Monday, July 28, 2008

At the Kilns: Letters to a Friend

Arthur Greeves
I recently borrowed from the library a collection of letters by C.S. Lewis called They Stand Together: The Letters of C.S. Lewis to Arthur Greeves (1914-1963). Arthur Greeves was one of C.S. Lewis oldest and most cherished of friends. Next to his brother W.H. Lewis or his wife Joy Davidman, I do not think C.S. Lewis had a closer friend in his life. The book contains the nearly all Lewis’s correspondence with Greeves during the course of his lifetime. The book, which is currently out-of-print, runs over 500 pages.

I am sporadically reading through the weighty tome, and I am utterly amazed at Lewis’s intimacy, candidacy, and his fluidity of writing. His gift for communication is clearly evident in even his earliest letters to Greeves.

One of the biographical aspects that struck me was the impression I get that Lewis liked the “look of books” almost as much as the content of the books he read. It seems that he and Arthur purchased and repurchased books in various editions based on their aesthetically pleasing binding (I must admit that I have done the same thing myself...). Most people who are familiar with Lewis are aware that he read copiously. However, it is still astonishing how much Lewis read. He frequently comments to Greeves about his reading such-and-such a book or re-reading such-and-such an author. He read classical literature, he read widely in English literature and European literature, and he read a considerable amount of contemporary literature.

In one letter to Arthur, Lewis describes his present enjoyment while reading Tolstoy’s War and Peace. He recommends that Arthur read the book himself. He writes,

I strongly advise you to try it. Its length, which deters some people, will not frighten you: you will only rejoice, when the right time comes, —say after tea some day next autumn when fires are still a novelty—at that old, delicious feeling of embarkation on a long voyage, which one seldom gets now.
After reading these words, I was struck with a longing for a cool autumn night in order to begin my own “embarkation” into the world of Tolstoy's War and Peace.

All of the letters I have read are compelling reading. It is particularly striking to read about his thoughts on Christianity as they develop from atheism to unshakable faith in Jesus Christ. In one particularly famous letter, we learn about Lewis’s late night “memorable talk” about Christianity while strolling Addison’s walk with Tolkien and Hugo Dyson. In the letter, dated October 1st, 1931, Lewis writes to Greeves,

How deep I am just now beginning to see: for I have just passed on from believing in God to definitely believing in Christ—in Christianity. I will try to explain another time. My long night talk with Dyson and Tolkien had a good deal to do with it.
Hopefully this most fascinating and incredibly valuable collection of letters will find its way back into print. For my present copy of the book, well, it is due back to the library today.


Jennie said...

I wonder why such a book would be out of print. Yours, Jack--having just been published seems like reason enough for such a book to still be in print.

I, too am fascinated by Lewis' profound insight, yet, stated so simply at times that even a child might understand it. I love the way he "disagrees" with tact and grace.

War and Peace--I wonder how many times he read it, as I read about his REREADING it--because of "the great beauty of long books is that however often you read them there are still large tracts you have forgotten."--Yes--to have a friend like Arthur Greeves would be special. When I read these letters I feel like I've been transported to another time. I suppose in many ways, I have.

Jeremy W. Johnston said...

Hi Jennie,

The editor of the They Stand Together is Walter Hooper, who just recently completed a mammoth three volume collection of the letters of C.S. Lewis, spanning from 1905 to 1963. It includes the letters to Arthur. The task of compiling and editing the three volumes of letters has taken Hooper decades. I suspect he has been so devoted to this task that the notion of republishing the collected letters to Arthur Greeves has been on the backburner.

What I like about this collection of letters to Greeves, is that it demonstrates Lewis's development of "friendship"---an aspect of the human experience Lewis wrote much about. Hopefully, it will be republished soon.

Years ago I also came across a great Lewis quote on long books: "You can't get a cup of tea big enough or a book long enough to suit me." I love it!

You are absolutely right about Lewis's tact and grace in disagreeing. His arguments are thoroughly Christian as is his manner of delivering them. I need to remind myself to be as gracious and tactful in my own "debates" with others!

Thanks for you comment.


Jennie said...

Thanks for your post! It's great to have a C.S. Lewis kindred spirit. Seems they are few and far between!

I'm still thinking about the long books and disembarkation..Makes me want to give War and Peace a try!! I teach literature, but to students in grade 8 gifted/talented. We read the classics, but it is not as supported as it could be, I think.

I think I will try my library for some of those out of print works.

Looks like a new addition to your family, I hope you can continue to find time to post on your blog. !!