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