Teacher, Historian, Critic, Apologist

READERS WHO MEET LEWIS first through the Narnian chronicles or Mere Christianity might never suspect that he is recognized in English-speaking countries as one of the greatest literary historians and critics of this century. His first major work of scholarship, The Allegory of Love, was acclaimed by a scholarly reviewer in a national newspaper (as quoted on the dust jacket): “Out of the multitude of volumes on literary criticism there arises once or twice in a generation a truly great work. Such, I believe, is this study by Mr. C.S. Lewis.” Nearly fifty years later, this study in medieval tradition is unsurpassed in its wealth of historical information and brilliance of critical insights. One of the ironies of Lewis’s career is that most of his admirers throughout the world know him only as a gifted and inspired amateur; few readers outside his own field ever knew him as a professional and an expert.

As a young Oxford don, Lewis followed a familiar path. By his early thirties, he had published four book reviews, two literary letters, and two slim volumes of poetry. He had one essay rejected by T.S. Eliot, editor of Criterion, and another (on Chaucer) published in Essays and Studies. Finally in 1935, the Oxford University Press accepted The Allegory of Love and contracted him to write the volume on the sixteenth century in the Oxford History of English Literature series. He won immediate academic praise and the Gollancz prize for his first book, and by the time English Literature in the Sixteenth Century (Excluding Drama) came out in 1954, he was famous for books of very different kinds. A version of the essay Eliot had rejected, “Psycho-Analysis and Literary Criticism,” appeared in Essays and Studies in 1942, the year The Screwtape Letters came out as a book (following serialization in the Guardian in 1941). For the rest of his life, Lewis published historical and critical works as regularly as the Christian apologetics and fiction on which his present fame is principally based.


Lewis the Teacher

One explanation of Lewis’s productivity, as well as his mastery, is the close relationship between his teaching and his scholarship. All of the scholarly books after The Allegory of Love were based either on regular university courses of lectures or on special series. A Preface to Paradise Lost is a revised and enlarged version of a lecture series at University College, North Wales, in 1941; English Literature in the Sixteenth Century is the completion of a lecture series at Cambridge in 1944; Studies in Words is based on lectures at Cambridge in the late 1950s, as well as on years of tutorial experience with Anglo-Saxon and Middle English texts; and The Discarded Image, as Lewis says in the preface, “is based on a course of lectures given more than once at Oxford. Some who attended it have expressed a wish that its substance might be given a more permanent form.” He refers with characteristic modesty to his “Prolegomena to Medieval Studies” course, which with its companion “Prolegomena to Renaissance Studies” attracted crowds of undergraduates for years. This last book was already in the press when Lewis died. He was planning another book based on the notes for his Cambridge lectures on Spenser. His friend and colleague Alastair Fowler used this material to produce Spenser’s Images of Life, of which the editor says, “if Lewis himself had lived to write the book it might have stood out among his works as a critical new departure.”

In addition to these major works, Lewis published many essays and critical articles originally delivered as lectures or talks. In contrast to many American academics, who write scholarly papers and then read them to conference audiences, Lewis usually spoke from copious notes and afterwards revised them for publication.

The significance of this foundation of teaching and lecturing experience is twofold. Most obviously, Lewis’s style as historian and critic is never dull or ponderously academic. He uses plain rather than pretentious language and explains sophisticated vocabulary when necessary. Many sentences are remarkably short, and the long sentences are remarkably rhythmical and clear. It is possible to open his most erudite book, English Literature in the Sixteenth Century, at random and find examples of his directness. Speaking of comic prose of the early sixteenth century, Lewis says: “The hero is hardly a character and it is a little over-solemn to inquire into his motives. The author’s motive is to make readers laugh and the hero is his obedient puppet. The jokes are hoaxes and over-reachings, usually coprophilous and sometimes macabre, for Tyll Howleglass continues to provide (or solicit) laughter even on his bier and in his coffin. Hence a modern reader might even find the book sinister.”

Every teacher recognizes Lewis’s characteristic rhetorical devices: homely and contemporary metaphors used “to approximate the remote and familiarize the wonderful”; striking visual imagery; arguments from analogy (sometimes obvious, sometimes wittily farfetched); classification; reductio ad absurdam. The first paragraph of A Preface to Paradise Lost illustrates several of these techniques:

The first qualification for judging any piece of workmanship from a corkscrew to a cathedral is to know what it is—what it was intended to do and how it is meant to be used. After that has been discovered the temperance reformer may decide that the corkscrew was made for a bad purpose, and the communist may think the same about the cathedral. But such questions come later. The first thing is to understand the object before you: as long as you think the corkscrew was meant for opening tins or the cathedral for entertaining tourists you can say nothing to the purpose about them. The first thing the reader needs to know about Paradise Lost is what Milton meant it to be.

