From Narnia to a Space Odyssey

From Narnia to a Space Odyssey: The War of Ideas between Arthur C. Clarke and C. S. Lewis. Ed., and with introduction, by Ryder W. Miller. New York: ibooks, 2003. Soft-cover reprint [2005?]: ISBN 1-59687-143-1. 176 pp. $12.95.

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Reviewed by Joe R. Christopher

[This review originally appeared in Mythlore 27.3/4 (#105/106) (2009): 181–86.]

From Narnia to a Space Odyssey (a misleading title since Narnia is not important in the book) consists of three parts: several introductory essays, the sixteen- or seventeen-letter correspondence of Clarke and Lewis, and a section of stories and essays by the two authors. Several of the letters are reproduced (Lewis, 4, 44, 176; Clarke, 45). This review will take these up in this order: the letters (because this is the major interest of the book), the introductory essays, and the reprinted writings. The emphasis, of course, for this audience will be on Lewis.

But, first, a bibliographic note. The trade paper edition being reviewed has a different cover, different ISBN, and smaller size than the 2003 hardcover, but unfortunately does not give the year of its printing, though a check of WorldCat shows another paperback reprint dated 2005. In different printings, the subtitle varies between “War of Ideas” and “War of Letters.” The hardcover is distributed by Simon and Schuster; this softcover by Publishers Group West. Spot-checking has found no differences in the text between the two versions of the book; it is apparently a new printing, not a new edition.

The book was announced as the correspondence of Clarke and Lewis. The sixteen letters appear on pp. 36 through 52 (that is, sixteen pages of letters — fifteen if one makes allowance for the two half-pages of reproductions). At the end of the book appears a letter from Clarke to Lewis (“wherever you are . . .”) written for the book in 2003. All of Lewis’s letters are in Walter Hooper’s edition of the Collected Letters. The letters start from Clarke’s upset over a passage in Perelandra against Interplanetary Societies and Rocket Clubs that have the goal of mankind taking its corruption to other planets, and Lewis’s polite reply: (1) Clarke to Lewis, Dec. 1943; (2) CSL, 7 Dec. 1943 [Collected Letters, Vol. II, 593-94]. Thereafter come several letters when Clarke sends essays to Lewis or asks him to speak to meetings, and Lewis thanks him politely for the gifts and tells him of conflicts with speaking: (3) ACC, 23 Sept. 1946; (4) CSL 24 Sept. 1946 [741]; (5) CSL, 2 Oct. 1946 [742]; (6) CSL, 2 Jan. 1947 [752]; (7) ACC, 13 Feb. 1953; (8) CSL, 14 Feb. 1953 [Vol. III, 292-93]; (9) ACC, 16 Feb. 1953. The most interesting letter by Lewis in this group is the eighth — besides a joke in a post script, he comments “The fatal objection [to engaging in a debate at the British Interplanetary Society] is that I should be covering ground I have already covered in print and on which I have nothing to add. I know that is how many lectures are made, but I never do it.” Lewis’s attitude, of course, suggests why he produced such a variety of works. The final exchange takes place because Joy Davidman sent Lewis a copy of Clarke’s Childhood’s End, and Lewis replied to her with an enthusiastic letter; she showed Lewis’s letter to Clarke, and Clarke then wrote, wanting to use an excerpt on the British edition: (10) ACC, 17 Jan. 1954; (11) CSL, 20 Jan. 1954 [410-11]; (12) CSL, 20 Jan. 1954 again [411-12]; (13) ACC, 21 Jan. 1954; (15) ACC, 24 Jan. 1954; (16) CSL, 26 Jan. 1954 [417-18]. And then Clarke’s letter written to Lewis for this volume, with a reference to their meeting in a pub for a debate, with their seconds (Lewis was accompanied by Tolkien): (17) ACC, 17 July 2003.

