Archive for the ‘c.s. lewis’ Category


Studies in Words by C.S. Lewis

21 September 2008

I’ve had this book on my Current Reading List for quite a while now, so I’m glad to finally post this review.

Studies in Words by C.S. Lewis

It is something of a truism to say that the English language is a constantly evolving language, one that flourishes by borrowing words from other languages, mashing two or more words together, or developing entirely new words from fragments of existing ones. This linguistic flexibility is part of what makes the English language so complicated, even for native speakers — particularly when it seems that the same word has any number of distinct meanings, depending on the context. A word like ‘wit’ or ‘wits’, for instance, can mean ‘sanity’ (‘I was nearly scared out of my wits when that car backfired!‘) or ‘intelligence’ (‘do credit me with having some wit here‘) or ‘amusing cleverness’ (‘he’s quite witty once you start talking to him‘) or even ‘a person skilled in humourous repartee’ (‘Oscar Wilde was a notable wit‘). With these subtle shades of meaning, it is not always easy to determine how these meanings developed over time and where and how new definitions slipped into everyday use. C.S. Lewis, who spent many years teaching medieval and Renaissance literature at Oxford and Cambridge Universities, found that even his more perceptive and intelligent students often grasped the wrong meaning of certain words because the author’s definitions (in the context of the work) were ever-so-slightly different than the meanings that the students expected to find. To address this confusion, Lewis began to delve into linguistic scholarship, attempting to trace the development of particular words with deceptively complicated origins. The result of his labours was Studies in Words, a set of essays about nine different English words (and one turn of phrase) that looks into the history of these words and explores how their meanings and uses have changed over time.

The words that Lewis chose to examine in Studies in Words seem rather ordinary at the outset, but a bit of careful probing reveals intricacies of meaning that are often so minute that native English speakers scarcely think about them in everyday speech and often misunderstand them when attempting to be more formal in speech or writing. A word like ‘simple’ seems a good deal less simple after Lewis has picked it apart from its origins in the term simplex, or something akin to an unfolded sheet of paper. Words like ‘conscience’ and ‘conscious’, for instance, are tied up in complicated notions about being privy to information or knowing something within oneself, usually something that is supposed to be kept secret. Through linguistic leaps and bounds from this original meaning, we have created the idea of a ‘guilty conscience’ — not a conscience that is guilty in itself, but a conscience that makes you feel guilty for something you did or did not do. These examples are only two of the words explored in the book; others include ‘free’, ‘sad’, ‘world’, ‘nature’, and even the phrase ‘I dare say’ (which seems to have fallen out of favour in contemporary English). Two shorter chapters serve as bookends to the text, an introduction that sets out Lewis’s reasons for looking into this collection of words and a conclusion that examines the role that emotions and mental images often play in changing the nature and use of various words.

Studies in Words is as much a work of literary history as it is an extended study of linguistic development. Lewis supports his analysis with examples that range from ancient Greek and Roman texts and the classic works of Chaucer and Shakespeare to Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility and E. Nesbit’s The Phoenix and the Carpet. The essays are not difficult to follow, but they do demand a certain level of attention to detail and a willingness to go back and reread an essay from the beginning if you fear that you are starting to lose the thread of Lewis’s argument. Most anyone with an interest in etymology, the history of language development, or literary history will find much to enjoy in Studies in Words — particularly as a refreshing look at a phenomenon best illustrated by Humpty Dumpty in Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass:

‘When I use a word’, Humpty Dumpty said, in a rather scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.’

‘The question is’, said Alice, ‘whether you can make words mean so many different things.’

‘The question is’, said Humpty Dumpty, ‘which is to be master — that’s all.’


Till We Have Faces: A Myth Retold by C.S. Lewis

29 August 2008

Posting this a little early, as I’m going out of town for the weekend. I’d intended to put this together with Studies in Words, the other C.S. Lewis book I’ve been reading lately, but this review’s long and complicated enough that it really needs to stand on its own.

