Beebe discovers unpublished C.S. Lewis manuscript

Posted by University News Service
July 8, 2009

What if two of the most famous and widely read 20th Century authors who have each individually sold millions of copies of their books had written a book together?  

C. S. Lewis, author of the Narnia Chronicles and Screwtape Letters, and J. R. R. Tolkien, author of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, had planned in the 1940s to write a book together about Language. According to a letter written by Tolkien in 1944 to his son Christopher, the collaborative book was to be called Language and Human Nature. A news release from their publisher announced that the book was scheduled for publication in 1950. It was, however, never published. Scholars have thought, until now, that it was never started.

Steven Beebe, Regents’ Professor and Chair of the Texas State Department of Communication Studies, discovered the opening pages of the unpublished manuscript in the Oxford University Bodleian Library and has recently documented that the manuscript was the beginning of the previously believed to be unwritten Lewis and Tolkien book.

Although C. S. Lewis started the book, there is no evidence that Tolkien began work on the project.

“What is exciting” said Beebe, “is that the manuscript includes some of Lewis’s best and most precise statements about the nature of language and meaning.  Both Lewis and Tolkien wrote separately about language, communication, and meaning, but they published nothing collaboratively.”

The article Beebe wrote documenting his discovery, “Language and Human Nature Manuscript Fragment Found: C. S. Lewis On Language and Meaning,” will be published next year in the Journal Seven: An Anglo-American Literary Review. The journal Seven publishes scholarship that focuses on the work of seven prominent 20th Century British authors including both Lewis and Tolkien.

The partial book manuscript Beebe found was in a small notebook on which Lewis had written the word “Scraps.” Included in the tattered notebook are early fragments of two Narnia Chronicles, The Magician’s Nephew and The Voyage of the Dawn Treader along with unpublished ideas about a variety of topics. 

Beebe discovered the book fragment by turning the little notebook upside down and reading from back to front.

“I was so surprised to find Lewis writing about language and meaning, using examples and illustrations not found in any of his published work,” said Beebe. “I knew I had discovered something interesting.But at the time, I didn’t know I had found something important.”

It was several years after finding the manuscript after doing additional research about Lewis and Tolkien that Beebe concluded that the manuscript was the beginning of the lost book.  

In Lewis’s own distinctive handwriting the opening sentence clearly indicates that Lewis was writing a book about the nature and origins of language—the topic of the planned Lewis and Tolkien book. Further evidence that the manuscript is the beginning of the coauthored book project is the fact that Lewis wrote about “our statements” and used the phrase “authors consider,” rather than writing in the first person singular as Lewis often did. Because the newly discovered manuscript is copyrighted, it is not yet available for publication.Permission must be granted by the Lewis estate, and that process is in progress. When it is published, Beebe believes the manuscript will add new insights about Lewis’s ideas into the nature of language, with a special emphasis on the oral aspects of language, and about how meaning occurs when humans communicate.

Beebe teaches a course about Lewis and communication called “C. S. Lewis:  Chronicles of a Master Communicator,” both on the Texas State campus in San Marcos and in a special class that will be taught this July and August at Oxford University.   When teaching the class in Oxford rather than meeting in a in a classroom, most sessions are taught at various sites throughout Oxford, including Lewis’s home, the Kilns; Magdalan College, the college where Lewis taught; as well as the room in the Eastgate Hotel where Lewis first met his wife, Joy Davidman. Their love story was the subject of the movie Shadowlands, in which Anthony Hopkins played Lewis and Debra Winger portrayed Joy.

“My goal in teaching the course in Oxford,” said Beebe, “is to bring Lewis to life and have students discover Lewis’ approach to communication. Discovering Lewis’ unpublished ideas about language and human nature adds depth to our discussion of his approach to communication,” said Beebe.