Friday, March 4, 2011

Lewis’s Lost Aeneid [Updated]

“Hardly any lawful price would seem to me too high for what I have gained by being made to learn Latin and Greek.”
— C.S. Lewis [1]

The remarkable news of the publication of Lewis’s partial translation of Virgil’s Aeneid is just beginning to spread across the internet. I learned of it myself via Facebook only this morning. A friend had posted a link to an article published in today’s Independent. This in turn led me to Amazon, where you can preorder C.S. Lewis’s Lost Aeneid: Arms and the Exile for a really good price right now (do it!). And from there to the Yale University Press, which describes the book thus:

C.S. Lewis (1898–1963) is best remembered as a literary critic, essayist, theologian, and novelist, and his famed tales The Chronicles of Narnia and The Screwtape Letters have been read by millions. Now, [editor] A.T. Reyes reveals a different side of this diverse man of letters: translator.

Reyes introduces the surviving fragments of Lewis’s translation of Virgil’s epic poem, which were rescued from a bonfire. They are presented in parallel with the Latin text, and are accompanied by synopses of missing sections, and an informative glossary, making them accessible to the general reader. Writes Lewis in A Preface to Paradise Lost, “Virgil uses something more subtle than mere length of time…. It is this which gives the reader of the Aeneid the sense of having lived through so much. No man who has read it with full perception remains an adolescent.” Lewis’s admiration for the Aeneid, written in the 1st century BC and unfolding the adventures of Aeneas, a Trojan who traveled to Italy and became the ancestor of the Romans, is evident in his remarkably lyrical translation.

C.S. Lewis’s Lost Aeneid is part detective story, as Reyes recounts the dramatic rescue of the fragments and his efforts to collect and organize them, and part illuminating look at a lesser-known and intriguing aspect of Lewis’s work.
A few additional details are known now (and I will share anything else I learn as soon as I know it): the ISBN is 978-0300167177, the book is 184 pp., and the list price is $27.50 ($17.06 on Amazon right now). You can see the cover design above.

Scholars have been aware of this translation for years. Tolkien alluded to it in a couple of letters to his son, Christopher, in the 1940s. In one of these, not published in Tolkien’s collected letters, but quoted in a footnote to letter #81, Tolkien referred Lewis’s “new translation in rhymed alexandrines of the Aeneid”. It was therefore apparently new (or newish) in the Fall of 1943 — or at least new to the Inklings. Editor Andy Reyes tells us that Lewis first began work on the translation a decade earlier, in 1935, but returned to it periodically over the ensuing twenty-five years or so. I am not going to troll through Lewis’s letters searching for references to this translation in order to attempt to say more — surely this will be a big part of Reyes’s introduction, and I look forward as much as any of you to learning more.

The appearance of this translation is a most welcome addition to Lewis’s published works. I can only hope it opens the door a little wider to let Tolkien’s unpublished Beowulf translations come through in the near future as well. More details to come!

I have heard back from editor A.T. Reyes, who kindly provided a few additional details:
The translation is not complete, with the largest selections coming from books 1 (which is complete), 2, and 6. There are also fragments from books 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, and 12. The book itself consists of: a foreword by Walter Hooper; a preface by David Ross, formerly Professor of Latin at the University of Michigan and one of the great experts on Virgil; an introduction by me; the transcription of Lewis’s translation, together with a parallel Latin text; and then assorted appendices with a final index of classical names and allusions.

[1] Lewis, C.S. Rehabilitations and Other Essays. London: Oxford University Press, 1939, p. 64.


  1. I would love to read the Professor's Beowulf so I hope you are right!

    Namarie, God bless, Antane :)

  2. I look forward to the Lewis Aeneid book.

    Do you have any information on the extent of Tolkien's Arthurian poetry/poetic fragments?

  3. Tolkien's unfinished "Fall of Arthur", I have heard, has 954 lines.

  4. To those of us who have been studying posthumous Lewisiana for years, the phrase "rescued from a bonfire" sets off a distinct chorus of warning bells, which none of the testimony that Lewis really did write such a translation can allay.

  5. David, I am sorry (but not surprised) to hear that. I understand the situation, but it’s really a shame that Hooper and the Lewis Estate have lost your trust. Myself, I don’t have the necessary information, experience, and context for a strong opinion one way or the other.

  6. You may have misread me. I don't have a strong opinion one way or the other either. I did not dismiss it as false, I said it sets off a distinct chorus of warning bells, and it should set off one for you as well, especially given your last sentence.

  7. I’m not sure what you mean, David. Which last sentence of mine? The one in the main post, prior to the update, or in my penultimate comment? I’ll comment further, but I cannot do so until I know what you meant. I’m surprised to hear you say you don’t have a strong opinion, because it certainly sounds as if you do. You say you don’t dismiss it as false, but your comment suggests you think it more likely to be false than to be true, no? If that’s not what you meant, that I really did misread you and perhaps you should elaborate.

  8. About Tolkien's Translation of Beowulf, Drout said here:

    "I am now working with the Estate, figuring out how best to edit Tolkien’s unpublished translation of Beowulf (which C. S. Lewis edited for him) and his various unpublished commentaries on the poem"

    That page says copyright 2008. I realize that is pretty old but I don't think I've seen any more recent comments by Drout. I want to hope this means the project is going forward. Does anyone know anything else?

  9. The link you posted is much older than 2008. In fact, those comments are something close to a decade old already. Read the following article (from 2006), which should catch you up. I’m not aware of any substantial developments since this.