C.S. Lewis and Imagination

Why You Need C.S. Lewis's Historical Imagination

Though we tend to think of it as a single entity, C.S. Lewis had a more robust understanding of the functions of the imagination. He identified more than thirty embodiments or nuances.  Similarly, the Eskimo or Innuit have 50 different ways to understand snow. Matsaaruti describes wet snow that can be used to ice a sleigh’s runners and pukak for the powdery snow that looks like salt.  An understanding of sea ice is even richer, with 70 terms including utuqaq, ice that lasts year after year, siguliaksraq, a patchwork layer of crystals that forms as the sea begins to freeze or auniq, ice that is filled with holes.[1] We can imagine also that those living in desert areas might have a nuanced understanding of sand, or those flying planes might require different ways to describe air currents.

One of these distinctions is what Lewis termed the historical imagination. This use enables us to reawaken to or recover the essence of the art or literature of a particular historical period by imaginatively inserting ourselves into the experience of the time and inhabiting it as a native would, as if its worldviews and assumptions were true.

But problems arise as we begin to think about enacting this recovery. Our access to the past is restricted. Between the present and any near or far distant historical time stretches an unassailable chasm of worldviews, thought-patterns, philosophical, scientific and religious beliefs, socio-behavioral structures and more to which we no longer give credence. Our contemporary knowledge base renders much of the past understandings of the world obsolete de facto, or so we think. How do we truly inhabit the past without understanding all that separates us from it? To bridge the chasm, divesting ourselves of our modern understandings seems a foolhardy if not impossible task.

            And yet, and yet . . . everything in the past has contributed to make us in some measure everything we currently are. Lewis writes that “humanity does not pass through phases as a train passes through stations: being alive, it has the privilege of always moving yet never leaving anything behind. Whatever we have been, in some sort we are still.”[1] He also presents us with the darkly intriguing thought that things don’t pass away “without leaving indelible traces on our minds.”[2] Even so, there is still that chasm between the past and us. Lewis offers a solution to bridge this gap.

Instead of stripping the knight of his armour you can try to put his armour on yourself; instead of seeing how the courtier would look without his lace, you can try to see how you would feel with his lace; that is, with his honour, his wit, his royalism, and his gallantries. . . I had much rather know what I should feel like if I adopted the beliefs of Lucretius than how Lucretius would have felt if he had never entertained them. The possible Lucretius in myself interests me more than the possible C.S. Lewis in Lucretius.[3]

Lewis admonishes us to plunge right in, “to see the world as if we believed it, and then, while we still hold that position in our imagination, to see what sort of a poem results.”[4] Though quoted in the context of Milton’s Paradise Lost, I believe Lewis would extend this understanding to any work of art or literature. It is the primary reason why he wrote A Preface to Paradise Lost, The Allegory of Love, and The Discarded Image. These works of the historical imagination enable us to plunge right in to Milton’s poem, the love poetry of the Middle ages or Spenser’s The Faerie Queene by giving us background on the historical period which each one details. This allows us to approach the works with understanding and sympathy, regardless of whether or not the science is accurate or the religious beliefs are pagan. It also begins the process of enabling us to approach works of art without imposing our current worldview on them. We might even think of these works as travel guidebooks. The point is never that in order to understand, we must agree with or embrace the ideas of a certain time.

I think the metaphor of travel can be usefully applied to further understand and define the historical imagination. We have already seen how humanity moves ever onward without leaving anything behind.  To this I would add two ways, outlined by Lewis, in which we can enjoy the past. Here is the first:

Firstly, consider an English gentleman who travels to another country, staying at hotels that are like English hotels, complaining of tea that doesn’t measure up to English standards, and gathering with other English tourists. So it is in literature, if a man brings his modernity to bear on everything he reads. He only looks and sees the bits that resemble his own time.[5]

The second way is likened to the sort of traveling where one drinks the local drinks and eats the local food and consorts with the natives, seeing what their life is like from their own point of view, and returning from a journey with altered opinions and feelings. So it would be with older literature. It would require you to immerse yourself in the era, studying other works that describe the period to shine light on the literature you are reading. But Lewis holds up a cautionary finger. What may happen if you adopt this approach is that you will come to understand that your first reading of a historical work was not really historically accurate, but was modern insofar as you constructed it yourself out of modern preconceptions that you brought to the work.[6]

Many, if not all of us, approach historical works of art this way. Unless we intentionally study to understand what those who live in these times really thought and believed, we will never achieve the type of travel that allows us to consort with the natives. It is difficult work. To attempt to understand these principles, I read Lewis’s A Preface to Paradise Lost, followed immediately by Paradise Lost. Though Lewis’s knowledge was helpful in enabling me to understand the text from a different perspective than I would have brought without it, I felt no sense of immersion, nor much awareness of the medieval scholastic to be found in Mark Neal, to borrow from Lewis’s image. And yet Lewis feels that it is vital for us to make the effort through an intense and disciplined effort of our imaginations. He writes that “we want to know—therefore, as far as may be, we want to live through for ourselves—the experience of men long dead.”[7] We achieve this through the second mode of travel described earlier.

