At A Pilgrim in Narnia we have an occasional feature called “Throwback Thursday.” This is where I find a blog post from the past–raiding either my own blog-hoard or someone else’s–and throw it back out into the digital world. This might be an idea or book that is now relevant again, or a concept I’d like to think about more, or even “an oldie but a goodie” that I think needs a bit of spin time.
For today’s Throwback Thursday I am not just looking backward but throwing forward.
I am spurred on by a contemporary moment that is nonetheless invisible to me. For some reason, my various posts on “canon” were being circulated in social media about a week ago. This usually means that someone with some prominence has posted on Twitter or Facebook, and that superstar’s followers have tumbled into a debate. I cannot find the source, but this happens with one post or another every few weeks. This post is an interesting one that took a lot of work to write, so I should be pleased.
During the recent Hugo awards, I was part of an off-campus, unofficial panel to discuss the best speculative fiction novels of the year–an all-female cast that seems worth our bookstore dime and book-reading time. Unbeknownst to us, as George R.R. Martin was carping his way through World Con’s first fully digital award ceremony (including some interesting stories of past events), there was a social media flurry about various things, including the lack of acknowledgement of host New Zealand’s indigenous peoples (a storytelling miss at the very least, but symbolically important), GRRM’s less than sensitive approach to various culturally rich name pronunciations, and a renewal of the old canard: canon. A “canon” approach to reading will always, it is argued, reduce diversity, limit new voices, and put our literary trust in dead white men.
On A Pilgrim in Narnia I have always said “yes” and “no” to this argument, and been critiqued for it. One of the few comments I have not allowed to be published on this blog was someone who said that because of my approach, I was a fundamentally immoral human being. If the commenter had had the courage to name themselves, I would have let that profound comment about my heart to stand. In the meantime, I continue to say “yes” and “no” in this debate.
Yes, a scholarly, critical, and sales focus on “canonical” books really does narrow the band of readership to men of European descent (though there are strong women writers on the list–or my list, anyway). As a hopeful fiction writer, I too get discouraged by the fact that readers still spend most of their money on the classics (see this list here, which shows that The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is the UK’s favourite book) or on bestsellers. I wish readers were not so slow to pick up on new books, but frankly, I only read new books for four reasons:
- I want to teach a book;
- a recommendation;
- I want to hear a new voice (I am reading through Black SF women writers these days); or
- I already love the author (I am awaiting Marilynne Robinson‘s Jack for the fall and follow a few Canadian authors, like Margaret Atwood, Mark Sampson, Rebecca Rosenblum, Nalo Hopkinson, and Michael Crummey).
I think readers and publishers limit new authors and new voices, and that the canon is for most (but not all people) a shortcut for saying “the old books I love” or “the books I want to read because they are behind other books I love.” Sometimes they are, of course, “books I really should get to but I would rather read something else.”
And diversity? Yes, a Western canon like Harold Bloom’s will be relatively narrow. But that’s just his canon list. The canon is always growing and reforming and will in time be something different. If you have tried to read the most important books of an old date, like 1916 or 1843 or 1594, you’ll discover how many bestselling and even classic authors have disappeared. I hunt for new voices, but reading various canons and lists of foundational or important authors gives me diversity as well: a diversity of perspective, of worldview, of moral and religious thoughts quite unlike my own. This is what C.S. Lewis meant by the reading of “Old Books,” which can act like an introduction to another culture and an anodyne to some of the extremism of our own.
Which brings me back here, to the books that C.S. Lewis mentions in An Experiment in Criticism–an experiment that shifts how we think about this to the experience of the reader rather than canons of individual or cultural taste. A good book is a book that good readers love and reread, and reading brings us to the experience of the “other.” Diversity is critical to C.S. Lewis’ worldview, for a monochrome world is one stripped not just of colour but of life. In the encounter with “other” in reading, we are given the eyes of a thousand people to see the world in new and meaningful ways. So of course, diversity matters in reading, and I love to find some new author who brings me to new places. But I also like old books, I like knowing what the heck scholars and critics are talking about, and I like to know the stories behind the stories I love.
