Academic journal article Mythlore

Literary Dependence in the Fiction of C.S. Lewis: Two Case Studies

Academic journal article Mythlore

Literary Dependence in the Fiction of C.S. Lewis: Two Case Studies

Article excerpt

Numerous writes quotes C.S. Lewis's Statements that David Lindsay's Voyage to Arcturus inspired him to make planetary travel a vehicle for spiritual pilgrimage. A handful of writers credit V.A. Thisted's Letters from Hell--or at least its title--for inspiring The Screwtape Letters. It appears, however, that few writers have read either book, or we would expect to find more comment about Lewis's extensive and specific borrowing from them. While more than a dozen books, medieval to modern, have been cited by various writers--including Lewis himself--as source material for his interplanetary novels, the neglect of these two important sources calls for correction.

This article will show Lewis's substantial use of narrative details from Lindsay and Thisted to help frame his own very different ideas. I will contend that Lewis was in the first case indifferent to, and in the second case unconscious of, his dependence on the two earlier works. Because indifference may imply culpability to some readers, I will end with some observations about originality and attribution in medieval writing and how Lewis applied that understanding in his own fiction.

In order to evaluate the character of Lewis's use of sources, one must first consider in detail Lewis's dependence on Lindsay and Thisted in Lewis's planetary novels, the aborted novel "The Dark Tower," and The Great Divorce. It is in the context of this dependence that I comment on the lack of attention paid to these books by other writers and address the issues of originality and attribution on the part of Lewis.


Writers about Lewis's fiction have produced more than a hundred monographs and dissertations that extemporize on Lewis's work--often with profound insight--but few analytical treatments that attempt a comprehensive account of his literary and historical antecedents. In the case of Voyage to Arcturus (henceforth VA), despite Lewis's open acknowledgement in both letters and publications of the book's influence, Lindsay's work receives no mention whatsoever in dozens of treatments of Lewis's fiction, mere passing reference in dozens more, and no more than a paragraph or two in the few writers who give evidence of having read Lindsay at all. In the second case, Letters from Hell (LH), I can find only three sources that offer details of its influence on Lewis--one two sentences in length, another one sentence. The scarcity of Thisted's book and its relevance to The Great Divorce (GD) rather than The Screwtape Letters (SL) may help to explain, but not to excuse, its almost total neglect on the part of Lewis scholars.


The data presented here constitutes only a case study that a Lewis scholar may incorporate in a broader treatment. A Voyage to Arcturus is hardly the sole or even primary source for the Ransom books. A thorough treatment would examine H.G. Wells's First Men on the Moon and the "scientism" of J.B.S. Haldane's Possible Worlds and Olaf Stapledon's First Men, all of which Lewis cited in the same letter as influences just after finishing Out of the Silent Planet (OSP; Letters [L] II 236-237). In past issues of this journal, Robert Boenig discusses correspondences in Wells; Douglas Loney observes that Lewis "systematically raided" (14) E.M. Forster's stories "The Other Side of the Hedge" and "The Celestial Omnibus" for OSP and GD; Charles Huttar finds dependence on Eliot's "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" in the opening scenes of GD. These are only a few near-contemporary examples; Lewis also borrowed material from a host of older sources, from medieval writers to Milton.

Although Lindsay's book was published in 1920, Lewis read it much later. He first mentions VA in two letters to Arthur Greeves, the last dated December 1935, when Lewis was seeking a copy (L II 151, 170). In December 1938 he recommends the book to Roger Lancelyn Green (L II236). …

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