Good C.S. Lewis Studies Books That Did Not Win the Mythopoeic Award: Part 3: Literary Studies on C.S. Lewis

Following news that “Tolkien Studies Projects Sweep the Mythopoeic Scholarship Award Shortlist in Inklings Studies,” and on the heels of a series encouraging strong Lewis studies books, I decided to share some of the good and useful Lewis studies books of the last decade that did not get a Mythopoeic Award nomination. I began the “Good C.S. Lewis Studies Books That Did Not Win the Mythopoeic Award” series by talking about various good and excellent studies on C.S. Lewis on Theology, Philosophy, and Spiritual Life, which is the centre of my particular studies these days. I then followed up with a resource-filled post on “C.S. Lewis Biographies.” Today, I will focus on Literary Studies, which include studies on intertextuality, Medieval studies, and focussed book studies.

I have warned you that I would cheat here and there, including books by friends of mine, and some studies that are important and hepful, though they may lack gradeur in other ways. If I am missing something crucial, let me know. I will note that I have not included 2021 books, which are particularly strong in this category. Here are some more good, helpful, interesting, or excellent Lewis (and Lewis-related) lit studies from the last decade that did not win the Mythopoeic award but that any student or committed reader of C.S. Lewis should read.

Literary Studies (Including Intertextuality, Medieval Studies, and Book Studies)

Marsha Daigle-Williamson, Reflecting the Eternal: Dante’s Divine Comedy in the Novels of C.S. Lewis (2015)

Dante was, for Lewis, the West’s master poet–a writer with a genius science fiction mind who wrote the most theologically rich and integrated work of the late Middle Ages. As Lewis was a literary historian of Medieval and Renaissance literature, Dante was—and remains for researchers after Lewis—an almost unmatched figure. The most critical tool for reading Dante in and with C.S. Lewis (so far) is the 2015 volume, Reflecting the Eternal: Dante’s Divine Comedy in the Novels of C.S. Lewis by Dr. Marsha Daigle-Williamson. In this late-career major rewriting of her doctoral dissertation, medievalist Daigle-Williamson invites readers to imagine the many obvious and subtle links between Dante’s classic text and C.S. Lewis’ fiction. I have a review essay of Reflecting the Eternal in VII: Journal of the Marion E. Wade Center, which you can find free here, and I have a longer reflective piece as an “insert” to this series–“Marsha Daigle-Williamson’s Reflecting the Eternal and Dante in the Work of C.S. Lewis, with Thoughts about Intertextuality“–on the question of the books we see hidden in other books.

Rob Fennell, ed., Both Sides of the Wardrobe: C.S. Lewis, Theological Imagination, and Everyday Discipleship (2015)

Quite apart from my article in this volume where I first argue that Lewis has a fairly sophisticated understanding of Christology that centres his writing on the spiritual life, I think this little book as a whole has value. First, it includes a number of short, smart pieces that a particularly directed to the ways that Lewis’ “theological imagination” is formative for Christian growth and spiritual vitality. The Narnian pieces by Michael Tutton and David J. Hawkesworth work well as theological introductions to the volume, while the articles by Allen B. Robertson and Gary Thorne represent two visions for Lewis’ imaginative transformations. David Mark Purdy’s genre study on Screwtape is a critical challenge to the field and helps us think about the way we read these demonic letters as spiritual enlightenment. Though we wrote independently, my “’Die Before You Die’: St. Paul’s Cruciformity in C.S. Lewis’s Narrative Spirituality” pairs well with Chris Armstrong’s piece on Lewis and the Theologia Germanica. There are reflections on Lewis as a preacher (by Laurence DeWolfe) and the eschatological Lewis (Sarah Layman). Finally, Wayne Smith’s “The Space Between: Observations From the Threshold” is a literary gem with theological creativity. Kudos to Rob Fennel for pulling the volume together and hosting the 2013 conference that gave birth to the idea.

Diana Pavlac Glyer, Bandersnatch: C. S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and the Creative Collaboration of the Inklings (2015)

As I mentioned in my discussion with William O’Flaherty and Diana Glyer about the new Tolkien biopic, I think Glyer’s The Company They Keep is one of the most important books on Lewis and the Inklings in this century. It is a book that took decades to complete, offering a rereading of the Inklings by considering the ways that they worked together, wrote together, read with one another, edited one another’s work, offered criticism, and encouraged one another toward writing the books that ended up changing the face of literary history. Glyer is a careful researcher and a lyrical writer, so even in the depth of archival, historical, and literary analysis, we are still in the midst of a story. It was certainly worth its Mythopoeic Award. So I am pleased to cheat a bit. As The Company They Keep is more than a decade old, I can still talk about Bandersnatch, a popular version of the original study that focusses on artistic and writerly collaboration. Indeed, this book reads well with the great books “on writing” or as an artistic self-development text, while getting a great deal of research on C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien in the mix. And a fun fact is that Lewis scholar Michael Ward reads the audiobook version.

Sørina Higgins, The Inklings and King Arthur: J. R. R. Tolkien, Charles Williams, C. S. Lewis, and Owen Barfield on the Matter of Britain (2017)

This is a full-on cheat as The Inklings and King Arthur actually won the Mythopoeic Scholarship Award in Inklings Studies against stunning odds. Quite frankly, Sørina is a remarkably strong editor and pulled together a volume of significance. I’m proud of my piece, “Mixed Metaphors and Hyperlinked Worlds: A Study of Intertextuality in C.S. Lewis’s Ransom Cycle,” which is my most substantial work of literary theory, drawing out Lewis’ methods from his fiction and nonfiction. Quite aside from my piece, The Inklings and King Arthur: J.R.R. Tolkien, Charles Williams, C.S. Lewis, & Owen Barfield on the Matter of Britain is filled with great chapters on these critical figures from both emerging authors and leading figures like Holly Ordway, Charles A. Huttar, Kirstin Jeffrey Johnson, Suzanne Bray, and Malcolm Guite.