Even more significant than these obvious pedagogical tricks is Lewis’s colloquial tone, which involves the reader intimately in a critical discussion remote from his usual thinking. For instance, one of the greatest differences between the medieval and the modern writer is the attitude toward source material:

Some books … must be regarded more as we regard those cathedrals where work of many different periods is mixed and produces a total effect, admirable indeed but never forseen nor intended by any one of the successive builders. Many generations, each in its own spirit and its own style, have contributed to the story of Arthur. It is misleading to think of Malory as an author in our modern sense and throw all the earlier work into the category of ‘sources.’ He is merely the last builder, doing a few demolitions here and adding a few features there. They cannot make the work his as Vanity Fair is Thackeray’s (Discarded Image).

Lewis’s style is colloquial but never commonplace. He shares his immense learning with ease and with elegance. The key to the charm of Lewis’s scholarly writing is his viewpoint as a teacher. He writes not to impress, stimulate, or provoke his colleagues, but to share his knowledge and experience with undergraduate students or general readers. He consistently assumes that his readers can enjoy the literature of the past if they understand the authors’ language, frame of reference, and intentions. He clarifies these points, but he does not dictate. He demands careful attention, inspires rereading, and challenges personal judgments.


Historian and Critic

In Lewis’s scholarship, the teacher, historian, and critic are united. He declares that the only genuine critical question is “How and why should we read this book?” The historian’s task is to show how and the critic’s to suggest why. The relative emphasis on these two functions varies in different books, but both are always important. The literary historian’s responsibilities range from tracing language changes to outlining the world view of the original audience. In many instances these two topics have a common focus. The historian must also distinguish between features characteristic of the form of a work and features indicative of the author’s individual purpose. Each of Lewis’s major scholarly books concentrates on these ways of removing the barriers between readers of the present and writers of the past.

In The Allegory of Love, Lewis identifies the relationship between the conventions of courtly love and the doctrines of a Christian society, showing how allegory influenced and was influenced by these complementary features of medieval thought. In A Preface to Paradise Lost he analyzes the characteristics of epic form as rules of the game Milton chose to play. In English Literature in the Sixteenth Century, he puts the major writers in their setting and views them from the perspective of their numerous and now generally unknown contemporaries. In Studies in Words, he follows eight words from their Greek, Latin, or Anglo-Saxon roots through their mutations in literature and on to current usage, linking their careers with cultural history. Finally in The Discarded Image, returning to medieval literature, he constructs in meticulous detail the model of the universe on which medieval thought and imagery were based.

These books, primarily and explicitly works of literary history, are at the same time filled with implicit criticism, suggesting the reasons for reading some books and not others. For Lewis, there are basically two reasons: pleasure and enlargement of experience. One of his most intriguing books is An Experiment in Criticism, neither historical nor critical itself but the development of a critical theory. Lewis points out that academic critics have been accustomed to evaluating books and then judging readers on whether or not they liked the good books. He proceeds to reverse the process, to identify the characteristics of good readers and then consider the books they enjoy to be good. The ultimate question of why anyone should read literature is answered in the conclusion, in terms that sum up the underlying purpose of all Lewis’s scholarly guidance.

The nearest I have yet got to an answer is that we seek an enlargement of our being.… We want to see with other eyes, to imagine with other imaginations, to feel with other hearts, as well as with our own.… In coming to understand anything we are rejecting the facts as they are for us in favour of the facts as they are. The primary impulse of each is to maintain and aggrandise himself. The secondary impulse is to go out of the self, to correct its provincialism and heal its loneliness. In love, in virtue, in the pursuit of knowledge, and in the reception of the arts, we are doing this. Obviously this process can be described either as an enlargement or as a temporary annihilation of the self. But that is an old paradox; ‘he that loseth his life shall save it.’

Such teaching has now reached far beyond the college walls of Oxford and Cambridge, not only through Lewis’s scholarly books but also through his influence on teachers.

In addition to these major works, Lewis wrote numerous essays, reviews, letters, introductions, and prefaces. Allowing for the frequent overlapping of his writing as scholar and as religious apologist, he published at least 100 short pieces of literary criticism, ranging from brief letters to substantial essays, on topics from Malory and Shakespeare to Orwell and Tolkien. Some of the essays have been made more easily accessible in such collections as Studies in Medieval and Renaissance Literatureand C.S. Lewis On Stories. Many of the essays are addressed to fellow professionals, but the book reviews, like his books, are for a general audience. In reviewing the second volume of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, Lewis explains that some readers had misunderstood the first book in trying to interpret it as allegory. He describes Tolkien’s saga as myth, which he calls a master key. This is one of the dominant themes stressed throughout Lewis’s critical writing.


