Why You Can't Know C.S. Lewis If You Don't Read His Literary Criticism

As C.S. Lewis scholar Jerry Root is fond of saying, Lewis opens more than wardrobe doors and this is especially true of his literary criticism. Studies in Medieval and Renaissance Literature is a collection of essays on diverse topics like the medieval cosmology, similes in Dante’s Divine Comedy and essays on the British poet Edmund Spenser and his epic poem The Fairie Queene. In fact the book is composed almost entirely of essays on Dante and Spenser. For Lewis, these were the artistic giants of the medieval age. Several of the essays in this collection were meant to be the beginnings of books which Lewis never got around to writing. 

I think that much of Lewis’s literary work was written as he says himself “to cure errors of misapprehension,” to act as a guide to a particular work that we might know something of the time in which the author was writing so that we would be better able to use what Lewis calls the historical imagination. The historical imagination allows us to place ourselves in the world of the story rather than bringing our modern world and sensibilities to bear on it in a way that would likely create a different work than the author intended. This is partly why Lewis wrote The Discarded Image, to enable people to read works of the medieval period with a greater understanding. 

In Studies in Medieval and Renaissance Literature, Lewis writes this: “When our aim is knowledge we must go as far as all available means—including the most intense, yet at the same time most sternly disciplined, exercise of our imaginations—can possibly take us. We want to know—therefore, as far as may be, we want to live through for ourselves—the experience of men long dead.” [1] And Lewis writes the essays in this book and others to help us get there. But think about that weighty statement, fraught with meaning: the most intense and sternly disciplined exercise of our imaginations. What does he mean by this? I think this gives us an understanding of what Lewis really valued when he read works of literature, of being able to see the world through others’ eyes, which he writes about at the end of An Experiment in Criticism.  

But in this book, he writes of two ways of enjoying the past and he likens it to two ways of enjoying travel. He describes an English traveler who takes his Englishry abroad and comes back with it unchanged. He mixes with other English natives and he stays at hotels that remind him of English ones. Lewis says that in the same way we can carry our modernity with us through all of our reading, preserving it intact. 

Alternatively, we can travel in a second way. We can eat the local foods and wine, take part in the local life and come back thinking and feeling as we did not think and feel before. This is why Lewis wants us to steep ourselves in the past, so that we can come to literary works more like a native.

I think that in Studies in Medieval and Renaissance Literature and in much of his literary critical work, this is Lewis’s main goal. He really does want to help us see things that we could not otherwise see, to enlarge our vision, to help us escape the narrow prison of self, to widen our understanding and to ultimately make us more human.

I would also say that Lewis’s body of literary critical work is largely ignored by most people. But it’s where many of his best ideas are germinated that then make their way into more mainstream works. Possessing even a rudimentary understanding of medieval cosmology as he writes about in this book, enables us to have a richer understanding of the Chronicles of Narnia as well as of the space trilogy. These works are difficult; you can’t rush through them. You’ve got to spend time with them. I’ve actually been reading through this book, and it’s slow going. I’m defining words, translating Latin or Italian phrases, taking notes in the margins and rereading because at times the text is dense and I’m unfamiliar with the works Lewis is writing about. But I’m seeing ideas develop and getting an appetite for reading these great works of literature. This brings me back to my initial point that Lewis opens more than wardrobe doors. If we let him, he will take us to works beyond himself. It’s his way of helping to enlarge our vision, of helping us be that traveler in a foreign country that comes back with his worldview changed. 

1. Lewis, C.S. Studies in Medieval and Renaissance Literature.