C.S. Lewis on the Right Way to Read Classics

This is a post I found this week that I think is worth looking at as this week’s Friday Feature. Lewis had a lot to say about reading old books and suggested that bring classics and other books from outside our particular place and time into our to-be-read pile. Garrett Cash covers some of that quite nicely in this short essay.

Love and Mercy

You probably know C.S. Lewis for his imaginative Narnia fiction or perhaps for his non-fiction works on Christianity, but many are unaware of the groundbreaking and brilliant work he did within his scholarly field. Lewis was the premier professor of Medieval and Renaissance literature at Oxford, but his knowledge of greater literature itself was deep and profound. His students and colleagues were frequently amazed by his astonishing recall of minute detail in obscure works. He would play a game with you when you came to his office where he would have you pull down any book off his shelf and read a random passage out of it. He would tell you the work, author, and quote the surrounding context. Suffice it to say, the man knew his stuff.

CS-Lewis-on-the-Reading-of-Old-BooksBeing that Lewis had his ears to the ground with his students and was unusually fresh with his perspectives, his approaches to…

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About Brenton Dickieson

“A Pilgrim in Narnia” is a blog project in reading and talking about the work of C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and the worlds they touched. As a "Faith, Fantasy, and Fiction" blog, we cover topics like children’s literature, apologetics and philosophy, myths and mythology, fantasy, theology, cultural critique, art and writing. This blog includes my thoughts as I read through Lewis and Tolkien and reflect on my own life and culture. In this sense, I am a Pilgrim in Narnia--or Middle Earth, or Fairyland. I am often peeking inside of wardrobes, looking for magic bricks in urban alleys, or rooting through yard sale boxes for old rings. If something here captures your imagination, leave a comment, “like” a post, share with your friends, or sign up to receive Narnian Pilgrim posts in your email box. Brenton Dickieson is a father, husband, friend, university lecturer, and freelance writer from Prince Edward Island, Canada. You can follow him on Twitter, @BrentonDana.
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18 Responses to C.S. Lewis on the Right Way to Read Classics

  1. dalejamesnelson says:

    A quibble — Lewis isn’t just recommending attention to old literary works that are still universally remembered as classics.

    At least, I think he also would be pleased if we read some old works that fall outside the books, such as those of Chaucer, Spenser, Milton, Wordsworth, etc. that everyone’s heard of and that come to mind when the word “classics” appears. Lewis mentions such now-obscure books in many places, notably in his scholarly writings and in his wonderful letters.

    Here are some works that probably lack, for a lot of people, immediate name-recognition as classics, but that might still be worth looking up. I haven’t read all of them, but could recommend some of them warmly. (Let me sound like David Llewellyn Dodds and recommend that interested people check archive.org.)

    Baxter: Autobiography
    Bernardus Silvestris: Cosmographia
    Boehme: The Signature of All Things
    Cobbett: Rural Rides
    Coleridge: The Friend
    Cowper: Letters
    The Greek Alexander Romance
    The “Homeric Hymns”
    Latimer: Sermons
    More: The Life of Dr. Henry More, by Richard Ward (1710)
    Osborne, Dorothy: Letters
    Thomson: The Seasons (poem)
    Traherne: Centuries
    Walton: Lives of George Herbert and others
    White: Natural History of Selborne

    Many of these are in English, and all are more than 200 years old (though the Coleridge work received a final version in the poet’s lifetime 200 years ago).

    Dale Nelson

    Liked by 2 people

    • GarrettCash says:

      Hey Dale, I completely agree with you (and have read several of the books you listed, many on Lewis’s recommendation!) and just wanted to clarify what I meant. In the more classical sense, the word “classics” meant Greek and Latin literature, so when someone said they were studying the classics it would have meant this more ancient term. In using the word “classics” I meant to draw on both the idea of much older ancient literature and the modern sense of classics as being established works. Of course Lewis didn’t only recommend people read the most famous stuff, but I felt like “classics” was a succinct way to sum up the point in a headline.

      Liked by 2 people

    • Hi Dale, I have a series of lists on my bulletin board that I am working through: Top 100 SF, 25 Books Every Christian Should KNow, Discworld, top 32 Fantasy (before 1987), World Fantasy Conference New Canon, Harold Bloom’s Canon. Eventually that will have Geo MacD, GKC, Dorothy Sayers, Ursula K. Le Guin and some others.
      ButI think I might add this list you did here. Besides peaking at Coleridge, Traherne, and the Cosmographia, I’ve read none of these fully.

