“I suggest you choose Dorothy Sayers’ cycle of plays on the life and death of Christ (title The Man Born to be King)...”
C.S. LEWIS GIVES PRACTICAL (AND SOMEWHAT HUMOROUS) ADVICE TO A STUDENT SELECTING A THESIS TOPIC, BEFORE REVEALINGLY SUGGESTING ONE OF HIS FAVORITE WORKS – DOROTHY SAYERS'S THE MAN BORN TO BE KING – AS A SUBJECT WORTHY OF STUDY.
Written to a student, John T. Tukey of Rhode Island and dated July 6, 1963, the letter reads in full:
As from Magdalene College,
6 July 63
I always dissuade students from making a living author the subject of their thesis. When they do, however hard they work, the chosen author and his intimates will know a lot more about the subject that they can find out. Dead authors know a lot about their own work which we don’t but fortunately they can’t tell it.
It has happened before now that those who were examining a thesis on my work have written to ask me whether some interpretation offered by the candidate is correct. This puts me in a v. awkward dilemma. If I refuse to answer they know that my answer would have been no. The candidate’s work is thus unfairly subjected to a check which would not have been applied if he had written on a dead author.
I suggest you choose Dorothy Sayers’ cycle of plays on the life and death of Christ (title, The Man Born to be King). Whether it wd. come under the faculty of Theology or that of Literature depends, I suppose, on how you treat it.
[signed] C.S. Lewis
Background – C.S. Lewis, Dorothy Sayers, and The Man Born to Be King:
C.S. Lewis and the writer Dorothy Sayers quickly became good friends after the latter wrote him a “fan” letter praising his recently-published Screwtape Letters. It was not a particular surprise they developed a friendship for both had similar views on literature, scholarship, and theology (especially sharing the desire to explain and explore Christianity for their literary audiences).
Sayers’s The Man Born to Be King, a somewhat controversial re-telling of the life of Jesus, originally appeared as a radio drama airing from 1941-1942 before being published in book form in 1943. Lewis was immediately impressed with the work, writing to Sayers on May 30, 1943 (in one of his earliest letters to her), “I’ve finished The Man Born to be King and think it a complete success... I shed real tears (hot ones) in places: since Mauriac’s Vie de Jesus nothing has moved me so much... I expect to read it times without number again….”
Over the years, Lewis’s admiration for the work only grew. He professed to reading it “in every Holy Week since it first appeared” and noted in 1949 that he thought “Man Born to be King has edified us in this country more than anything for a long time” (Lewis, Collected Letters, II, 989).
Sayers died in 1957 – six years before this letter – and it is fitting that of all the books he could have recommended to the student Tukey, he selected The Man Born to Be King, a book he greatly admired and a book that had remained dear to his heart.
Cambridge: 6 July 1963. One sheet, 5 1/4 x 7 inches, written in ink on both sides, signed “C.S. Lewis”. With original mailing envelope with postmark. Generally fine condition with expected center mailing fold and a few light spots. Housed in custom presentation folder.
Price: $5,500 .