Why this strenuous effort of travel, of the historical imagination? And how can we achieve it? Lewis believes it is worth it simply for the enjoyment, but also because it leads us on to things that we could never meet in our own time, to “modes of feeling, flavours, atmospheres, nowhere accessible but by a mental journey into the real past.”[8] Elsewhere, Lewis suggests that his own eyes are not enough for him, that he would see what others have seen, what others have imagined, even how the world appears to the senses of animals such as a dog or bee.

Enjoyment or experience of past modes of thinking seems a bit of a thin compensation compared to the arduous labor we must undergo in order to access it. To those literarily or historically inclined, the reward might be worth the effort. But we are not all scholars. Notwithstanding, most of us already experience and use the historical imagination to varying degrees, though we are probably apt to label it ‘daydreaming,’ as we are probably apt to label all of imagination. I would suggest that this understanding runs parallel to and informs Lewis’s understanding.

It functions through experiences that occur when certain landscapes or natural phenomena react powerfully on our minds and imaginations. G.K. Chesterton calls it being the “heir of the ages.” A useful term might be liminal space, a space where we feel as if we are on a threshold, an actual encounter with a particular place in which we access a certain receptivity that taps into our memory repositories and all of the images we have stored there to alter our immediate perception of reality. Particularly, the images of our imaginative experience gleaned through books or other media. This alteration of perception is an experience of the past, of the ages, in an almost tangible way. We feel, in some sense, as if we have crossed over. This all sounds very mystical, but in fact it isn’t.  Chesterton describes it in terms of being sympathetic to beliefs in which one doesn’t put any credence. He writes thus:

Nevertheless, there are some of us who do hold that the metaphor of inheritance from human history is a true metaphor, and that any man who is cut off from the past, and content with the future, is a man most unjustly disinherited; and all the more unjustly if he is happy in his lot, and is not permitted even to know what he has lost. And I, for one, believe that the mind of man is at its largest, and especially at its broadest, when it feels the brotherhood of humanity linking it up with remote and primitive and even barbaric things.[9]

He goes on to describe four stages in the spiritual story of humanity as discovered by historian Christopher Dawson. At each stage, he disavows belief in that particular stage, but is nevertheless sympathetic towards it in his imagination. For example, the first stage is that of the medicine man, one who could release the mysterious forces of nature. Now Chesterton says he cannot be content with this magic, but also that he cannot countenance, and indeed would not consider large-minded or imaginative those who have no sympathy with it. “It is quite natural to me,” he writes, “walking in the woods, to wonder fancifully whether whistling back the note of a certain bird, or tasting the juice of a certain berry, would release a glamour or give back a fairyland.” This, he writes, is being the heir of the ages.

I have had this experience myself, many times. Once, hiking along the edge of a forest in a sunken lane, my perception of the characteristics of the surrounding environment called forth a deeply imaginative response in which I felt as if I had just stumbled from the modern world into the remote past. And not just a historically remote past, but almost an apotheosis of a remote, deeply felt imagined past, where just about anything could happen. It was almost a tangible feeling of entering something utterly foreign. I want to suggest that when we experience this, we are using the historical imagination.

This is not a unique experience. I believe most of us experience it to varying degrees. Author Robert Macfarlane, who wrote about path walking in his book entitled The Old Ways, tells of a similar experience and indeed attempts to categorize this experience. He describes walking the Broomway, one of Britain’s deadliest paths. A map of the Essex coastline shows this footpath running straight out to sea. It has claimed the lives of more than one hundred people, because out on the Broomway, disorientation is likely due to weather: mist, rain, fog. The tide comes in quickly, faster than a man can run. Macfarlane describes the disorientation he experienced as he ventured far out on this path and all of the familiar landmarks vanished in the distance. The similarity in feature and color of sky and sea eradicated perceptual cues that led to disequilibrium. The author describes it this way:

