Friday, July 10, 2009

The Lewis/Tolkien collaboration that might have been (but never was)

Yesterday, I touched on the exciting discovery of an unpublished C.S. Lewis manuscript and promised to bring you a fuller picture of the material, its background, and implications soon. Well, dear readers, how soon is now? (Wouldn’t “The Smiths of Wootton Major” be a great name for a cover band? ;)

Dr. Steven Beebe has very kindly taken time out of his busy schedule (he leaves for Oxford again next week) to provide a little more detail on his discovery. For the full story and Dr. Beebe’s analysis, we will have to wait for next year’s Seven — and for publication of the fragment, somewhat longer. In the meantime, I have learned that the manuscript is fairly brief, seven and one-half pages long, written in ink in Lewis’s characteristic handwriting. Also, Dr. Beebe tells me that the handwriting deteriorates toward the end (I wonder whether he’s ever taken a stab at untangling Tolkien’s difficult “spidery hand”?), which suggests these pages were probably written all in a single sitting. As to the content, Lewis “spends the opening couple of pages developing a precise definition of ‘language’ and the nature of language and then provides information about the meaning of meaning” [1].

This choice of words put me in mind of The Meaning of Meaning: A Study of the Influence of Language upon Thought and of the Science of Symbolism, by C.K. Ogden and I.A. Richards, both of Magdalene College, Cambridge (not to be confused with Lewis’s Magdalen College, Oxford). This book was published in 1923 and was widely read and influential, and is in fact still in print today. Its table of contents has much in common with other works on language by the Inklings (I am thinking of Lewis’s Studies in Words and Barfield’s Poetic Diction, in particular). Barfield definitely knew The Meaning of Meaning. He refers to it explicitly in the preface to the second edition of Poetic Diction, where he takes the opposing view, explaining that Poetic Diction was meant, in part, to answer Ogden and Richards. [2] It seems likely to me that Lewis also had it in mind to make some answer to Ogden and Richards in his planned book with Tolkien, and I would have expected the same of Tolkien had he ever written a single word for the project. Lewis wrote as late as 1950 that Tolkien had not, and we have no reason to suspect that he ever did. Unless I have missed it, the Tolkien scholars in the best position to know whether Tolkien ever penned anything at all, Wayne Hammond and Christina Scull, do not even mention the planned collaboration at all in their J.R.R. Tolkien Companion and Guide.

Somewhat of a surprise to me, Dr. Beebe actually discovered the manuscript seven years ago — interesting, the preponderance of sevens: a seven-page manuscript, discovered seven years ago, being discussed in the journal Seven. He tells me, “I knew it was an unpublished manuscript about language but I didn’t make the connection that it was the planned Lewis/Tolkien book until this past spring when I was a visiting scholar at Oxford University during my sabbatical from Texas State University. I had a chance to visit with both Walter Hooper and Michael Ward about my conclusions while I was in Oxford” [3].

What more do we know about this planned collaboration between Lewis and Tolkien? Not a great deal — and this is no surprise, since in the end, their plans came to nothing — but we do know a little. Tolkien and Lewis refer to the project in passing in subsequently published correspondence [4]. Joe Christopher wrote about the planned book in the journal, Mythlore, in 1975 [5]. There, he referred to a much earlier published reference to the collab-oration: Chad Walsh’s C.S. Lewis: Apostle to the Skeptics, a short book published in 1949. In that book, Walsh refers to a forth-coming (as he then thought) “text on semantics, Language and Human Nature, to be written jointly by Lewis and his friend, Prof. F. R. R. Tolkien [sic], but” (he writes) “I gather that it is still in the blueprint stage” [6].

Joe Christopher goes on to speculate that some of what Lewis would have written might have found its way into Studies in Words, while some of Tolkien’s thoughts might have ended up in the essay, “English and Welsh”. To that I would add that some of Tolkien’s views were undoubtedly hinted at in “On Fairy-stories”, particularly in the comments he addressed to Max Müller.