      Liked by 1 person

      • dalejamesnelson says:

        I’m really happy to see a thread recommending books from before 1820 or so. It’s good to remember that Lewis situated the Great Divide right around that date. Ironically, though Lewis was deeply read in pre-Industrial Revolution literature, his admirers, as a rule, rarely venture there, aside from dipping into a few very-high-visibility canonical works. It is easier to pick up another book whose language and whose thought-world will be familiar to us. But I desire to push back against that.

        A few other old books worth reading, whether or not they have high visibility now:
        Laxdaela Saga and other Icelandic sagas
        Sir Thomas Browne’s writings (not just a snippet or two from Religio Medici or the Urn-Buriall)

        A 20th-century book that Lewis admired, about art, was Edgar Wind’s Pagan Mysteries in the Renaissance.

        By the way, Alexander, when I designed and taught a Literature of the Non-Western World course, I always included Wu Ch’Eng-En’s Monkey (an abridgement of the Journey to the West, by Arthur Waley). You’ve probably heard of it.

        Liked by 2 people

        • GarrettCash says:

          I love the Icelandic sagas immensely, as did Tolkien and Lewis. I even got to visit Iceland a year ago and see some of the sites from the sagas. I’ll have to check out some of the other works you’re referencing that I’m unfamiliar with, thank you for the information!

          Liked by 1 person

      • dalejamesnelson says:

        It might be worthwhile sometime to have a blog post about truly obscure books that we discovered via Lewis. I’ve been writing about such for the New York C. S. Lewis Society for about 20 years. Here are some items that come to mind — some of which I have read, others not:

        Percy Lubboxk’s Earlham
        Bohun Lynch’s Menace from the Moon
        Hope Muntz’s The Golden Warrior
        Phyllis Elinor Sandeman’s Treasure on Earth
        Francis Warner’s Perennia

        I am curious about the poetry of Herbert Palmer and George Rostrevor Hamilton.

        A better-known book, which Lewis extensively annotated in a personal copy, is Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy, another one from before 1820. Also worth noting: John Fletcher’s The Faithful Shepherdess.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. dalejamesnelson says:

    A tangential thought: Lewis’s imagination was fed by pictorial art as well as literature. Peter Schakel has some interesting paragraphs on this topic in Imagination and the Arts in C. S. Lewis. Since we are subjected to such a torrent of imagery, it might be well for us to give thought to the matter with some assistance from Lewis.

    Schakel mentions A. C. Harwood noticing Lewis’s delight in landscapes by Poussin; remarks on Lewis’s youthful interest in Durer; says that Lewis had a copy of the Wilton Diptych at the Kilns; also, says that Lewis hung a detail of the Turn Shroud in his bedroom; says that Peter Bayley remembered Tintoretto’s Origin of the Milky Wat in the room where Lewis gave his tutorials at Magdalen. A reproduction of Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam may be seen in a 1947 photo of Lewis standing. Lewis admired Gombrich, Seznec, and Edgar Wind, who dealt with the medieval and/or Renaissance use of Classical mythology.

    So far as I know, Lewis was completely unaware of the drawings, etchings, and paintings of the 19th-century artist Samuel Palmer, although he might have read Palmer’s memorable pages on William Blake in Gilchrist’s biography of Blake. Palmer, who as a young artist knew Blake, had an imagination fired by Virgil and Milton — and even the Gothic novels of “Mother Radcliffe” such as The Mysteries of Udolpho. I think Lewis would have responded to his work, e.g. the late etchings based on Virgil and Milton….

    Liked by 1 person

  3. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    Garrett Cash has taken a good example, in choosing A Preface to Paradise Lost, but he could also have chosen The Discarded Image, which is more distinctly a distillation of all of Lewis’s Prolegomena lectures which he gave for decades. And, in his reminiscences of Lewis in the Journal of Inkling Studies (Vol.4 No. 1, April 2014), Eric Stanley notes that “in 1948-51 he gave some of the content of the book” English Literature in the Sixteenth Century, “in a brilliant series of lectures, ‘Prolegomena to English Renaissance Literature’, in the Oxford Examination Schools”. Perhaps some of the content of the Preface interacted in this way, too. And, as both Carrett Cash and Dale Nelson variously indicate, this background did not only attend to great works of literature, but to all sorts of works testifying to how people thought about and depicted things, down the ages, and not only written works, but what were (at least in the Eighteenth century) called ‘the Sister Arts’, visual, tangible, audible, spectacular, and so on. It is fun – and characteristic of his breadth of interest and reference – that, in the Preface (ch. 8), Lewis also takes the example of Walt Disney’s “strange blend of genius and vulgarity, the film of Snow-White”.

