Review: The Latin Letters of C. S. Lewis, ed. and trans. Martin Moynihan

May I tell you a cute story? It’s very cute, and I can’t proceed with this review until I tell you the cute story, so if you are not in the mood for a sweet story, you should depart precipitously. Once upon a time there was an Italian priest called Don Giovanni Calabria who read C.S. Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters and loved it. He wanted to write to C. S. Lewis to express his admiration for the book, but he didn’t speak English, and he suspected (rightly) that C. S. Lewis didn’t speak Italian. Knowing that Lewis was a scholar of the classics and knew Latin, he wrote to him in that language, and they carried on a correspondence! In Latin!

Lewis and Calabria corresponded periodically over the course of seven years, from Calabria’s first letter to Lewis until Calabria’s death in 1954, after which Lewis continued writing now and then to another member of Calabria’s congregation. Their relationship is touching. They always write to ask each other for prayers, and they ask each other for guidance on theological questions. It is sweet.

As sweet as this is, I don’t know that I’d have been interested in these letters if they had just been published in English. Most of the letters are from Lewis to Calabria, rather than the other way around, so you don’t have a good sense of the correspondence as a whole. The letters discuss the wars, schisms in the church, and the moral tone of the present century, but they are short and cannot explore the issues deeply.

However, I read the Latin half of the letters, and that was fun. The editor helpfully put the Latin and English text on facing pages, so when I got confused about syntax or vocabulary, I could refer to the translation to set me straight. I most pleasingly referred to the translation more rarely as I carried on reading, which made me feel great about myself and totally ready to translate Ovid’s Metamorphoses which I am absolutely going to do one of these days because I love Ovid and Fagles didn’t translate him.