C.S. Lewis

The Surprising Imagination of C.S. Lewis: Interview Part 1

The following is an excerpt of an interview with me conducted by Lancia E. Smith about the writing of The Surprising Imagination of C.S. Lewis, written with my co-author, Jerry Root. Text content used with permission of Lancia E. Smith, publisher: Cultivating the Good, the True and the Beautiful: www.lanciaesmith.com. From the original interview at https://lanciaesmith.com/the-surprising-imagination-of-c-s-lewis/.

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LES: Did writing this book collaboratively serve the work better than if it had been written by one of you as a solo author? What was the collaborative process for writing a book over the length of time it took to bring this book into being?  How long a time frame was there from inception of this book’s generative idea to holding the book in your hands?

MN: Absolutely. Jerry has a much deeper understanding of C.S. Lewis than I do, and his feedback for my ideas was critical. Though I suspect I did a lot more groundwork in reading and researching just to bring myself a few notches closer to Jerry’s expertise and to better prepare me to help write this book!

Over the three plus years it took to write the book, I think we had a good understanding of expectations, both for the quality of each other’s work as well as for being able to meet deadlines. We did spend long hours reading the manuscript aloud and critiquing each other’s chapters as well as sharing them with others who offered feedback. For me, the process, though long, was fairly seamless. We have similar writing styles and this certainly helped to make the job easier.

Abingdon Press had asked that we divide the work into twelve chapters, examining twelve of Lewis’s books through the lens of twelve different types of imagination that he identified. We built a structure that just about every chapter follows and after that it was simply a matter of splitting them up and getting to work.

LES: One of the issues that is often difficult to overcome in a collaborative work is developing a consistent “voice”. This is something that the two you have been exceptionally successful in doing in this work. The voice in this book is virtually seamless. How did you manage that?

MN: Believe it or not, we didn’t intentionally try to blend our styles or voices. It just so happens that our writing styles are fairly similar. We did, as I mentioned earlier, spend a lot of time reading aloud to each other, searching for flaws in reasoning and syntax; perhaps this helped.

LES: Mark, Why do you suppose that this approach to Lewis as a whole – his range and foundation of imagination – has not been given a fuller treatment before?  What other works influenced you most in developing the premise that you are presenting in this book?

MN: Well, the types of imagination Lewis identified are scattered throughout his works and at times only the barest reference is given to a particular type.  So to begin with, they remain fairly well hidden. It took Jerry’s sharp eye and deep familiarity with the Lewis corpus to begin seeing the pattern that Lewis was nuancing the imagination in this way. Once you know he’s doing it, you know to look for it in everything else you’re reading. So we discovered a bunch more. I fully expect that we have missed some.

The other reason is reflected, I think, in the fact that, by and large, readers of Lewis are neglecting his literary/critical works, where most of these types of imagination are defined. To me, these are Lewis’s most important, albeit his most abstruse works. Works like The Discarded ImageThe Allegory of LoveA Preface to Paradise LostStudies in Medieval and Renaissance Literature, Studies in Words and so on. To me, these books are where Lewis works out many of the imaginative ideas that show up in his fiction. To read The Discarded Image and Studies in Medieval and Renaissance Literature is to have a far deeper and richer understanding of the space trilogy and The Chronicles of Narnia. I think the things he found imaginatively viable and that excited his imagination have been largely overlooked.

It requires concentration to read through Lewis’s most robust academic work. He is unique in that while encountering difficulty in his works, I have found pleasure in the toil. You have to read them over and over again and take notes and draw pictures and clutter up your copy with arrows and underlining and margin notes. If you’re me, you pore over individual sentences until they flash forth their meaning and you write tons of margin notes in tiny, crabbed handwriting in an attempt to decipher Latin or Greek phrases or clarify Lewis’s thought. And if you’re Jerry, all of your marginalia and underlining is color-coded. The point is, not many people have the patience or attention to read these works. But I have found that when I persevere, the text begins to glimmer with meaning and I make connections I couldn’t have made before. Lewis has a lot more to offer than people might realize.

LES: Mark, would you explain for my readers what the essential premise is in The Surprising Imagination of C.S. Lewis and why you and Jerry use the paradigm that you do of the twelve types of imagination as seen through seven genres of his work?

MN: Since this book is an introduction to Lewis and the imagination, we wanted to cover as much ground as we could while respecting word count limits. So while we’ve identified more than 30 ways Lewis nuanced the imagination, we only had room for twelve. The rest can be found in the appendix of the book. We divided the twelve up into seven genres so that we could give readers a good sense of Lewis’s breadth as a writer as well as his proficiency in each genre. We examine autobiography, religious writing, literary criticism, fairy stories, science fiction, satire and poetry.

