Wednesday, July 15, 2009

An Unwritten Book

So, we've known for a long time* that Tolkien and Lewis once thought of collaborating on a book about language ("Nature, Origins, Functions"), called at one point LANGUAGE AND HUMAN NATURE. The two men first came up with the idea in late 1944, at the same time that Tolkien was starting up THE NOTION CLUB PAPERS and Lewis began (or at least came up with the idea for) THE DARK TOWER (cf. JRRT's 18 December 1944 letter to Christopher, which discusses all three works; LETTERS p. 105) and abandoned the project around the beginning of 1950 -- or at any rate that is when Lewis gave up on it (see Lewis's letter of January 12th 1950, published in COLLECTED LETTERS Vol. III pages 5-6). Blame for the project's floundering, or rather for its never getting off the ground, has by all commentators been laid entirely at JRRT's door, because Lewis implies in his 1950 letter that it was all Tolkien's fault. I've always had a suspicion, which I now find is widely shared, that Lewis's late book STUDIES IN WORDS, which from what little I've read of it seems thoroughly Barfieldian in approach, was Lewis's attempt to write up the project on his own, just as THE DARK TOWER can be seen as his giving up on Tolkien's writing a time-travel story to match his own space-travel story OUT OF THE SILENT PLANET, as per their original bargain back in the spring of 1936. I've also attributed Tolkien's hostility to STUDIES IN WORDS ("ponderous silliness"—cf. JRRT's 12 Sept 1960 letter to CT; LETTERS p. 302) to the same source; nothing aroused his ire so much as something than ran close to something he was interested in writing himself, or actually had written -- witness his distaste for Charles Williams' Arthurian poems, which he did not discover until some time after writing his own Arthurian work (the still-unpublished THE FALL OF ARTHUR).

So, as I said I've always assumed that STUDIES IN WORDS was as close to 'LANGUAGE AND HUMAN NATURE' as we were ever going to get, and not particularly close at that, as Tolkien's criticism of that work shows.

Turns out I was wrong. Because, as I learned this week from reading Jason Fisher's blog, a researcher from Texas is claiming that he's found a draft of a fragment of this work in the Bodleian, in a notebook containing various odds and ends by Lewis. According to the following piece, which I found by following the link on Jason's site (, Professor Beebe, the Chairman of the Dept. of Communication Studies at Texas State, has an article describing the discovery in the next volume of VII, and negotiations are now underway with the Lewis Estate to publish the fragment itself -- no doubt with added editorial material recounting what little is known about the project, the story of the fragment's re-discovery, and a placing of what Lewis says in it in context with his other works. This is something I very much look forward to, both Beebe's essay and the eventual publication of the original piece.

In any case, here's Jason's original post announcing the discovery:

and here's his thoughtful follow-up discussion of its possible ramifications:

--if you follow this link, be sure to read the comments as well, in the first of which Beebe himself elaborates a bit about his forthcoming article in VII. Well done, Jason, for discovering and spreading the news.

current audiobook: THE LOST CITY OF Z by David Grann

*I first learned about it in LETTERS OF JRRT in 1981, though apparently first public mention of it had come in Chad Walsh's book on Lewis in 1949.

1 comment:

Jason Fisher said...

Thank you very much, John. :)