    Liked by 2 people

    • GarrettCash says:

      Thanks for the thoughts David! The Discarded Image is one of my all time favorite, most influential books ever. As a medievalist and Lewis fan it’s pure cat nip for me. I also own a copy of English Literature in the Sixteenth Century that I haven’t cracked yet. Lewis wrote a lot of great literary criticism that I’m still exploring slowly as I read the works he critiques (Paradise Lost being the one I’m going through now, to be followed by The Faerie Queen for reading The Allegory of Love). Lewis discussed lots of concepts throughout these works that deserve much more discussion and attention than they ever tend to receive, but I thought I would just highlight a chapter and thought in “A Preface to Paradise Lost” that struck me as rather delightfully authentic.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. David says:

    That was a great read. Thanks for reblogging it! I think I have a new blog to follow.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. Alexander says:

    I like this kind of self aware thinking. I think that this is part of something bigger. I like the idea that none of us see reality as it truly is, we see the reality that we interpret based on our genetics, experiences, likes/dislikes etc. Between our eyes / ears / touch etc. the signal isn’t received as it exists, it’s meddled with by our troublesome brains.

    You could take this to an absolute from scientific perspective e.g. – we only see a certain spectrum of light, what we see isn’t really what exists (or at least all that exists).

    Another parallel I like relates to relationships. I find it very useful both at work and with friends to try and see the world as other people see it. I highly recommend this when thinking about birthday and christmas gifts.

    On a side note I took up meditation a few years ago (not connected to any religion, just the practice of sitting quietly), and I have found over time that this really helps me to see the world more clearly.

    As someone who loves to travel I do always try to absorb the local culture. I’m in Japan at the moment and I try to find Japanese only cafes, bars, restaurants etc. There is nothing worse in my mind than spending an evening in an english / american / irish pub in Japan 🙂

    I’ve been reading ‘haiku’ from time to time, originally I read a lot in English, but now that I can read upper beginner japanese I can see that the english translations just don’t work for a lot of the classic haiku, to ‘get them’ you need to understand japanese culture and how japanese language works. Or at least how it expresses ideas.

    From a literature perspective I am not the greatest reader of classics, I think a part of the problem is the European and American classics just don’t interest me, For example I’m not interested in victorian english lifestyle or the american revolution. However (although I do admit I read a few that I found delightful e.g. “The Pickwick Papers”).

    Kind of connected to this post I have found some of the asian classics really engaging, I think it’s exactly because I don’t have any preconceived idea on how that part of the world was – I can truly experience the authors world.

    (I’m very open to recommendations on classics that are a bit different and can take you to a new place).

    Like

    • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

      You might try some ‘detective story’ classics, by Robert Van Gulik. He was a Dutch diplomat and scholar and Agatha Christie’s Death Comes as the End (1944), set in Ancient Egypt, gave him the idea of translating “An old Chinese detective novel […] from the original Chinese”, Dee Goong An, three murder cases solved by Judge Dee (Tokyo, 1949), and extrapolating from that to elaborating his own further historical adventures featuring Judge Dee: the first to appear written in English in 1950 but first published in Japanese translation, made by his friend, the Sinologist, Professor Ogaeri Yoshio, the same year, and then in 1953 in his own Chinese translation, made with the help of Professor Chang Li-chai, before it eventually appeared in 1956 first in his own Dutch translation and finally in English as The Chinese Maze Murders(!) A note of warning – its Japanese publisher, he observed, insisted the cover illustration include a naked woman, “Otherwise, he said, the book wouldn’t sell, as the ‘cult of nudity’ was on the rise in Japan and a special sort of ‘fleshly literature’, nikutai bungaku, even emerged” (my translation).

      Liked by 1 person

      • Alexander says:

        Thank you David, this is straight onto my reading list for this year. Appreciate you putting some thought into a recommendation. Don’t worry too much about the cover, I’m desensitized to some of the ‘sexual’ strangeness of Japanese culture that you have to deal with to appreciate the rest of the culture! 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

        • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

          My pleasure – I thought I’d better sound a warning note for the breadth of possible readers… I have not caught up with Van Gulik’s scholarly works like Pi-hsi t’u k’ao, Erotic Colour Prints of the Ming Period… (Tokyo, 1951) or Sexual Life in Ancient China (Leiden: Brill, 1961), but he handles the ‘darker elements’ in his historical fiction very deftly. In the Chinese-style illustrations which he drew himself for the novels, he is careful not to show the bare feet of his nudes, which he somewhere notes would have been really shocking to ‘period’ audiences…

          Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for the note here. I lived in Japan for a couple of years. I never got haiku, but being in Japan helped me see the humble beauty of it.
      Reading is for me a kind of self-death and self-recovery, a being shaped and shaping the world too.

      Liked by 1 person

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