C.S. Lewis had a unique ability to enter into the life of the imagination. A voracious reader, he read with great breadth and depth. What impresses me is his ability to immerse himself, to lose himself in story and to appreciate at a level that few achieve today. And not just any story, but classic works of literature that now, to me, seem like books penned in a foreign language. As he read, he also wrote so that we could begin to appreciate as well.
These days, who reads Edmund Spenser's Faerie Queene? Who reads the whole of Dante's Divine Comedy? Who reads the Greek comedies and tragedies? Forget about the obscure litany of works and authors that clutter up the pages of Lewis's English Literature in the Sixteenth Century. I haven't even heard of most of them. Once upon a time people were educated to appreciate such things. Who has the endurance, ability or desire anymore except perhaps, here and there, small coteries of rarefied academics?
Granted, Lewis was a scholar of medieval literature and therefore wrote for other scholars. But I also believe he wrote for anyone who wanted to think seriously about imagination, words, literature and the joy these things brought him. I believe that his literary critical work was an invitation to the difficult work of the imagination. Though Lewis found bread and meat in literature that is recondite, I believe he was aware of artistry at a much deeper level than is usually approached by armchair readers of literature. And I believe he wanted others to discover and delight in this depth.
To this end, Lewis left us several works that are fingerposts: roadmaps into imaginative worlds, rich and varied. My friend and co-author Jerry Root always speaks about how Lewis opens more than wardrobe doors. Lewis is not and should not be an end in himself. He points us to a deeper understanding and experience of the world and of life. He provides us with the topographical map; this enables us to understand the undulations and folds of the land and travel through it more effectively and with a greater capacity for experiencing it properly. It allows us to serendipitously stumble into places of delight we didn't know existed. Following is a brief list of some of these fingerposts.
Fingerpost #1: A Preface to Paradise Lost
This work was penned so that people would not misread Milton's poem, Paradise Lost, bringing modern understandings to a work where they had no place. Lewis wanted us to understand the poem Milton wrote, not the poem we write when we interpret Milton through our modern worldview. Why was this important? Lewis believed that we needed to see with others' eyes, to be able to place ourselves in some historical period of the past and experience it for what it was. By so doing we are able to engage different viewpoints, to enlarge our own understandings, to experience growth in the narrow corridors of our limited understandings.
Fingerpost #2: The Discarded Image
For the same reason, Lewis wrote The Discarded Image. He was enamored with the imaginative beauty and order of the medieval worldview and cosmology and wanted to share it with others so they could better understand works written in the medieval period. This book helps us to travel as natives rather than tourists through the countries of medieval works.
Fingerpost #3: Studies in Words
Lewis cared passionately about verbicide, the murder of a word, and the ways in which words change senses over time but retain some of their former meanings. He wanted to show that when we read these words in old works, we must have a proper understanding of how the author used the words' meanings rather than what we understand them to mean now. But more than this, Lewis cared that language was respected, that "we should become aware of what we are doing when we speak, of the ancient, fragile and (well used) immensely potent instruments that words are."
Fingerpost #4: An experiment in criticism
This book describes different types of readers and reading and the ways we experience literature. Lewis distinguishes between literary and unliterary readers, those who use literature and those who receive it. His goal is to discover if it is possible to define a good book as one which is read a certain way and a bad book as one that is read in a different fashion.
Fingerpost #5: The Allegory of Love
The Allegory of Love attempts to reconstruct "that long-lost state of mind for which the allegorical love poem was a natural mode of expression" such that it might enable us to better understand our present and future. It looks at how the concept of romantic love has evolved over the centuries and shaped the way we think. Lewis write in no uncertain terms about the ramifications these "love" poets had, not only on all of the ensuing literature up to the present, but on our culture as well. Of these poets he writes: "They effected a change which has left no corner of our ethics, our imagination, or our daily life untouched . . . Compared with this revolution the Renaissance is a mere ripple on the surface of literature."
All of these works, with the addition of several others not mentioned here, are like threads in a tapestry, woven to help create an experience of literature that will begin to unlock its mysteries, allowing us an entry point. But it will take work on our part, at times painstaking, if we are to move on from Lewis to the doors he has opened for us. To me, this is one of Lewis's greatest values as an author. Where might I go from here? What might I discover? How might I be changed? Lewis not only opened wardrobe doors that led us into the Narnian world of his own imagination; he opened doors into other literature and the imaginative worlds of those works, enabling us to better perform that all-important task: seeing through the eyes of another.
Interested in learning more about C.S. Lewis's imagination? Read these related blog posts.