C. S. Lewis Lewis, C(live) S(taples) (Vol. 6) - Essay

Lewis, C(live) S(taples) (Vol. 6)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Lewis, C(live) S(taples) 1898–1963

Lewis was an English science-fiction novelist of the highest order, a poet, critic, Christian polemicist, and writer for children. William Luther White wrote: "The prolific imagination of C. S. Lewis has generated a multitude of powerful scenes and symbols which interpret Christianity in a way that is remarkably unforgettable."

Lewis, in the Ransom trilogy,… [plays] with the notion of something like the Platonic ideas taking flesh and walking (or stalking) the earth. How does one read such scenes? How does one read the end of The Last Battle, when Narnia becomes the new heaven and new earth? Certainly a willing suspension of disbelief is the last response Lewis asks from the reader. Like a gospel, a fiction by Lewis draws the reader in and forces him to accept the author's position, even in all its hyperbole, or reject it and be damned with the Calormenes, Weston, and all the rest. Lewis certainly was not writing novels. He has little sympathy for most of his characters, who either come up to his standards or get thrown away; his plots are pedestrian. He excels at fantastically imagined archetypal situations, that draw the reader in with a sense of déjà vu. If he judges the reader harshly, the options for good he provides are so beautiful as to be painful. (pp. 93-4)

Gerard Reedy, in Commonweal (copyright © 1974 Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.; reprinted by permission of Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.), March 29, 1974.

As a scholar of English literature Lewis made a considerable contribution. He placed a stamp on the English school at Oxford which was to last for a quarter of a century although, even before his death, the study of the hated modern poets was making inroads into the walled garden of the Anglo-Saxons and the Medievals which he had laboured so valiantly if narrowly to create. His major work of scholarship, The Allegory of Love is one of those rare academic works that survives its own time. Yet it is the writings which spring more directly from his Christian imagination, such as the incomparable seven of Narnia—the children's books which are certainly that but also very much more—and the great popular theological tracts, The Problem of Pain, The Screwtape Letters, The Four Loves and The Letters to Malcolm, which will form the basis of his lasting fame.

They sprang as did his conversion to Christianity from his own deep inner life and they were given form not only by his literary sensitivity but by his deep commitment to theology.

Norman St. John-Stevas, "The Varnished Truth," in The Spectator (© 1974 by The Spectator; reprinted by permission of The Spectator), July 20, 1974, p. 85.

[Lewis'] delight in argument [made] him the foremost apologist for Christianity in the English-speaking world.

[Two] qualities, literary sensitivity and unrelenting logic, characterize Lewis' published works as they did his conversation and account, in large measure, for the enduring popularity, 11 years after his death, of his 40-odd books. The Allegory of Love, The Discarded Image, and English Literature in the Sixteenth Century will endure. Anyone studying medieval literature will inevitably come upon the first two, while the last must rank as the most engagingly written of all the tomes in the Oxford literary history series. It also contains, in a section on the English divines, the most concise and lucid analysis of the spirit of the Lutheran reform I have ever seen:

In reality,… morality or duty … never yet made a man happy in himself or dear to others. It is shocking, but it is undeniable. We do not wish either to be or to live among, people who are clean or honest or kind as a matter of duty: we want to be, and to associate with, people who like being clean and honest and kind.

Much of Lewis is in those three sentences: his profound interest in religious questions; his peculiar ability to see, and capture in uncluttered prose, the bond that ties theological speculation to human experience; his insistence that Christianity is about a gift not a set of rules. The themes echo throughout his apologetic and inspirational works, and can be found as well, in mythic form, in his space trilogy and the Narnia tales. When he applied them to concrete cases, he sometimes sounded an eerily prophetic note, as in his famous essay on the allurements of the "Inner Ring."

John B. Breslin, "Critic, Moralist, Writer," in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1974 by The New Republic, Inc.), December 21, 1974, p. 17.

