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Bookmarks: 'C.S. Lewis' Lost Aeneid'

The author's translations, written in notebooks saved from a fiery fate, have been edited and released. They are compelling and Old Testament-sounding.

May 29, 2011

It was supposed to have been lost in a bonfire more than 40 years ago, but we have it. "C.S. Lewis' Lost Aeneid: Arms and the Exile," edited by A.T. Reyes (Yale: 208 pp., $27.50), is an incomplete version of Virgil's epic that Narnia's creator loved and translated over the course of his life.

Reyes describes Lewis' admiration for the poem (this may be why there's a Roman flavor to many of the scenes in his "Narnia" series, especially the sea journeys and battles); he enjoyed his own version so much that he read it aloud to his Oxford friends, including J.R.R. Tolkien. After his death in 1964, his brother W.H. Lewis started clearing out the author's house, and the school exercise books containing this translation were thought unimportant and nearly met a fiery end. We're told, in the introduction, that the author's secretary, Walter Hooper, saved them. Whew.

Reyes organizes what Lewis translated — mainly parts of books one, two and six (his Underworld arrival is glorious) — in narrative order and fills in gaps with synopses of the rest of the story. He also collects translated snippets that surfaced in Lewis' other works or were scrawled as an afterthought (like the death of Turnus).

Certainly there are plenty of translations already, but it's thrilling to have Lewis' treatment of the story of the legendary warrior and his band of fugitives. You can hear his voice and his distinctive Judeo-Christian sympathies reflected in the lines. When Venus complains to Jupiter about the ordeals of Aeneas and his men, she sounds like an Old Testament prophet: "How, Father, hath thy sentence changed?…How long, oh Lord, must they endure?" The only disappointment is that Lewis didn't finish it. To think, it was nearly tossed in a fire!

—Nick Owchar

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