Till We Have Faces: A Myth Retold by C.S. Lewis

The myth of Cupid and Psyche is a fairly well-known story, one of the many tales involving the troubles of relationships between mortals and the gods. Venus, goddess of love, becomes jealous of the incomparably beautiful Psyche and orders her son Cupid to make the girl fall in love with the foulest creature on earth. Cupid, however, falls in love with Psyche himself, and has the West Wind whisk her away to a castle where he may keep her as his wife. He visits her nightly, but never allows her to see him. When Psyche’s elder sisters come to visit her in her new home, they become consumed with envy at her wealth and attempt to convince her that her husband is really a foul monster. They advise her to take a sharp knife and a lamp to bed with her so that she may look upon his face before she slays him. Half-convinced, Psyche brings the knife and the lamp to bed, but when she sees her sleeping husband for the first time she falls in love with him on sight. But when a drop of hot oil falls from her lamp and lands upon Cupid, he awakens and vanishes, leaving Psyche alone. In her quest to return to her husband, Psyche faces many arduous tasks and challenges put to her by a vindictive Venus, but in the end she is brought up to Olympus, given immortality by the gods, and reunited with Cupid.

The main character in Till We Have Faces is not Psyche herself, but one of her sisters. In Lewis’s story, the narrator is Orual, the eldest of the three daughters of the cruel king of the land of Glome. Orual often bears the brunt of her father’s anger for being ugly, because a girl who cannot even be used to broker a marriage alliance with a neighbouring noble family is nothing more than a worthless mouth to feed. Orual’s only real friend at the court is the Fox, a Greek slave who shares with her the basic teachings of his homeland’s philosophers and tries to give her more of an enlightened education than her ‘barbarian’ culture would normally allow. When her father’s newest wife dies in childbirth, Orual takes on the responsibility of raising her half-sister Istra — Psyche, in Greek — and soon grows to love the child more than anything else the world. Yet the small amount of love and happiness that Orual has been able to find in Glome is suddenly taken from her when Psyche is ordered to be sacrified to appease the wrath of the gods. As the story progresses, Orual struggles with her grief, anger, and desperate loneliness in her search for her beloved Psyche, and eventually has the opportunity to bring her grievances directly to the gods themselves as both accuser and accused in the greatest trial she will ever face.

Till We Have Faces reworks the Cupid-and-Psyche myth in a very novel way, adapting the basic framework of the tale to focus on the multifaceted nature of love and its ability to nourish or destroy the heart, mind, and soul. This particular theme is one of C.S. Lewis’s favourites — it appears in several of his other fictional works, most notably in The Great Divorce, and it is one of the primary themes in his nonfiction work The Four Loves. The love theme is only one of many Lewisian tropes that feature prominently in Till We Have Faces, to the point where a reader who is familiar with Lewis’s other fiction and nonfiction writings will have no trouble spotting the themes and ticking them off one by one, as if following a well-worn shopping list. Examples include a variation on his ‘lunatic-liar-lord’ argument, given in both Mere Christianity and The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, and his interest in the neo-Platonic approach to Christianity, which is a common thread in most (if not all) of his literary, academic, and religious writings. But considering that Lewis worked on this book off and on for nearly all of his adult life, beginning in his undergraduate years at Oxford, it is hardly surprising that it should contain most if not all of the themes and ideas that he incorporated into his other works. (Till We Have Faces was his last complete work of fiction; interestingly enough, it was published in the same year as The Last Battle.) Although the book is not nearly as well known as most of Lewis’s works, Till We Have Faces is quite possibly his most complex and thoughtful piece, an extended meditation on the capacity for love within all of us and how we may use it that love for good or for ill.

One additional point should probably be mentioned in the context of this review. C.S. Lewis has often been accused of misogynist tendencies or outright misogyny in his writings, especially in his fiction, and because Till We Have Faces is very much a story of women in a warlike, masculine world, it is difficult to know how to address these accusations in the context of this book. Those who go into the text hunting for misogyny can find it quite easily — most easily, for instance, in Lewis’s rather unsympathetic depiction of Orual and Psyche’s vain and silly middle sister, Redival. Yet Orual as both a character and a narrator is far from a simple stereotype, primarily in her position a woman who is uniquely aware that she cannot fit into either the men’s or women’s roles dictated by her culture and her place in society. Some reviewers have suggested that Lewis’s wife Joy influenced the final development of the story, and claim that her guidance was instrumental in smoothing out the rougher edges of her husband’s story and characters. Whatever may have influenced the final product, Till We Have Faces is the book that Lewis considered to be his best, and its blend of philosophy, religion, literary reflection, and storytelling may easily be seen as an embodiment of Lewis’s entire creative output.