C. S. Lewis the mastercraftsman of romances, who pushed beyond and above the usual limits of this form, has received no recognition except the awareness of occasional critics … that romances are indeed what he has given us in his planetary trilogy. My concern in this essay is Lewis' architectonic accomplishment. He created in Out of the Silent Planet a perfect romance of the conventional type, and in Perelandra an extension and development of the form on a higher psychological and cosmic plane. That Hideous Strength can be viewed as a traditional romance, but as such it centers on the Studdocks and thus manages to avoid repeating the effects of the first two. As Ransom's story, it is a romance of yet another kind. Finally, as I shall try to show, all three lock together structurally into one romance whose hero, Elwin Ransom, has a cosmic stature similar to that of Blake's Albion: both represent England at one level (Ransom is Pendragon of Logres), at others both are "Fallen Man" and "Eternal Man"—and Ransom further carries within him aspects of Christ, Raphael, Arthur, and Guardian of the Grail. (pp. 505-06)

The essentials of the romance pattern I have in mind are to be found in Joseph Campbell's hero monomyth and Northrop Frye's romance mythos-construct [developed by Campbell in The Hero with a Thousand Faces, and by Frye in Anatomy of Criticism]. Of contributory importance are Albert Cook's theories of the probable and nonprobable and Erich Neumann's analysis of psychological centroversion [see Cook's The Dark Voyage and the Golden Mean and Newman's The Origins and History of Consciousness]. The schemes of Campbell, Frye, and Neumann are all tripartite, consisting roughly of Departure, Initiation, and Return, or, as I prefer, Equilibrium, Struggle, and Higher Harmony.

In the first stage, usually short, the hero (in the psychological context, the ego) is at peace, secure, and relatively passive. In Cook's terms, all is probable and predictable. If the hero is actually a child, then all his needs are supplied by outside powers, and the state is often explicitly Edenic. Then comes a Call to Adventure (Campbell's phrase) which the hero must obey, however reluctantly…. For the ego, the call is the inborn imperative to disentangle itself from the unconscious.

The second stage consists of struggle within the Special World of the adventure. This is a realm in which magic or at least inexplicable and irrational phenomena—all nonprobables—are common…. For the ego, this land is the unconscious, and on both the psychological and mythical level, the entry and exit from the strange realm are accomplished by symbolic death and rebirth.

Of the various goals a hero may have, Lewis seems to have preferred the monster or dragon fight, epiphanic vision, and what Campbell calls Atonement with the Father. All are common romance themes and all have exact equivalents on the psychic level. The ego at this stage is having to struggle against certain destructive demands made by forces in the unconscious which are usually symbolized as evil male and female archetypal figures; and in order to win, the ego has to learn to ally itself with good masculine and feminine transpersonal forces. The dragon fight is the central symbol for this stage in the ego's development…. To the equivalent stage in a romance belongs the main adventure and any significant development in the hero—physical, mental, or spiritual—including any mystic experience. (pp. 506-07)

In the basic form of this pattern, the hero must depart from the Special World once his battle is won and return to his proper place, even as the ego must leave the unconscious. In the normal romance, as well as in the individual completing centroversion, the hero/ego has gained a measure of security and forcefulness. There is now a new equilibrium, one more stable than the initial balance. (p. 507)

Ransom's trip from his own to the new world is more prolonged than most such romance transitions because Lewis describes the steps by which Ransom comes to turn from "a heady, bounding kind of fear" (Cook's fear of the non-probable) to his ecstatic submission to the beauty of the heavens…. His timidity … is finally laid to rest; he faces this water-dragon and helps defeat it. As Lewis baldly puts it, "He had grown up"…. Now that basic mental growth is completed, the energies he once frittered away in fears can feed his spiritual development. (p. 509)

He has indeed reached a higher and more stable equilibrium and welcomes as a blessing the "pint of bitter" (to the medievalist humorously reverbrant of Christ's poculum mortis or bitter cup of death). (p. 510)

Perelandra is not a conventional romance. Ransom does not start at the usual low personal level of stability; he has already reached a stage of higher harmony…. As the story progresses … [he] passes from a lower to a higher harmony and again experiences a two-stage ordeal, a monster fight and then further spiritual elevation.