My brain was beginning to move unusually, worked upon and changed by the mind-altering substances of this offshore world, and by the elation that arose from the counter-intuition of walking securely on water. Out there, nothing could be only itself. The eye fed on false colour-values. Similes and metaphors bred and budded. Mirages of scale occurred, and tricks of depth. Gull-eagles dipped and glided in the outer reaches of the mist. The sand served as the water’s ‘tain’, from the French for ‘tin’, being the lusterless backing of a mirror that makes reflection possible but limits the onward gaze, disallowing the view of a concept beyond that point.[10]

Macfarlane attempts to find a term to describe these kinds of experiences where we transition from a known world to a seemingly unknown. “They exist even in familiar landscapes: there when you cross a certain watershed, treeline or snowline, or enter rain, storm or mist, or pass from boulder clay onto sand, or chalk onto greenstone. Such moments are rites of passage that reconfigure local geographies, leaving known places outlandish or quickened, revealing continents within counties.”[11]

Again, many of us would dismiss experiences like this, but that is partly because we have never had a nuanced understanding of the imagination. I maintain that these experiences, if we embrace them, are ways of using the historical imagination to be the heir of all the ages. They are not random daydreams. The argument could be made that we need not ascribe the category of history to these experiences, but I think we experience them as historical events, because we experience them in time. There is a dissociative power present that is akin to what we might term ‘time travel.’ And with these experiences, we feel a greater depth and texture to life and a greater sense of mystery. Now I would maintain that these experiences, while valuable, are a more undisciplined way to use the historical imagination.

This brings us back to Lewis’s notion of the historical imagination allowing us to experience modes of thinking and feeling we otherwise would not access. In those experiences described previously, we could be said to inhabit a time with a set of feelings commensurate to it. We are acting and thinking as if it were true. This is what Lewis would ultimately like us to achieve with the historical imagination, to act as if what we are experiencing is true, even if by reason alone, we know better. And the discipline is how we apply this apprehension to actual historical works of art and literature. The goal is to develop this perception, to be able to use the imagination to experience the world “as if,” not to dismiss it as fanciful.

Lewis offers us an additional incentive, perhaps the most important one, to use the historical imagination: “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 an Achaean chief while reading Homer, a medieval knight while reading Malory, and an Eighteenth-Century Londoner while reading Johnson.”[12] It would appear that Lewis does not believe we can enjoy our full humanity without using the historical imagination. This is a strong statement. But it does not seem that Lewis expects everyone to achieve this with the same degree of success. He makes this clear by the phrase “so far as in you lies.” If history is not lost, as Lewis maintains, if indeed our present worldviews are built on the past, then an understanding of that past would logically enlarge our understanding of our own humanity as well as that of others. Thus we approach a closer approximation of truth which is the ultimate goal, not only of the historical imagination, but of any imaginative endeavor.




[1] Lewis, C.S. The Allegory of Love. p. 1 

[2] Ibid

[3] Lewis, C.S. A Preface to Paradise Lost. p. 62-63

[4] Ibid. p.64

[5] Lewis, C.S. Studies in Medieval and Renaissance Literature. p. 2

[6] Ibid. p.3

[7] Ibid. p.2

[8] Ibid. p.3

[9] Chesterton, G.K. Avowals and Denials. p. 82

[10] Macfarlane, Robert. The Old Ways.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Lewis, C.S. A Preface to Paradise Lost. p. 62


5 Big Ideas From C.S. Lewis You Should Know About

I just arrived home from Oxford where I was teaching American students in a study abroad program about imagination and theology in the writings of C.S. Lewis. We read excerpts from selected texts and my goal was to enable the students to leave the class knowing just a few things; not a huge assemblage of facts they would quickly forget, but several key ideas that were vital to Lewis and that are repeated over and over again in his work. This post takes a look at five of these ideas.

1. We must wake up.

Lewis writes in The Weight of Glory that "you and I have need of the strongest spell that can be found to wake us from the evil enchantment of worldliness which has been laid upon us."[1] He also writes in Letters to Malcolm, Chiefly on Prayer that to apprehend God, "the real labour is to remember, to attend. In fact, to come awake. Still more, to remain awake."[2]

The true perception of reality around us is not something at which we are very adept. We notice but we don't actually see. Familiarity breeds contempt in all of our lives. A tree is just a tree. But in our unawareness, or sleepiness, we aren't even aware of the need to see the tree. G.K. Chesterton rightly notes that "there is a law in the darkest of the books of life and it is this: if you look at a thing nine hundred and ninety-nine times you are perfectly safe; if you look at it the thousandth time, you are in frightful danger of seeing it for the first time."[3] But that thousandth look requires awareness of our sleepiness and just about everything Lewis writes is an attempt to get us to this point of awareness which is the first step to waking up. Perceiving reality more clearly re-enchants the familiar, and allows us to see all of the material world charged with God.

