March Artifact of the Month: Correspondence between Clyde Kilby, C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien

Today the Wade Center holds an abundance of resources, but the collection’s beginnings were modest and its future acquisitions rested on some key connections established by founder Clyde S. Kilby. Two of these relationships were with C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien. The correspondence they shared with Kilby remains at the heart of the Wade Center’s materials and represents some of our earliest accessions. The March “Artifact of the Month” highlights these two letter collections, and continues the celebration of the Wade’s 50th Anniversary year with a look back at these remarkable documents and the relationships they illustrate.

KILBY AND LEWIS

Clyde S. Kilby first encountered the work of C.S. Lewis around 1943 in a book titled The Case for Christianity, which contained content from some of Lewis’s BBC Radio talks later brought together under the title Mere Christianity in 1952. Kilby reflects in his personal history of the Wade Center on that first reading: “I bought the book and read it right through feeling almost from the first sentence that something profound had touched my mind and heart.” After reading more books by Lewis and becoming greatly interested in them, Kilby decided to write to Lewis on December 17, 1952 asking if he could schedule a visit with him during his upcoming trip to England in the summer of 1953. Lewis accepted Kilby’s request, and they met at Lewis’s rooms in Magdalen College, Oxford on July 1, 1953.

Envelope from Lewis to Kilby, sent February 11, 1957.

The memorable visit with Lewis is recalled by Dr. Kilby in Wheaton College’s Kodon magazine (December 1953, Vol. VIII, pp. 11, 28, 30). They discussed sixteenth-century literature, the Renaissance, and the relation of Christianity and art, which was, in Kilby’s words: “one of the main questions I wished to ask Mr. Lewis.” When asked if Lewis had any plans to visit America, he said he had no intention of doing so until his retirement (Lewis never did visit the United States). Kilby summarizes his time with Lewis at the end of the article by saying: “in all his talk there is an incipient good humor and genuineness that makes a conversation with him a real pleasure.” (28, 30)

Kilby continued his conversation with Lewis through a series of letters between 1953 and 1962. These fourteen letters, and Kilby’s article, are available for viewing in the Wade Center Reading Room; they include a discussion, amongst other topics, of Lewis’s book Till We Have Faces; scripture; recommendations of reading material; and news of Joy’s health, Lewis’s wife who was battling cancer. One memorable quote from Lewis’s February 10, 1957 letter to Kilby begins:

Dear Professor Kilby — An author doesn’t necessarily understand the meaning of his own story better than anyone else, so I give you my account of TWHF [Till We Have Faces] simply “for what it’s worth.” …

Intrigued yet? Visit the Wade Center to read more, or find the letter in volume 3 of The Collected Letters of C.S. Lewis edited by Walter Hooper.

Following Lewis’s death in 1963, Kilby maintained a lively correspondence and friendship with Warren H. Lewis, C.S. Lewis’s brother, which lasted until Warren’s death in 1973. Warren willed a variety of materials to the Wade Center, including his own personal diaries, excerpts from which were later edited and published by Clyde S. Kilby and Marjorie Lamp Mead in the book Brothers and Friends.

KILBY AND TOLKIEN

Clyde Kilby’s first visit with Tolkien was late in the afternoon of September 1, 1964, on one of his many trips to England from 1953 to 1979. Kilby had read, and duly admired, Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, and was keen to try and meet its author. After receiving encouragement from Dr. Robert E. Havard, Tolkien’s personal physician and fellow member of the Inklings, Kilby walked up to Tolkien’s front door and received a warm and cordial greeting. They shared two enjoyable visits in 1964 before Kilby’s return to the United States.

Envelope from Tolkien to Kilby, sent December 3, 1967.

After this first meeting, a correspondence between the two professors began, with the first letter from Tolkien written on November 11, 1964, and the last written on March 8, 1973. The Wade Center has fourteen letters from Tolkien to Kilby, only a few of which have been partially published in The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, edited by Christopher Tolkien.

The correspondence covers a wide range of topics, including notes on Tolkien’s work; comments on Tolkien’s The Smith of Wootton Major manuscript; discussion on the health of Edith Tolkien, Tolkien’s wife; and one of the most exciting events of Kilby’s friendship with Tolkien: a visit in the summer of 1966 to assist in the writing of Tolkien’s The Silmarillion. Tolkien had worked for years on the content of what later became The Silmarillion, and Tolkien enthusiasts, including Kilby, eagerly anticipated its publication. The work required to get it into a publishable form was substantial, however, and Kilby knew of the difficulty of the task. In a letter dated November 19, 1965, Kilby wrote to Tolkien to offer him any assistance he could provide in helping to prepare The Silmarillion for publication. Among his applicable skills he states that he is “1) a good typist, 2) a bit of a literary critic … 3) an enthusiast for your writings.” Tolkien responds on December 18, 1965:

TOLKIEN AND THE SILMARILLION by Clyde S. Kilby. Wheaton, IL: Shaw, 1976.

TOLKIEN AND THE SILMARILLION by Clyde S. Kilby. Wheaton, IL: Shaw, 1976.

I was deeply touched by [your letter], indeed overwhelmed by your generosity in offering to sacrifice your precious time (and holiday) in helping me. … [Y]our offer under heads 2) and 3) are extremely attractive. … If I had the assistance of a scholar at once sympathetic and yet critical, such as yourself, I feel I might make some of it publishable.  It needs the actual presence of a friend and adviser at one’s side, which is just what you offer.

The experience with Tolkien over the summer of 1966 is recorded in Kilby’s book: Tolkien and the Silmarillion, which is available along with the Tolkien and Kilby letters in the Wade Center Reading Room. The Silmarillion was published in 1977 by Christopher Tolkien after his father’s death. The third chapter of Kilby’s book was removed before publication at Christopher’s request to avoid revealing too much of the subject matter from the then unpublished Silmarillion. Kilby had also made some factual errors in the chapter given that his source material was based on his memory of oral communication with Tolkien. The third chapter has since been published in its entirety in volume 19 (2002) of VII, the Wade Center’s journal.

These letter exchanges give a unique view into the early days of the Wade Center and the important personal connections established with the authors (and their family and friends) now collected, studied, and celebrated here. They are a wonderful reminder of the past as we look into the future. Come read and enjoy them yourself!

One thought on “March Artifact of the Month: Correspondence between Clyde Kilby, C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien

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