Lewis avoids narrative repetitiousness by not telling the story linearly, but first the beginning, then the end, and then the adventure proper…. [Ransom] is allowed to see the Oyéresu Malacandra and Perelandra, he receives the thanks of Tor and Tinidril, and finally, his spirit participates for a year in the Great Dance, that ultimate expression of perfect cosmic harmony and praise of Maleldil. The epiphanic vision here is as full as that of Spenser or Dante, and slightly more assimilable than theirs to the modern reader, quite an accomplishment for Lewis. Truly this romance goes beyond normal bounds in the immensity and effectiveness of this mystic vision. Like Plato's philosopher-king, however, Ransom has to descend to the physical plane again and return from this double paradise of vision and planet to Thulcandra. And the part he plays there is the concern of That Hideous Strength.

That Hideous Strength can be viewed as a conventional romance with Jane and Mark Studdock as joint protagonists. (pp. 510-11)

I think the three works can be viewed as one whole romance and possibly are best viewed in just that fashion. In the first stage of this super-romance, Ransom remains essentially on the personal, individual level of harmony. His improvement is basically small and remedial; at the end of Out of the Silent Planet, he is what all Christians ought to be, his only advantage being his philologist's knowledge of the Old Solar tongue. Perelandra is his real battlefield (as he acknowledges [in] That Hideous Strength). He is still fully human, and though he gets occasional aid from the Oyéresu, it governs minor events, not major. He thrashes out the problems of good and ill, temptation, obedience, and other key theological concepts and offers his life to prevent a world-destroying evil. If earlier he was a kind of Everyman, he is now a savior (as are many other romance heroes on smaller scale), and upon returning to his own land, he becomes a selfless servant of common weal. The third stage of this cosmic romance, as I call the totality, differs from that of most romances only in showing him in this final role in detail, most being content to hint at such activities sketchily. Ransom passes from what Northrop Frye identifies as the active to the contemplative, penseroso stage and becomes the figure of Higher Cultural Masculinity to whom lesser mortals must learn to ally themselves. Indeed, Lewis makes a good deal of this "masculinity," trying to define the power with reference to the hierarchy of creation, and he agrees with modern psychology in differentiating between this power and mere male gender. With Ransom's assumption to the sphere of Perelandra, Lewis goes well beyond the bounds of normal romance, but this ending is a logical enough conclusion to Ransom's activities. He has, after all, become perfect spiritually and has gained either immortality or immense longevity from his sojourn on Perelandra. Lewis might have had Ransom de-bodied by Malacandra, but short of that, this semi-divine being would be hard to dispose of. To doom him to walk the earth till the second coming, like the Wandering Jew, or to live, a permanently crippled Fisher-King presiding over man's wasteland because no one would seek answers to the proper spiritual questions, would involve him in a very different role from that of victorious hero. Since his body cannot be shed, Lewis borrows from the Arthurian background and sends Ransom to join Arthur in Avalon. Oddly enough, one of the best known examples of an analogous passing is Tolkien's sending Frodo beyond the sundering seas. (pp. 512-13)

The logic of romance form demands that a hero put his newly won powers to work for the general good of his people. Usually, we can only assume that this happens; Lewis shows us the deed and thus gives us a romance more far-reaching than most.

Lewis' craftsmanship deserves more recognition. Each book is notable for its own particular virtues. Out of the Silent Planet is unrivaled among the three for its symbolic landscapes. (pp. 515-16)

Lewis' ability to command color, sensations, and emotions and the fertility of his inventions as well as of his invented land are all to be praised…. That Hideous Strength excels in depicting the wheelings and dealings of petty political maneuver. Lewis is as varied in his talents as he is steadfast in his religious purposes. This specialization of effect, of course, helps him avoid repeating himself, as does also his juggling of structures and locale, but we should not be misled by such deliberate differentiation into thinking of the three as simply three disjunct novels.