Why was this blog post suddenly popular? Probably for one of two reasons–though I would love to be corrected. It could be that someone posted it with a “Here, once again, the old white men working to keep their circle narrow” kind of approach. I am discouraged being called old, but I think I’ll recover and I like that people are talking about good books to read. Or it might be a reaction to the canon-outcry at the Hugos, a kind of “If you want read the real books, here’s a list from C.S. Lewis and some random blogger” kind of conversation. Perhaps this is benign, but last year, a couple of my posts were appropriated by an alt-right group (a Hugo-connected figure, incidentally), which I found a bit disturbing.
As I try to hold all of this together, I will be a disappointment and nefarious figure to most people who believe deeply in these matters. I have lost a number of active readers of this blog over the years because I seem too generous to other points of view or too closed-minded, because I flirt with literary theory or because I seem to lack theoretical strength, because I am either too close to an author (Lewis, Tolkien, Rowling, Montgomery, King, Le Guin, etc.) or failed to defend them enough, or because of what people perceive is my political view (which I have never shared here or in social media). So I have decided to republish this list. It may have been adored or excoriated on social media recently, I don’t know. Perhaps someone just thought it interesting or helpful or a good place to start for their own adventure in books or their curriculum development.
In any case, I think it is a good reading list for students of English literature, for those who want the foundational texts and authors of our diversifying culture, for those who want to know the stories behind Narnia and other books we love, and for those who will be the writers, teachers, and critics who want to reshape this list for the future. After all, I don’t think the last word in good books has been written–even by C.S. Lewis–and there are more experiments that are worth our while.
On A Pilgrim in Narnia we have been playing with lists of the key books to read–what we might call a “canon.” We’ve thought about the key books of Western literature (here and here), thought about the problems of this discussion, and made some suggestions at developing our own Fantasy and SF canon. I also added a note on the death of Harold Bloom, a divisive and incisive figure. I thought today and next week we would turn to C.S. Lewis.
Lewis is one of the most widely read people I have ever encountered in history. He devoured books, which were his lifelong love and the foundation of his work as a scholar and writer. His own books are layered with hundreds of the great books of history hidden within the images, words, and stories. Even Narnia–especially Narnia, some argue–is soaked through with echoes from mythology, children’s fiction, the poets, Arthurian tales, medieval cosmology, and the Bible. Not just these books, but their fictional worlds too. Even the world of Sherlock Holmes is connected with our early Narnian heroes.
So what books must we read in order to experience the rich layers within even an accessible author like C.S. Lewis? The list is massive. Every time I read an old book or pick up a Medieval or Romantic poet, I find something new in Lewis’ fiction. We are going to lose if we try to reproduce Lewis’ reading list. It is largely unknown to us, I suppose. But, more than that, he began reading the great works as a child, and read too often and too quickly for most of us to ever catch up.
What I did, instead, was to conduct an experiment on An Experiment in Criticism.
An Experiment in Criticism is a fun little book. Lewis tries to answer the question great critics struggle with all the time (and we are thinking about here): what makes a great book? Lewis turns the question on its head by asking, “What makes a good reader?” I won’t tell you the answer to his question just yet (stay tuned), but in answering he considers in the 150 short pages of An Experiment in Criticism a vast swath of literature.
Naturally, we would turn to the index and bibliography. There is none. And there are very few footnotes. This is a senior scholar (Chair at Cambridge) writing an essay for his colleagues and students at the end of his life. It is an important essay, predicting the arrival of Reader Response Criticism and Deconstructionism, and answering those movements at the same time. The American and English critics of the period all read it. Still, it is a very short essay.
So what I did was go through the book carefully and pull out every overt literary reference. I counted references to 86 individual books and poems. There were also a few dozen nods to poets, mythologies, religions, critics, literary and art movements, and narrative epochs.
That’s a lot of references for a few short pages.
In the end, I think this list of references makes for a great list of canonical authors. True, most of the critics reading Lewis’ Experiment in the 1960s won’t have read all these books and poems, but they will have read many of them and have a passing knowledge of the rest. It is light on the novelists, and he doesn’t deal much with poetry. It has more fantasy than another theorist might entertain, as you might imagine from one of the 20th century’s great fantasists. But I think it makes a great reading list.