Monika Hilder, The Feminine Ethos in C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia (2012), The Gender Dance: Ironic Subversion in C.S. Lewis’s Cosmic Trilogy (2013), and Surprised by the Feminine: A Rereading of C.S. Lewis and Gender (2013)

Again, folks might see this as a kind of cheat, lumping three books into a single entry–or a cheat because this trilogy was nominated for a Mythopoeic Award (and deserved a win, I believe). However, while Monika Hilder‘s gender studies work excellently as a resource for scholars as they focus on individual parts of Lewis’ fiction bookshelf, her project is best read together as a trilogy. And as such, the Hilder Trilogy is by far the most important resource in Lewis and Gender research. While Hilder offers an argument about what she calls C.S. Lewis’ “theological feminism,” it is really a gender study. Hilder (rightly, I believe) argues that C.S. Lewis’ fiction challenges and transforms traditional, classical images of the lone, muscular, aggressive masculine hero by presenting heroes and heroines who consistently and surprisingly embody what are traditionally feminine leadership traits. One of the best studies of its kind and deserving of the Mythopoeic award. You can find my long review essay in SEVEN.

Sharon Jebb-Smith, Writing God and the Self: Samuel Beckett and C.S. Lewis (2011)

Theologian Sharon Jebb’s under-appreciated dissertation is a careful and highly readable study of Beckett’s Three Novels and Lewis’ Till We Have Faces. Jebb’s deeply theological study is in conversation with ancient theologians (like Augustine and Teresa of Avila) and contemporary ones (like Charles Taylor and Rowan Williams), offering a cultural theology of the self. Beckett and Lewis are an unusual pairing but a fruitful one. In particular, her analysis of God-knowledge and self-knowledge in Lewis is a significant discovery–even if the study itself is fairly narrow. While this is the oldest volume in our list, I want to mention it because it is too often missed by students and scholars of Lewis and should be on every Till We have Faces bibliography.

William O’Flaherty, C.S. Lewis Goes to Hell (2016) and The Misquotable C.S. Lewis (2018)

Again, a bit of a cheat here. Not only am I a close friend of William’s (and thus not terribly objective), and not only are these popular-level studies rather than academic books, but you are getting a two-for-one. Each of these volumes, though, is an accessible and easy-to-use resource book that, from time to time, I reach for as a scholar. William O’Flaherty‘s guide to The Screwtape Letters, C.S. Lewis Goes to Hell, is a handy resource for anyone who wants to study and teach Screwtape on their own. Moving out from a particular book study, The Misquotable C.S. Lewis tackles the phenomenon of internet memes, sermon quotations, and general Lewis wisdom that shows up but is really from another source. As Lewis is so terrifically quotable, his is also terribly misquotable. This book provides a study of 75 “Lewis” quotations that are really from all kinds of sources, including Ryan Seacrest, Anthony Hopkins, Max Lucado, Rick Warren, and, that handy comedian condemned to make Christmas movies for the rest of his life, Tim Allen. Cool and nerdy, listy and not terribly deep, these are two resource books worth a share of your library’s budget.

Jerry Root and friends, Splendour in the Dark C.S. Lewis’s Dymer in His Life and Work (2020)

Though it comes out of a tight, three-lecture series, Splendour in the Dark: C.S. Lewis’s Dymer in His Life and Work is a much fuller volume than most lectureship publications. The volume is actually authored by C.S. Lewis and Jerry Root, as we might imagine, but also by David Downing, Miho Nonaka, Jeffry C. Davis, Mark Lewis, and Walter Hansen. Together, they create a strong, single, forward-facing book for scholars and curious, engaged readers of Lewis’ works who want to explore Dymer more deeply. I quite loved this book as a resource for reading a book–Lewis’ first and only complete long narrative poem–that I am quite attracted to but find quite alien. You can find my longer description, review, and response here.

Charlie W. Starr, The Faun’s Bookshelf: C.S. Lewis on Why Myth Matters (2018)

While Charlie Starr is a friend and writing partner (see our co-written piece on “The Archangel Fragment” in Sehnsucht), I have no concerns about objectivity on this score. Charlie has become a leading C.S. Lewis scholar, particularly on Lewis’ handwriting and, the focus of this book, Lewis’ conception of “myth.” Moreover, I have been critical of Charlie’s work in the past (see here), while still consistently praising his perceptive eye (see the footnotes to my paper here) and publishing his work (see here). Most would not know, but Charlie’s doctoral dissertation, “The Triple Enigma: Fact, Truth, and Myth as the Key to C.S. Lewis’s Epistemological Thinking,” is a study of remarkable philosophical depth and literary capacity–and perhaps the longest study on a single passage in Lewis’ works! The Faun’s Bookshelf is a lighter touch but no less philosophically deft, as it sketches for interested readers Lewis’ multi-level fascination with myth–from being a lover a mythology to his work as a literary critic, Christian public thinker, and the maker of one the 20th-century’s great myths, The Chronicles of Narnia. As we might expect, from Charlie, beyond a study of “meaning” in Lewis, we also have a number of intriguing close readings of things that we might normally pass over–including the book titles on Tumnus’ bookshelf. While this study may lack some of the heft that a Mythopoeic Award nomination might require, and though I would quibble at points, as a literary resource it is critical, accessible, and enjoyable to read. And here is a great interview with Charlie and some of the great folks at the Wade centre.

Michael Ward, The Narnia Code: C.S. Lewis and the Secret of the Seven Heavens (2010)

Again, this is a bit of a cheat as Dr. Michael Ward’s Planet Narnia won the Mythopoeic Award. However, as I think Ward’s project is the most important resource for reading Narnia that has emerged in the new century, it is worth noting this popular-level version of the argument. While one might argue with parts of Ward’s thesis–and I think I am one of Ward’s most vocal criticsPlanet Narnia is a great book for providing close readings of Lewis’ greatest works in a literary way that invites us into a deeper understanding of the books behind the Narnian chronicles. For those who want that invitation to reading but in a much more accessible form, The Narnia Code works as a popular version of the Planet Narnia for readers not just of different education levels but also of different ages. My son read this book in middle school and was able to speak knowledgably about different ways to read the Chronicles.