Little has been made of these works as romances, but the romance form is demonstrably of central significance to Lewis' basic purposes. For him, the acceptance of society normal to much of comedy is morally impossible, and comedy's use of corrective laughter insufficient to the evils he confronts. Given the Christian premises of his thought, significant tragedy is equally out of the question. Romance of the sort delineated in this essay, however, is by definition concerned with a hero's struggles against evil and his alliance with higher spiritual powers. These are precisely Lewis' concerns; all his didacticism aims at these two ends. The romance form is, therefore, the proper vehicle for his enterprise, and its characteristic tripartite structure would naturally suggest the suitability of three novels to the author wishing to extend and develop to logical conclusions the problems set up in Out of the Silent Planet. (pp. 516-17)

Readers have been misled by some of Lewis' superficial variations into thinking the three novels different in kind, and, of course, Gulliverian travelogue, mythic struggle in Eden, and political wheeling and dealing are very diverse in their effects. But underlying the three as a totality is the same pattern, the identical struggle from a lower to a higher harmony, which is embodied in each singly. Together, they can truly be said to form a cosmic romance, a work which expands the bounds and interests of the genre to higher spiritual levels than any romancer since Spenser at least has attempted or achieved in English. Such an innovative accomplishment deserves recognition. (p. 517)

Kathryn Hume, "C. S. Lewis' Trilogy: A Cosmic Romance," in Modern Fiction Studies (copyright © 1975 by the Purdue Research Foundation, West Lafayette, Indiana), Winter, 1974–75, pp. 505-17.

C. S. Lewis is a rich writer indeed. Many have found in him life-affirming sustenance. He has been a source of solace, of challenge, of inspiration, and of irritation, of exasperation, of hostility. Few of his readers have put down a book of his (usually plural—books of his) without ensconcing him as a permanent fixture among their mental furnishings. Few outgrow him….

[In Bright Shadow of Reality: C. S. Lewis and the Feeling Intellect, Corbin Scott Carnell] performs a first-rate scholarly service in delineating the meaning of Sehnsucht, his book's key concept, and the significance which it has for Lewis. He describes it as an attitude or state of mind (not just an emotion—an important distinction and a valid one) which entails a yearning for the ineffable, an attitude of which Carnell declares, "… basic to its various manifestations is an underlying sense of displacement or alienation from what is desired" …, yet one in which desire remains unquenched.

Sehnsucht, a German word which Lewis usually translates simply as Joy, is certainly the pivotal concept in Lewis's autobiography, Surprised by Joy. And it is not surprising that Lewis treats the concept elsewhere as well, since it is this state of mind which was crucial in Lewis's conversion from a fashionable atheism to faith which hinges on the scandal of the cross. For all of Lewis's logical acumen, it was not through rational arguments that he was led to the Christian faith.

It is particularly in Lewis's fiction and quasi-fiction that the attitude of Sehnsucht receives fullest play—to some extent in The Pilgrim's Regress, in the Narnia tales, in the space trilogy (a somewhat inadequate label, as Carnell points out in his excellent discussion of That Hideous Strength), and perhaps more clearly in Till We Have Faces (Carnell's treatment of which is one of the highlights of the book). These works in particular are brightly illumined by Carnell's text, and no serious student of Lewis can afford to neglect this source of help in reading them.

Carnell sees Sehnsucht as a concept closely tied to the Romantic movement in literature, and here he is surely correct: the term originated among the Romantics. (pp. 3-4)

The fact is that as the book proceeds, Carnell often virtually fuses the two terms, so that any discussion of Sehnsucht in Lewis is cause for finding Lewis a Romantic.