So I share it with you. You can read An Experiment in Criticism any time you want, but here is the list you would need to get every reference Lewis made. I also included a list of authors Lewis mentions by name, expecting the reader to know their works. In an even more significant way, this is the list of Western canonical authors, though one that would have been rejected by many at the time because of Lewis’ choices. Accidental and incomplete, it is a great way to dive in to a reading of our culture’s foundational books and the stories that the Narnian himself knew and loved.
Then, as you write your own poems, blogs, syllabi, and books, you can create a canon for the next generation.
A Canon List from An Experiment in Criticism
- Iliad (c. 8th BCE)
- Odyssey (c. 8th BCE)
- Unknown, Book of Jonah (8th-4th BCE)
- Olympian Odes (early 5th BCE)
- Pythian Odes (early 5th BCE)
- Fragments (early 5th BCE)
- Aeschylus, The Eumenides (5th BCE)
- Sophocles, Oedipus Rex (c. 429 BCE)
- Aristotle, Poetics (335 BCE)
- The Georgics (29 BCE)
- The Aeneid (29-19 BCE)
- Lucian, Vera Historia (2nd)
- Apuleius, Metamorphoses/The Golden Ass (late 2nd)
- Unknown, Beowulf (8th-11th)
- Unknown, The Song of Roland (11th-12th)
- Laȝamon, Brut (c. 1190-1215)
- Unknown, Huon of Bordeaux (c. 1216-1268)
- Snorri Sturluson, The Prose Edda (early 13th)
- Dante, Divine Comedy (1308-20)
- Geoffrey Chaucer
- The Canterbury Tales (late 14th)
- Troilus and Criseyde (1380s)
- Unknown, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (late 14th)
- Sir Thomas Malory, Le Morte Darthur (1485)
- Ludovico Ariosto, Orlando Furioso (c. 1516)
- Arthur Brooke, The Tragical History of Romeus and Juliet (1562)
- Sir Philip Sidney, Arcadia (late 16th)
- Edmund Spenser, The Faerie Queene (1590s)
- William Shakespeare
- Romeo & Juliet (1591-5)
- Twelfth Night (1601-2)
- The Winter’s Tale (1611)
- A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1590-7)
- Henry V (c. 1599)
- John Donne, “The Apparition” (early 17th)
- Michael Drayton, “The Shepherds Sirena” (1627)
- Thomas Browne, Urn Burial (1658)
- Jean Racine
- Andromaque (1667)
- Phèdre (c. 1677)
- John Milton
- Paradise Lost (1667-74)
- Samson Agonistes (1671)
- Alexander Pope, The Rape of the Lock (1712-4)
- Jonathan Swift, Gulliver’s Travels (1726, 1735)
- “Micromégas” (1752)
- Candide (1759)
- Samuel Johnson, The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abissinia (1759)
- William Beckford, Vathek, an Arabian Tale (1782)
- James Boswell, Life of Johnson (1791)
- Samuel Taylor Coleridge, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner (1798)
- William Wordsworth
- “Michael” (1800)
- The Excursion (1814)
- Jane Austen, Pride & Prejudice (1813)
- Walter Scott, Guy Mannering (1815)
- Benjamin Constant, Adolphe (1816)
- John Keats, “Ode on a Grecian Urn” (1819)
- James Hogg, The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner (1824)
- Percy Bysshe Shelley, The Witch of Atlas (1824)
- Elias Lönnrot, The Kalevala (1835-49)
- Alexandre Dumas, The Count of Monte Cristo (1844)
- Charles Dickens
- The Pickwick Papers (1836)
- Great Expectations (1861)
- William Makepeace Thackeray, Vanity Fair (1848)
- Edward Fitzgerald, Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam (1859-89)
- Anthony Trollope, Barchester Towers (1857)
- Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace (1869)
- George Eliot, Middlemarch, A Study of Provincial Life (1871-2)
- Samuel Butler, Erewhon (1872)
- Lewis Carroll, “The Hunting of the Snark” (1874-6)
- Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov (1880)
- Robert Louis Stevenson
- Treasure Island (1883)
- Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886)
- Edwin Abbott, Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions (1884)
- John Ruskin, Praeterita (1885)
- Henry James, The Turn of the Screw (1898)
- H.G. Wells
- First Men in the Moon (1901)
- “The Door in the Wall” (1911)
- Beatrix Potter, Tales (1902-1930)
- Joseph Conrad, Nostromo (1904)
- E.R. Burroughs, Tarzan (1912-1965)
- Kenneth Grahame, The Wind in the Willows (1908)
- Arnold Bennett, The Old Wives’ Tale (1908)
- James Stephens, The Crock of Gold (1912)
- D.H. Lawrence, Sons and Lovers (1913)
- Gertrude Stein, “Sacred Emily” (1913)
- James Branch Cabell, Jurgen, A Comedy of Justice (1919)
- Kafka, The Castle (1926)
- Mervyn Peake, Titus Groans (1946)
- J.R.R. Tolkien, Lord of the Rings (1954-5)
List of Authors Whose Work Stands as a Whole
I thought it would be interesting also to make a list of people that Lewis mentioned by name in this short book–i.e., people one simply knows. I left out those more obscure that had previously been mentioned in connection with their works.
