The only thing better than reading C.S. Lewis’s novels would be listening to Lewis himself read from his novels. It is now possible to hear Lewis reading from both Perelandra (1943) and That Hideous Strength (1945). Additionally, Lewis fans can listen to him reading the famous opening section of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales in resonant Middle English.
The Marion E. Wade Center, in partnership with the Rabbit Room, is releasing all three segments of “The Lost Lewis Tapes” to the public. Excerpts of the tapes, along with in-depth analysis of the Ransom trilogy, are available for free on the Wade Center Podcast. All three segments (45-minutes in total) are now available in the Rabbit Room store.
These tracks were first recorded at Lewis’s home, the Kilns, in August 1960. After Joy Davidman Lewis passed away in July 1960, her former husband, Bill Gresham, traveled to Oxford to see his two sons, David, 16, and Douglas, 14, as well as to meet Lewis face to face. Gresham brought a portable tape recorder with him and apparently asked Lewis if he would do some readings. Lewis chose to read nearly all of Chapter 3 in Perelandra for 27 minutes, narrating in detail the scene in which Ransom first arrives on the sea-swaddled world of Venus. The next reading is nearly 9 minutes long and comes from Chapter 13, section 1, in That Hideous Strength. This is the scene in which the newly-awakened Merlin interrogates Ransom about his credentials, ultimately kneeling before the man he recognizes as the Pendragon, the one person who has the authority to carry the secrets of Logres (the spiritual dimension of Britain) into the modern world.
The third segment features Lewis declaiming the General Prologue to Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales in impeccable Middle English for over 8 minutes. He may be reading the text, but then again he may be reciting. (Both Lewis and Tolkien had near-photographic memories, and Tolkien is known, on at least one occasion, to dress up in Chaucerian garb and recite “The Nun’s Priest’s Tale,” again in Middle English, from memory.)
The original source for these audio files is a 5-inch reel-to-reel tape stored in the in the archives of the Marion E. Wade Center in Wheaton, Illinois. This tape came to the Wade Center in 1982, purchased from Bill Gresham’s widow, Renee. Dr. Lyle Dorsett, a professor of history at the University of Colorado, interviewed Renee when he was writing the very first biography of Joy Davidman Lewis, And God Came In (1983). Dr. Dorsett arranged for the Wade Center to purchase some of Bill Gresham’s papers, including this vintage audiotape. (Dr. Dorsett served as Director of the Wade Center from 1983-1990.)
The files on old-school magnetic tape are a delight to listen to, though clearly homemade. Lewis has a mesmerizing voice, reading in a confident, steady tempo with just enough dramatic flair to fit each sentence of his prose. The Perelandra segment begins “This is from chapter three of Perelandra, Ransom’s arrival on the planet Venus.” Lewis reads the chapter from his classic fantasy novel with a spell-binding bass voice in what Americans think of as “the Oxford accent,” but with a few hints of an Irish brogue.
The audio segments seem to have been recorded with little or no editing. Lewis occasionally coughs or clears his throat during the reading, and at one point we can hear a fly buzzing around the room. At another point, we hear heavy steps ascending creaky stairs, which Douglas Gresham guesses was Warren Lewis heading upstairs to bed. How vividly these small background noises evoke the whole world of the Kilns in Lewis’s later years.
One can’t help but wonder how Lewis chose the sections of the Ransom trilogy he decided to read on tape. In the first segment, Ransom plunges through the radiant atmosphere of Venus, feels his coffin-like spacecraft melt around him, and encounters a world of golden skies, massive waves, sweet-water seas, and floating islands. Though these early scenes contain many hints that Ransom has landed in an unspoiled planet, he himself, from a violent, fallen world, is full of doubts and anxieties. Only at the end of the chapter does Ransom begin to wonder if he has indeed found a mythical paradise that has been drawing him with cords of longing since his childhood.
Lewis’s immediate audience for this impromptu reading seems to have been his 14-year-old stepson, Douglas Gresham, and Douglas’s father, Bill. Lewis may have wanted to choose a sample that was a lively, stand-alone chapter, needing little exposition. He may have also wanted to enthrall both of his listeners in the room with an imaginative immersion into Joy, the yearning for some lost paradise that is also a pleasure to feel. In the second excerpt, the conversation between Merlin and Ransom in That Hideous Strength, Lewis seems to have found another good stand-alone scene. This is the moment when the newly awakened Merlin questions the injured Ransom about his credentials for carrying on spiritual warfare on planet Earth. Eventually, the haughty and skeptical magician from King Arthur’s day humbly kneels before the seated Ransom, acknowledging him as the Lord’s anointed in the upcoming battle with the forces of evil.
Of course, one can never know why Lewis chose these passages to read or how they were received by his immediate listeners. Whatever their immediate effects, these recordings are likely to become an ongoing source of edification and delight for listeners more than a half a century later. What more can we ask than to hear Lewis’s inimitable prose read in his own inimitable voice?
- Perelandra (27:00): Lewis reads nearly all of Chapter 3 from the second novel of his Ransom Trilogy, narrating in a mesmerizing and confident voice Ransom’s arrival on the watery planet Venus.
- That Hideous Strength (9:13): For over 9 minutes, Lewis dramatizes Merlin’s interrogation of Elwin Ransom about his credentials as the Pendragon from Chapter 13, section 1.
- Bonus: Canterbury Tales (8:35): Lewis declaims the Prologue to Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales in impeccable Middle English, possibly from memory.