The Importance of Myth

The first principle of all literature, according to Lewis, is myth, which is an expression of universal truth in terms of story. The stories of the dying and reviving god, the questing or avenging hero, the disobedience of Eve or Psyche or Orpheus or even Peter Rabbit are examples (cited by Lewis in various contexts) of the great myths that transcend any individual experience of life. The myth as a narrative of what happens is more meaningful than the factual history of what has happened. The supreme historical moment was when myth became fact in the Incarnation: the Word made flesh. Lewis’s emphasis on the primacy of myth is in the old tradition of Christian Neo-Platonism and in the newer tradition of Jungian archetypes. Already talking about mythopoetic theory in the 1930s, Lewis was a forerunner of Joseph Campbell and Northrop Frye.

The touchstone of myth is responsible for the apparent eclecticism of Lewis’s critical judgments. He recommended Rider Haggard’s novels for simple pleasure, and in the last weeks of his life he reread the Iliad and enjoyed Les Liaisons Dangereuses. The two greatest influences on his own fiction were George MacDonald and Charles Williams, both of whom have been republished recently in paperback in response to demand from readers of Lewis.

So far there has been no corresponding revival of the writer whom Lewis admired and loved most: Edmund Spenser. The Faerie Queene stands out in Lewis’s scholarly writing as the essence and epitome of great literature. The concluding chapter of The Allegory of Love, the fullest treatment in English Literature in the Sixteenth Century, and his only book-length literary criticism, Spenser’s Images of Life, are all about The Faerie Queene. Lewis finds in Spenser’s great poem a systhesis of epic and romance, of pagan and Christian themes, of the Arthurian myths and the folklore of elves and witches of allegory and symbol, of all that he loved best in literature. In contrast to the realism or naturalism of Lewis’s contemporaries, Spenser’s narrative is life-like in a different sense:

The things we read about in it are not like life, but the experience of reading it is like living. The clashing antitheses which meet and resolve themselves into higher unities, the lights streaming out from the great allegorical foci to turn into a hundred different colours as they reach the lower levels of complex adventure, … the constant reapparance of certain basic ideas, … the unwearied variety and seamless continuity of the whole—all this is Spenser’s true likeness to life (Allegory of Love).

What Lewis says of Spenser applies in general to the experience of reading myth.

The appeal of myth is to the imagination, which Lewis considers the primary organ for the perception of truth. Man made in the image of his Maker has the power to perceive the Creator through His creation and in turn to make his own images in order to share his perceptions with other human beings. Thus the receptive and the creative functions of the imagination are as closely linked for Lewis as for Wordsworth, source of the title Surprised By Joy, whose subtitle is The Shape of My Early Life. In this spiritual autobiography Lewis pays tribute to his philosopher-tutor, who nurtured his powers of reason, but he highlights his first reading of MacDonald’sPhantastes as the experience that “baptized” his imagination. This often quoted phrase is rightly seen as central to an understanding of Lewis as writer and as literary critic. He became receptive to the spell of the supernatural long before his reason accepted the doctrine. The enjoyment of literature is valuable nurture and exercise for the imagination, keeping it responsive to revelation of truth.

Imaginative perception of universal truth is the best corrective to what Lewis calls “chronological snobbery,” the attitude that views the past through a distorting lens of present assumptions. The Allegory of Love is dedicated to Owen Barfield (lifelong friend and student of the development of metaphoric language) who, Lewis says, “has taught me not to patronize the past, and has trained me to see the present as itself a ‘period.’ ” Lewis’s illumination of literary history reveals features of the past from an unexpected perspective. His first collection of essays is titled Rehabilitation because his purpose in each is to restore or revive a literary reputation, such as Shelly’s. Most notable is the organizing principle of the monumental English Literature in the Sixteenth Century. The main sections of this historical survey are Late Medieval, ‘Drab,’ and ‘Golden.’ Lewis claims that ‘Drab’ is used not disparagingly but descriptively, for poetry with “little richness either of sound or images,” while ‘Golden’ poetry is “the strong, simple music of the uncontorted line,” with the innocent exuberance of a Golden Age. According to these definitions, the platitude of a Renaissance flowering of literature is reversed. The classical learning of the humanists is associated with and indeed responsible for the ‘Drab’ Age of the mid-century, and the great Elizabethan poets recaptured the artistic freedom of the Middle Ages. Thus the third volume of the Oxford History of English Literature series puts the sixteenth century in a new perspective anticipated at the end of The Allegory of Love.

There is a history of great literature which has a slower rhythm than that of literature in general, and which goes on in a higher region.… It is only after centuries that Spenser’s position becomes apparent; and then he appears as the great mediator between the Middle Ages and the modern poets, the man who saved us from the catastrophe of too thorough a renaissance (Allegory of Love).
By Dabney Hart

[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #7 in 1985]

Dabney Hart, Ph. D. is a professor in the Department of English, Georgia State University, Atlanta.
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