And now for the major problem. Miller, the editor, says that he had problems reading Lewis’s handwriting (6). One wonders why he did not do a little investigation on where to get help and then contact the Wade Center — that is, for his original hardback edition. For the 2005 reprinting, if that is what it is, he had the first two volumes of the Collected Letters available to him (Vol. II appeared in 2004) and could have corrected many of these errors. The point is that all the substantive letters by Lewis have passages which make little sense:

If you find that the most popular stories were those in wh. its cowboys always betrayed his hearts to the crooks and deserted his girl for the vermin [...]. (No. 2)

Here is Hooper’s version:

[...] in which the cowboy always betrayed his pals to the crooks and deserted his girl for the vamp [...]. (593-94)

By the way, Miller misspells scientifiction as scientificition in this letter. (In a quotation from Perelandra, Miller renders it as scientification [16]; but he gets the correct spelling in Clarke’s first letter [36].) In the eighth letter, Miller transcribes Lewis’s “I might at a pinch show great fortitude about the boredom of the audience [...]” and “[...] I know the sort of thing” as “I might at a kind show [...]” and “[...] I know the best of thing.”

It would be overkill to quote the rest of the passages — some worse than these — but the reader is advised to read the eleventh, twelfth, and fifteenth letters with Hooper’s version at hand. (A few errors appear in Clarke’s letters, but none that make him sound like an idiot.) In short, as a book of the Clarke-Lewis correspondence, this volume is useful for Clarke’s.

The introductory essays consist of four items, the first three by Miller (“Introduction: The Other Clarke and Lewis,” 5-10; “C. S. Lewis: ‘Protector of the Heavens,’” 11-20; and “Arthur C. Clarke: ‘Man of the Century,’” 21-32). After these is a short preface by Clarke (33-34).

Miller’s introduction gives a background of the book and the letters, with a contrast of Lewis and Clarke. Oddly, Miller never mentions Clarke’s statement that religious belief is indistinguishable from insanity (made in 3001: The Final Odyssey, in Ch. 19, with a comment in Clarke’s notes at the back of the book identifying it as his opinion) — this would certainly have set up a basic contrast of Clarke and Lewis. Also, Miller claims that Clarke’s influence brought Lewis down to earth in That Hideous Strength (10; cf. 17), which certainly gives Clarke more influence over Lewis’s writing career than anyone else has ever found. What in the one letter Clarke had then written Lewis — in Dec. 1943 — so influenced That Hideous Strength, one wonders? Lewis’s book was published in England in 1945, but its preface is dated by Lewis as “Christmas Eve 1943.” This implies that the book was written before Christmas Eve. Actually, Lewis writes E.R. Eddison on 29 April 1943 that he has written “about 300 sheets” of the third book of the Ransom Trilogy (Collected Letters, II, 571), so Miller’s guess (probably based only on the book’s date of publication) does not seem supportable.

Miller’s essay on Lewis is also dubious at spots, partly because of seeming lack of knowledge. He never cites Lewis’s “A Reply to Professor Haldane,” which would have shown him that, for example, Lewis knew the canals did not exist on Mars when he wrote, and would have clarified the type of books that Lewis intended to write in the Ransom Trilogy. Thus, Miller attempts to explain away Lewis’s treatment of Mars:

The Space Trilogy was written in a different era from now, a time where [sic] we didn’t know as much about our neighbor worlds in the solar system. One could still write speculatively about our solar system, and its possibly inhabited worlds. (9)

What is wrong with this is not the basic facts but Miller’s assumption that Lewis wanted to be realistic.

One could go through the essay on Lewis, pointing to comments that seem much more at a popular, inexact level than well developed. One example may stand for several:

Lewis’s vision [in the Ransom Trilogy] departed from H. G. Wells’s The War of the Worlds, which he read as a child. He produced a vision of the cosmos without evil extraterrestrials and a controlling evolutionary framework. (14)

First, Wells’ The First Men in the Moon influenced the spaceship in Out of the Silent Planet and the discussion with the Grand Lunar in Wells’ book influenced the meeting with the Oyarsa of Mars. Horace Jules in That Hideous Strength is a parody of H. G. Wells. Thus, Wells is very important to two-thirds of the Ransom Trilogy, and Miller’s picking of a poor example of Wells’ influence seems beside the point. Second, if Miller had wanted to discuss why The War of the Worlds did not influence Lewis, he could have considered Lewis’s critique of the book in “On Stories.” (If he had wanted to discuss Lewis’s ideas on evolution, he could have started with Lewis’s “The Funeral of a Great Myth.”)