2. God and reality are iconoclastic.

We are proficient at making idols in our lives. We fashion them around relationships, institutions, events, our past, our future, our job, our longings. We think the idol will deliver the happiness or fulfillment we seek if we can just attain what we long for. Lewis writes that all reality is iconoclastic. It will break every idol we make of it. We can choose to live in the fantasy and worship the idol, but it will break our hearts every time. We must be able to attain the point of living in reality, of choosing the real over the ideal. It is only in this place of radical acceptance that we can begin the work of waking up.

No change in this life comes without disequilibrium, and paradoxically, in the difficult times when we see reality as it is, we experience the most growth. Similarly, Lewis says that God is the great iconoclast. "Every idea of Him we form, He must in mercy shatter."[4] Because God is outside our experience and because as an infinite being he shatters the category of definition, we can't use words to describe God the way we can material reality.

We must tell stories and engage our imaginations. Jesus told parables, extended similes and metaphors to explain these spiritual realities. The kingdom of heaven is like a man who sowed good seed. Like yeast. Like treasure hidden in a field. Like a merchant looking for fine pearls. It is nearly impossible to grasp God with our reason, and reason is the region where we live. Therefore any understanding of God we have must be provisional. We must allow him to continue to break the understanding we have to enable better and clearer understanding to take its place.

3. Atmosphere is important.

What does Lewis mean by this? In reading a story, the feeling or sense or quality of immersion that allowed a reader to imaginatively inhabit it was chiefly important to Lewis. To bask in the story itself without analyzing it was the goal. He writes about why we return again and again to certain books. He says it "is like going back to a fruit for its taste; to an air for its. . . what? for itself, to a region for its whole atmosphere--to Donegal for its Donegality and London for its Londonness."[5]

In the same way he read James Fenimore Cooper's books for the quality of "redskinnery" as he describes the world of the native Americans or the sense of the deathly he received from H. Rider Haggard's novel King Solomon's Mines. For Lewis, the experience was most notable in reading, but I think it could be experienced many ways. For example, watching films again and again or traveling repeatedly to a well-loved place. When we experience something by simply basking in its atmosphere and not attempting to define it, Lewis says that we can receive certain truths about reality in a way we cannot if we stop to think about what we're doing.

For Lewis there are two ways of seeing anything: looking at, or looking along. One is seeing, the other experiencing. We cannot do both at the same time and either one gives us a different understanding. Lewis writes that we live in time and have longings for how a thing will be or what we will feel, but then once we get there, time goes on and we haven't achieved what we really were looking for.

For example, when I visit Oxford, I always have the goal to get the true feel of the place, to somehow enter into its atmosphere in a way that will let me into something I feel excluded from. But it never happens. I get there and I have responsibilities and I never seem able to find what I'm searching for. And the object of this search isn't even very well defined. Lewis writes that we are always searching for the nonsuccessive in a life of successive moments and that sometimes, in art that is done well, we can get close to grasping our longings in a way not normally available to us. But we do this through a work of art or a place's "atmosphere," by inhabiting it and letting it work its magic on us. 

4. All of our longings have an end.

Our need to capture the nonsuccessive in a life of successiveness is really a picture of our often ill-defined desires and longings. We think a certain thing or person or place or event somewhere in the future will finally satisfy us, that we will finally arrive and be living the life of which we currently feel deprived. Lewis writes, "the belief that the very formula of universal process is from imperfect to perfect, from small beginnings to great endings, from the rudimentary to the elaborate. . . is perhaps the deepest habit of mind in the contemporary world."[6] It is the idea of universal evolutionism.

Our experience suggests otherwise, though this myth of universal progress is so ingrained in us that we find it difficult to accept the idea that it doesn't actually exist. Lewis writes extensively of his longings, what he calls joy, and the quest that ended in his understanding that all of his longings were ultimately a longing for God, and that the things which produce the longing are merely reminders, not the thing itself. Understanding this and reminding ourselves again and again when we try to fulfill our longings with things apart from God is one of the ways in which we begin to wake up.

