Wednesday, 12 March 2014

Lewis on Leithian...

Towards the end of 1929 J.R.R Tolkien gave the typescript of The Lay of Leithian to C.S Lewis for him to read. On 7th December Lewis wrote to Tolkien and said:

"I sat up late last night and have read the Geste as far as to where Beren and his gnomish allies defeat the patrol of orcs above the sources of the Narog and disguise themselves in the rēaf. I can quite honestly say that it is ages since I have had an evening of such delight: and the personal interest of reading a friend's work had very little to do with it. I should have enjoyed it just as well as if I'd picked it up in a bookshop, by an unknown author. The two things that come out clearly are the sense of reality in the background and the mythical value: the essence of a myth being that it should have no taint of allegory to the maker and yet should suggest incipient allegories to the reader."

Some time after this, Lewis sent Tolkien fourteen pages of detailed criticism (you can find the bulk of these in volume III of The History of Middle-earth). This criticism he contrived as an heavily academic commentary on an antient text surviving in a few corrupt manuscripts, overlaid by scribal perversions in antiquity and the learned argumentation of nineteenth century scholars. It is noteworthy that nearly all the textual criticisms of Lewis were amended by Tolkien during his next revision of the Geste. What I like most about Lewis' criticism, quite apart from the quaint names of the 19th century scholars he invented (Peabody, for example, and Pumpernickel) and the seriousness with which he undertook the matter, is the feeling that it is a key moment in the development of Tolkien's legendarium. Tolkien said in later years that he was indebted to Lewis for sheer enthusiasm and encouragement, and this is so evident in these early days of their friendship.

I sometimes wonder if Tolkien's legendarium worked something towards Lewis' conversion to Christianity. Lewis' commentary on The Lay of Leithian was written before that fateful evening stroll in the Oxford Botanical Gardens; the evening on which Lewis and Tolkien debated the value of myths relative to Christianity and afterwards Lewis knelt down at his bedside and said his Pater Noster. If this is so, and Tolkien's sublime lay (sadly little known) should have proved a means of Grace, even for one person, then I think that the legendarium can be a real foundation upon which people can build their Christian faith.

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