It strikes me as distinctly possible that Lewis incorporated some of his thinking into Studies in Words, though Dr. Beebe has said that the manuscript fragment “us[es] examples and illustrations not found in any of his published work” — particularly likely in the introductory and concluding (“At the Fringe of Language”) chapters. Studies in Words was first published in 1960, and though only a decade later, the relationship between Lewis and Tolkien had cooled considerably. For his book, Lewis solicited Tolkien for some linguistic commentary to incorporate into its second chapter, but he used very little of it, evidently pricking Tolkien’s pride a little. Tolkien wrote to his son, Christopher:

I have just received a copy of C.S.L.’s latest: Studies in Words. Alas! His ponderous silliness is becoming a fixed manner. I am deeply relieved to find I am not mentioned.

I wrote for him a long analysis of the semantics and formal history of *BHŪ with special reference to φυσις. All that remains is the first 9 lines of PHUSIS (pp. 33-34) with the characteristic Lewisian intrusion of ‘beards and cucumbers’. The rest is dismissed on p. 36 with ‘we have not a shred of evidence’. He remains at best and worst an Oxford ‘classical’ don – when dealing with words. I think the best bit is the last chapter, and the only really wise remark is on the last page: ‘I think we must get it firmly fixed in our minds that the very occasions on which we should most like to write a slashing review are precisely those on which we had much better hold our tongues.’ Ergo silebo. [7]

Judging from these rather harsh words, the planned collaboration had by this time become impossible, if not just on the basis of time, then certainly on the basis of the diminishing compatibility of their viewpoints. In some ways, this “long analysis” might be construed as Tolkien’s one contribution to the planned collab-oration — the spirit of it, anyway — but it too remains unpublished (and let’s be honest, would be of very limited interest to most readers). Happily, the Lewis fragment hopefully will be published; Dr. Beebe is in discussion with the Wade Center about it even now. And it promises to be very interesting indeed!

[1] Private correspondence with Dr. Steven Beebe.

[2] Myers, Doris T. C.S. Lewis in Context. Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press, 1994, pp. 4–11.

[3] Private correspondence with Dr. Steven Beebe.

[4] For example, see Tolkien, J.R.R. The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien. Ed. Humphrey Carpenter. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1981, letter #92, p. 105, where Tolkien wrote to his son Christopher at the end of 1944: “We also begin to consider writing a book in collaboration on ‘Language’ (Nature, Origins, Functions).” In a footnote to that letter, Carpenter adds that “this book was to be called ‘Language and Human Nature’ and was to be published [in 1949] by the Student Christian Movement Press.” For his part, Lewis wrote in January of 1950 that “My book with Professor Tolkien — any book in collaboration with that great but dilatory and unmethodical man — is dated, I fear, to appear on the Greek Kalends.” Yet it did not appear even then. (Letters of C.S. Lewis. Revised and enlarged edition. Ed. Walter Hooper and W.H. Lewis, San Diego: Harcourt Brace, 1993, p. 399).

[5] Christopher, Joe R. “A Note on an Unpublished (and Probably Unwritten) Collaboration.” Mythlore #10, Vol. 3, No. 2 (1975): 29. More recently, see also Diana Glyer’s excellent book on collaboration among the Inklings, The Company They Keep. Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press, 2007, p. 146.

[6] Walsh, Chad. C.S. Lewis: Apostle to the Skeptics. New York: Macmillan, 1949, p. 10.

[7] Tolkien, Letters, p. 302.


  1. A comment to the foregoing post which I’m passing along, gratefully, directly from Dr. Steven Beebe —

    “Thanks for doing such an excellent job of summarizing not only my work but also including several references to the Lewis / Tolkien planned collaboration that I had also included in the Seven article. When the article is published next year, although the manuscript is a mere fragment of what was planned, I believe it will nonetheless illustrate Lewis’s keen insights about language, words and communication. He makes allusions to what I believe are counter arguments to Ogden and Richards’ ideas about the meaning of meaning, and in typical Lewis style, uses perfect illustrations and examples to illuminate his ideas. I hope you and those who read my Seven article find it a useful contribution to Lewis studies.”

  2. What do you mean, "not to be confused with Lewis’s Magdalen College, Oxford"? Lewis was connected with both Magdalen(e) Colleges, the Cambridge one being where his 1954-63 professorship was attached.

