C.S. Lewis Books

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.

5 Things To Learn From C.S. Lewis's Autobiography

1. Our Longings Are Often Misplaced

Lewis writes frequently about longing and the experiences that triggered it for him. These are not simply the longing for earthly pleasures, but nameless, unidentifiable and intense experiences of longing that could be triggered by just about anything. Lewis describes how these longings were triggered by a tiny garden his brother had built on the lid of a biscuit tin, Norse myth, Beatrix Potter's Squirrel Nutkin, works of poetry and certain illustrations in books. He identifies these experiences as joy. Lewis later understands that we must not confuse the longings with what the longings actually point to. All our intense desires or joys are not longings to get back to a particular thing itself, but are merely the vehicle or conduit for some object beyond. Lewis eventually understands this object to be God. 

In my own life I have certainly confused longings with what the longings pointed to. The scent of certain flowers brings back memories of childhood and with them the desire to go back and recapture those feelings, those experiences. But Lewis says that if we could go back, even what we were feeling then would simply be a memory of something even more distant. Because we are made for another world, all our lives we have desires which this world cannot fulfill. Our task is to understand that these experiences actually point to our desire for God and not to make idols of them that will never satisfy us.

2. Reason and Imagination Are Not Mutually Exclusive

Our reason and imagination both work together to give us a fuller understanding of truth and reality. For the first half of Lewis's life, these two parts of his mind were sharply divided. He understood the world through his reason alone, even though his imagination was perhaps the more vital entity. He believed that the life of the imagination, which he loved, was simply imaginary. Everything he believed to be real he saw as meaningless. Only once he converted to Christianity did he find that the two parts of his mind were reconciled in Christ and that the imaginative part could provide an additional understanding of truth that reason alone could not. 

From the time we are children, we are trained for the most part to believe that the imagination is simply "make believe." Lewis suggests that our task is to wake up to a fuller understanding and experience of the imagination as a vehicle about the true nature of reality and God.

3. We Must Not Engage in Chronological Snobbery 

As a materialist, Lewis prided himself on the blind acceptance of the current intellectual climate and a rejection of everything in the past. Lewis's friend Owen Barfield helped him to understand that just because a particular model or worldview was held hundreds of years ago doesn't mean that it is obsolete now and cannot influence or teach us. One must discover why a model or position is no longer held. Many of the climates in the past could provide truth, but were lost to the future simply because they went out of fashion. Lewis calls this chronological snobbery. We must always be willing to ask questions before making any judgments about the past and its ways of understanding the world. Our current model will likely be ridiculed and dismissed by people 200 years from now. This doesn't mean it has no value.

4. The Imagination Contains Distinctions

In order to effectively describe his experience, Lewis categorized the imagination, dividing it into three parts.

1. Reverie, Day Dream, Wish-Fulfilling Fantasy. This is the type of imagination where we think of ourself as the hero of some drama we create, or of how our world would be if we were unimaginable beautiful. It is focused on the self. Lewis beautifully illustrates this in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, when Lucy is looking through the magician's book of spells and comes on a spell "to make one beautiful beyond the lot of mortals."

2. Invention. Things we create in which we do not play a part. Lewis's creation of animal land was an example. He criticizes his own creation of animal land for not having any poetry or romance. This does not mean that this distinction cannot contain romance.

3. Experiences of Joy. Lewis views this as the highest distinction of imagination. It is the experience of longing, what Lewis call sehnsucht, associated with an object we can never possess in this world. It might also be translated as "intensely missing," or "unsatisfied desire." It is the experience described in the first point at the beginning of this post. 

While we cannot will experiences of joy to happen, we can appreciate distinctions of the imagination and engage in those that are beneficial and avoid those that are negative and harmful.

5. We can Find Balance in the Roughness and Density of Life

Lewis had initially been educated through a study of the classics, that is, the great literature of the ancient world. Even prior to his conversion to Christianity, when he later began to read English literature, he describes how among all the writers he read, only the Christian writers such as John Donne, George Herbert, Thomas Browne, Samuel Johnson, John Milton, and Edmund Spenser wrote material which contained depth and could be trusted. The writings of George Bernard Shaw, Voltaire and others, Lewis called "tinny," thin and too simple. "The roughness and density of life did not appear in their books," Lewis writes. What did he mean by this? I understand it to mean that these writers simply did not account for the way life is actually lived by human beings with all the attendant emotions, fears, desires, hopes, sorrows, joys etc. The Christian authors wrote about the full range of human experience. Why should we care about this? Because the roughness and density of life doesn't shy away from ambiguity or complexity. It doesn't hold up one perspective as the be all and end all. It allows for other perspectives and new insights. It looks at the world through the eyes of others, not simply through the eyes of the world as it is for me. It doesn't turn away from the evil or the ugly, but neither does it glorify it. It provides a balanced approach to understanding and living life.

Interested in learning more about C.S. Lewis's imagination? Why not download two free chapters from my book The Surprising Imagination of C.S. Lewis? Simply click on the image below to download now.



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.