C.S. Lewis: Essay Collection and Other Short Pieces (edited by Lesley Walmsley)

25 March 2008

Since the book is so large, there really isn’t a good way to review all of its contents without going on for pages. More’s the pity, in a way.

C.S. Lewis: Essay Collection and Other Short Pieces (edited by Lesley Walmsley)

Clocking in at just over 1000 pages, this fairly impressive tome represents just about all of C.S. Lewis’s religious essays and sermons, various short academic pieces, and other stories and story fragments. The review of this edition lists the writings that were not included in this book, and it is disappointing to know that so far it is still not possible to obtain a complete collection of Lewis’s writings — not in the same way that it is theoretically possible to obtain the full twenty-volume set of George Orwell’s books, essays, journalistic works and letters (edited by Peter Davison), for example. But now that the third and final volume of Lewis’s collected letters has been released, it’s worth mentioning this essay collection as a fairly useful attempt at compiling many writings that have been scattered across a number of different books and their reorganised reprints.

The essay collection is organised in eleven sections by general topic: ‘Aspects of Faith’, ‘English and Literature’, ‘The Art of Writing and the Gifts of Writers’, ‘Letters’, and others. There’s a section devoted to several of Lewis’s short stories, including the manuscript pages of ‘The Dark Tower’, an unfinished science-fiction/fantasy piece featuring Edwin Ransom of Lewis’s Space Trilogy. I found the section on writing and other writers quite interesting, because it includes Lewis’s thoughts on the work of his contemporaries — J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, for instance, as well as short pieces about George Orwell, Dorothy L. Sayers and Charles Williams. Lewis’s poems ought to have been included as well; it isn’t as if they would take up that much more room, and they would have been a welcome addition to this collection. But for the most part, the essay collection serves as an impressive display of Lewis’s prolific output over the years.

Anyone who is interested in looking for a nice solid edition of the general bulk of Lewis’s non-fiction and collected shorter fiction works would welcome this volume. It is by no means fully comprehensive, as mentioned above, but it is certainly more comprehensive than just about any other edition currently available on the market. And because Lewis’s writings have been printed and reprinted and shuffled between new compilations over the years, it’s nice to have the better part of his writings available in one hefty volume — at least, until someone actually does us all the favour of producing a more complete compilation.


The Question of God: C.S. Lewis and Sigmund Freud Debate God, Love, Sex, and the Meaning of Life by Armand M. Nicholi Jr.

11 March 2008

Today’s reviewed book ended up as a four-hour series on U.S. public television a few years ago. I don’t know if it’s been rebroadcast since then, though anyone with enough interest in seeing it should be able to purchase it without much difficulty.

The Question of God: C.S. Lewis and Sigmund Freud Debate God, Love, Sex, and the Meaning of Life by Armand M. Nicholi Jr.

Harvard professor Armand Nicholi has been teaching a class about Sigmund Freud and C.S. Lewis for the past decade or two. In his class, he compares the lives and philosophies of the two men, focusing in particular on their very different perspectives on religion, sex, love, friendship, and other overarching questions of life. In The Question of God, Nicholi has turned his class notes into a book, one which uses Lewis and Freud’s writings to look at how these two men approached belief, disbelief, and everything in between.

Nicholi has certainly done his homework for this class. The book looks at both Freud and Lewis’s public and private writings, incorporating published works and letters in an attempt to examine how their personal philosophies shaped their attitudes towards family members, friends, colleagues, and the general public. It’s fascinating and quite insightful to see the two men’s opinions on various aspects of life laid out side by side, and Nicholi finds a number of interesting parallels between them. Both Freud and Lewis had poor relationships with their fathers and with their fathers’ ideas of religion, and suffered deep personal losses early in their childhoods that seriously affected their outlooks on life from a young age. Freud ended up rejecting religious belief entirely, and Lewis himself admits that he was essentially dragged into Christianity kicking and screaming (in a metaphysical sense). Nicholi puts together a good narrative for their stories. Yet by the end of the book, I realised that Nicholi’s thesis could be boiled down to a single sentence — ‘Freud was a depressed and depressing old chain-smoking misanthrope, and he makes Lewis (and, by extension, Lewis’s answer to the question of God) seem the very embodiment of happiness and personal fulfilment by comparison’.

