Spoken Latin in the Works of C.S. Lewis

Lewis Made Learning and Speaking Languages a Key Element of His Science Fiction — Including Learning and Speaking Latin

Tom Hendrickson
Jun 28, 2018 · 9 min read
Clive Staples (C.S.) Lewis

C.S. Lewis is best known for The Chronicles of Narnia, but his prolific writings could fill a small library. Lewis’s novels characteristically feature imaginative worlds that draw heavily on his interests in myth and language to dramatize his ruminations on Christianity. Lewis was both a public intellectual (a medievalist) and high-profile defender of traditionalist values in the face of the social and technological changes of an increasingly modern world.

Latin was not the focus of Lewis’s own academic study, but he lived in an era when a knowledge of Latin, at least among scholars, could almost be taken for granted. Almost. Yet the world was changing. When Lewis was born in 1898, horseback was still a common mode of transportation; by his death in 1963, Yuri Gagarin and others had traveled in space. And if the world was changing, the place of Latin in the world was changing as well.

Lewis wrote a science fiction trilogy in which he portrayed an ignorance of Latin as a symptom of misguided progressivism. Lewis set the trilogy in his contemporary (1930s-40s) Britain. The protagonist, Elwin Ransom, is a Cambridge don not entirely unlike Lewis himself, although the character was evidently based on his friend, J.R.R. Tolkien. In the first novel (Out of the Silent Planet, 1938), this otherwise-ordinary philologist is kidnapped and brought to Mars by a nefarious STEM scholar and his greedy financial backer. Ransom proves to be just what the situation needed: his ability to learn the hrossa language on Mars is a crucial element in safeguarding his own survival and (later on in the series) helping him save planet Earth.

If you’ve ever been bothered by the effortless English of extraterrestrials in other science fiction, or by universal translators like the Babel Fish in Douglas Adams’s Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, you’ll appreciate the detailed and lengthy description of Ransom learning the language (and culture) of the hrossa.

It is in the third book of the trilogy, That Hideous Strength (1945), that spoken Latin becomes prominent in the story. An evil academic institute (with a heavy interest in “practical” fields) hatches a plot to reawaken the Arthurian wizard Merlin, who has been sleeping for centuries. This institute, the National Institute of Coordinated Experiments (NICE), hopes to use Merlin’s powers to further the agenda of a demonic group of extraterrestrials. (Well, they’re not exactly extraterrestrial; while these creatures do usually inhabit outer space, the evil ones actually lived on earth already, which explains a few things.) Lewis, who cared about linguistic realism, demanded that his characters only be able to communicate with Merlin in Latin.

Merlin himself, of course, would have spoken some now-lost form of Celtic native to the fifth-century British Isles. Yet, as an educated man, he would also have spoken Latin. Not Classical Latin, mind you. Lewis imagined that the phonetic qualities of this Celticizing Latin would have made it sound like Spanish, and he noted that the vocabulary was what one might expect from “a man to whom Apuleius and Martianus Capella were the primary classics and whose elegances resembled those of the Hisperica Famina” (p. 279 in the 1996 Scribner reprint).

In other words, Lewis imagined this Latin to have some bizarre words and to have expressions that were recherché to a ludicrous degree. Apuleius is the second-century AD author of the novel The Golden Ass, and he had a taste for rare and archaic words. Martianus Capella is the fifth-century author of The Marriage of Mercury and Philology, an allegorical work on the liberal arts. Martianus Capella had a taste for Apuleius and a style that many have found to be impenetrable. The Hisperica Famina is a set of medieval texts from the British Isles. The language of the Hisperica Famina is Latin(ish), but the vocabulary is a full of scholarly neologisms that play with Greek and Hebrew words, and with false etymologies and backformations from archaic Latin. I imagine an English equivalent to the Hisperica Famina would be a bit like a cross between the King James Bible and Dr. Seuss.