Kyoko Yuasa, C.S. Lewis and Christian Postmodernism: Word, Image, and Beyond (2016)

This study is one of a kind–and not surprise, and Kyoko Yuasa is, herself, a surprising scholar. I first heard her work as a scholarly consideration of humour in Lewis, where she suggested certain unusual threads that connected to Lewis and humour. C.S. Lewis and Christian Postmodernism: Word, Image, and Beyond is a rewriting of Yuasa’s PhD thesis under the tutelage of the late Bruce Edwards. Intriguingly, Yuasa plays with postmodernist literary approaches, correctly identifying Lewis as an antimodernist and then recasting him as a Christian postmodernist translating the gospel for contemporary readers. This might seem counter-intuitive to some, and I wish there was a stronger scholarly response to this book, but Yuasa argues that Lewis’ fictional works have ambiguous borders between nonfiction and fiction, as we see in postmodernist literature. However, while postmodernist literature uses micronarratives to deconstruct metanarratives, Lewis’ fiction uses micronarratives to express the Great Story that transcends human understanding. Yuasa’s work is essential for literary approaches to Lewis. Indeed, the Pickwick series includes a number of key texts for study, including Sharon Jebb-Smith’s work noted above, as well as P.H. Brazier’s unusual and thoughtful series on Lewis and theology, Jerry Root’s C.S. Lewis and a Problem of Evil, and a number of studies I have not read yet (as well as quite a number of Wipf & Stock Lewis studies reprints and small print publications).

Thanks for reading these mini-reviews. If you have literary studies from 2011-2020 that you think I am missing, let me know. Next week will include some “C.S. Lewis Reception Studies.” You can see the three articles composed of a dozen reasons why I think that Lewis scholarship (as a whole) is not as strong as Tolkien scholarship (as a whole):

I followed that up by editing a piece by Connor Salter (see “Lewis and Tolkien among American Evangelicals“), and Connor did a second interesting, though less connected piece: “The Once and Forgotten T.H. White: Lessons from Obscurity.” I also made a resource pack with the hope of transforming readers into better scholars (if they want to make their field stronger: “5 Ways to Find Open Source Academic Research on C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and the Inklings.”

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A Life of C.S. Lewis in 20 Minutes: Videos, Timelines, and Resource Articles (Throwback Thursday)

At A Pilgrim in Narnia, we have an occasional feature called “Throwback Thursday.” By raiding either my own blog-hoard or someone else’s, I find a blog post from the past 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 returning to the story of C.S. Lewis’s life. I suppose I am always returning there. I find it compelling to think about his fiction in tandem with his work and letters and experiences. My most recent article was, in a sense, retelling the story of an aspect of Lewis’ life–his relationship with T.S. Eliot’s poetry and public works–with a note from J.R.R. Tolkien about the person of Lewis that we might not know about from his own autobiography or letters. As a couple of “timeline” posts and other biography articles continue to be popular, I thought I would bring them together for today’s Throwback Thursday feature.

Whenever I have done talks and fireside chats about C.S. Lewis’ life, it usually takes me an hour or so to capture an outline of the live that Lewis lived. A recent lecture where I walked through Lewis’ life using his own words–his letters, diaries, prefaces, autobiographical notes, and his memoirs–took 100 minutes. As someone who lived a rich life, writing book after book that changed the way we think … there just always seems a lot to say.

However, what about an introduction for those who are new to Lewis’ works or just want a little background to the person who wrote the Narnian chronicles they love or who inspired them to study Milton or Dante in new ways? My challenge, then, was to create a 20-minute version of this life, one that gives an outline of the whole without losing Lewis’ large personality.

To create the kind of focus I wanted, I made a timeline. As I did with my previous “Timeline of C.S. Lewis’ Major Talks,” I used JBS Timeline’s app to capture key moments in Lewis’ life that would allow us about 20 minutes of conversation.

As you can imagine, there are challenges in selecting out just a few key moments that capture Lewis’ life for readers and students–even when covering just the major events! However, it is a visually tight presentation. Unfortunately, JBS Timeline is not yet embeddable in WordPress, but you can click here to get “A Life of C.S. Lewis Timeline.”

I then used this timeline to create a video talk, and I think it worked pretty well! You can click here to see the entire 20-minute lecture.

This video and timeline are part of a series of C.S. Lewis biography resources here at A Pilgrim in Narnia. For example, you can check out my “5 Biographies of CS Lewis for 5 Seasons: A 10 Minute Book Talk“:

In a recent series on Lewis studies, I went further into some of the more recent biographies with my piece, “Good C.S. Lewis Studies Books That Did Not Win the Mythopoeic Award: Part 2: C.S. Lewis Biographies,” which includes another 6 biographical resources that might interest you–most of them fairly accessible. And you should check out my “5 Affordable Ways to Purchase Digital Books By and About C.S. Lewis” and “5 Ways to Find Open Source Academic Research on C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and the Inklings” posts. It is also important to think of the work of Walter Hooper, who I call in this legacy piece, “C.S. Lewis’ Better Than Boswell.”

What follows are some other blog posts and articles that I have written about C.S. Lewis’ life.

