Wednesday, April 18, 2012

T. H. White, Inkling

So, one thing I saw at the H.R.H.R.C. in Austin was a letter from C. S. Lewis to T. H. White. Turns out this is indeed in COLLECTED LETTERS (which I really am going to have to get around to reading some time, however daunted by its vast bulk) but not in its proper chronological place: although having been written in 1947 it's not in Vol. II (1931-1949) but at the end of Vol. III (1950-1963), in the hundred-plus page Supplement of letters left out elsewhere for one reason or another.

Since the letter's readily available there, all I'll say about it here is that it's occasioned by the publication of MISTRESS MASHAM'S REPOSE, which delighted Lewis as much as White's earlier THE SWORD IN THE STONE (wh. I much prefer) had annoyed him. So much so that he wrote White a letter in mock-Swiftian prose -- not as good as the Johnsonian prose of his famous letter to Harwood, or the wonderful Malorian letter to Barfield (cf. MARK VS. TRISTRAM), or the pseudo-medieval letter(s) to E. R. E., but impressive nonetheless.

What really caught my attention, though, was the closing paragraph, wherein Lewis invited White to attend an Inklings meeting if ever he were passing through Oxford:

. . . If your occasions should lead you to these Academick Groves I shall beg leave to make you acquainted with half a dozen madcap fellowes* that have a freer and more masculine taste.** Till then, Sir, may you accept my Gratefull thanks for the Entertainment you have given me and believe me
your oblig'd obedient servant . . .

*this was my reading of the Ms. letter; Hooper in COLLECTED LETTERS prints instead 'Magdalen Fellows'. If I had the original in front of me I might be able to determine which is right; as it is, I give my reading as (a) being what I thought I saw and (b) making more sense, with the caveat that Hooper's certainly better at reading Lewis's handwriting than I am.

**i.e., than the woman mentioned two sentences before in the letter whose review of M.M.R. CSL thought insufficiently glowing.

The idea that T. H. White was invited to attend an Inklings meeting, much as CSL had invited Ch. Wms. eleven years before, tickles my fancy with what-ifs. So far as I know, White never took them up on this, and I'm sure that if he had one of the Inklings wd have mentioned it somewhere. In terms of his personal life, White would have been an uneasy fit for 'the Tolkien-Lewis seance', having been a minor second-generation associate of what people liked to call 'Bloomsbury' (though the same cd be said of Ld David Cecil, who seems to have fitted in well enough). But in terms of his love of the medieval -- translating the Bestiary, writing the most popular twentieth century Arthurian retelling -- he and Tolkien (who wrote four Bestiary poems and an unfinished retelling of the Arthurian myth himself) wd have had plenty to talk about.

Alas for the might-have-beens!

--John R.


N.E. Brigand said...

Coincidentally, the theme of last weekend's Tolkien conference at the University of Vermont was "Tolkien's Bestiary", and both Tolkien's own bestiary poems (two still unpublished) and T.H. White's translation of medieval Bestiary poems were mentioned in various papers.

David Bratman said...

This letter was previously found in the UT papers by Joe Christopher, and mentioned by him in an article in a CSL journal, long before the Collected Letters was published.

It is the combination of this, the invitation to Williams, and the invitation to Eddison, which makes sufficiency of a pattern that makes it reasonable to say that Lewis had something of a habit of writing to authors he admired and inviting them to the Inklings.

We don't know, in fact, for sure, if White never came to a meeting, though probably not, as Warren Lewis's diary gives fair coverage for this period.

In context, your "madcap fellowes" reading makes more sense than "Magdalen".