What did Merlin’s delightfully strange Latin sound like? Regrettably, Lewis doesn’t give us much of it. When Merlin speaks, Lewis usually renders the words in English, though he occasionally clues the reader in on what Latin words Merlin would have used. At one point, for instance, Merlin calls one character a “gallows bird (cruciarius)” and a “cutpurse (sector zonarius)” (281) — colloquial insults known to us from Roman comedy. Merlin only speaks one complete sentence that Lewis renders in Latin, and its language is disappointingly Classical. This sentence comes after Merlin has put a curse on a crowd of people at a large faculty dinner. The curse causes each person to only be able to speak gibberish. Once the dinner has fallen into complete chaos, Merlin cries out with joy: Qui Verbum Dei contempserunt, eis auferetur etiam verbum hominis! (“For those who have scorned the Word of God, even the word of man will be taken from them!”) (351).

It is perhaps not too surprising that Lewis has the characters on the side of good show excellent skill in speaking Latin. After all, Elwin Ransom was a comparative philologist and Dr. Dimble, one of his helpers, seems to have specialized in medieval and early modern English literature. Both can communicate complex ideas orally in Latin. It is more surprising that the villains also seem to be excellent Latinists. Professor Frost and Deputy Director Wither, both from NICE, have scholarly (though not literary) backgrounds and even so are also able to communicate in Latin. Indeed, Wither seems rather shocked when a man that he mistakenly thinks to be Merlin is unable to understand his Latin. “I confess, I had not anticipated any serious difficulty about language” (274).

How many of us, even those of us who are Latinists, even those of us who put serious effort into speaking Latin, are confident enough in our abilities that we would bet all of our evil plots on being able to freely converse with Merlin in Latin?

Deputy Director Wither’s confidence in his spoken Latin was not misplaced. When he first saw Merlin (or rather, a man he thought to be Merlin), he rattled off a quick greeting (266):

Magister Merline, Sapientissime Britonum, secreti secretorum possessor, incredibili quodam gaudio afficimur quod te in domum nostram accipere nobis — ah — contingit. Scito nos etiam haud imperitos esse magnae artis — et — ut ita dicam… (“Master Merlin, Wisest of the Britons, possessor of the secret of secrets, we feel an incredible joy to have the chance to, uh, receive you into our home. Know that we too are by no means inexperienced in the great art — and — if I may say so…”).

I confess I’m a little impressed just at the effortless use of the vocative, which I still sometimes get tripped up on when speaking. Vocatives aside, it is even more impressive that Wither spontaneously came up with relatively complex sentences that embed (in the first case) a noun clause and (in the second) an indirect statement. The pauses, “ — ah — ,” “ — et — ”, are not a sign that he’s struggling to finish his sentence, they’re linguistic ticks that pepper Wither’s English as well.

Soon afterwards, Wither adds (267):

Ah — er — domine, nihil magis mihi displiceret quam ut tibi ullo modo — ah — molestior essem. Attamen venia tua…. (“Ah — er — sir, nothing would displease me more than to be in any way, um, a bother to you. All the same, with your pardon…”)

Deputy Director Wither’s outstanding spoken Latin is a literary depiction, but Lewis really did strive for some degree of linguistic realism. Another character, when suddenly required to speak Latin, accidentally starts off in French: “Friends — amis — amici!” (254). If you’ve ever tried to learn a second foreign language, this kind of slip will be instantly recognizable.

Wither’s complex and spontaneous sentences are especially remarkable given that Latin was not usually taught as a spoken language in Britain at the time. In the first chapter of Winston Churchill’s memoir (My Early Life, 1930), he recounts arriving at school and being told to memorize the paradigm of mensa in order to learn the first declension. Since he was puzzled how a list like mensa, mensa, etc. came out to a language, he asked his teacher what the words meant. When the teacher responded that the words meant “table,” “o table,” and so on, his bafflement only increased. At Harrow (chapter two), Churchill described his attempts at Latin translation as working on a “Latin crossword-puzzle” with a massive dictionary — this is not a language that students at the top schools were learning to speak. It is hard to reconcile Churchill’s rote memorization of mensa with Wither’s instantaneous use of the vocative, and I suspect that Lewis’s depictions of spoken Latin are at least a little idealized.

