Wednesday, June 17, 2020

The Neglected Lewis {Book Review}

Did you ever wish you could sit in an Oxbridge classroom and listen to C. S. Lewis lecture on literature? I certainly have. Ever since I first learned that his most famous works like The Chronicles of Narnia and Mere Christianity were side hustles, so to speak, and his day job was Professor of Medieval and Renaissance English Literature, first at Oxford, then Cambridge, I have wished I could have been a fly on those walls.

Enrolling in his classes is no longer possible, but Lewis left us a considerable body of written work in his academic discipline and adjacent literary subjects.


In the new book The Neglected C. S. Lewis (Paraclete Press), authors Mark Root and Jerry Neal guide readers through eight of these less famous works.  Some of these books comprise actual university lectures edited for print; some include academic papers requested for this or that occasion; some discuss philosophy of literary criticism and analysis;  some are full of essays from one book-lover to the rest of us. In the process, Neal and Root demystify their subject matter and highlight the benefits of embracing the challenge of reading some of Lewis's more overlooked works.

The authors discuss the following:

    • The Allegory of Love;
    • The Personal Heresy;
    • The Arthurian Torso;
    • English Literature in the Sixteenth Century Excluding Drama (OHEL series);
    • Studies in Words;
    • An Experiment in Criticism;
    • The Discarded Image; and 
    • Selected Literary Essays (see "Postlude: Highlights" below for some detail on these).


Key themes familiar to readers of Lewis's more popular works also appear in these: friendship, chronological snobbery, how deeply and broadly Lewis read, and what an insightful intellect he had. Reading these "neglected" works, or even just these chapters about them, will enrich your experience of Narnia, the Space Trilogy, and Till We Have Faces. The medieval feel of Narnia with its kings and queens and swords and nobles comes from Lewis's academic background. I suspect the sense of wonder those stories convey to the reader belonged to Lewis first and derived, in part, from steeping his thoughts in the medieval view of the world for so many years. Reading his thoughts on that worldview might just re-enchant our own, and we in 2020 certainly need a bit of that.

Neal and Root also point out the cross-pollination between Lewis's Christian faith and his approach to medieval literature. The academic works do not preach or overtly share gospel truth the way Mere Christianity, for example, does, but Lewis's faith is frequently in evidence in how he handles literature. He exemplifies integration of faith and "secular" work.

I hope that for many, the excerpts and guidance provided in The Neglected C. S. Lewis spark curiosity to attend to these overlooked books and explore the full range of Lewis's thought. My favorite chapters were the ones on An Experiment in Criticism and The Discarded Image. I was most pleasantly surprised by the chapter on The Allegory of Love, which I confess I did not fully appreciate when I read it alone and unaided 20+ years ago.

Lewis on Literature, from my shelves

Things to Consider

Sometimes the authors stray into the weeds of literary jargon a bit, dropping names and genres that may be unfamiliar to educated readers whose education didn't happen to focus on literature. It is also not a book for those brand-new to Lewis, as it assumes a moderate amount of knowledge of his better known works and some basic biographical information.

My only real quibble is that the discussion of Selected Literary Essays which concluded the book commentary lost momentum from what preceded. I might have moved that earlier in the order or discussed different essays from the book. Neal and Root still stuck the landing with the summary chapter that followed.

Suggested Audience

  • Book nerds like me, English major types whose eyes light up at the idea of reading Lewis's books, books about books, and books that point to new books for the To Be Read list (e.g., Faerie Queene, Michael Drayton's poetry, and Lewis's works here that I didn't read in college);
  • Lewis fans who have never explored this substantial area of his life & writing and would like to enjoy the more familiar works even more than they already do;
  • English literature students and teachers curious about how Lewis might help with coursework; and
  • Readers who enjoyed Karen Swallow Prior's book On Reading Well.

Bottom Line

Neal and Root have done a great service to the reading world in drawing attention to these "neglected" works of C. S. Lewis. They write clearly and choose their quotes well so that the reader engages with the works discussed and not only their commentary on them. This is not a "light summer beach read" kind of book, but it amply rewards the slow attention it demands. If you love Lewis and the books introduced here are new to you, I strongly commend this volume. If you have already read the works discussed here, I still commend this volume and expect you will grow in understanding and appreciation through the years of study Neal and Root have gathered here. In my book, it's 4.5 stars. Finally, I'll let the authors conclude in their own words:

"There is a tremendously rich and varied past that is vital for us to know. Again, Lewis would have us beware of chronological snobbery, of thinking that our own age is somehow better than others. This is our starting point. Additionally, we somehow need to be able to step away from our habits of mind in order to access the past more fully. And we will be up against it in the effort. Deep habits of the contemporary mind include, among others, constant distraction, the inability to focus or be quiet, the loss of the historical continuum, and constant stimulation. Most people will not see the need and even if they do, won't do anything about it. Unfortunately, it will only be for the few who are willing to undergo its rigors. And those rigors will not be inconsequential. Finally, we should see the past as an interpreter of the present. In whatever way we can and to whatever degree, we need to study the past" (Kindle location 2830). 


Postlude: Highlights of the Books Discussed

The Allegory of Love traces the development of the romantic ideal throughout medieval English poetry, from the exaltation of adultery and sensuality in the earlier works to the idealization of courtly love and physical expression within marriage, as seen in Spenser's The Faerie Queene. Although I have read Allegory, I did not remember Lewis's key takeaway here, that the artists (specifically the poets) led the way in effecting a major cultural shift by beautifully portraying Christian virtue as beautiful. I'm grateful to Neal and Root for that insight.

