Wednesday, September 9, 2009

C. S. Lewis on "A Long Expected Party"

For a long time, I've known through various bits and pieces, both from Tolkien and Lewis, that CSL didn't particularly like hobbit chatter. But I hadn't known how strongly Lewis felt about it until this week running across Lewis's letter to Thomas Howard, written in late 1958 (about two months before my birth). Learning that Howard had just read THE HOBBIT, Lewis writes "you are still only paddling in the glorious sea of Tolkien. Go on from THE HOBBIT at once to THE LORD OF THE RINGS . . . nearly as long as the Bible and not a word too long (except for the first chapter which is a botch -- don't be put off by it). THE HOBBIT is merely a fragment of his myth, detached, and adapted for children, and losing much by the adaptation. THE LORD OF THE R is the real stuff." [COLLECTED LETTERS OF CSL, Vol. III, pages 980-981].

There's so much of interest here. First, Lewis's wonderful phrase about "the glorious sea of Tolkien", which is almost as good as "lightning from a clear sky".

Second, there's the comment that THE HOBBIT originated as part of the legendarium, not as an independent work later incorporated within it. And this from the point of view of someone who read Silmarillion texts before reading THE HOBBIT as well as the first person outside the immediate family to read THE HOBBIT as soon as Tolkien finished it. A good witness to have on the side of those of us who emphasis THE HOBBIT's connections to the legendarium versus those who stress the stand-alone nature of the work.

Third, and most startling, is Lewis's dismissal of A LONG EXPECTED PARTY as "a botch"! That's pretty strong language. Tolkien had written, in his comments on his 1967 interview with the Plimmers, that the confrontation between Saruman and Gandalf the White "is in fact one of the very few places where . . . I found L's detailed criticisms useful and just. I cut out some passages of light-hearted hobbit conversation which he found tiresome, thinking that if he did most other readers (if any) would feel the same. I do not think the event has proved him right. To tell the truth he never really liked hobbits very much . . . But a great number of readers do" [JRRT to Charlotte & Denis Plimmer, Febr. 8th 1967; LETTERS OF JRRT page 376]. Now I know that Tolkien was not exaggerating or being overly sensitive. I wonder if Lewis ever used a term like "botch" to Tolkien himself at an Inklings, or how he phrased his displeasure. Lewis also disliked most of the verse in LotR ("poor, regrettable, and out of place" is how Tolkien summed up L's views in a 1953 letter to Rayner Unwin [LETTERS OF JRRT page 169]). The various Inklings always insisted that criticism of works presented at their meetings could be brutal, and taken together with THE NOTION CLUB PAPERS this seems to back it up. I know Lewis considered himself primarily a poet, and Barfield prized that part of Lewis highly; exchanging poems was a main part of their long correspondence. I'm trying to remember if Tolkien ever rates Lewis's poems. He must have liked at least one of them, since he includes it in a draft of BEOWULF: THE MONSTERS & THE CRITICS, paired with one of his own.

Food for thought.

--John R.

current reading: THE PLACE OF THE LION

1 comment:

Ardamir said...

Hello John,

of course The Hobbit, as it stands today, is "merely a fragment of his myth, detached". But I am not sure if the statement tells us anything about the thoughts CS Lewis would have had about it when it was in the early stages of composition. Would you care to elaborate a bit why you think this is a comment "that THE HOBBIT originated as part of the legendarium, not as an independent work later incorporated within it"?