I always love when Lewis shares his autobiography accidentally. He does this all the time in his nearly four thousand published letters, but also in prefaces and dust-jacket descriptions. Because C.S. Lewis keeps telling his own story (as I argue in this piece), here are a few resources that come to accidentally, as it were:

From time to time, I have blogged about the critical turns in C.S. Lewis’ life. Here are some of those articles:

As you can see from this list, I believe that Lewis’ imaginative and literary awakenings are critical parts of his life story. You can see these outlined in “The Periods of C.S. Lewis’ Literary Life.” Among these moments are the tributes and encouragement of Lewis’ friends and students. Here are some examples:

Finally, by far my most popular C.S. Lewis video is my Lecture, “A Grief Observed, with C.S. Lewis.” It is a little less about biography and more about Lewis’ reflection on his experiences of loss and grief, but I think it is still a valuable resource.

https://cdn.knightlab.com/libs/timeline3/latest/embed/index.html?source=1XhJGQzzKYREsUysyRzUEpsHenmrvsgQrT4_zIZ9dq8Q&font=Default&lang=en&initial_zoom=2&height=600

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Great and Little Men: J.R.R. Tolkien’s Letter about C.S. Lewis and T.S. Eliot

For much of the last week, I have been fighting through the relationship between C.S. Lewis and T.S. Eliot relationship. In my 2015 post about Eliot’s striking lyrical poem, “…In the Vacant Places,” I was more than a bit optimistic when I said that “C.S. was a slow convert to T.S. Eliot’s poetry”–and I have been since challenged on that point. So I have taken time to go carefully through all the available materials.

My understanding of the story is that a young Lewis, working out his vocation as a poet and sharpening his critical mind, deeply disliked Eliot’s poetry as soon as he encountered it. Steeped as he was in the great classical traditions of the West, and revelling in romances and medieval poetry, Lewis saw Eliot’s modernist innovations of metre, atmosphere, and imagery–both poetic diction and content–as representational of culture in imaginative decay.

Later, when Lewis is working as a professional critic and literary historian, he disagreed with a number of critics, including E.M.W. Tillyard, I.A. Richards, F.R. Leavis, T.S. Eliot himself, and other–critics connected with Cambridge, theoretical movements like “the New Criticism” and “Practical Criticism,” modernist movements like the Bloomsbury Set, and trend-setting journals like Criterion and Scrutiny. As Eliot was a gatekeeper, Lewis needed to deal with Eliot and usually did so politely, even submitting an article to Criterion, which Eliot ultimately rejected. You can see threads of Lewis’ resistance to these movements in much of his longer literary critical articles, in lit theory books like The Personal Heresy and An Experiment in Criticism, and in his literary books such as A Preface to Paradise Lost, where he takes on Tillyard and Eliot directly. Indeed, the whole of Lewis’ career as a literary scholar is a moral resistance to these movements–and Lewis saw Eliot as a leader within these movements, and sometimes as a symbol of them.

Professionally speaking, Lewis was usually polite and firm when challenging Eliot in most of his literary criticism and theory. Sometimes the challenge is a bit more jovial, though there are a couple of moments of more pointed or heated criticism. Lewis was far more profuse in blame in his letters, where there seems to be a personal animosity toward Eliot–at least toward Eliot as a symbol. Twice, however, Lewis had a more personal opportunity to rethink his position and make a connection with another leading Anglican public intellectual.

The first of these was through Charles Williams, who was a close friend of both Eliot and Lewis. Indeed, Eliot and Lewis each described Williams in striking terms, admitting to Williams’ charismatic appeal and value as a poet and critic. Williams tried once, just a few months before he died, to bridge the divide between Eliot and Lewis. Just months before Charles Williams died, he arranged a meeting between Eliot, Lewis, and another Inkling, Fr Gervase Mathew, at the Mitre Hotel in Oxford. It was not a success.

After Williams’ death, Lewis worked on a volume of essays in his honour. Eliot agreed to contribute to the edited Williams volume, and Lewis’ letters were polite and functional. Eliot, terrible at deadlines, could not contribute even a poem. Lewis was disappointed, for Eliot would have heightened the entire project in the public eye (though it is a book that continues to sell because of Tolkien’s famous “On Fairy-stories” essay more than anything that Lewis did or Eliot could have done).

Although slighting references to Eliot are most focussed on the 1930s until the early 40s, Lewis continued to critique Eliot’s poetry and critical approach until late in life, when a second moment of connection emerged. In an intriguing twist, Lewis’ Reflection on the Psalms led to an invitation to work with the Committee to Revise the Psalter, which in turn led to a friendship with Eliot. As I discuss in this article, the committee began by meeting at Lambeth Palace in January 1959, and the group of scholars, theologians, pastors, and poets worked fastidiously towards a publication in 1963, including several day-long and even three-day conferences. Eliot and Lewis, despite their differing perspectives about the very essence of poetry and many critical aspects of Anglican faith, became friends in the process of translation/adaptation of the Psalter. The letters of 1959 and the early 1960s are personal, sometimes jocular, and usually brief, where Lewis writes to “My Dear Eliot” about lunches together, the committee, and other events of notice.

Though their late friendship was never terribly deep, the story ends in a soft and touching way. Lewis’ one-time literary arch-nemesis, T.S. Eliot, in his role as publisher, was the first to recognize that A Grief Observed–Lewis’ pseudonymous memoir of grief following the death of Joy–was really from the literary scholar who had most vociferously attacked him in print, C.S. Lewis. Eliot praised the book and gave some advice that protected Lewis’ anonymity.

I doubt that Lewis ever came to appreciate Eliot’s poetry, which I always feel as a kind of loss. In surveying the material available, and even dipping into the biographies to see the various ways they interpret the entire affair, I also reread a letter by J.R.R. Tolkien that speaks to the Lewis-Eliot affair. One of Lewis’ students, George Bailey, had written a 1964 memorial article where he suggests that Lewis’ literary challenges to Eliot were fuelled by envy at Eliot’s success. Somehow, Tolkien read this piece and a scrap of his response is printed in The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien (letter #261, 30 August 1964 letter to Anne Barrett of the publisher, Houghton Mifflin).

