C. S. Lewis: The Professional Scholar

Stephen Schuler, offers this review of Part I: Scholar (chapters 2-5). John V. Fleming, “Literary Critic,” 15-28; Stephen Logan, “Literary Theorist,” 29-42;  Dennis Danielson, “Intellectual Historian,” 43-57;  and Mark Edwards, “Classicist,” 58-74 from Cambridge Companion to C. S. Lewis, ed. Robert MacSwain and Michael Ward, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge: 2010.

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C. S. Lewis belongs to that class of writers, like Oscar Wilde and G. K. Chesterton, whose writings are immeasurably more interesting than anything that could ever be written about them.  Thus it is difficult for the contributors to the new Cambridge Companion to C. S. Lewis to express Lewis’s ideas more clearly and succinctly than Lewis himself did.  Furthermore, they face the challenge of introducing their readers to Lewis’s lesser-known works and of providing fresh insights into the widely-read works.  Overall, the first few chapters of this book succeed in acquainting readers with Lewis’s professional life.

However, the chapter by John V. Fleming on Lewis’s literary criticism is a weak start to the volume.  Fleming duly offers an assessment of each of Lewis’s four scholarly books, The Allegory of Love, A Preface to Paradise Lost, The Discarded Image, and English Literature in the Sixteenth Century, but it seems that he is more interested in telling us how important each book is than in telling us what it said, or how it reflects on other aspects of Lewis’s thought.  The chapter makes no connections to Lewis’s other works, even though Lewis’s work on Milton had a great deal to do with his writing of both Perelandra and The Screwtape Letters, neither of which Fleming even mentions in connection with Preface.  Although Fleming states that “all aspects of Lewis’s voluminous writings were influenced by the conditions and associations of the academic world in which he worked” (15), a naive reader is bound to get the opposite impression: that Lewis’s day-job had little bearing on the work for which he is best known.

If the following chapter by Stephen Logan, on Lewis’s literary theory, makes few connections with Lewis’s popular books, he at least offers a fresh assessment of a neglected aspect of Lewis’s work. Logan begins by distinguishing between two senses of the term “literary theory,” the first being “the practice of reflecting philosophically on the nature and function of literature” in the tradition of Aristotle, Sidney, Coleridge, and T. S. Eliot (29), and the second being theory as it is now practiced in all its hermeneutic, political, and cultural permutations.

Lewis undoubtedly contributed to the field of literary theory in the first sense, but not in the second, and that is why his philosophical works on literature, such as An Experiment in Criticism and “Christianity and Literature” have been largely overlooked in surveys of literary theory in the twentieth century.  Logan is doubtful about the validity of Lewis’s argument in Experiment, but nevertheless treats it sympathetically.  Logan proceeds to trace Lewis’s underlying Romantic tendencies, by which he means Lewis’s insistence that “there is more to reality than what our senses can get at,” and that “there is more to the mind than ratiocination” (38).

Best of all, Logan has something to say about the contemporary theoretical landscape: “the significance of the contrast between the traditional and contemporary forms of literary theory is ultimately moral and metaphysical” (30).  Thus, Logan contends that Lewis’s literary theory is important because he “incisively and insistently comments on the moral and metaphysical infrastructure of literary and critical art,” while also “having the most exuberantly appreciative appetite for literary artistry” (40).  Metaphysics is back.

Chapter four, Dennis Danielson’s essay on Lewis as an intellectual historian, is the best of the early chapters.  Danielson begins with Lewis’s little-known but seminal essay “De Descriptione Temporum,” in which he divides history into three epochs, the pre-Christian, the Christian, and the post-Christian.  Lewis thought that there was significant continuity between the pre-Christian and the Christian periods, but that there was a “Great Divide” somewhere in the nineteenth century, which exhibited an emerging belief in progress and upward mobility, and a new premium on novelty.

Danielson then explains how Lewis’s account of these three periods underpins works as such as A Preface to Paradise Lost and The Discarded Image, both of which treat literature from the Christian epoch.  Lewis devotes much space in both works to explaining how the assumptions, values, and thought patterns of the fourteenth and seventeenth centuries are different from our own.  It is disappointing that Danielson does not make more links between these works and Lewis’s fiction, which seems to have much in common with the pre-Christian era as described by Lewis.  To Danielson’s credit, he shows how Lewis’s theology was shaped by his understanding of the history of ideas.