The premise of the book is really that the imagination is not just an entity of make-believe. Just as airline pilots nuance their understanding of air currents and ship captains nuance their understanding of water currents, and must do so for survival’s sake, Lewis nuanced the imagination. He spent years of his life trying to understand how the imagination could ever be a source of truth that could compare with reason, which to him was supreme. He even wrote a poem about this very thing entitled “Reason.” He ultimately reconciled these divided parts of his mind in Christ. I suppose the fundamental point of the book is to help people understand that the imagination can be a reliable source of truth, that it can enable us to perceive and experience in ways that the reason cannot. It helps to widen our understanding of the world. There’s a great quote from author Wendell Berry that perfectly illustrates this point:

Worst of all, the fundamentalists of both science and religion do not adequately understand or respect imagination. Is imagination merely a talent, such as a good singing voice, the ability to “make things up” or “think things up” or “get ideas”? Or is it, like science, a way of knowing things that can be known in no other way? We have much reason to think that it is a way of knowing things not otherwise knowable. As the word itself suggests, it is the power to make us see, and to see, moreover, things that without it would be unseeable. In one of its aspects it is the power by which we sympathize. By its means we may see what it was to be Odysseus or Penelope, David or Ruth, or what it is to be one’s neighbor or one’s enemy. By it, we may “see ourselves as others see us.” It is also the power by which we see the place, the predicament, or the story we are in.[1]

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[1] Berry, Wendell. Imagination in Place. p. 186-187

How C.S. Lewis Opens More Than Wardrobe Doors


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.


4 Things C.S. Lewis Taught Me About the Imagination

3 Ways C.S. Lewis Cultivated a Surprising Imagination

4 Things C.S. Lewis Taught Me About the Imagination

1. Imagination is a source of truth about reality

All my life I've been led to believe that imagination transports one to the land of make believe, and though this land may lend a richness to life, it is in fact false. What I've begun to understand through my relationship with Lewis's work is that imagination can actually be a source of truth about reality. Through the imagination I can receive impressions, see something through someone else's eyes, and perceive in ways that I cannot with reason alone.

The imagination gives us a language for our soul, as my friend Jerry Root says. I sometimes have longings that break through the scrim of my days when I recognize something of great import moving behind the shadowy reality in which I exist, just out of reach. I often can't apprehend these things with my reason, but I apprehend them with my imagination. I am pierced by a strange desire that is longing and joy and sadness, which Lewis identified as joy. I receive these impressions with my imagination.  I can either fabricate some rational explanation (thus silencing the imagination) or I can trust that what I just received was in fact a truthful expression of reality, but of a reality that cannot be grasped with reason. 

Stories or music or art can let me in: a simple willingness to receive what they have to offer allows my imagination to be worked upon, to receive impressions that help me articulate those dim shapes forever moving behind the veil. I don't articulate them by explanation, but simply by allowing them to exist, and allowing the senses, feelings or impressions I receive to be expressions of a greater reality. 

In order to fully utilize this underdeveloped faculty of the imagination, I will require a deeper understanding of it, which, thankfully, Lewis provides in the form of nuance.

2. Imagination requires a nuanced understanding

Lewis certainly possessed a nuanced understanding of the imagination; he identified more than 30 uses.  Perhaps the first and most useful distinction for understanding this nuance is that both positive and negative uses of the imagination exist. Not all imagination is beneficial or acts as a conduit of truth. For example the controlled imagination projects one's self-seeking desires onto others. It is caught up in wish-fulfillment that places the self at the center of life. It can be either knowingly or blindly manipulative

The next most useful distinction is that similarities exist between many uses. For example, Lewis identified the penetrating imagination. It seeks to look at a thing from many angles to receive the fullest impression of its truth. Shakespeare used this imagination to find multiple metaphors that describe a single thing. The absorbing imagination, while similar, takes different points of view and combines them to enlarge one's own reality. Both take multiple viewpoints into account. One attempts to see the fullest expression of truth in any given thing, the other takes all the points of truth and uses them to enlarge the viewpoint of the self.

To get the full benefit of our imaginations requires discipline. It doesn't mean that I have to work hard to cultivate each of Lewis's 30 uses, but I must work hard to unlearn the idea that imagination is only make believe. And I must begin recognizing and trusting it. Most of us already use many of the uses of imagination Lewis identified. These nuances help give us a language for recognition, and then for how we can encourage and strengthen certain uses and discourage others. 

3. Imagination requires surrender

Lewis wrote that the first thing any work of art asks of us is surrender. We must be willing to have the artist work on us, to guide our perceptions and imaginations and then see what results. We have to be willing to simply experience, to bask, to allow it to affect us. People are fond of discussing theater performances, films, books or other art forms. This is beneficial in the respect that we are using our reason to explain the art and what it means. But Lewis thought that the greatest good from any work of art was simply the ability to place ourselves in the story, as it were, and receive all the impressions and feelings it provoked. But a division still exists between the abstract knowledge of an experience and the experience itself.

For Lewis, having one type of knowledge precluded an ability to have the other. Analyzing or talking abstractly about an experience cancels out its imaginative impact.  We can't bask and analyze at the same time. We can't study pain in the moment of experiencing a toothache, says Lewis. He writes, "The more lucidly we think, the more we are cut off: the more deeply we enter into reality, the less we can think."