    Tolkien's comment on Studies in Words is often quoted, but nobody ever seems to attach the relevant Lewis quotation to it. It's short enough that I may fairly do so here. This is what Tolkien said remained from what he wrote and to which Lewis added the "beards and cucumbers":

    "(G)nasci and kind have a common root, if you go far enough back. Phusis has quite a different origin. Its representatives, or what seem to be its representatives, in various Indo-Germanic languages suggest two main branches of meaning; the one, something like 'inhabit, live (at), dwell, remain, be' (at a place or in a condition); the other, 'to grow (transitively, as one "grows" cucumbers or a beard, and intransitively as beards and cucumbers grow), to become'."

  3. Hi David. Yes, you're right, I wasn't clear. What I should have said was Magdalene College, Cambridge was not to be confused with Magdalen College, Oxford, where Lewis was teaching all through the period of Ogden and Richards’ influence, Barfield’s answer to them in Poetic Diction, Tolkien’s “On Fairy-stories”, Lewis and Tolkien’s plans to collaborate on Language and Human Nature, etc. In other words, with the bulk of the subject of my post. As you know, Lewis taught at Magdalen College for roughly three decades (1925–54), Magdalene for less than one (in the last decade of his life), though he was there at the time he wrote Studies in Words. Too, it is Magdalen (not Magdalene) to which Inklings scholars refer in those innumerable references to meetings of the Inklings, strolls along Addison’s Walk, etc. But yes, you are right: Lewis was associated with both colleges, though I believe the two colleges had nothing to do with each other. In any case, I hope this clears that up for anyone who was confused. For a bit more detail, see Walter Hooper’s C.S. Lewis Companion & Guide, pp. 772–4.

    Thanks, too, for adding the quotation from Studies in Words. Personally, I never found “beards and cucumbers” at all intrusive — or silly. Quoting Tolkien’s reaction without more context, however, may have made it appear that I was siding with him. I wasn’t. Quite the contrary; I love Studies in Words and think Tolkien was too hard on it (and Lewis). As I said, I think it was more a matter of wounded ego that Lewis chose not to use the majority of Tolkien’s notes that bothered him.

  4. We do mention the proposed collaboration in the Companion and Guide, in the Chronology entry for 18 December 1944, quoting as you did from Tolkien's letter to Christopher. But we overlooked it when writing our essay on Lewis in the Reader's Guide (the essay written last of all, and when the volume was already over length), and will put an addendum on our website. As far as we know, Tolkien wrote nothing for the proposed book.

  5. Wayne and Christina, thank you for clarifying. I did read the Lewis essay, and I skimmed through that decade in the Chronology, but I missed your mention of it there. And now that I think of it, I can’t imagine why I didn’t just go directly to the date of the letter! D’oh! I also checked your index for references to it, but didn’t see anything there. (Not that this is a fault of the index; it is probably not worth an entry.)

  6. Dear Jason, thank you for amplifying this good news. God bless you, Professor Beebe!
    Sadly, as we all know, Tolkien was reluctant to show his views and opinions through essays. He always preferred 'mythopoeic inuentio'. Perhaps On Translating Beowulf, as well as Beowulf: the Monsters and the Critics, are also the right places to dig and find a complete but splintered explanation of his vision on language. My guess is that Tolkien was closer to Barfield, as Verlyn F. has pointed out.
    All the best,

  7. Thanks for the comment, Eduardo. :)

  8. Jason, unrelated question. Hope you don't mind.

    In the Wikipedia article on Robert E. Howard, the creator of the Conan the Barbarian character, Tolkien is mentioned under the "Critical Appreciation" section as saying he "rather liked" Howard's Conan series. This was apparently said in an interview, and referred to in de Camp's book also mentioned in the section. I don't really want to buy, borrow, or read this book (and don't know if it's credible at any rate), so I was wondering if you had yourself, in all of your expertise, come across Tolkien having an opinion about Howard's Conan stories, and if so, where to find that. I'm sure it's a needle-in-a-haystack kind of question, but perhaps you have an answer. Worth a shot.

    Or anyone else besides Jason. Thanks, yo.

  9. Hi Alex. I know very little about this myself, but Dale Nelson sums up what little there is to say in his entry on Robert E. Howard in J.R.R. Tolkien Encyclopedia, which — fingers crossed that the link works correctly — you can read here. (You may have to scroll up or down slightly.)