C.S. Lewis’s Best Advice to a Student Seeking a Thesis Topic: Better to Choose a Dead Author Than a Living One
by Lewis, C.S.
His rather humorous reason: "The chosen author and his intimates will know a lot more about the subject that they [the students] can find out. Dead authors know a lot about their own work which we don’t but fortunately they can’t tell it.”He suggests the student select mystery author and amateur theologian Dorothy Sayers’ for his thesis rather than himselfClive Staples Lewis. British writer and lay theologian best known for his works of fiction, especially The Screwtape Letters, The Chronicles of Narnia, and The Space Trilogy, and for his non-fiction Christian apologetics, such as Mere Christianity, Miracles, and The Problem of Pain.Autograph Letter Signed, 2 pages, July 6, 1963, “as from Magdalene College, Cambridge,” to a Mr. Tukey, a student choosing a thesis topic. “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 very 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 would come under the faculty of theology or that of literature depends, I suppose, on how you treat it.”Lewis himself would be a dead author in 5 months. Dorothy Sayers, though perhaps best known for her mysteries featuring Lord Peter Wimsey, was a renowned amateur theologian like Lewis. Her book “The Mind of the Maker” is almost the equivalent of any of Lewis’ theological works (Inventory #: 11685)