I rediscovered C. S. Lewis’ Letters to Children, edited by Lyle W. Dorsett and Marjorie Lamp Mead, on my bookshelf when I was trying to rearrange the books to make room for more. I had forgotten I even had it and had never read it, so I decided to save it for Carrie’s Chronicles of Narnia Reading Challenge this month.
The book was published after Lewis’s lifetime: my copy was published in 1985, about 20 years after Lewis’s death, but I am not sure if that is when it was first published. It’s a short book: 114 pages not counting the bibliographies at the back. The book opens with a forward by Doug Gresham, Lewis’s stepson, a brief introduction, and a short overview of Lewis’s childhood. The editors note that the letters are only representative samples: there were way too many to include all, and many of them answer the same questions.
What the editors don’t say is how they obtained the letters. He wrote most of them “in longhand with a dip-pen and ink” (p. 4), telling a correspondent in one of the letters, “You can drive a typewriter, which I could no more drive than a locomotive (I’d sooner drive the locomotive too)” (p. 77) (fascinating article on other reasons why he did not use a typewriter is here). Did he make carbon copies, or did some of the correspondents send their letters back to his estate? We’re not told, but we are told that “Originals or photocopies of the letters in this book are housed in either the Marion E. Wade Collection, Wheaton College, Illinois, or the Bodleian Library, Oxford” (. 7).
When reading the Narnia series, I have often marveled that a man with the education and brainpower Lewis had, and with so little real-life experience with children, could communicate so effectively with them. He’s neither condescending or cloying. In “On Writing to Children,” Lewis said, “The child as reader is neither to be patronized nor idolized: we talk to him as man to man.” That same perspective is reflected in his letters.
Many of the children’s letters ask about the Narnia series: questions about specific characters, when the next book would be out, why wasn’t he going to write more than seven, etc. Some of them carried on regular correspondence with him for years (as many as twenty years in one case), sending him pictures they made or bits of their own writing, which he critiqued honestly. Most are very short and to the point. One of the longest and most touching was to the mother of a boy who had written to him because the boy was afraid he loved Aslan more than Jesus.
Sometimes he shares just a glimpse of his home life and responsibilities: when the people he was caring for had problems, when his wife was ill, when he himself was ill. On a sad note, to his goddaughter, a few months after his wife died: “I couldn’t come to the wedding, my dear. I haven’t the pluck. Any wedding, for reasons you know, would turn me inside out now” (p. 94). And a funny one: “I’ve been having a…cyst lanced on the back of my neck: the most serious result is that I can never at present get my whole head & shoulders under water in my bath. (I like getting down like a Hippo with only my nostrils out)” (p. 37).
Assorted notes and quotes:
- When one girl wanted to know Aslan’s “other name,” he didn’t tell her directly but gave her several clues.
- When one girl questioned why the Pevensie children grow up in Narnia but are still children in our world: “I feel sure I am right to make them grow up in Narnia. Of course they will grow up in this world too. You’ll see. You see, I don’t think age matters so much as people think. Parts of me are still 12 and I think other parts were already 50 when I was 12: so I don’t feel it very odd that they grow up in Narnia while they are children in England” (p. 34).
- He tells several that the books are not an allegory like Pilgrim’s Progress in which everything represents something. They’re a “supposing” of what it might be like if there was another world with people that needed saving and Jesus came in the form of a lion rather than a man. “Reepiceep and Nick-i-brick don’t, in that sense, represent anyone. But of course anyone who devotes his whole life to seeking Heaven will be like Reepicheep, and anyone who wants some worldly thing so badly that he is ready to use wicked means to get it will be likely to behave like Nick-i-brick” (p. 45).
- A bit of humor: “I never saw a picture of a baby shower before. I had to put up my umbrella to look at it” (p. 47).
- On what happened to Susan: “The books don’t tell us what happened to Susan. She is left alive in this world at the end, having by then turned into a rather silly, conceited young woman. But there is plenty of time for her to mend, and perhaps she will get to Aslan’s country in the end–in her own way. I think that whatever she had seen in Narnia she could (if she was the sort that wanted to) persuade herself, as she grew up, that it was ‘all nonsense'” (p. 67).
- “A perfect man would never act from a sense of duty; he’d always want the right thing more than the wrong one. Duty is only a substitute for love (of God and of other people), like a crutch, which is a substitute for a leg. Most of us need the crutch at times; but of course it’s idiotic to use the crutch when our own legs (our own loves, tastes, habits etc) can do the journey on their own!” (p. 72).
- “American university teachers have told me that most of their freshmen come from schools where the standard was far too low and therefore think themselves far better than they really are. This means that they lose heart (and their tempers too) when told, as they have to be told, their real level” (p. 84).
- “You know, my dear, it’s only doing you harm to write vers libre. After you have been writing strict, rhyming verse for about 10 years it will be time to venture on the free sort. At present it only encourages you to write prose not so good as your ordinary prose and type it like verse. Sorry to be a pig!” (p. 87).
- When asked which of his books he liked best: Till We Have Faces (though he felt it “attracted less attention than any book I ever wrote,” p. 107) and Perelandra (p. 95).
- He often closed his notes by asking them to pray for him.
I loved this window into Lewis’s life and thinking.
(Sharing at Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books)