(I had the privilege of reading Francis Spufford’s The Stone Table in draft, with what I believe the enthusiasts call “dawning wonder,” and also with increasing frustration at a copyright regime that made it unlikely to be published. So a few months ago I wrote the essay you see below. After some reflection I decided not to publish it; but now that the word is out about The Stone Table, I’m posting it here.)
One of the best works of fiction I have read in the past several years was written by the acclaimed English writer Francis Spufford — and no, I do not refer to his award-winning novel Golden Hill, though indeed I loved that book too. The story I’m referring to is called The Stone Table, and before you Google it or look for it on Amazon, please understand that you will not find it. And that’s because of intellectual property law.
For Spufford’s book is set in Narnia, the fictional world created by C. S. Lewis. The Stone Table features characters who appear in other Narnia books: most notably, two children named Polly Plummer and Digory Kirke and the great lion Aslan. The seven Narnia books that Lewis wrote have already come into the public domain in some countries, and may even do so in the United States — though those of us who have seen the law extend copyright again and again may be pardoned for doubting that it will ever happen. But Spufford has written a new Narnia story, so copyright law doesn’t affect his: what matters is that the world of Narnia is a registered trademark of C. S. Lewis (PTE.) Ltd. — and trademarks, if they are consistently used and defended against infringement, last forever. (This is why so many companies will sue for trademark infringement even in apparently trivial cases: they’re afraid that if they don’t they’ll be accused of having abandoned their copyright.) Moreover, trademarks are often international in their scope.
So as long as there is money to be made from Narnia™, then books like The Stone Table cannot be published and sold without the express consent of C. S. Lewis (PTE.) Ltd.
Now, in many cases trademark holders are more than happy to give — or rather, sell — such consent. Certainly Middle-Earth Enterprises, the company that now holds the rights to Hobbit– and Lord of the Rings-related material, rights that Tolkien himself sold to United Artists in 1969, was pleased to make it possible for us to recreate Helm’s Deep in Lego. For instance. But the remainder of Tolkien’s writings are copyrighted, and several trademarks held, by Tolkien’s estate, which has sometimes led to confusing legal struggles: Wait, Tolkien is suing Middle-Earth? And Middle-Earth is suing him back?
And these different parties have not always had the same interests. Tolkien’s son Christopher, who directed the estate before his resignation in 2017 at the age of 93, did not like Peter Jackson’s adaptation of The Lord of the Rings, would certainly have prevented the filming of The Hobbit if he could have, and would have been unlikely ever to approve a film or television version of his father’s vast legendarium, The Silmarillion — even though such a project could greatly enrich the Tolkien Estate’s coffers. Who knows what will happen now that the Estate is in other hands? But Christopher always had a strong sense of the character and purpose of his father’s work, and did not want that character and purpose to be violated. Money is not everything.
A very similar attitude seems to drive the C. S. Lewis estate, and especially Lewis’s stepson, Douglas Gresham. When I was working on my biography of Lewis — in the year or so preceding the release of the film version of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, with which it was meant to coincide — a shadow of anxiety always hovered over the project, because no one knew exactly what Gresham would think of it. He couldn’t have stopped it from being published, but he certainly could have withheld the estate’s cooperation from my publisher, HarperOne, and made life more difficult and considerably less lucrative for them. That would have (de facto if not de jure) meant the quashing of my biography. I am certain that my editor, the shrewd and resourceful Mickey Maudlin, had to do some delicate negotiating both with Gresham, who wanted his stepfather’s memory properly honored, and with me, who wanted to be left alone to write the book I wanted to write. But Mickey played his cards very close to his vest, so I am not sure to this day how awkward those negotiations got.
Last year Mickey and I had a conversation about a new book, a collection of Lewis’s writings about reading. Lewis wrote very eloquently about the theory and practice of reading, and as his biographer and the author of a book about reading I might seem to be a good candidate to select and annotate his thoughts on the subject. But again approval of the estate was required; and approval, for reasons not wholly clear to me, was not granted.
It’s enough to make me long for estates driven by a list for filthy lucre. For, though I admire the determination of Christopher Tolkien and Douglas Gresham, and other directors of those estates, to be faithful custodians of rich and wonderful imaginative worlds, I am not convinced that they can legitimately offer the final, unquestionable verdict about what does in fact honor Lewis’s and Tolkien’s writings. Great writers — and I believe both Lewis and Tolkien to have been great writers — tend to have more comprehensive minds than those charged with their estates’ care. This is why I have for so long admired Edward Mendelson, W. H. Auden’s literary executor, who has for decades now offered unfailing support to scholars working on Auden, even when those scholars have views about Auden radically different than his own. Mendelson grasps what many literary executors and estates do not: that, just because Auden is a writer whose greatness is not reducible to a single point of view, it is better to be overly generous than overly restrictive.
The world will not much miss the book on Lewis and reading that I would have made. But The Stone Table deserves a very wide readership indeed. Spufford has suppressed his own distinctive and eloquent style and made himself a ventriloquist of Lewis: to read the story is really and truly to return to the Narnia millions of readers love. And this is not merely a matter of style: Spufford’s story is thematically and even theologically Lewisian. It is a marvelous and utterly delightful tale, as wise as it is thrilling. I so wish you could read it.