The Personal Heresy captures a substantial portion of Lewis's side of a debate with another literary critic over whether and to what extent a writer's psychological state ought to play into  the reader's interpretation of the literature produced. Is it the reader's job to read between the lines to find the author himself in the work as part of interpreting the work? Lewis thought not. His explanation in this book lays out much of his philosophy of literary criticism but also demonstrates the possibility and benefit of civil, respectful, public disagreement in a way that preserves the relationship and clarifies both side of the discussion.

The Arthurian Torso was new to me, as are the works discussed. Lewis's friend and fellow Inkling Charles Williams wrote a profound but difficult to understand retelling of the Arthur legend from the perspective of the court poet. In light of Williams's relatively young death (and so his inability to promote and explain these works for himself), Lewis played the part of influencer and wrote this book to promote and illuminate his friend's work, which had been thoroughly discussed and workshopped at Inklings gatherings. This way Lewis was representing his friend's own ideas and opinions as best he could.

For English History in the Sixteenth Century Excluding Drama, Lewis invested 18 years of labor in reading and analyzing every work published in English in the 16th century (excluding drama). This included every work written in English and every work translated into English. In the case of translations, for example Tyndale's Bible translation work, Lewis also read the work in its original language. This book is a must-read for students of the period. I used it in my own medieval literature coursework and found companionship as well as instruction in Lewis's familiar writing voice and humor. Because this volume contributed to the Oxford History of English Literature series, Lewis enjoyed calling it his OHEL book. (This one is hard to find. The copy I read belonged to the library, but that was two decades back.)

Studies in Words examines the way 10 common terms have developed and changed over the centuries of English literature. Knowing which meaning fits the book at hand is key to accurate understanding. This book highlights the importance of entering the world of the book and interpreting it on its own terms rather than reading our own time and culture into it.

An Experiment in Criticism is the book of this group I think of most often and would most recommend if one wants to explore Lewis's literary work. In fact, I would include it in a freshman English literature class if ever I taught one. In Experiment, Lewis describes what he believes to be wrong ways of evaluating books and suggests an alternative. He differentiates two different ways of reading, that of the many and that of the few. He is careful to make clear that these do not mean good reading and bad reading, but very different experiences of reading with different outcomes.

Two of my many highlights from Neal and Root's chapter on this work seemed to me directly applicable to the current, valuable movement to read more books outside of one's own cultural and ethnic milieu:

"Lewis writes that 'One of the chief operations of art is to remove our gaze from that mirrored face, to deliver us from that solitude'" (Kindle location 2230).

"Lewis's sense of urgency seems to suggest that reading in this way must give us something unique, some experience we cannot get anywhere else, certainly not through our digital devices. Lewis intimates that part of what makes this experience unique is the importance of others' voices and viewpoints. First, we need to listen to others' voices because we ourselves do not contain all knowledge and experience. In reading, we seek an enlargement of our being; we want to be more than ourselves. He states that we demand windows; this gets us out of ourselves, corrects provincialism in our point of view, and heals loneliness. We often exist in a narrow prison of self. He writes: 'My own eyes are not enough for me, I will see through those of others. Reality, even seen through the eyes of many, is not enough. I will see what others have invented. Even the eyes of all humanity are not enough. I regret that the brutes cannot write books. Very gladly would I learn what face things present to a mouse or a bee; more gladly still would I perceive the olfactory world charged with all the information and emotion it carries for a dog'" (Kindle location 2310).

Reading like "the few" in Lewis's categories, reading deeply to enter the book world with hands open to receive what it offers, enables us to live more lives than just our own, to "remove our gaze from that mirrored face" and grow empathy as we see through the eyes of someone else who maybe doesn't look or talk or care for their hair or live in the same kind of neighborhood I do.

The Discarded Image is the third book of the eight discussed which concerns the medieval period and its books. It comprises lecture material Lewis would present to his students by way of orienting them to the medieval worldview and cosmology. So many things, from their ideals of beauty in literature to their understanding of the solar system, were different from our own. They loved retelling the old myths again and again. Their cosmos revolved around the earth, and the spheres holding the planets in orbit made music in praise of God as they spun. The medieval universe revolved around the glory and love of God, and trying to understand their world, Lewis says, might just re-enchant our own.

"The heavens were not dark as we know them to be. To the medieval mind, they were lighted. The darkness of night was simply thought to be the cone of earth's shadow. And not only were the heavens lighted, but they were also full of sound. The heavens swelled with a music that, paradoxically, having always been heard, could not be heard at all. One could liken this to electricity, whose ambient hum remains unheard until the power goes out and we sense a deeper silence. Until it is gone, we do not know it is there. All of this order of the heavens was seen as a dance of high pageantry, Lewis writes. It is as if we on the earth are outside of the city or castle wall, looking in and longing to take part. He likens it to animals staring at the fires of an encampment they cannot enter or rustics gazing into the distance at a city. It is a yearning to take part in a perfect, ordered, reiterated dance. What is this dance? Simply the yearning to approximate God" (Kindle location 2501).

This book, outside of formal English literary study, demands some effort of mind and imagination, but the reader who loves Lewis's better known works will find the fingerprints of this forgotten cosmology all over Narnia, the Space Trilogy, and Till We Have Faces.

Selected Literary Essays gathers short writings on topics from language change to Hamlet to Jane Austen in one small volume. Neal and Root chose two of the more challenging (for me) essays to describe in some depth. On the one hand, those are two more likely to require some guidance to understand. On the other hand, if their goal is to attract readers from their own book to Lewis's, they might have done better to choose at least one of the more accessible essays as well.

Note: Amazon links are affiliate links. Purchasing through them generates a small commission for me. Paraclete Press provided me a free prerelease copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

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