C. S. Lewis: Writer and Poet

Review of  Part III: Writer (chapters 19-21). Alan Jacobs, “The Chronicles of Narnia,” 265-280; Peter J. Schakel, “Til We Have Faces,” 281-293; Malcolm Guite, “Poet,” 294-310 from Cambridge Companion to C. S. Lewis, Robert MacSwain and Michael Ward, Editors., Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010. This review is the final in our week long series!

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The final three chapters by Alan Jacobs, Peter Schakel and Malcolm Guite, like the others of Part III: Writer are occupied with Lewis as a writer of fiction and poetry.

Jacobs’ chapter on “The Chronicles of Narnia” explores why Lewis might have chosen to write fiction for children, despite many scholars finding it an odd choice for an older childless literature Professor. Both Danny Gabelman and Steve Schuler have expressed disappointment in the lack of consideration of links with Lewis’s fiction and his most significant fictional influences in their reviews of the first two sections of the Companion. Jacobs almost single handedly saves this volume from those charges being wholly proved. His discussion of faery is also particularly strong (271-274).

Jacobs also demonstrates the way in which Michael Ward’s Planet Narnia has shifted the Lewisian scholarly universe, though his assertion that Ward’s argument is ‘iron-clad’ seems prone to claims of overstatement, even though I too agree that it is particularly persuasive scholarship (269). Jacobs argues persuasively that Ward’s argument problematizes Lewis’s suggestion that he was ‘imaginative man’ and ‘religious writer’ (269). Jacobs questions the reality of Lewis’ authorial statements. The last section of the chapter is also concerned with assessing the scholarly impact of Planet Narnia (2008) which he connects with his argument about sovereignty (discussed below).

So too does he question Lewis’s views (as reported by Walter Hooper) on the ordering of the series. This is not a new argument, and it seems ill-placed in the midst of this chapter. Moreover, this section contains an odd assertion that Jacobs knows best the ordering, and that Lewis, if he disagreed with Jacobs, is “mistaken”:

If Lewis really and truly thought that the series was begun with The Magicians Nephew, he was simply mistaken. The original order of publication is the best for any reader wishing to enter Narnia. (271)

What is most odd about this assertion is that the previous page was spent explaining a different ordering based on internal consistency.  All in all, this section doesn’t advance the chapter, providing too little information for those who’ve not come across the debate before while casting aspersions without sufficient evidence which fails to satisfy those that are familiar with the debate. It may have been better to leave this section out altogether as it curiously diminishes an otherwise strong chapter.

There is only one section in this chapter where Jacobs offers a substantive critical argument. Titled ‘Disputed Sovereignty,’ the section contends that the ‘story in itself’ of The Chronicles of Narnia is that of sovereignty, the crown’s rightful heir and usurpation of the throne. It’s a generally straightforward critical argument which concludes in a very brief summary which restates the argument that the Narnian Chronicles are an allegorical representation of the Christian gospel.  The bald assertion isn’t so much the problem as the lack of links made throughout the ‘disputed sovereignty discussion’ with Jacobs’ conclusion. It is a difficult argument to follow to its conclusion if one doesn’t already have a background in the scholarship.  Jacobs offers no textual evidence and no real framework by which this interpretation comes about:

In short: there is a King of Kings and Lord of Lords whose Son is the rightful ruler of this world. Indeed, through that Son all things were made, and the world will end when he ‘comes again in glory to judge the living and the dead’. though ‘his kingdom will have no end’. in the words of the Nicene Creed. Meanwhile, in these in-between times, the rulership of Earth is claimed by an Adversary, the Prince of this world. And what is asked of all Lewis’s characters is simple, as the biblical Joshua put it, to ‘choose this day’ whom they will serve. (275-6)

In many ways this chapter is strong, but one wonders what might have been had Jacobs taken his end point as his beginning: “But understood more deeply and fully, the Chronicles, with their elaborate complement of images, contribute to an askesis, a spiritual exercise. They are a kind of training in how to long and who, to long for” (279).

Peter S. Schakel’s chapter considers Lewis’s last published work of fiction: “Til We Have Faces.” Schakel offers a chapter particularly well suited to the purpose and likely audience of the Companion. He offers a overview of the background, form, and themes of Til We Have Faces in a manner that will guide those looking for a first foray into research about the work. He gives a nod to many of the strains of criticism most prevalent and finishes by suggesting that this work is indeed work of high critical praise, though he wonders whether given Lewis’s aim for the work, he may have fallen short of the expectations of his reading audience. Like Jacobs, it is Schakel’s final line that offers insight into his own interpretative approach: “Likewise readers must learn how to see what they are shown by the myth, shown – or enabled to taste – what the essence of Christianity is, and not simply told what it is about” (290).

In the last chapter of the Companion, Malcolm Guite explores Lewis as a “Poet” (294-310). While first acknowledging Lewis’s formidable powers as a poetry critic, Guite sees his task to assess his poetic output anew. Guite is well placed for this task, and as very few are able, he makes reading poetic criticism feel like refreshment. Guite argues persuasively for a more charitable reading of Lewis’s verse suggesting that he is much more concerned with the crises of modernity than has been acknowledged and his “redemptive reintegration” in all areas of his work is equally apparent in his poetry (308). The strength of this chapter is in Guite’s even handed assessment of Lewis’s poetry that offers a reading which highlights the influence of Owen Barfield, W. B. Yeats and T. S. Eliot. It also shows that Lewis’s poetry is better than the middling to minor poet status he’s been heretofore awarded. Lewis is considered a war poet, a contemporary poet concerned with modernity, and a poet within the Irish tradition of Yeats (which does accord with his birth).  In many aspects this is the most original of the final three chapters, and, I would argue, one of the Companion’s contributions most likely to have enduring impact on Lewis scholarship.

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I hope you’ve enjoyed the extended review of the Cambridge Companion to C. S. Lewis over the past week. As a final point, if you are looking for a useful addition to your Lewis library either as a student or a professor, there is much in this Companion to commend it, not least the bibliography which offers a good selection of secondary sources that go beyond the popular and the most obvious.

 

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