In 1962 C. S. Lewis was asked by The Christian Century, “What books did most to shape your vocational attitude and your philosophy of life?” In response, Lewis listed ten books. #3 on that list was The Aeneid by Virgil (The Christian Century, 6 June 1962).
Lewis first encountered the great Roman poet of the first century BC while he was a student at Cherbourg Preparatory School in Great Malvern, England, from 1911 to 1913. Lewis was then in his early teens. His first reading of Virgil contributed, indirectly, to his temporary turn to atheism. He described it this way in chapter IV of Surprised by Joy:
This ludicrous burden of false duties in prayer provided, of course, an unconscious motive for wishing to shuffle off the Christian faith; but about the same time, or a little later, conscious causes of doubt arose. One came from reading the classics. Here, especially in Virgil, one was presented with a mass of religious ideas; and all teachers and editors took it for granted from the outset that these religious ideas were sheer illusion. No one ever attempted to show in what sense Christianity fulfilled Paganism or Paganism prefigured Christianity. The accepted position seemed to be that religions were normally a mere farrago of nonsense, though our own, by a fortunate exception, was exactly true. The other religions were not even explained, in the earlier Christian fashion, as the work of devils. That I might, conceivably, have been brought to believe. But the impression I got was that religion in general, though utterly false, was a natural growth, a kind of endemic nonsense into which humanity tended to blunder. In the midst of a thousand such religions stood our own, the thousand and first, labeled True. But on what grounds could I believe in this exception? It obviously was in some general sense the same kind of thing as all the rest. Why was it so differently treated? Need I, at any rate, continue to treat it differently? I was very anxious not to.
Lewis remained fascinated with Virgil, and The Aeneid in particular, throughout his life. His first attempt at translating The Aeneid was undertaken while being prepped for Oxford by his tutor, William Kirkpatrick, in 1915. (Collected Letters of C. S. Lewis, Vol. I, pp. 112-113, 157.) When Lewis began work on his classics degree at Oxford (in which he eventually received a "double first") he had to read all of Homer, all of Virgil, all of Demosthenes and all of Cicero, not to mention a number of Greek plays, in addition to studying Logic. (Collected Letters, Vol. I, p. 434.)
The first time Lewis translated the Aeneid apart from his schooling was in August of 1922 (C. S. Lewis, All My Road Before Me, pp. 84-85). By 1935, he reported to his friend, Owen Barfield, that he had translated 200 lines of the Aeneid into riming alexandrines. Work on the Aeneid continued off and on over the next decade. By 1943, Lewis was reading extracts to the Inklings. As late as 1959 Lewis still considered his translation incomplete. It is possible that he considered continuing work on this project in 1963, the last year of his life.
Thanks to Walter Hooper, Lewis’ secretary for a short time in 1963, Lewis’ surviving translation of the Aeneid, along with a number of other unpublished pieces, was rescued from a bonfire at The Kilns, Lewis’ former home, in 1964. Now, due to the excellent scholarly work of A. T. Reyes, Lewis’ translation of portions of Virgil’s epic poem is readily available to the world.
The bulk of C. S. Lewis’s Lost Aeneid consists of Lewis’ English translation in parallel with the Latin text. In addition, Reyes fills in the story of the Aeneid where Lewis has not provided a translation for us. However, one of the best things about the book is Reyes’ Introduction. Reyes reveals to the reader not only the history of Lewis’ translation of Virgil but also Lewis' approach to translation in general, and the reason why the Aeneid remained such an influential book for Lewis throughout his life.
Latin scholars will, of course, judge for themselves how successful Lewis’ translation of Virgil’s epic really is. However, it is my suspicion that even those readers who are new to the Aeneid will find this volume helpful. Furthermore, all Lewis fans should be delighted to discover yet another facet to the literary career of this ever diverse man of letters. The only drawback to this book is that Lewis’ translation of the Aeneid remained incomplete at the end of his life, but that was just like Lewis, leaving his readers wanting more.