Thursday, March 20, 2008

From Manuscript, et cetera, to Book

Below is an interesting introduction, explaining how a literary manuscript, marginalia based on a lost letter, a series of lectures, and oral history culminated in the publication of a book:


[by C. S. Lewis]

When Charles Williams died in 1945 he left two works unfinished. One was a long lyric cycle on the Arthurian legend of which two installments had already appeared under the titles of Taliessin through Logres (1938) and The Region of the Summer Stars (1944). The other was a prose work on the history of the legend which was to have been entitled The Figure of Arthur. The lyrical cycle is a difficult work which, if left without a commentary, might soon become another such battlefield for competing interpretations as Blake's Prophetic Book. Since I had heard nearly all of it read aloud and expounded by the author and had questioned him closely on his meaning I felt that I might be able to comment on it, though imperfectly, yet usefully. His most systematic exposition had been given to me in a long letter which (with that usual folly which forbids us to remember that our friends can die) I did not preserve; but fortunately I had copied large extracts from it into the margin of my copy of Taliessin at the relevant passages. On these, and on memory and comparison with Williams's other works, I based a course of lectures on the cycle which I gave at Oxford in the autumn of 1945. Since a reasonable number of people appeared to be interested I then decided to make these lectures into a book.

It soon became clear that I could hardly explain the narrative assumptions of the cycle without giving some account of the earlier forms of the story—a heavy task which I shrank from undertaking. On the other hand, those to whom Williams had committed the manuscript of the unfinished Figure of Arthur were at the same time considering how that fragment could be most suitably published. The plan on which the present book has been arranged seemed to be the best solution of both problems. In it Williams the critic and literary historian provides an introduction to my study of Williams the Arthurian poet; or, if you prefer, I add to Williams’s history of the legend an account of the last poet who has contributed to it—namely, Williams himself. Chapters IV and V of his work I saw for the first time when Mrs. A. M. Hadfield sent me a typed copy of them. The two first chapters had been read aloud by the author to Professor Tolkien and myself. It may help the reader to imagine the scene; or at least it is to me both great pleasure and great pain to recall. Picture to yourself, then, an upstairs sitting-room with windows looking north into the ‘grove’ of Magdalen College on a sunshiny Monday Morning in vacation at about ten o’clock. The Professor and I, both on the chesterfield, lit our pipes and stretched out our legs. Williams in the arm-chair opposite to us threw his cigarette into the grate, took up a pile of the extremely small, loose sheets on which he habitually wrote—they came, I think, from a twopenny pad for memoranda, and began as follows:—

From Charles William and C. S. Lewis, Arthurian Torso: Containing the Posthumous Fragment of the Figure of Arthur and a Commentary on the Arthurian Poems of Charles Williams (London: Oxford University Press, 1948), 1-2.