The Discarded Image: An Introduction to Medieval and Renaissance Literature by C.S. Lewis

31 October 2007

From a short review to a quite long one, to round out the month of October.

The Discarded Image: An Introduction to Medieval and Renaissance Literature by C.S. Lewis

The Discarded Image was the last book that C.S. Lewis wrote, and in essence it summarises a number of lectures and talks he gave on the subject of Medieval and Renaissance Literature — the subject he taught for the greater part of his lifetime. The ‘image’ in question is a complete and complex picture of history, science, and theology that served as the foundation for literature in the Western world from the turn of the first millennium A.D. up until around the early 1600s. In the space of a little over 200 pages, Lewis picks this intricate and detailed image apart to show the pieces that make up the whole, before putting everything back together again to point out the places where the whole contributed to how authors, historians, philosophers, and religious writers wrote about the various facets of the world they knew.

Explaining the entirety of the book would be tedious and would force me to set aside an interesting and noteworthy point. As with the majority of Lewis’s non-fiction writings, it’s very easy to see how his scholarly research and religious studies influenced the worlds he created — not just Narnia and its inhabitants, but also the planets of the Space Trilogy, the bureaucratic Hell of The Screwtape Letters, and even the twilight town and pre-dawn countryside of The Great Divorce. One quote in particular reminded me of different aspects of the fiction I’ve read:

[in a discussion of how man can have Free Will if God is omniscient]

Strictly speaking, He never foresees; He simply sees. Your ‘future’ is only an area, and only for us a special area, of His infinite Now. He sees (not remembers) your yesterday’s acts because yesterday is still ‘there’ for Him; he sees (not foresees) your tomorrow’s acts because He is already in tomorrow. As a human spectator, by watching my present act, does not at all infringe its freedom, so I am none the less free to act as I choose in the future because God, in that future (His present) watches me acting.

I’m reminded here of Aslan’s comment to Lucy in The Voyage of the ‘Dawn Treader’: ‘I call all times soon’. But something of this is also present in Screwtape’s comments to Wormwood about the restricted ways by which tempters can influence the free will of a ‘patient’, and also (I believe) is hinted at in The Great Divorce when the spirit of George MacDonald is talking to Lewis’s Dantean avatar about choices and decisions. This is only one passage of several that illustrate ideas and thoughts that Lewis drew upon in his world-creation, or so it seemed to me when I was going through the book on my initial read-through.

Far be it from me to attribute all of Lewis’s writings to ideas covered in this particular book. Yet Lewis fans will likely find it a treat, even though it is probably best enjoyed if you have at least read Dante’s Divine Comedy and Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales beforehand. I’ll end this review with a second quote from the book, one which is near the end and which rather nicely sums up the underlying structure of the book’s thesis:

It follows that the book-author unit, basic for modern criticism, must often be abandoned when we are dealing with medieval literature. Some books — if I may use a comparison I have used elsewhere — must be regarded more as we regard those cathedrals where work of many different periods is mixed and produces a total effect, admirable indeed but never foreseen nor intended by any one of the successive builders.

I’m not familiar enough with a wide spread of medieval and Renaissance literature/history/philosophy/religious writings to judge this statement on my knowledge alone. But from what I’ve read and from what others (who are far more knowledgeable about this subject than I am) have told me, Lewis was most definitely an expert in his field and his observations are spot-on.

One comment

  1. With a lot of works of the period, it has been theorized (albeit not proven) that later revisions were made to keep things ‘trendy.’ I’m thinking specifically of ‘Y Gododdin,’ which was written in the 6th century, although the only existing copy dates to the 13th century. If no significant changes took place between Aneirin’s original version and the existing copy, then this is the first record of ‘King’ Arthur — highly unlikely. The 12th and 13th century was really when early Arthuriana started popping up, and a lot of medieval scholars believe that the story was remixed a bit to make it more popular.

    There is also the fact that so much literature of the time can’t be traced back to anyone specific — or else, they can probably be traced back to one person (‘Sir Gawain,’ ‘Pearl,’ and ‘Sir Orfeo’ were all in the same manuscript and similar stylistically), but it’s a bit difficult to study the life and influence of an anonymous author, even if you’re in possession of his (or her) collected works.

    There are very few medieval writers you can study themselves, and that’s almost always because they loved to talk about themselves. So much of the rest was borderline anonymous or a group effort (‘Y Mabinogi,’ mystery and morality plays) that, as Lewis said, there’s no point in getting wrapped up in attempts at stylistic analysis.

    Erm. Sorry for going medieval on you there.

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