"som poore seely wench that seeketh a B.Litt or a D.Phil,
when God knows shad a better bestowed her tyme
makynge sport for some goodman in his bed
and bearing children for the stablishment of this reaulme
or els to be at her beeds in a religyous house"
(CSL to ERE, Nov. 16th 1942; COLLECTED LETTERS Vol. II p. 535).
That's appalling enough. But when Eddison, in his response, asked the name of the person who'd written about him and the title of her book, Lewis professed ignorance, saying he'd forgotten both.
Thanks to the good work of Eddison scholar Paul Thomas, who shared his discovery with me, I now know both name and title: Helen E. Haines' WHAT'S IN A NOVEL (1942). Far from being a graduate student, Haines was seventy at the time, and a distinguished figure in the field of library science (a discipline she helped establish), making Lewis's dismissive comments all the more jarring (and thus relevant to my essay).
But now having gotten my own copy of her book (which was v. popular in its day, and hence easily available on abebooks or bookfinder.com), I find it interesting in its own right. For one thing, she does not just mention Eddison's WORM, as I'd assumed from Lewis's letter, but all three of Eddison's novels: THE WORM OUROBOROS, MISTRESS OF MISTRESSES, and A FISH DINNER IN MEMISON, the last of which having only been published the year before. The context, too, is significant: Haines, who's recommending books for the typical library, devotes an entire chapter to fantasy, called "Spells, Signs, and Symbols" and including therein science fiction, utopias, et al.
Of modern fantasy writers, she says two stand out: James Branch Cabell and E. R. Eddison. After discussing Cabell's Poictesme novels and ERE's three books, she immediately segues into Rbt Nathan, who shd probably be considered the third in her unofficial pantheon at the core of modern fantasy -- not at all a bad choice, though I wd have included Dunsany. His being sidelined (appearing only in the opening paragraph to this chapter in her general overview of the field's range, and in a line about his minor late novel MY TALKS WITH DEAN SPANLEY in her penultimate paragraph) shows just how much his star had fallen since his glory days in the late teens.
So far, so good. Yet it's that penultimate paragraph that ultimately turns out to be the most interesting thing about her whole book.* As she's wrapping up, she pauses at the end to single out two bright young talents: T. H. White's THE SWORD IN THE STONE** and J. R. R. Tolkien's THE HOBBIT. I've asked around, and so far as I've been able to find out so far, this marks the first critical discussion of THE HOBBIT in a book, all previous known references having been in book reviews and the like. So Haines is near the well-head of Tolkien criticism. And let's not forget that her book was popular, widely read and widely influential. Her praise of JRRT no doubt helped spread word that here was a good book you ought to consider having in your town library.
Here's what she has to say about Tolkien:
. . . the whole sequence [by T. H. White] is a unique,
many-faceted commentary on Arthurian legend and
on the deep-rooted, traditional English way of life.
To many readers they may seem books for children,
but in reality they are full-fledged fantasy at play for
old as well as young. So is The Hobbit, or, There
and Back Again, that adventure into the land of Faerie,
where dragons, elves, goblins, dwarves, and creatures
of magic still challenge the dominion of men. Written by
J. R. R. Tolkien, professor of Anglo-Saxon at Oxford,
for his own children, it fuses legend, tradition, and the
dim beginnings of history into a robust imaginative
creation that mingles homely simplicity, humor,
drama, pictorial beauty, and a truly epic quality.
--Haines, p. 217
I think that holds up pretty well, seventy-odd years later. Now I'm curious what Haines has to say about other genres and categories of fiction, such as the detective novel, the subject of her next chapter, "The Lure of Crime" (curiously enough, she credits Woodrow Wilson with a role in its rise to popularity).
current reading: C. S. LEWIS AND THE MIDDLE AGES by Boenig (2012)
*caveat: at least as much as I've read of it so far.
**and its first two sequels, which again were v. recent books at the time Haines was writing, the three volumes having been published in 1938, 1939, and 1940, respectively.