- Homer (c. 9th BCE)
- Aristotle (384-322 BCE)
- Virgil (70-19 BCE)
- Lucretius (c. 99-55 BC)
- Ovid (c. 43 BCE-18 CE)
- St. Paul (c. 5-66 CE)
- Horace (65-8 BCE)
- Dante (c. 1265-1321)
- Chaucer (c. 1343-1400)
- Malory (c. 1415-1471)
- Pierre de Ronsard (1524-1585)
- Montaigne (1533-1592)
- Tasso (1544-1595)
- Edmund Spenser (1552-1599)
- Sir Phillip Sidney (1554-1586)
- Donne (1572-1631)
- Rabelais (c. 1483-1553)
- Natalis Comes (1520-1582)
- Marlowe (1564-1593)
- Shakespeare (1564-1616)
- Milton (1608-1674)
- Dryden (1631-1700)
- Alexander Pope (1688-1744)
- Dr. Johnson (1709-1784)
- Ossian (=James MacPherson) (1736-1796)
- Wordsworth (1770-1850)
- Sir Walter Scott (1771-1832)
- Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834)
- Jane Austen (1775-1817)
- Charles Lamb (1775-1834)
- Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822)
- Thomas Carlyle (1795-1881)
- Balzac (1799-1850)
- Tennyson (1809-1892)
- Dickens (1812-1870)
- Anthony Trollope (1815-1882)
- John Ruskin (1819-1900)
- Matthew Arnold (1822-1888)
- R.M. Ballantyne (1825-1894)
- George Meredith (1828-1909)
- Jules Verne (1829-1905)
- Walter Pater (1839-1894)
- Thomas Hardy (1840-1928)
- Henry James (1843-1916)
- Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844-1889)
- Brunetière (1849-1906)
- Robert Louis Stevenson (1850-1894)
- A.C. Bradley? (1851-1935)
- Rider Haggard (1856-1925)
- Joseph Conrad (1857-1924)
- William Morris (1859-1896)
- A.E. Housman (1859-1936)
- Bergson (1859-1941)
- W.W. Jacobs (1863-1943)
- Kipling (1865-1936)
- Walter De La Mare (1873-1956)
- Gertrude Stein (1874-1946)
- G.K. Chesterton (1874-1936)
- Rainer Maria Rilke (1875-1926)
- Edgar Wallace (1875-1932)
- E.R. Burroughs (1875-1950)
- D.H. Lawrence (1885-1930)
- T.S. Eliot (1888-1965)
Of course, any reader must also know Boswell’s Life of Johnson, critics such as Dr. I. A. Richards, Macaulay, De Quincey, and Matthew Arnold, fictional critics like Gigadibs and Dryasdust, literary historians like W. P. Ker and Oliver Elton, the Puritans, the Georgians, the Muses, Norse mythology, art history, iconography of the Eastern Church, musicology, the French poets, the Pastoral writers, Tolkien’s “On Fairy-Stories,” Gibbon, some general tenets of Thomism, and the counter-examples (such as Martin Tupper, Amanda McKittrick Ros, Ella Wheeler Wilcox, and Patience Strong).
Note: If you see errors or omissions, please let me know and I will do my best to fix them.