Even if Nicholi tries not to sound biased towards either Lewis or Freud, the very method of his comparison paints Freud and his opinions in an almost unrelentingly dismal light. Nicholi clearly finds Lewis to be the more compelling figure of the two, and he takes pains to compare Lewis’s conversion experience with his own studies into the conversion experiences of young adults. By contrasting Lewis’s deep, long-lasting friendships and late if happy marriage with Freud’s penchant for alienating and disowning his colleagues and the puritanical froideur of his marital life…well, it is little wonder that Lewis and his philosophies on life seem to come out the better for it. Nicholi never openly says that Lewis’s world-view is the better, but from the evidence he has assembled, he doesn’t exactly need to. So even though the book is written well and seems to stem from an interesting and original premise, fans of both Lewis and Freud would be wise to read it with a skeptical eye.


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.


An Experiment in Criticism by C.S. Lewis

24 October 2007

Dipping into the ‘wide high-table λόγος of St. C.S. Lewis’s Church’, as Betjeman so sardonically put it once upon a time. I’ve a few reviews of his other works that will have to go up here at some point, but this book really needs to stand by itself.

An Experiment in Criticism by C.S. Lewis

It’s common enough to talk about ‘good books’ and ‘bad books’, and yet the definition of what constitutes ‘good’ and ‘bad’ in a book has as many variations as there are readers. Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code was a runaway bestseller, but bring it up in conversation and you might well be scoffed at for even mentioning that kind of paperback junk food. Harold Bloom has made a name for himself declaring that Stephen King’s books (and most any other work of so-called popular fiction) are beneath contempt and beyond the pale for those who consider themselves to be ‘serious’ readers. And the ‘adult’ UK editions of Harry Potter, intended for those who are shy about being seen on Tube or train with the brightly-coloured covers of the regular books, would seem to indicate that the sense of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ extends into children’s literature as well. It is the question of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ books that C.S. Lewis addresses in his short work An Experiment in Criticism: he looks at how people judge the literary value of a given book, examining in particular how (in his opinion) most judgements focus too much on the book itself and not on the way in which the book is read.

An Experiment in Criticism, at first, seems designed to make the curious reader wince within the first five pages. From the start, Lewis draws a very sharp line between the ‘literary’ and the ‘unliterary’ reader, and deliberately places the literary reader in a kind of close-knit elite. He soon identifies the kind of books that the unliterary reader is likely to read, if indeed that reader even picks up a book at all: romance-laden short stories in women’s magazines or sensationalist adventure novels, for instance. Unliterary readers will almost never read a book again if they’ve read it once before. They turn to reading as a last resort — to help them sleep at night, or to pass time on a long journey, or simply to kill time before something else happens. Most of all, the unliterary reader almost never talks about the book afterwards, except to pass some sort of superficial judgement on it: ‘I liked it’ or ‘It was boring’. But Lewis does not suggest that unliterary readers are unliterary because they look at books from this perspective — rather, he believes that unliterary readers do not look at books from any other perspective. His interest lies more in how literary readers look at books, and how their particular prejudices influence how books are appraised and either praised or condemned.

For instance, science fiction and fantasy are two genres that tend to be dismissed by literary readers as poorly written escapist tripe, or in general as stories meant only for children (and therefore ‘childish’ or otherwise unsuitable for a serious reader). Lewis suggests that the literary reader should only use ‘childish’ in this derogatory sense to mean behaviours and attitudes that are or should be left behind in childhood. In this sense, throwing a temper tantrum when frustrated or angry is childish; enjoying engaging, powerful, and well-written fantasy stories, regardless of their popularity or trendiness, is not. An Experiment in Criticism, in this regard, takes a step back from specific criticism and looks at the critics themselves, picking apart how and why people judge books and looking more closely at the superficial judgements that literary readers are themselves capable of making about certain books and those who read them.

Fans of C.S. Lewis’s writings will quite possibly get a good deal of enjoyment out of An Experiment in Criticism, I think, if they are willing to overlook some of his more prickly (and, I will admit, condescending) moments. But the point of the book is not so much to pass a lasting and final judgement on how books ought to be criticised. It is an experiment in literary criticism — and in that sense, it throws out a number of intriguing ideas and serves as a starting point to open the subject to a much wider debate.