Review: The Romanticism of C.S. Lewis

James Prothero and Donald T Williams. Gaining a Face: The Romanticism of C.S. Lewis. Newcastle upon Tyne, Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2013, xi-90pp, £39.99/$59.99, Hardcover.

James Prothero and Donald T. Williams, authors of Gaining a Face: The Romanticism of C.S. Lewis, have presented a short and solid argument for the inclusion of C.S. Lewis as part of the Romantic Movement. They give a cohesive list of Romantic tendencies, such as the high value placed on nature and children, while fixating on Wordsworth as the prime example of these tendencies. Lewis, it would seem, absorbed most of his Romantic sensibilities through his admiration of George MacDonald, and MacDonald’s admiration of Wordsworth—which is an altogether plausible line of influence. It might be troubling to some of Lewis’s readers for him to be categorized so closely to the Romantic feeling of Wordsworth, who by most accounts dabbled in pantheism. Thus, Prothero and Williams do well to debunk the assumption that Wordsworth was ever a pantheist, placing emphasis instead on Wordsworth’s return to orthodoxy before his death. This would, of course, be a more agreeable resolution if the authors had not compared Lewis and Wordsworth’s faiths so strictly in the first chapter of their work, concluding that Wordsworth could not hold up to the respectable Christian belief of C.S. Lewis. It is a strange line of thought to argue for the inclusion of Lewis in a movement that one has already proclaimed as lesser to Lewis. This leads one to think that Prothero and Williams’ work may be best suited for those coming from a theologically more conservative perspective, as it will usher potential readers from the approved orthodoxy of Lewis, to the Romantic tendencies in Lewis, and finally to an appreciation for the Romantics as a whole. The authors do end the work with hearty praise for the beauty in Wordsworth and claim that Lewis and Wordsworth may not have been so far apart in sensibilities after all.

There is a matter worth questioning, though, in the authors’ appraisal of Lewis’s and Wordsworth’s philosophy. It would seem that they have forgotten to include Wordsworth’s use of memory and Lewis’s understanding of the Unconscious, the Contemplated, and the Enjoyed. With Wordsworth, Prothero and Williams graciously covered The Prelude, highlighting several elements that could have been of interest to Lewis. Lewis did read The Prelude many times and listed The Prelude as one of his favorite books in an interview given to The Christian Century magazine shortly before his death. But, they do not discuss Wordsworth’s use of memory to distance the audience from his moment of revelation and to make it more credible. Sometimes, the memory of the event was more powerful for Wordsworth than the event itself, such as in ‘Tintern Abbey’. This may have given them a different tone in their evaluation of Wordsworth’s ‘beauty’.

With Lewis, Prothero and Williams masterfully explained Imagination as being the prius of truth. Therefore, Lewis’s fascination with pagan myth might be the awakening of his imagination, the readying of it for Truth. In Surprised by Joy, C.S. Lewis discusses how one can contemplate an object and feel a sense of Joy. This is the Contemplated and the Enjoyed; all else is the Unconscious. Should one concentrate on the feeling of Joy, instead of the object, Joy will escape. Had the authors included this philosophical insight, they would have been even better able to explain the Imagination as the prius of truth, not through the contemplated material but through the Joy received, and why Lewis continued to enjoy both pagan myths and The Prelude throughout his life.

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