C. S. Lewis C. S. Lewis World Literature Analysis

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C. S. Lewis World Literature Analysis

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

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As a literary scholar, as well as a creative writer, Lewis was sensitive to issues of technique, style, and purpose in writing. In his essays, he suggested some of his preferences about literature generally. Published after he completed his science-fiction novels but before he began the Narnia stories, his essay “On Stories,” included in the anthology Essays Presented to Charles Williams (1947), illuminates some of these concerns. He distinguishes between exciting, suspenseful plots and the “whole world” of a novel. He rejects an adventure novel such as Alexandre Dumas, père’s Les Trois Mousquetaires (1844; The Three Musketeers, 1846):The total lack of atmosphere repels me. There is no country in the book—save as a storehouse of inns and ambushes. There is no weather. When they cross to London there is no feeling that London differs from Paris. There is not a moment’s rest from the “adventures”: one’s nose is kept ruthlessly to the grindstone.

Lewis’s critics occasionally fault his fiction for its conventional plot structure, similarity of characterization, and occasionally unnatural dialogue. In “On Stories,” however, he argues that to be preoccupied with character or plot is to miss an even more compelling element of the story. Plot, he suggests, is “a net” to “catch something else,” a sense of perceiving another world. Against Dumas, he cites David Lindsay’s science-fiction novel A Voyage to Arcturus (1920), where “physical dangers . . . count for nothing”:He is the first writer to discover what “other planets” are really good for in fiction. No merely physical strangeness or merely spatial distance will realize that idea of otherness which is what we are always trying to grasp in a story about voyaging through space. . . . To construct plausible and moving “other worlds” you must draw on the only real “other world” we know, that of the spirit.

Lewis sees stories, then, as opportunities to portray spiritual journeys, to discover “otherness.” All of his novels are conventional “quest” stories, involving tasks to be fulfilled and knowledge to be gained. In his first two science-fiction novels, the character Ransom is taken off Earth, undergoes psychological, physical, and spiritual trials, and returns with knowledge and faith that yield him a new perspective on his society. Common to these stories and to his children’s novels is the education of the spiritual innocent. Variety in his plots lies chiefly in the types of obstacles that confront characters and the means to overcome them. Often, a trial turns out to be quite different from its initial appearance, so that the protagonist’s intellect, as well as courage, is tested.

In the process, characters must often learn to see the world around them in radically new ways. The earliest example of this is Ransom, in Out of the Silent Planet (1938), who is unable at first to perceive the giant shapes around him on Mars as mountains, since they seem unnaturally tall because of that planet’s lighter gravity. “Reperceptions” can be physical or moral, as when Jane Studdock, in That Hideous Strength: A Modern Fairy Tale for Grownups (1945), discovers the existence of a moral hierarchy in which she is called upon to subordinate herself to God and to her husband. Similarly, her husband Mark sees his callous treatment of Jane and his selfishness as a moral and spiritual failure.

Occasionally, the novels appear static as characters are caught up in moral and religious argument, as in Perelandra (1943) and The Silver Chair (1953). In both novels, characters must defend the intellectual integrity of their beliefs. While Lewis was a well-known debater, and the scenes illustrate his concern for an intellectually informed faith, they are rare in his fiction. Instead, where Lewis places his energy—in creating the “atmosphere,” the “weather” of another world—he is extremely successful. In creating Malacandra, Perelandra, or Narnia, he...

(The entire section is 3,688 words.)