And this is my problem. I know that some of Lewis's most perceptive readers emphasize his indebtedness to Romantic literary models and modes of perception. I cannot deny some validity to these relationships, but I think they have been exaggerated and by so much have encouraged an undervaluation of something more important in Lewis, thus distorting the whole. I refer, the good reader will already have guessed, to the great emphasis on rationality by Lewis, a trait much maligned and mistrusted by the Romantics. I do not mean to say that some commentators on Lewis deny the importance of reason for him, any more than I deny the importance of Sehnsucht…. Perhaps it is just a matter of emphasis, but this is not a trivial matter if we are to get the master straight.

Carnell is well aware of this conundrum in Lewis. That is why he subtitled his book "C. S. Lewis and the Feeling Intellect"—a point for this side and a point for that. (p. 5)

Lewis is always lucid, even in his myth-making works; he is far from the haziness of expression and the general minimizing of argument characteristic of Romantic works. Whereas the writing of poetry characterizes the Romantic movement, Lewis is in every sense a prose writer—not prosaic, certainly, but also not profitably considered as a poet, even a prose poet. The low quality of his early poetry, which he had the good sense to turn away from in his mature writing, is not at all an accident, but a recognition of where his true gifts lay. It is the clarity of his argument which has captured the minds of so many of his readers; it is this which gives substance to that function of Lewis's which Chad Walsh memorialized in the subtitle to his book on Lewis, "Apostle to the Skeptics."

One wonders if a better case could not be made for calling Lewis a classicist than a Romanticist—though the preceding discussion has pointed out the inadequacy of either term to encompass him. (p. 6)

I would say that concentrating on the theme of Sehnsucht helps more in understanding some of Lewis's works than in understanding others, and Carnell implicitly shows that he would agree. He seconds the opinion that Miracles is "a rather disappointing book."… I find this volume, one of Lewis's more closely reasoned ones, a generally satisfying effort. He finds the radio talks (some of which went into Mere Christianity) somewhat "pat" … and having "a tendency toward a [Many] of brittle dogmatism."… I find Mere Christianity a challenging volume—indeed, the first one I would give to a truth-seeker who I thought might be amenable to Lewis's influence as an apologist for the Christian faith. Do I personally find it his most satisfying volume? Probably not. I would probably name (showing similar tastes with Carnell) Till We Have Faces and That Hideous Strength, perhaps also Perelandra, and surely (and here is a difference) The Abolition of Man. (p. 7)

[Many] of Lewis's works are little illuminated by tracing the theme of Sehnsucht. And one thing more: … the works little aided by Carnell's treatment are among those which have had the greatest impact on the modern sensibility. Whether those who have made Lewis one of their academic specialties are comfortable with the fact or not, those treatises which are in cold prose apologetics for the Christian faith are the ones which have carried Lewis to the farthest corners of the earth. They are the books which, in more cases than not (I venture to suggest), have led readers on toward the mythic and fictional works which many Lewis devotees find his crowning achievements. But apart from reading these apologetic works, a relative few dig into his fiction (again, my conjecture—and an overgeneralization, to be sure).

One could extend the thesis herein suggested: that what is lauded in Lewis as imagination (hence, somehow, Romantic—as if Pope and Swift lacked imagination) is really reason operating at a high level (as when Lewis presents his cornucopia of analogies, which are really the exercise of a sharply honed rational capacity to see similarities in mostly dissimilar entities—almost a metaphysical propensity, certainly not a Romantic one); or that even his mythopoeic works contain long passages of brilliantly sustained argument; or that even in the works in which Sehnsucht is most helpful as an explicative device, it is not central to an understanding of those works, but is useful only in fits and starts, at this point and that, but not in many significant passages in between. But this is enough to make the point. Which is, lest intervening verbiage has clouded the issue, that Lewis is too much the rational writer to be best interpreted by reference to Romantic categories, including Sehnsucht. (pp. 7-8)

Edward E. Ericson, Jr., "Shadow and Reality: Getting C. S. Lewis Straight," in The University Bookman (copyright 1975 by The Educational Reviewer, Inc.), Autumn, 1975, pp. 3-9.