In the spring of 1921, some eight years before his conversion to Christianity, C. S. Lewis said this about death:
I have seen death fairly often and never yet been able to find it anything but extraordinary and rather incredible. The real person is so very real, so obviously living and different from what is left that one cannot believe something has turned into nothing, It is not faith, it is not reason– just a “feeling.” “Feelings” are in the long run a pretty good match for what we call our beliefs.
True and not true, of course. More than a feeling, but definitely something that involves feelings. It’s interesting, particularly in light of Lewis’s lifelong quest for Joy, which must in some way subsume death, too.
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I’ve decided to spend some time reading the letters of Lewis and Tolkien as much “in tandem” chronologically as possible. The big problem with that, I’m realizing, is that my collection of Tolkien letters doesn’t kick in for a good while when compared to Lewis’s.
In the quote above, Lewis is responding to the death of William Kirkpatrick, who was something of a giant and patron in Lewis’s early life. An early letter from Tolkien to Geoffrey Smith, a dear friend and fellow member of the “Tea Club and Barrovian Soiety,” also deals with death loss. One member of their group, Rob Gilson, had died in July of 1916 i the war. It brings out thoughts of “greatness” in Tolkien, and a real sense of loss early on. He wrote:
God grant that this does not sound arrogant– I feel humbler enough in truth and immeasurably weaker and poorer now. The greatness I meant was that of a great instrument in God’s hands– a movie, a doer, even an achiever of great things, a beginner at the very least of large things.
The greatness which Rob has found is in no way smaller– for the greatness I meant and tremblingly hoped for as ours is valueless unless steeped with the same holiness of courage and suffering and sacrifice– but is of a different kind. His greatness is in other words now a personal matter with us– of a kind to make us keep July 1st as a special day for all the years God may grant any of us . . .
It is interesting to read young Lewis alongside young Tolkien, particularly as Tolkien’s faith was steady and pronounced early on. His is a long obedience in the same direction earlier on than with Lewis, which makes their connection later in life such a promising and hopeful sign.