As today is Aug 30th, someone on Facebook posted the letter as an anniversary salute, which made me want to share it with you. Besides addressing the charge of “envy”–such a claim is “a grotesque calumny,” Tolkien protests–it manages in Tolkien’s special style to give to Lewis a slighting comment or two while praising him in remarkable ways. Lewis, for Tolkien, was odd and sometimes irritating, unaffected, generous-minded, aware of prejudicial thinking although not always fully self-aware, easy in defeat, and a loyal and caring friend. Moreover, Tolkien believed Lewis to be a scholar worthy of a Cambridge Chair and, indeed, a “great man.” While Tolkien’s letter cannot tell us the full story of Lewis’ late-in-life thoughts about Eliot, it is delightful and worth reading for a taste of Tolkien and Lewis’ friendship.

C.S.L. of course had some oddities and could sometimes be irritating. He was after all and remained an Irishman of Ulster. But he did nothing for effect; he was not a professional clown, but a natural one, when a clown at all. He was generous-minded, on guard against all prejudices, though a few were too deep-rooted in his native background to be observed by him. That his literary opinions were ever dictated by envy (as in the case of T. S. Eliot) is a grotesque calumny. After all it is possible to dislike Eliot with some intensity even if one has no aspirations to poetic laurels oneself.

Well of course I could say more, but I must draw the line. Still I wish it could be forbidden that after a great man is dead, little men should scribble over him, who have not and must know they have not sufficient knowledge of his life and character to give them any key to the truth. Lewis was not ‘cut to the quick’ by his defeat in the election to the professorship of poetry: he knew quite well the cause. I remember that we had assembled soon after in our accustomed tavern and found C.S.L. sitting there, looking (and since he was no actor at all probably feeling) much at ease. ‘Fill up!’ he said, ‘and stop looking so glum. The only distressing thing about this affair is that my friends seem to be upset.’ And he did not ‘readily accept’ the chair in Cambridge. It was advertised, and he did not apply. Cambridge of course wanted him, but it took a lot of diplomacy before they got him. His friends thought it would be good for him: he was mortally tired, after nearly 30 years, of the Baileys of this world and even of the Duttons. It proved a good move, and until his health began too soon to fail it gave him a great deal of happiness.

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Ursula K. Le Guin’s Manifesto Against Genre Snobbery

One of our greatest speculative fiction writers, Ursula K. Le Guin, has never been one to turn down a fight. A genius in two of my favourite genres, science fiction and fantasy–especially planetary SciFi and magic-world fantasy–Le Guin has also left a legacy of well-placed words of power in various speeches, prefaces, and essays. In my Kindle edition of the short story collection, The Birthday of the World, there are some bonus resources, including an interview, advice to a young writer, and a fighting piece, “On Despising Genre,” that has one of my favourite opening lines ever, which I just had to tweet:

Well, yes. And Le Guin has no doubt been on the receiving end of the book industry’s pernicious habit of using phrases like “genre fiction writer,” “a popular author,” “just a fantasy writer,” and “surprisingly well-written for a science fiction novel” to reduce a writer of living books like Le Guin to a kind of literary side-street of questionable value. Genre designations for so many teachers, librarians, booksellers, and critics are not simply descriptions, but value judgements, as if knowing that something is “realistic fiction” means we know that is better than “romance.”

I agree that this is a pernicious trend. No matter how much I want to resist such balkanization of literatures, though, I am drawn into the phrase, “literary fiction.” I admit to unreasonable prejudices in my old piece, “My Secret Hierarchy of Writing,” Note that in my opening line I called Le Guin a “speculative fiction” writer. I think it is an excellent term for what she does, but I suspect that some of Margaret Atwood’s insistence on using the term in her essay collection, In Other Worlds, is because “science fiction”–also a good term for some of her work–has a toxic flavour on the tongues of the literati (of whom Atwood is a kind of royal figure). I have also subversively used “literary fiction” to describe C.S. Lewis’s Till We Have Faces, knowing what it evokes. But there is a cost to such language, and I continue to try to cleanse my soul of such nonsense.

This poignant piece by Le Guin is just such an antiseptic treatment. Le Guin tries to kill a number of literary cancers in this short article, but it is worth reading for the sheer force of imaginative will Le Guin uses to resist, as Lewis does in An Experiment in Criticism and elsewhere, the presumption that realism is of a different qualitative category than genre fiction. It is worth a read, so I share it here in full, with some changes in paragraphing to highlight some of Le Guin’s most potent moments.

On Despising Genre

Basically my attitude is that genre is A) an unpronounceable French word; B) a very useful descriptive tool; and C) a pernicious instrument of prejudice.

Division of fiction into genres is like all classification, useful — useful to readers who like fiction of a certain kind or about certain subjects and want to know where to find it in a bookstore or library; and useful to critics and students and Common Readers who have realized that not all fictions are written in the same way with the same aesthetic equipment.

Genre has no use at all as a value category and should never be used as such.

But the concept or category of genre is used to evaluate fiction unread. To sort out the real books — that is, realistic fiction — from the “subliterature” — that is, everything else — every other kind of fiction written in this century. Everything but realism, including the very oldest and most widespread forms of story such as fantasy, gets shoved into a ghetto. I mostly live in ghettos. My fiction-ghettos are kiddilit, YA, regional, historical, SF, fantasy. I write realism too, but that’s not a ghetto, that’s Lit City. Where the real people live. At least it was until a bunch of subversive South Americans came along and made this barrio called Magic Realism, which kind of shook up the vanilla suburbs and in fact may have actually breached some ghetto walls. But magic realism gets shelved with realism. Why?

Genre categories are confirmed and perpetuated by the shelving practices of bookstores. Here in Portland, our Powell’s Books subcategorizes right down to Sea Stories — Napoleonic Era. Our Multnomah County Library is less detailed and invidious in gentrification-by-shelving. It sets apart only four genres from fiction as a whole: mystery, SF, Western, and YA. In “New Books” there are several genre shelves such as Suspense and Romance, but if thrillers and romances outlive the New Book category they get shelved in Fiction. The science fiction section includes fantasies and horror novels, neither of which belong there; the attitude apparently is, “This is irresponsibly imaginative so it’s SF.”

