by Devin Brown
A joint conference of The Frances White Ewbank Colloquium on C. S. Lewis and Friends and the C. S. Lewis and the Inklings Society was held recently at Taylor University. At one of the plenary sessions a new Lewis-related work was featured and given its official launch.
For Lewis fans, this is an amazing mystery not to be missed. Starr does a masterful job of not only guiding us, step-by-step, through the twists and turns of how this lost manuscript came to be found, he also does a wonderful job of untangling its possible meanings.
I recently was able to ask Charlie some questions about “Light”: C. S. Lewis’s First and Final Short Story.
Brown: Can you start by giving a short overview of what your new book is all about?
Starr: More than anything else this book was created to publish a never before released C. S. Lewis manuscript called “Light.” Although a version of the story was published in 1977 under the title, “The Man Born Blind,” that version was an early draft of the story. The final draft was lost to Lewis fans for decades, but fortunately it is now being released. The rest my book, then, explores the mystery, the history, and the meaning of the story Lewis called “Light.”
Brown: What are some of the mysteries you explore in it?
Starr: In the fashion of a literary detective, I examined several questions: What is the relationship between “The Man Born Blind” and “Light”? Are accusations of forgery which surround the story true, and how can we be sure this manuscript which appeared from out of nowhere in 1985, more than twenty years after C. S. Lewis died, is authentic? The most mysterious question may be this: what does the story even mean? But the most interesting mystery for me was the question of when the story was written. What I found was utterly unexpected and its implications for how we can interpret the story are significant.
Brown: How did your involvement in this project first come about and what were the initial steps you took?
Starr: In June of 2010 I saw the “Light” manuscript at Taylor University in Upland Indiana and became fascinated by its mysteries. A month later I approached Taylor about publishing the manuscript along with a book length study. Fortunately, Taylor was at that time looking to sponsor a scholarly project on C. S. Lewis in conjunction with Bob Trexler at Winged Lion Press; they were very interested in my proposal. The folks at Taylor, then, worked to get permission from the Lewis estate and various publishers to allow the publication of “Light.” Once all hurdles were crossed, I began to read existing criticism on the story, to work on transcribing Lewis’s unique handwriting, and to plan research trips to exotic locales (such as Indianapolis).
Brown: What happened next? I know that, for example, you had interactions with a number of people whose names will be familiar to Lewis fans.
Starr: Yes, my first stop on a year long pilgrimage to explore “Light” was the home of Dr. Edwin W. Brown, the first American owner of the “Light” manuscript who discussed its history and provenance with me at length. Additionally, I sailed to Malta (sadly only by email) to ask Lewis’s stepson Douglas Gresham about the story and its date. Gresham put an end to questions of forgery when he told me that he was certain “Light” is authentic because he remembered Lewis reading it to him! I spent a week at the Marion E. Wade Center at Wheaton College reading Lewis manuscripts and conferring with Marjorie Lamp Mead and Christopher Mitchell. Then I had the opportunity to fly to England and spend several weeks in Oxford where I studied Lewis manuscripts at the Bodleian library, discussed ideas for the book with Michael Ward, and interviewed Walter Hooper whose insights were key and whose company was delightful.
Brown: There are several unique facets of your book—including a reproduction of Lewis’s actual handwriting as it appears in this manuscript, which in itself will be of interest. What else does it provide that readers can’t get anywhere else?
Starr: Foremost, the “Light” story itself. Here’s a piece of Lewis fiction—a complete story—which has gone unpublished (or at least only published in what we now know is the wrong version) for decades. But besides publishing the story as Lewis would have wanted it (in chapter one), the book also publishes both the “Man Born Blind” and the “Light” versions of the story side-by-side for parallel comparison (in chapter nine). This includes three never before published revision paragraphs written between MBB and “Light.” As far as I know, an opportunity to examine Lewis’s revision process in this way is utterly unique to this book.
Brown: As you mention, you offer a number of interpretations of Lewis’s story, can you briefly discuss the reading you feel is strongest?
Starr: I don’t commit to any single interpretation of the story because, after learning what I have about the history of the story and dates of the manuscripts, I’m not convinced Lewis himself had a single interpretation in mind. However, my favorite interpretation of the story (because I’m a sucker for happy endings) is one which sees Robin’s search for Light as a parable of the longing, the deep desire, which so often inspires our own search for the Transcendent God of whom the apostle wrote, “God is light, and in Him there is no darkness at all” (I John 1:5). In this reading, Robin’s leap into the light does not end so much in death as it ends in the arms of God.
Brown: It seems to me that your book not only is a contribution in its own area but also has some ramifications for Lewis studies in a broader sense. Can you briefly discuss what you learned from your work on this project that might be helpful for dating Lewis manuscripts in general?
Starr: One of my most surprising findings was that C. S. Lewis changed his handwriting over the years, sometimes consciously, often not. Sometimes the “periods” in which Lewis wrote in a particular way are clearly definable. But even more subtle changes in his handwriting appear to the attentive eye. The teenage Lewis wrote differently from the adult Lewis. Three very different handwritings appear in the 1920s. Subtle changes appear in Lewis’s handwriting thereafter, and it might be possible to subdivide even later decades. The implication is that it is possible to use these differences to date heretofore undated Lewis manuscripts. It was commonly held, for example, that Lewis wrote “Light” in the late 1920s, before he became a Christian; however, an analysis of Lewis’s handwriting reveals that the versions we have were written much later. But I’ll say no more about that here—I don’t want to ruin the mystery which I tackle in my book.
Brown: Finally, did your research on this project change the way you read Lewis or think about him? And if so, how?
Starr: When you become a serious C. S. Lewis fan (serious enough to try to read everything he wrote and join in the conversation he’s sparked), Oxford becomes, if not your Mecca, at least your Graceland. Having read, studied and written about Lewis for decades, I’ve hoped for a long time that I would someday make the trip to Oxford to visit Lewis’s home, The Kilns, to spend a day in Blackwell’s, his bookstore, and to eat at the Eagle and Child, his pub. But I never thought I would get the chance. This book gave me a reason and the capital to hop the ocean and see where Lewis taught, walk down Addison’s Walk, and huddle over original Lewis manuscripts in the Bodleian for days. Now all the places I read about in Lewis biographies or his letters have a more concrete reality to me. When I read his books, I now see his haunts. For that I am immensely grateful.