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Yesterday, I touched on the exciting discovery of an unpublished C.S. Lewis manuscript and promised to bring you a fuller picture of the material, its background, and implications soon.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.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Tolkien Studies 6 has arrived — and an exciting discovery!

The latest issue of Tolkien Studies (Volume 6) has begun to reach its subscribers. John Rateliff, whose essay “A Kind of Elvish Craft: J.R.R. Tolkien as Literary Craftsman” is the lead article, wrote Tuesday that he had received his copy. My own copy arrived in the mail yesterday. For those who have been trolling Amazon, it is apparently not yet available for order there; however, it has been available for a little while direct from WVUP. To order it, you can follow this link.

One interesting mistake: the cover image shown at the WVUP website is actually the cover for Volume 5! So, to my knowledge, the public at large has not yet seen the cover. Well, until now (see above right — click to enlarge). The cover image was clearly chosen to synergize with John Rateliff’s essay. It’s from Tolkien’s Plot Notes A, from the original manuscripts of The Hobbit. I do not think this holograph page has been published anywhere else before. Considering Tolkien’s eye-splitting handwriting, readers will be glad to refer to Rateliff’s The History of The Hobbit, p. 293, for a transcription of the manuscript page.

And speaking of manuscripts, there is BIG NEWS is the world of C.S. Lewis today. Professor Steven Beebe of the Texas State University at San Marcos (almost in my back yard, so to speak) has apparently come across Lewis’s unfinished and unpublished manuscript for Language and Human Nature, a book Lewis planned to write in collaboation with J.R.R. Tolkien during the 1940s. (See Tolkien’s letter #92, and its second footnote.) The book was never published, but I was unaware until now that any substantial material for it existed. Dr. Beebe has written an essay on the discovery, “Language and Human Nature Manuscript Fragment Found: C. S. Lewis On Language and Meaning”, to be published in the next volume of Seven. I’ll be bringing you more on this very exciting new development in Lewis studies as soon as I have anything concrete to share, but in the meantime, you can read a little bit more here.