For Lewis, myth (an imaginative endeavor) was a solution to this impasse between the two ways of understanding: these stories illustrated concrete principles that could be grasped with the imagination.  In this sense, they become reality. But the moment we tell ourselves that we've realized what the principle is, we are back in the land of abstraction. While experiencing the myth, we were entering in, not thinking about what the myth represented. In the experience, we taste the abstract principle concretely. And in this place, reality flows into us through the imagination.

Reality is not truth, but that about which truth is, writes Lewis. The truths are experienced on the abstract level. Therefore, when our imaginations are fully engaged and we are entering into some story, we are experiencing reality in a way that we can't when we step outside of the story and begin to abstract about it. This is why Lewis placed so much emphasis on simply entering into a story or work of art. And this is partly why our imaginations function as sources of reality and truth.

To illustrate this rather difficult concept about the two types of knowledge, Lewis provides us with the useful Greek legend of Orpheus and Eurydice. The abstraction or knowledge of an experience we are trying to understand is the vanishing of a tasted reality as we try to grasp it with reason. The experience itself is the story of Orpheus leading Eurydice out of the underworld and being forbidden to look at her while doing so. But of course he looks and she vanishes forever. 

4. Imagination requires us to wake up

If we take the imagination seriously, as a source of truth about reality that reason alone cannot attain, then paying attention to our imaginations could be one of the first steps in waking up, in remembering, in seeing the shapes beyond the darkness. Our lives seem obscured by the mundane; and we often believe that the mundane is killing our ability to have imaginative experience, to dream.

In fact, the mundane is the first place to begin waking up. We get clues and hints every day in the things that have been rendered meaningless by long familiarity. The fact that they have lost their meaning by being familiar is a sign of just how deeply asleep we are.

There are times when common trees suddenly affect me with their unbelievable strangeness. I imagine them coming alive. In those moments, trees are not merely trees, but they have become pointers to something beyond. I have wakened a bit and my vision is clearer.

The imagination, if we let it, will always prod us to see things in new ways. Our reason will always rush to silence it and provide us with the same old explanation: the fact that a tree consists of bark, leaves, roots, sap and so forth. We must resist this one-sided apprehension of reality and learn to see the world imaginatively. We are not therefore escaping from reality, but simply accessing reality differently.

This takes slowing down and simply looking at the world. And it takes trust.  G.K. Chesterton believed that if we looked fiercely enough at the facts of our existence, they would turn into adventures. This is our difficult task.

Interested in learning more about C.S. Lewis and the imagination? Click the image below to read more about my new book The Surprising Imagination of C.S. Lewis.

On the Spiritual Importance of Remembering

The rain pelts down outside my window. I get my pipe well lit and settle down. It's a good day to remember. To recall.  I've been thinking a lot lately about seeing, about waking up from the narrow prison of the self, of new awareness, new imagining. Author Bonnie Friedman presents a lucid case for remembering, for reaching out and escaping that prison via writing.

I write to make things real. Otherwise oblivion devours my days. One's whole life can pass in peripheral vision. We sense something in there, but don't know how to turn. Or we turn and the thing turns just as fast. The notebook coaxes from the rim of consciousness some of the figures that lurk in the curtains, that linger behind the milk-glazed night sky which, in the city, admits no stars. A wall of light hides the ancient shapes.

The notebook is a vessel for transformation. Jewish mystics used to believe that the world presents innumerable smashed pieces of vessels with divine light clinging to them. It is each individual's responsibility to rescue the captive sparks. Notebook keepers have their own particular method of collecting the shards, trying to uncage the shimmer.

The discipline of the notebook teaches attention to life, which itself is a doorway. What your own eye is drawn to, the emblems that haunt your pages, the dreams that won't let you forget them, the gold that your finger attracts--no need to know in advance what these omens signify. There are no bits of the mind's string too small to carry meaning. Unknown neighbors step near, tapping on paper walls, trying to show you unexpected passageways out of the sealed-shut vessel of the self.

Thursday nights year-round, I meet with a group of men around an outdoor fire, and it is here I often feel the ancient shapes looming behind the night, unmoving. I write to uncover the shards with the divine light clinging to them, because I can sense their presence. To uncage the shimmer. To remember what it means to be human, to see the world through another's eyes, as C.S. Lewis was so intent on doing.  To wake up to some small glimpse of the ancient shapes and what they signify.

Lewis realized that without the views and insights of others, he was barred from that unexpected passageway out of the self and trapped in a narrow prison. For him, reading, rather than writing was the gateway out of the self. "My own eyes are not enough for me," he wrote. "I will see through those of others." Even that wasn't enough. Lewis wished that the animals could write books, that he might be enabled to perceive reality through the nose of a dog or from the perspective of a mouse or bee. He wished his imagination to be awakened, to glimpse reality from a new perspective that presented a new imaginative understanding.

I once wrote that during nights around the fire, I tap into what seems like a deep "rightness." I write to remember. To become more human. To waken my imagination. Because if I don't remember in some small way, I will surely forget.

4 Works of C.S. Lewis You Aren't Reading, but Should Be

cs lewis imagination

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."[1] 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."[2] 

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.