A more interesting comment by Miller on Lewis (if very obscurely stated) is this:

When it came to science, Lewis became uncomfortable when you judged him by the meaning of his works, rather than the intentions which he denied, but there is justification for doing so. (18)

What he seems to be saying is that Lewis’s fictional works reveal Lewis’s real attitudes, not his cleverly argued essays. Lewis’s answer to Haldane’s reading of NICE as revealing Lewis’s anti-science bias can be used as an illustration, since Lewis strongly denies that NICE has anything to do with real science and points to Hingest as an example meant to make this point. Miller (presumably) would insist that the depiction of NICE is an attack on science, even if Lewis did not understand it as such. Of course, some validity may be attributed to Miller’s position, for authors do not always control their works thoroughly. Lewis was an odd mixture: he sometimes had great control of his fiction, but nevertheless the works were based on an imaginative core arising as unexplained images to his mind. One would have liked to see what case Miller could have made for his position, but he did not develop it with specific details.

Equally intriguing is Miller’s comment that “some of [Weston's] arguments” in the debate before the Martian Oyarsa are those that will be “sanitized and embraced years later by the believers in scientific progress, including Arthur C. Clarke” (15). Obviously, the arguments for the celebration of Life already existed, and the later believers did not go to Lewis and carefully “sanitize” his arguments, but the tradition that Lewis was attacking is recognizable — Miller’s comment shows — in Weston’s apologia.

(Incidentally, Miller tends to see Clarke too much as the pro-science author. Clarke is an interesting example of someone who sometimes is very technically based in his fiction — as in A Fall of Moondust — and sometimes very romantic — as in Against the Fall of Night.)

And finally some brief comments on the selections chosen for the authors to fill out the volume. Clarke has the majority of the works — five stories and two essays; Lewis has two stories and one essay. Admittedly, if one is looking for Lewis’s short SF, one will not find much beyond “Ministering Angels” and “Forms of Things Unknown” (technically a science-fiction story and a science-fantasy story). Sometimes an interesting connection exists between the choices: presumably Clarke’s “A Meeting with Medusa” is meant to balance “Forms of Things Unknown” — one of Medusa’s sisters in Lewis and a form of life on Jupiter named after Medusa in Clarke. (Clarke uses a number of classical references in his story.) One of Clarke’s essays — “The Moon and Mr. Farnsworth” — oddly pushes the author toward Lewis’s position of not wanting mankind to spread its attitudes and actions onto other worlds, although for Clarke it is a quarantine only “for a few more centuries.” (Clarke includes Lewis as one of “the most dangerous enemies of astronautics” in this same essay.)

The problem with the selections from Lewis is that they do not argue his position very well. (The second story has flaws in it that may explain why Lewis did not publish it in his lifetime.) How about adding “A Reply to Professor Haldane” and “Unreal Estates” to “On Science Fiction” for more on SF, and “Religion and Rocketry” and “The Funeral of a Great Myth” for more on the relationship of science and religion? Obviously, Lewis has no more SF stories. (“The Shoddy Lands” does not have a science-fictional development). But one could add several poems by Lewis that deal with these themes. The obvious ones are “Evolutionary Hymn,” “Prelude to Space: An Epithalamium,” “Science-Fiction Cradlesong,” and “An Expostulation: Against too many writers of science fiction.”

What this review has said or implied several times is that this book is poor in dealing with Lewis. Its treatment of his letters is, frankly, subprofessional. It is useful for Clarke’s letters (only quoted in part in Hooper’s edition of Lewis’s letters), so anyone wanting to discuss the Clarke-Lewis relationship will need to have this book available. Clarke’s two-page preface to the book has a Tolkien anecdote unrelated to the pub meeting with Lewis and Clarke discussing space travel, and Clarke also says he does not remember for certain but he may have encouraged Joy Davidman to send Lewis the copy of Childhood’s End that then produced the blurb from Lewis. Despite these minor touches of interest, for most readers of Lewis this volume is not recommended.

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