5. We must see with others' eyes.

At the conclusion of An Experiment in Criticism, Lewis writes,

The man who is contented to be only himself, and therefore less a self, is in prison. My own eyes are not enough for me, I will see through those of others. Reality, even seen through the eyes of many, is not enough. I will see what others have invented. Even the eyes of all humanity are not enough. I regret that the brutes cannot write books. Very gladly would I learn what face things present to a mouse or bee; more gladly still would I perceive the olfactory world charged with all the information and emotion it carries for a dog.[7]

In order for us to wake up, to identify the true end of all our longings, to engage in beneficial iconoclasm, we need others. Lewis writes that we live in a narrow prison of self. We have to have others' visions and understandings of the world or we will never expand our own understanding. So we need Lewis, we need the great works of literature and film and art, we need our friends and families. It is easy for us to get trapped in our own narrow understanding, to remain comfortable and not engage with unfamiliar and uncomfortable ideas. Humility and willingness to listen to others enables us to overcome these obstacles.



[1] Lewis, C.S. The Weight of Glory and Other Addresses. "The Weight of Glory." New York: The            Macmillan Company, 1949. p. 5.

[2] Lewis, C.S. Letters to Malcolm, Chiefly on Prayer. London: Geoffrey Bles, 1964. p. 101.

[3] Chesterton, G.K. The Napoleon of Notting Hill. The Collected Works of G.K Chesterton. Compiled by Denis J. Conlon. San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1991. p. 227.

[4] Lewis, C.S. Letters to Malcolm, Chiefly on Prayer. London: Geoffrey Bles, 1964. p. 109.

[5] Lewis, C.S. Spenser's Images of Life. Ed. Alastair Fowler. London: Cambridge University Press, 1967. p. 115.

[6] Lewis, C.S. The Weight of Glory and Other Addresses. "Is Theology Poetry?" New York: The            Macmillan Company, 1949. p. 90.

[7] Lewis, C.S. An Experiment in Criticism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1961. p. 140.

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.



The Surprising Imagination of C.S. Lewis: Interview Part 2

The following is part two of an excerpt from my part of an interview conducted by Lancia E. Smith. The interview is about the writing of The Surprising Imagination of C.S. Lewis, co-authored with 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/.

LES: So much of what defines Lewis is his lifelong capacity at passing back and forth across the borderlands of imagination for himself.  In the forward written by Steven Beebe, Steven talks about the recurring image of doors and portals with Lewis and what those represent across Lewis’s canon.  In the midst of that, Steve makes this intriguing statement: “Lewis understood our lives are a series of simultaneous comings and goings as we daily cross thresholds and transoms, even when we are not aware we are between rooms.” What anchored Lewis in truth so deeply that it gave him the permission and the freedom to move so fluidly ‘between rooms’ and ‘across thresholds’ of imagination without becoming lost in his faith or his reason? Is that something we can learn to do also or was that something that was simply unique to Lewis and others among the Inklings?

MN: For Lewis, crossing the borderlands into imagination was not a way to lose faith or reason, but to gain it. Everywhere we look in Lewis’s writings, we see this theme repeated: the longing for the hidden country, the stab of joy, the longings of our heart that we search to fulfill. For Lewis, these all pointed to something beyond them, to the far green country described in the closing chapter of The Voyage of the Dawn Treader.

As I previously mentioned, Lewis fought to reconcile reason and imagination and was able to do so through the person of Christ. For him, the imagination was a source of truth often giving glimpses of realities that couldn’t be seen in any other way.  Literature was his doorway into the imagination. And Lewis was a proponent of a very particular type of reading experience, one that allowed a deep immersion in the text so that truths could simply be experienced at the level of the imagination without the reason kicking in.  In this place, Lewis believed that we could most effectively receive truths into our soul. 

But he was also aware that we lose the effectiveness of these mediated truths when we attempt to analyze them. And we excel at analysis, because we live in a culture that values the reason far beyond the imagination. Lewis also describes this experience in an essay on seeing a beam of light in a toolshed. He realized that there was a distinction between ‘looking at’ versus ‘looking along.’ When we look at something we are using our reason. When we look along, we are entering into the experience so that the experience itself vanishes. We are not objective observers; we are participators.

LES: Your closing conclusion is one of the most compelling pieces I have read in a long time. Talk with me about Lewis’s use of imagination as a vehicle of reconciliation.  How does Lewis use imagination as a method of reconciling the broken but still beautiful world for his readers?

