C.S. Lewis Answers His Mail
C.S. Lewis (1898-1963) was first an Oxford University don (tutor or professor), then the same at Cambridge, where he taught Medieval and Renaissance Literature. He wrote several weighty tomes on this topic, but is best known for defense of Christianity in books such as Mere Christianity, The Problem of Pain and Miracles.
Few people realize what a diverse writer he was; he published poetry (Spirits in Bondage), a space trilogy (Out of the Silent Planet, Perelandra and That Hideous Strength), biography (Surprised by Joy and A Grief Observed and satire (The Screwtape Letters).
He is probably most beloved for his Chronicles of Narnia series. It is seven children’s books, and it has sold over 100 million copies in 41 languages. There have been several film versions of the books.
Due the diverse subjects about which he wrote, and perhaps because of his kindly Irish manner, Lewis attracted a great deal of mail from admirers. In fact, it was through one such letter that he met his wife, Joy Davidman, an American.
Lewis received a large amount of mail from children who adored the Chronicles of Narnia and were inspired to be writers. They had questions about how to write, and they wanted Lewis to read what they had written. He answered many such letters. It is always interesting to see how C.S. Lewis answers his mail. The letter that follows is from C.S. Lewis’ Letters to Children edited by Lyle W. Dorsett and Marjorie Lamp Mead.
26 June 1956
Thanks for your letter of the 3rd. You describe your Wonderful Night v. well. That is, you describe the place and the people and the night and the feeling of it all, very well — but not the thing itself — the setting but not the jewel. And no wonder! Wordsworth often does just the same. His Prelude (you’re bound to read it about 10 years hence. Don’t try it now, or you’ll only spoil it for later reading) is full of moments in which everything except the thing itself is described. If you become a writer you’ll be trying to describe the thing all your life: and lucky if, out of dozens of books, one or two sentences, just for a moment, come near to getting it across.
About amn’t I, aren’t I and am I not, of course there are no right or wrong answers about language in the sense in which there are right and wrong answers in Arithmetic. “Good English” is whatever educated people talk; so that what is good in one place or time would not be so in another. Amn’t I was good 50 years ago in the North of Ireland where I was brought up, but bad in Southern England. Aren’t I would have been hideously bad in Ireland but very good in England. And of course I just don’t know which (if either) is good in modern Florida. Don’t take any notice of teachers and textbooks in such matters. Nor of logic. It is good to say “more than one passenger was hurt,” although more than one equals at least two and therefore logically the verb ought to be plural were not singular was!
What really matters is:–
1. Always try to use the language so as to make quite clear what you mean and make sure your sentence couldn’t mean anything else.
2. Always prefer the plain direct word to the long, vague one. Don’t implement promises, but keep them.
3. Never use abstract nouns when concrete ones will do. If you mean “More people died” don’t say “Mortality rose.”
4. In writing. Don’t use adjectives which merely tell us how you want us to feel about the thing you are describing. I mean, instead of telling us a thing was “terrible,” describe it so that we’ll be terrified. Don’t say it was “delightful”; make us say “delightful” when we’ve read the description. You see, all those words (horrifying, wonderful, hideous, exquisite) are only like saying to your readers, “Please will you do my job for me.”
5. Don’t use words too big for the subject. Don’t say “infinitely” when you mean “very”; otherwise you’ll have no word left when you want to talk about something really infinite.
Thanks for the photos. You and Aslan both look v. well. I hope you’ll like your new home.