Even if the high quality of spoken Latin in That Hideous Strength was perhaps idealized, it is implicit in some scenes that there were still uses for spoken Latin in mid-century Britain apart from the need to communicate with reawakened medieval wizards.

Latin could evidently still be used as a lingua franca by speakers who did not know each other’s languages. When one character, Mark Studdock, sees Deputy Director Wither speaking to an odd-looking man in Latin, he immediately wonders where the other man might be from. “Wither knows most of the ordinary languages,” Mark thinks to himself, presumably in reference to languages like German and French, “Would the old chap be Greek? Doesn’t look like a Levantine. More probably Russian” (328).

The use of Latin for communication between foreigners was even more likely to be the case when one or both was a Catholic priest or monk. (Lewis himself had a long-running correspondence in Latin with an Italian priest, Giovanni Calabria.) Merlin ultimately infiltrated NICE in the guise of a Basque monk since, although he didn’t actually speak Basque, he could be confident that no one else could either, which would give him an excuse to communicate with them exclusively in Latin.

So, both the heroes and the villains of That Hideous Strength could speak Latin well (perhaps too well), but there was one character type who couldn’t: the dupe. Dupes were a common trope in Lewis’s fiction: someone who is not inherently evil, but whose lack of moral foundation leads them to become the tool of evil forces. Dupes can become vehicles of evil even if they are, in their own misguided way, trying to make the world a better place. You can tell a dupe in a C.S. Lewis novel because the person will likely be a vegetarian, teetotaler, non-smoker, feminist, sociologist, or some combination thereof.

The chief dupes in That Hideous Strength are Mark and Jane Studdock, a young couple whose embrace of modern ideas has led to an unhappy marriage. Mark is an ambitious but insecure sociologist who cannot even recognize, much less create, scholarship of real value. Jane is herself an aspiring academic, working in a desultory fashion on a doctoral thesis on John Donne. Though Mark is more involved in the action of the story, the psychological arc of the plot follows Jane’s gradual acceptance of wifely obedience. (Lewis was admirably egalitarian in some respects: he seems to suggest, for instance, that men and women should share domestic work equally, and the end of Out of the Silent Planet features a biting satire on colonialist presumptions of racial superiority. At the same time, his heavy-handed emphasis on female subordination within marriage makes for depressing reading, as does his insistence that female sexual satisfaction can only consist of being the obedient object of desire.)

Lewis used spoken Latin to subtly characterize both Jane and Mark. When Mark encountered Merlin speaking with Deputy Director Wither, Lewis characterizes his impression of the conversation as being “in a language which (he) could not follow but which he recognised as Latin” (328). Even this paltry familiarity with Latin was more than Jane could muster. The book begins with Jane seeing Merlin in dream and hearing him “talking in something that sounded vaguely like Spanish” (15).

Jane’s ignorance of Latin is all the more surprising because her doctoral thesis was on a literary topic. Granted, her topic was an English poet (Donne), but it is still a sign of her weak intellectual and moral foundations that she did not seem to know Latin. By contrast, Jane’s academic mentor was Dr. Dimble, a man with firm foundations, and with a good knowledge of Latin.

Mark and Jane’s inability to understand Latin is a sign of their embrace of the modern world — a world that was already in the 1940s leaving Latin behind. On the one hand, I can’t help delighting in Lewis’s vision of a world in which someone can exclaim, in all seriousness, “We must get a Celtic scholar at once!” (274). And yet, in this same world, a woman desiring to have a career is dismissed as an example of misguided progressivism. It’s a reminder that the modernity Lewis battled against has actually brought about a better world for a lot of people. If Latin no longer holds the place it once did among the educated elite of Europe, students from a host of backgrounds are now creating a new place for it themselves, and this new generation will be up to the challenge of speaking with Merlin — should the need arise.


Tom Hendrickson writes about Latin and literature, both of which he also teaches at Stanford Online High School.

In Medias Res

Tom Hendrickson

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In Medias Res

A magazine for lovers of the Classics, published by the Paideia Institute.

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