Not only is this practice incredibly invidious, randomly including some genres with the Real Books and excluding others, but it’s also shamelessly inconsistent: the librarians admit that they use personal evaluation of the quality of the book in deciding where to shelve it.

Tolkien is famous, so Tolkien gets shelved with Realism. But almost no SF gets de-ghettoized this way, because few librarians read enough SF or fantasy or know enough about it to pick out the books of “genuine literary value” from the commercial schlock.

Commercial schlock is not limited to genre fiction — and so fiction of absolutely no literary merit at all, commercial junk realism, gets shelved with Austen and Brontë and Woolf, while SF and fantasy of real merit and real interest gets treated as junk by definition.

No wonder writers like Kurt Vonnegut deny strenuously that their SF is SF — no wonder fantasists try to crawl under the magic realism label. They want respect.

Segregated shelving helps addicts find their fix. But couldn’t its convenience to readers in libraries be replaced by really good lists for addicts? Lists describe and make accessible without evaluating. Our library here in Portland — Multnomah County Library — has a wonderful “readers’ advisory binder” at the desk at the Central Library branch, listing all the popular genres and others I never would have thought of, such as baseball novels. Thrillers are divided into Spy, Legal, Techno, and Apocalyptic. Romance has seven subcategories: Family Saga, Gothic, Historical, Light, Period, Suspense, and Regency. I looked in vain for Bodice-Rippers. My two favorite subgenres were Novels About Older Women and Younger Men, and Seriously Humorous Mysteries. If we have to have segregated shelving, then it should be consistent. It should not shelve the “good” authors with “literature” and the “popular” ones in the genre ghetto.

Who decided popular was not good and good was not popular?

Of course there’s a lot of clearly commercial genre fiction — most long-running series mysteries; most modern fantasy trilogies; a terribly high percentage of romance novels; all Louis L’Amour — junk food at worst, comfort food at best. Little nourishment, much grease. But as soon as you get above the McBooks level, who makes the call? Only somebody who really reads in that field, really knows that field, can do it. An expert.

The reputation of the publisher means little anymore: all big publishers are intensely commercial, and most are subsidiaries of corporations that have no interest whatever in literature. Their lists are controlled by Barnes & Noble and Borders; their books are principally chosen not by editors but by the accounting department. What blurbs mean depends on the integrity of the blurber. How useful are critics and reviewers as a guide to quality in genre fiction? Almost useless, unless you read critics who know the field. Almost all literary and academic reviewers are appallingly ignorant of genre fiction, don’t know how to read it, and pride themselves on their ignorance. Kirkus and the other review factories tend to be fairly knowledgeable about mysteries and thrillers, totally erratic about science fiction, and blankly ignorant of most other genres, unless a Patrick O’Brian comes along and they have to admit he exists.

Some authors, they say, “transcend genre.” They say that about me, and I know they mean well, but I do not understand what they mean. If a book gets called or shelved with “literature” because you think it transcends its genre, the implication is, it’s good because it’s more like realism. So it would be even better, more literary, if it was entirely realistic.

Moby-Dick, or Frankenstein, or The Time Machine, or The Baron in the Trees, or The Lord of the Rings, or A Hundred Years of Solitude, or The Man in the High Castle, or The Left Hand of Darkness, or The Handmaid’s Tale, or Carmen Dog, or The Dazzle of Day — would these books be better, be a “higher” form of literature, if all the events were mundane and all the characters were ordinary: if they were classifiable as realistic? Realism is not a standard of excellence in fiction. Realism is not an adequate definition of literature. To use it as such is to misread every kind of fiction except realism.

You can’t read Gulliver’s Travels the same way as you read War and Peace. That’s obvious to most critics and teachers — yet they try to read Tolkien the same way they read James Michener. No wonder they don’t get it!

Realism is a genre, just as fantasy is a genre or romance is a genre. It’s a recent one — much younger than either fantasy or romance. Though it’s a genre at which we in the West in the last couple of hundred years have excelled, there is no way in which it is superior to other genres — except in being more realistic. It is, accordingly, less imaginative, less mysterious, less romantic, less scientific, less magical, less Western, less thrilling, less. . .

As long as critics and the academy use realism as a single standard for the vast diversity of fictional modes, teachers will remain contemptuous of what most people read, ignorant of the particular beauties and devices of each genre, and incompetent to judge most fiction.

And libraries, by perpetuating shelving by genre, will perpetuate the bizarre and arbitrary limitation of literary fiction to one modern genre.

Why did I settle in the ghetto, or actually six or seven ghettos? Well, I knew what I was good at: telling stories, mostly, in a free range between realistic and imaginative fiction — including SF, fantasy, kiddilit, YA, historical, etc. All ghettos. And I had no intention of living in some fancy literary gated community just to get respect from the ignorant.

But I do value the respect of the interested and informed. And when I wrote SF, or fantasy, or for children, or for young adults, I got real criticism from people knowledgeable in that genre, and also heard directly from readers — which many novelists never do.

Genre and “popular” writers aren’t considered by their readers to be dead (an unfortunate side-effect of respectability). So, represented by an agent who was willing and able to sell work in any genre, and having some very broadminded editors, I could just sit around in Oregon and write. I had freedom. Why should I give that freedom up? What for? Well, I know what for, every time they give an award to another brand name novel, or some lady says to me,

“Oh, my son just loves your books — of course I don’t read Sci Fi.” And she stands there expecting me to say, “No, of course you don’t, you’re far too mature, intelligent, discerning, and, above all, tactful.”

Then I usually find out she thought I was Madeleine L’Engle, anyhow.

And the critics:

“If it’s SF it can’t be good; if it’s good it can’t be SF.”