But Danielson doubts that modern readers will be able to take seriously Lewis’s account of intellectual history.  Lewis is plainly critical of modernity, and Danielson suspects that Lewis’s preference for the pre-modern will alienate a modern audience.  On the contrary, the growing popularity of authors such as G. K. Chesterton, J. R. R. Tolkien, and Wendell Berry indicate that Lewis’s own critique of modernity has more currency than Danielson allows.

The last chapter in this section is on Lewis as a classicist, by Mark Edwards.  Ironically, Edwards’s essay implies that Lewis was not really a classicist at all, and that while he knew more classical texts than did many of his colleagues, his understanding of the classical world was incomplete and therefore reductive.  Edwards quibbles with Lewis’s assessment of the Oedipus myth in Experiment, and he corrects Lewis’s simplistic understanding of ancient Greek historiography, but he also emphasizes the extent to which Lewis’s literary imagination was shaped by Greek and Latin works.  He concisely unpacks Till We Have Faces in light of its mythical sources in Apuleius, and remarks knowledgeably on the use of classical material in Pilgrim’s Regress and Narnia.  For example, Edwards notes the Professor’s exclamation at the end of The Last Battle that “It’s all in Plato!”, explaining that Lewis has in mind specifically the Platonic ideas of the translation of souls after death and the intimation of the numinous beyond the sensate world.  It is for these kinds of insights that the student as well as the teacher will turn to a Cambridge Companion on Lewis.

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Stephen Schuler holds a Ph.D. in English from Baylor University and is an assistant professor of English at the University of Mobile in Mobile, Alabama. He is currently working on a book about the theology of W. H. Auden.

3 Comments

  • Travis says:

    ‘C. S. Lewis belongs to that class of writers, like Oscar Wilde and G. K. Chesterton, whose writings are immeasurably more interesting than anything that could ever be written about them.’ Well said Stephen. The joy and frustration about studying and writing about a figure like Lewis (or Chesterton) is that you get to read the work of their illumined minds but then have to write about in words and images far less adequate. It also seems like a weakness in your chapters and those reviewed by Danny is a lack of connection made between Lewis’s scholarly and fictional writings, which is too bad. Lewis was a peculiar genius, and his breadth of learning and writing means there is a Lewis for every reader, and so one can gravitate toward one’s particular interests in his writing and never discover other work of his which though they might be manifestly different in scope or form nonetheless benefit from the same influences and tastes. I don’t know if that makes sense, but I mean that often I find those who love Lewis but by Lewis they mean certain works in particular–e.g., his apologetic works or his fiction or his literary theory, and haven’t read those pieces outside of their main genre of interest. I think it is most common to find those who appreciate him for his fiction or apologetic books but have never bothered with his more ‘academic’ writings, though there is significant cross-pollination in his thought to be discovered when viewing certain works within the context of his other writings.

    • Steve S. says:

      Thanks for your thoughts, Travis. Like most Lewis fans, I first encountered Lewis through his fiction, and then started picking up his apologetics in college. I probably would never have picked up his scholarly writings at all, except that I have followed a similar career path. Milton, for example, is a research interest of mine, and that naturally led me to Lewis’s Preface to Paradise Lost, and my interest in medieval literature led me to The Discarded Image. For someone really wanting to understand Lewis, those books offer a unique perspective.

      For example, Screwtape is both a rewriting of and a reaction to Milton’s Satan. Screwtape is much more pragmatic and less melodramatic, but the two devils share an intellectual arrogance, as well as a willful bafflement at divine love. Screwtape also owes something to Milton’s other devils, specifically Beelzebub and Belial, both of whom are skilled at making vice sound like virtue, and who jockey for position in the infernal “lowerarchy.”

      I would have dearly liked to have had one of the authors make some connections between Lewis’s view of European history and his depiction of Narnian history, which I would argue have strong parallels.

  • CastleQwayR says:

    I have been enjoying the books of Mr. Lewis from my pre-Christian days and now try to learn as much as I can about his life and all of his work. In reading the three volumes of letters, I am at the point immediately before his conversion. I did a brief post and would like your insights, observations or whatever thoughts you might share.

    http://wp.me/py5dX-4K

    Thank you.

    –Ron C

    There is a very nice private C.S. Lewis collection at Taylor University up the road from my home which I have enjoyed. I’m friends with the donor, Dr. Brown.

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