MN: At the end of An Experiment in Criticism, Lewis makes an interesting comment.  He writes, “Literary experience heals the wound, without undermining the privilege, of individuality.” For Lewis literature and imaginative experience were so closely connected it’s hard to speak of one without the other. Lewis’s first volume of poetry, Spirits in Bondage, was an attempt to reconcile the horrors of war and a broken world with the beauty he saw in the midst of this. This was prior to his conversion experience and he didn’t have an answer to the question. 

If you remember back to The Horse and His Boy, Aravis and Shasta are discussing how Shasta came to be separated from his twin brother at birth.  Through all the series of events that led up to the moment of being reunited with his true family, Shasta realizes that Aslan is the one that is “at the back of all the stories.” Again, at the end of Till We Have Faces, Orual writes these words: “I know now, Lord, why you utter no answer. You yourself are the answer. Before your face questions die away.” These recognitions are behind every imaginative experience for Lewis, and his best imaginative embodiments point us to the one before whose face all questions die away. We may not recognize that this is happening, but once we experience the longing that an imaginative depiction provokes in us, we have a sense that it is a longing that cannot be fulfilled in this world. I think Lewis excels at this type of depiction. I’ve experienced it again and again when I read through the Chronicles and as well as his other fiction.

LES: One of my favorite quotes from Lewis is, “For me, reason is the natural organ of truth; but imagination is the organ of meaning. Imagination, producing new metaphors or revivifying old, is not the cause of truth, but its condition.” (Mere Christianity)  How is a reader best able to cultivate a wholesome imagination and develop its strength as an organ of meaning?

MN: First, by understanding that the function of the imagination is so much more than simply “make believe.” Too many people define it in this limited way and so believe it to be false. How many times have we heard the imagination denigrated? “You just imagined it” is not a cry of affirmation. Understanding the imagination as a whole of nuanced parts is the first step. Then trusting that it can be a reliable source of truth about reality and detaching negative connotations.

Of course, much of Lewis’s imaginative development was the result of extensive reading, so we mustn’t neglect wide reading that will stock our minds with plenty of images. Lewis expressed that his own eyes weren’t enough for him, that he wished to see with others’ eyes.

I believe Lewis teaches us to think out of the box; I’ve always felt fresh air blowing from him. I would simply add that reading his work is itself an education in developing the imagination.

LES: Mark, who would benefit from reading this book? Where can readers learn more about Lewis’s imagination?

MN: Anyone with an interest in Lewis would benefit, but I think it will reach those who are most interested in his imaginative development and how this is manifested in his work. I think it will also benefit those who sense the larger role that imagination can play in our lives.

Again, I would point people to Lewis’s lesser-known books, his literary critical works especially. You will find that he is eminently consistent in developing his ideas across all his work.  If it shows up in one place, you’ll find it in several other places, guaranteed. Take the time to really digest the ideas and literature Lewis was passionate about. It will not only expand your own imaginative development, but it will give you a whole new level of appreciation when you read Lewis, especially his fiction. As Jerry has stated, Lewis will also lead you, through his own passion, to the enjoyment of many other authors.

LES: Gentlemen, what was your favorite chapter to write and why?

MN: The absorbing imagination as reflected through Lewis’s poetry, for many of the reasons listed in my answer to the previous question.  There was a thrill in knowing that though scholars have largely ignored Lewis’s poetry, I found it deeply meaningful anyway, despite its avowed flaws, which I think are likely over-exaggerated. Lewis himself wrote that “The poet’s route to our emotions lies through our imaginations.” I think this is true of Lewis’s poetry.

LES: What did you learn in the writing process and how do you perceive your own imagination differently from having spent so much time working with this material?

MN: One of the most important things we can do in life is to remember, to find ways to continually and deeply inscribe the important things of life on the slate of our consciousness. We so easily forget and fall away. So really, the most profound change my work with this material has had is to continually place it before my attention, to force me to wake up from the status quo and perceive reality differently.

I am amazed at how Lewis is so proficient at the apt word or metaphor; he gets just the right one to make his point and clarify our vision. And he has the rare ability to help us see beyond the words, to enter into the experience with our imagination, not our reason. I sensed this most strongly in Lewis’s poetry, where evocation became longing, where I encountered a sense of veiled mystery, something just beyond reach, as seen through a glass darkly. Having a language that can help us make sense of that experience was a major takeaway, even though Lewis would discourage us from thinking about these things and rather have us simply experience them. I think, at some level, we need to think about these things, if for no other reason than to cultivate awareness and be given the chance to change our approach to imagination.

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