Chapter 7

To Dom Bede Griffiths, undated [1930]
So far as I know, this letter to a frequent correspondent of Lewis’s has not been printed anywhere else. Here is the quotation:
I sometimes have the feeling that the big mass-conversions of the Dark Ages, often carried out by force, were all a false dawn and the whole work has to be done over again. As for the virtuous heathen, we are told that Our Lord is the savior “of all men” though “specifically of those who believe.” As there is vicarious suffering, is there not also vicarious faith? (qtd in Purtill, p. 81)
To Dom Bede Griffiths, 27 June 1949
This letter was subsequently printed in The Collected Letters of C.S. Lewis, Vol. 2.

To Dom Bede Griffiths, 27 September 1948
This letter was subsequently printed in The Collected Letters of C.S. Lewis, Vol. 2.

To Dom Bede Griffiths, June 1937
This letter was subsequently printed in The Collected Letters of C.S. Lewis, Vol. 2, dated more precisely to 27 June of that year.

Chapter 8

To Mr. Masson, 6 March 1956
This letter to Keith Masson — in part about masturbation! — is in The Collected Letters of C.S. Lewis, Vol. 3, but dated June 3. Purtill slipped on Lewis’s date of “3/6/56”, forgetting that the British put the day before the month.

To Miss Rhona Bodle, 28 April 1955
This letter was subsequently printed in The Collected Letters of C.S. Lewis, Vol. 3.

To Dom Bede Griffiths, 24 December 1946
So far as I know, this Christmas Eve letter is another that has not been printed anywhere else. Here is the quotation:
But one mustn’t assume burdens that God does not lay on us. It is one of the evils of the rapid diffusion of news that the sorrows of all the world come to us every morning. I think that each village was meant to feel pity for its own sick and poor whom it can help and I doubt if it is the duty of any private person to fix his mind on ills he cannot help. (This may even become an escape from works of charity we really can do to those we know.) A great many people (not you) now seem to think that the mere state of being worried is itself meritorious. I don’t think it is. We must, if it so happens, give our own lives for others; but even while we’re doing it I think we’re meant to enjoy Our Lord, and, in Him, our friends, our food, our sleep, our jokes, and the birds and the frosty sunrise. As about the distant, so about the future. It is very dark: but there’s usually light enough for the next step or so. Pray for me always. (Purtill, p. 103)
So we have a total of five quotations that may have only ever appeared in print in Purtill’s book, more than 35 years ago. Hopefully someone out there will find this post a helpful pointer to them. I should add one more time a caveat lector, since Purtill has shown himself prone to mistakes, but such as they are, these quotations are still quite interesting.