And so they tell me that Left Hand of Darkness, The Handmaid’s Tale, and The Dazzle of Day aren’t SF. What ignorance. But, for getting on to forty years now I’ve published literary fiction in genres considered sub-literary and, though it’s getting harder and harder, I have gotten away with it. And I go on writing in both respectable and despised genres because I respect them all, rejoice in their differences, and reject only the prejudice and ignorance that dismisses any book, unread, as not worth reading.

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Marsha Daigle-Williamson’s Reflecting the Eternal and Dante in the Work of C.S. Lewis, with Thoughts about Intertextuality (Good C.S. Lewis Studies Books That Did Not Win the Mythopoeic Award Series Insert)

Intertextuality: The Books Inside the Books We Love to Read

I am very much interested in the books that sit behind the books we read, or the idea of “Intertextuality.” I have tackled this topic before (see the list at the bottom of the page), and my first long peer-reviewed article on C.S. Lewis was offering an intertextual theory of reading Lewis with Lewis (now a chapter in a book edited by Sørina Higgins, The Inklings and King Arthur, which won the Mythopoeic Scholarship Award in Inklings Studies). I spent years writing that chapter, “Mixed Metaphors and Hyperlinked Worlds: A Study of Intertextuality in C.S. Lewis’s Ransom Cycle,” particularly because I find it enriching to see the various layers in a story. Sometimes these stories-behind-the-stories are absolutely essential to understanding our literature: the Hebrew Bible is embedded in the New Testament and Shakespeare takes up the great stories of the West and most of my favourite TV shows make 80s pop culture references. While the story we are reading can work on one level, knowing the stories in the story deepens our experience of reading.

It doesn’t take long reading C.S. Lewis before we find ourselves tugged back to the things he’s read in the quest to discover more about the books we love. After all, what I argue is the most important resource for reading Narnia of our generation, Michael Ward’s Planet Narnia, is really a study of intertextuality. As the best intertextual studies do, Ward goes beyond simply analyzing the allusions and quotations of one text inside of another, but shows how an entire worldview emerges within tales set in an entirely different world. Ward’s query is the right one, I believe, even if I don’t agree with his thesis as a whole. One of the reasons that Narnia is even better for adults is because the magic of The Chronicles of Narnia for readers is that it becomes a richer, more immersive world the more we know of the stories in our Western tradition–and also, I believe, the more we are able to take Narnian lessons and apply to our everyday lives.

The Many Links of Lewis and Dante, and a Reading Tool by Marsha Daigle-Williamson

One of those critical authors of the shared past that Lewis keeps bringing into his work is Dante and his Divine Comedy, perhaps the most important Western book of the last 1500 years. As soon as we ask the question about Dante in Lewis’ work, we can begin to see the links. Three of Lewis’ essays in Studies in Medieval and Renaissance Literature are about Dante, spanning more than twenty-five years of work as a critic. He also discussed Dante in his “Panegyric for Dorothy L. Sayers”—but these are the obvious ones. Most of his work in medieval literature circles around to Dante at some time or another, and Lewis even resorts to the term “Dantesque” at one point. When talking about Milton or Donne or Science Fiction, Lewis finds himself going back to Dante.

Dante was for Lewis the West’s master poet with a genius science fiction mind who wrote the most theologically rich and integrated work of the late Middle Ages. As a literary historian of Medieval and Renaissance literature, Dante was—and remains for researchers after Lewis—an almost unmatched figure.

The most critical tool for reading Dante in and with C.S. Lewis so far is the 2015 volume, Reflecting the Eternal: Dante’s Divine Comedy in the Novels of C.S. Lewis by Dr. Marsha Daigle-Williamson. In this late-career major rewriting of her doctoral dissertation, Daigle-Williamson invites readers to imagine the many obvious and subtle links between Dante’s classic text and C.S. Lewis’ fiction.

A couple of years ago, I published a review essay of Reflecting the Eternal in VII: Journal of the Marion E. Wade Center, which you can find free here. I had always wanted to come back to this long, positive and critical review, and do a bit more thinking about Intertextuality. I heard in the fall that Marsha had passed away. Besides providing this generative study, she was a generous scholar in the way she encouraged others to read well. I hope that in coming back to this book I can provoke some thinking about how we read the books inside of other books and encourage you to look into Marsha Daigle-Williamson’s research.

Because, ultimately, I think that Marsha is right about the many Dante links in Lewis’ writing. In what ways do we find Dante making his way into Lewis’ fiction? The Great Divorce immediately springs to mind as the story most obviously influenced by The Divine Comedy, with its heaven and hell geography and purgatorial principle. The Silver Chair, too, has resonances of Dante’s narrative and sense of space. The Last Battle is about heaven, The Screwtape Letters is about hell, and Till We Have Faces includes a purgatorial last judgement netherworld. As soon as we ask the question we can see a number of hyperlinks back to Dante from Lewis.

In Reflecting the Eternal, Marsha Daigle-Williamson has most fully answered the question of Dante’s influence upon Lewis’ fiction. In a strong, detailed, book-by-book analysis, Daigle-Williamson gathers together the reading data of each of Lewis’ published long-form fiction works, making every possible link back to The Divine Comedy. So let’s take a look at what she has done before pressing in on her approach a bit.

Description and Evaluation of the Text of Reflecting the Eternal

Reflecting the Eternal takes each of Lewis’ works of published fiction in chronological order, covering Narnia in a single chapter and choosing not to treat Lewis’ poetry or any of his incomplete, posthumously published work. The chapters are each similarly organized, including:

  • a two- to four-page summary of Lewis’ work;
  • a discussion of that work’s fictional world in conversation with Dante’s imaginative universe;
  • a discussion of the journey of the main character(s) and how that pilgrimage has a parallel in The Divine Comedy;
  • a consideration of the characters (or objects) in Lewis’ work that fulfill the role of Beatrice to his protagonists; and
  • a very brief conclusion.

