Through researching and writing The Surprising Imagination of C.S. Lewis, I came to realize that some of C.S. Lewis's most important books were not his most popular ones, and not even his overtly Christian ones. If you want to truly understand Lewis in a way that you haven't before, these reads will give you a foundation that will influence the way you read all of his more popular works. They will enable you to see meaning and nuance in his work you never saw before. And they will also lead you to explore other works of literature beyond Lewis.
One thing I have discovered and have heard articulated by many Lewis scholars is that Lewis was consistent in promulgating his ideas throughout all his work. So an important idea that showed up in a literary critical work like Studies in Medieval and Renaissance Literature, would show up in the Chronicles of Narnia or the space trilogy. This is one characteristic that made Lewis so interesting to read. When I had waded through and digested some of his critical works, I went back and read his fiction with completely new eyes.
This is the foundation that I think many people who enjoy Lewis are lacking. Because much of his literary critical work is abstruse, it is avoided. But I believe that it is some of his best work, because seminal ideas and ways of thinking outlined in these works show up in all his more popular books. If you aren't aware of these ideas, you're missing a lot when you read Lewis. For example, I don't think you can fully understand or appreciate Lewis's space trilogy unless you have read The Discarded Image, Studies in Medieval and Renaissance Literature and The Abolition of Man. Read these three and you'll not only better understand the space trilogy, you'll better understand the Chronicles of Narnia. And you'll better understand what made Lewis's imagination so surprising.
1. The Discarded Image
This gem is not only fascinating in and of itself, but is one of the most important books to read if you want to understand Lewis's imagination. In it, he outlines the medieval worldview and cosmology. His stated purpose for writing the book is as a roadmap to help those reading literature of the period to better understand and appreciate it. It is a mystical, mysterious, utterly enticing book. For Lewis, the medieval worldview had a great imaginative impact. He writes, "I have made no serious effort to hide the fact that the old Model delights me as I believe it delighted our ancestors. Few constructions of the imagination seem to me to have combined splendour, sobriety, and coherence in the same degree." Lewis's love of the medieval model percolates into much of his other work. If you want a deeper understanding of Lewis's work, get acquainted with the medieval worldview.
2 & 3. Poems and Spirits in Bondage
It was Lewis's ambition early in life to be a well-known poet. Unfortunately, this desire never materialized for him. He did write three works of poetry, but has been criticized by scholars for not being a poet of the first class. Be that as it may, his work is good enough and accessible enough to give us great insight into the rift between reason and imagination that he struggled with for many years. Most people are not aware of Lewis's pre-Christian work Spirits in Bondage. On the one hand, this book juxtaposes raw anger at a God he doesn't believe in and who is seemingly absent from a world engulfed in the horrors of war with beauty and imagination on the other. His poetry explores this rift.
Most people don't know this God-cursing Lewis, but tracing the journey from this work into Poems helps to see what healed the rift between his reason and imagination. Poems also gives us deep insight into how Lewis utilized his love of myth and the imaginative richness of these stories to help create an experience that would allow a reader to simply bask in enjoyment of the work and derive real value from the experience itself without having to analyze it. He writes of the value of this experience, of returning to something again and again simply for itself, and not for anything that we can take from it. It is the pure imaginative experience without intrusion of the reason. Lewis valued it very highly. Understanding it will help us to better understand how to access his work.
4. A Preface to Paradise Lost
A few months back, I decided to carefully read this book followed by Milton's poem, Paradise Lost. Similar to The Discarded Image, it is a work to introduce us to Milton's world and the assumptions that were prevalent at the time he was writing. It is here that Lewis introduces the historical imagination, a way of reading old texts that enables us to experience a work from knowledge of the period in which it was written rather than bringing our modern assumptions to interpret the text in ways the author never intended.
Lewis suggests that we must see these worlds as if we believed them, that we must allow Milton to guide our imaginations as he will. Lewis gives us pointers: as we read the poem, we are to imagine what a bard chanting orally would sound like. We are to read the text with a sense of pomp, solemnity and ceremony in mind, as if we were attending a coronation and it's accompanying festal atmosphere. We are to understand Milton's angels, not from what we know or think about angels now, but from what contemporary science of the time thought it understood about such things. And so on.
The result of this, one would hope, is that with practice, our reading and understanding of old works would be enriched, that our journey into the past would give us a new and different way of seeing the present world. Lewis's ideal is clear:
"To enjoy our full humanity we ought, so far as is possible, to contain within us potentially at all times, and on occasion to actualize, all the modes of feeling and thinking through which man has passed. You must, so far as in you lies, become and Achaean chief while reading Homer, a medieval knight while reading Malory, and an Eighteenth-Century Londoner while reading Johnson."
In this work, Lewis give us a key to how we can begin to practice this kind of reading. It is not easy to shrug off one's worldview and adopt another; it is a difficult imaginative exercise that often fails, as my trial with Milton proved. But without Lewis's work, I would have read Milton very differently indeed. The chief value of the work is that it forced me to recognize how frequently my mind supplies details from my modern context that were never intended by Milton. That recognition alone is the key Lewis gives us. And once opened, the door leads us into unexplored regions of the imagination that ultimately Lewis hopes will bring us appreciation and delight. In nearly all of his reading, these were Lewis's main goals. Not analysis or criticism, but simple delight.
Interested in how C.S. Lewis's imagination shaped his work as well as his worldview? Click on the image below to learn more about my upcoming book, The Surprising Imagination of C.S. Lewis.
1. Lewis, C.S. The Discarded Image. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1964. p. 216
2. Lewis, C.S. A Preface to Paradise Lost. London: Oxford University Press, 1954. p. 63.