In his academic world of literary criticism, C.S. Lewis might be most influential in his A Preface to Paradise Lost. As I read it now, it does not seem an astounding book, though it is surprisingly accessible (except that the Latin and German isn’t translated for us). Originally published in 1941, it was most controversial, perhaps, in that it thoroughly defended epic poetry, it put John Milton in his personal and historical religious context, and it resisted the thesis that Satan is the hero of Paradise Lost. I have heard scholars of Milton speak of Lewis’ study in passionate terms even still–appreciative and critical of A Preface to Paradise Lost in equal measure. I am merely a student, so my passions are not yet aroused on the subject.
Lewis gave a series of 11 lectures on Paradise Lost in the Michaelmas term of 1939, in the outbreak of WWII. In December 1941, he delivered 3 talks from this series for the Matthew Ballard Lectures at the University College of North Wales, now Bangor University. In these talks he covered the “highlights” of his lecture series, which he was then working into a book, published in 1942 by Oxford University Press.
I have written before about the influence of Charles Williams in Lewis’ career. They met by exchanging mutual fan letters, and I think that Lewis saw the possibility for thoughtful fiction after reading Williams’ The Place of the Lion. They became great friends, though Williams was far more influential to Lewis than he was to Williams.
It seems that Williams also opened up imaginative possibilities for Lewis in the critical studies of Paradise Lost, as his dedication to the Preface discloses. Usually a dedication is simple. Lewis’ dedication to The Allegory of Love is just a short epigraph:
To Owen Barfield
wisest and best
The dedication to The Screwtape Letters is simply, “To J.R.R. Tolkien”–and even then Tolkien felt that was too much. The Discarded Image is dedicated “To Roger Lancelyn Green,” and Surprised by Joy, “To Dom Bede Griffiths, O.S.B.” We might expect a more significant dedication in Till We Have Faces to his wife-to-be, Joy Davidman, who was instrumental in both inspiration and criticism of this great work. But it simply bears her name.
C.S. Lewis most famously diverges from this practice in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. He writes:
My dear Lucy,
I wrote this story for you, but when I began it I had not realised that girls grow quicker than books. As a result you are already too old for fairy tales, and by the time it is printed and bound you will be older still. But some day you will be old enough to start reading fairy tales again. You can then take it down from some upper shelf, dust it, and tell me what you think of it. I shall probably be too deaf to hear, and too old to understand, a word you say, but I shall still be
your affectionate Godfather,
There is another place where Lewis writes a much more significant and personal dedication, in A Preface to Paradise Lost. It is surprisingly long–a page and a quarter in a short book of less than 140 pages. And it has very personal moments that wouldn’t make sense to outside readers. Here is that dedication:
To CHARLES WILLIAMS
When I remember what kindness I received and what pleasure I had in delivering these lectures in the strange and beautiful hillside College at Bangor, I feel almost ungrateful to my Welsh hosts in offering this book not to them, but to you. Yet I cannot do otherwise. To think of my own lecture is to think of those other lectures at Oxford in which you partly anticipated, partly confirmed, and most of all clarified and matured, what I had long been thinking about Milton.
The scene was, in a way, medieval, and may prove to have
been historic. You were a vagus thrown among us by the chance of war. The appropriate beauties of the Divinity School provided your background. There we elders heard (among other things) what he had long despaired of hearing–a lecture on Comus which placed its importance where the poet placed it and watched ‘the yonge fresshe folkes, he or she’, who filled the benches listening first with incredulity, then with toleration, and finally with delight, to something so strange and new in their experience as the praise of chastity. Reviewers, who have not had time to re-read Milton, have failed for the most part to digest your criticism of him; but it is a reasonable hope that of those who heard you in Oxford many will understand henceforward that when the old poets made some virtue their theme they were not teaching but adoring, and that what we take for the didactic is often the enchanted.
It gives me a sense of security to remember that, far from loving your work because you are my friend, I first sought your friendship because I loved your books. But for that, I should find it difficult to believe that your short Preface to Milton is what it seems to me to be-the recovery of a true critical tradition after more than a hundred years of laborious misunderstanding. The ease with which the thing was done would have seemed inconsistent with the weight that had to be lifted. As things are, I feel entitled to trust my own eyes. Apparently, the door of the prison was really unlocked all the time; but it was only you who thought of trying the handle. Now we can all come out.
It is a strange letter. Charles Williams was forced by WWII to move from London to Oxford, where he was able to connect more deeply with the Inklings. According to Lewis he became the vagus–the nerve centre, I presume–and he quickened Lewis`work in Milton when he lectured at Oxford, filling in for scholars gone to war. Something about Williams’ work opened up new possibilities for Lewis as a scholar, as The Place of the Lion opened up new possibilities for Lewis as a fiction writer. I love the image here: it isn’t that Williams unlocked the doors the prison. They were unlocked–we were free to read Milton properly all along–it is just that no one before Williams thought to check the handle.
What is most striking about this peculiar dedication is the fond tone, the sensitivity of the dedication in a scholarly work. Lewis is trying to keep in memory what is surely not a significant historical moment in English studies: Charles Williams’ thoughts on Milton. He tries to keep these fading though brilliant ideas alive not because Williams is his friend. He is Williams’ friend because he has brilliant ideas worth keeping alive. I like that.