Lewis on Storytelling
C. S. Lewis (Walter Hooper, ed.), Of Other Worlds
(Harcourt Brace & World, 1967)
This slender grab bag (long and short essays, a recorded conversation about science fiction with Brian Aldiss and Kingsley Amis, three brief science fiction stories, fragments of a scarcely started novel) centers on the writing and reading of stories. The gems of the collection are “On Stories”, which explores the relationship between “story” and “plot” and would be valuable reading for the many authors whose fictions serve up immiscible blobs of action and characterization and “atmosphere”, and “On Science Fiction”, which skillfully analyzes the merits and defects of the several subspecies of fantastic literature. The latter essay includes the best single sentence of advice to writers that I have ever read: “Whatever in a work of art is not used, is doing harm.”
My fears of such a tyranny will seem to the Professor either insincere or pusillanimous. For him the danger is all in the opposite direction, in the chaotic selfishness of individualism. I must try to explain why I fear more the disciplined cruelty of some ideological oligarchy. The Professor has his own explanation of this; he thinks that I am unconsciously motivated by the fact that I ‘stand to lose by social change’. And indeed it would be hard for me to welcome a change which might well consign me to a concentration camp. I might add that it would likewise be easy for the Professor to welcome a change which might place him in the highest rank of an omnicompetent oligarchy. That is why the motive game is so uninteresting. Each side can go on playing ad nauseam, but when all the mud has been flung every man’s views still remain to be considered on their merits.
From "A Reply to Professor Haldane"
Two incomplete essays found after Lewis’ death are full of interest. “On Criticism” is a tour, slightly irritated in tone, of book reviewers’ bad habits. The one skewered most vigorously is the practice of making guesses about how the book under review came to be written and substituting that account for real analysis. Lewis observes that he has received this treatment himself on many occasions and has never known a single one of the reviewers’ invented histories to be accurate.
“A Reply to Professor Haldane” defends the Perelandra trilogy against the criticisms of a Marxist scientist, who professes to believe that the novels are steeped in hostility to science as such. (Haldane’s title was “Auld Hornie, F.R.S.”) Lewis deftly argues for a distinction between science and the totalitarian ideologies that frequently call upon distortions of science for their support. He evidently finished the essay but for some reason did not submit it for publication, and a few pages have been lost from the middle. That lacuna may explain why it has been reprinted only once since its appearance here. Even Lesley Walmsley’s massive C. S. Lewis: Essay Collection and Other Short Pieces leaves it out.
The other nonfiction pieces are slighter, though not without interest. One, “It All Began With a Picture. . . .”, is a pithy description of how Lewis’ fiction sprang from “seeing pictures in my head”.
The short stories are minor efforts. The scraps of a novel, set in the aftermath of the Trojan War, were written when Lewis’ health was failing; in his younger days, they might have eventuated in an equal to Till We Have Faces
, but the author did not live to take the tale very far. The central conceit - that the gods spirited Helen safely away to Egypt at the start of the war and put a simulacrum in her place at Troy - is an ancient variant of the Trojan legend. Lewis’ variant on the variant is to draw attention to the consequences of the real woman’s vulnerability to age, while her double remains young and beautiful.
This book was one of the earliest posthumous Lewis collections and the first to contain previously unpublished essays. The fact that it remains in print, despite the fact that almost all of the contents are available elsewhere, is testimony to the excellence of the selections.