Though a dense, exegetical, book-by-book detailing of a theme rarely makes good reading—even if it is an ideal way to approach research—the unique features in each chapter provide a great deal of interest.

The most substantial section of each chapter, the journey section, is a line-by-line treatment of all the pertinent quotations, allusions, and echoes of Dante in Lewis’ fiction. Though it might be easiest to get bogged down in this section, this is where many of the “aha!” moments are for me as a reader–and where I will return again and again, using the text as a reader’s guide. The connections to the Ransom Cycle material, for example, provide layer after layer of new meaning for the reader. I was slowly won over to the connection between Dante and The Voyage of the Dawn Treader: in the end, Daigle-Williamson jolted me out of my Homerian rut to provide a whole new way of reading Lewis’ Narnian aquatic travelogue. The result, for me, was not just to see Dante in The Dawn Treader, but to see how all the travel stories are in each other and then find their way into Narnia as well.

Partly because of the rigour of her analysis and the convincing nature of her thesis, there are moments that Daigle-Williamson pushes her conclusions too far. I did not find the “cardinal sin” analysis in Ransom to be consistent and strong as a whole. Orual’s “blasphemy” in Till We Have Faces is a critical feature of the structure of the book and central to the narrative, so I am not sure the Dantean parallels are exact. Blasphemy is an open-and-shut case for Dante, but in Till We Have Faces it is a more nuanced question of self-delusion and revelation. Is it not right of Orual to resist the gods that she has been presented with—dim and shadowy versions of the true God she cannot see? It is true that her self-imposed and learned blindness limits her vision of divinity, but her complaint against the gods—her blasphemy—ultimately leads her to see the God beyond gods (182-7). Orual’s heresy is reformation, read rightly.

Moreover, as I will argue below, and as Daigle-Williams often intimates in ways that get lost in the data analysis, the critical parallels between Till We Have Faces and the Comedy are textural, not just textual.

Where the treatment of the named sins in Dante and Till We Have Faces might have been stretched, her work on The Great Divorce shows the intimate architectural unity between Lewis’ and Dante’s dreams of the afterlife. While I was not won over by her argument that the George MacDonald character was a “detailed composite of five characters from The Divine Comedy” (137), her inquiry bears interesting fruit and demonstrates well the “continuous, multilayered echoes of Dante’s poem” (137). The division of the ten main narratives of The Great Divorce into two tables—five stories of perverted love and five stories of disordered love—has merit, and works helpfully for teaching the theological novella. Daigle-Williamson’s ultimate argument is that Lewis is tapping in not to Dante’s discussion of the seven cardinal sins, but to his underlying logic of love behind the sins. It is a sophisticated argument worthy of consideration, but it also helps any reader to see Lewis’ stories more in a more intimate way.

Links Beyond the Norm

Added to the unsurpassed detailed analysis of Lewis’ fiction, it is this feature of helping us as readers see the deeper resonances of Dante in Lewis where Reflecting the Eternal is of most critical benefit. Again and again, I was lifted to a new understanding of the rich resource that Dante was to Lewis (and other authors) as Marsha Daigle-Williamson buoyed my understanding of both authors and their fictional worlds much deeper than a word-search or quotation guide could provide.

For example, the question of a Beatrician (or Virgilian) character in each of Lewis’ works is a fascinating one. If not pressed too far, Daigle-Williamson does it very well. Not a slave to her outline, she appropriately splits her chapter on That Hideous Strength into two paths: that of Jane Studdock on the road to St. Anne’s, and that of Mark Studdock on his way into Belbury. As noted by Joe Christopher—a deeply productive Lewis scholar, sometime reader of this blog, and one of Daigle-Williamson’s most important dialogue partners—Ransom is a Beatrician character for Jane. The reader can parallel Jane’s encounter with Ransom in the study with Dante’s encounter with Beatrice in the garden—and consequently see that encounter with Beatrice emerge again and again in Lewis’ fiction. In a dramatic reversal worthy of more critical work, Jane emerges as the Beatrice for Mark, both theologically and as the figural centre of his conversion.

Thus, looking not just for quotes and ideas of Dante in Lewis but looking also for that relational element, someone like Beatrice and Virgil works very well.

Indeed, I wish that Daigle-Williamson went further along this path. My “Mixed Metaphors” chapter argues that Lewis doesn’t just bring references in from other texts, but entire worlds. Unfortunately, few critics are even considering that world-shaping and imaginative construct as something to consider in intertextuality. Echoes are not always verbal, but might be imagistic, spatial, rhythmic, structural, or doctrinal. So I would have liked to see more focus on the spatial geography and speculative cosmography of each text. Fortunately, Daigle-Williamson does take time to consider more than just the verbal and literary echoes, allusions, and quotations that are the focus of her work.

This article is really about using a great study in a good book and seeing how thinking about “intertextuality” in more complex ways can open up the reading for us, making the study of stories inside other stories more dynamic and rewarding.

A Critique of Reflecting the Eternal

Because Reflecting the Eternal: Dante’s Divine Comedy in the Novels of C.S. Lewis was such a rich resource, excellently conceived and carefully researched, I have offered a substantial critique in some related ways. I won’t repeat some of my quibbles about interpretation or gaps in Reflecting the Eternal; you can read about these in the full review here (and stronger Dante scholars will bring the question alive far better than I can).

I will note, in terms of approach, an interesting problem to “data-driven” studies like this one. After highlighting key points in the central journey section of each chapter, Daigle-Williamson then lays out the pertinent Dantean parallels line-by-line through the text. This is precisely how I would have written the book. While I would dearly love to see the spreadsheet behind the volume, there is a weakness to the approach that made me rewrite the entire book I have been working on. As the intertextual data isn’t weighted, exceptionally strong links are set next to weaker ones with little differentiation in the paragraph. Part of Daigle-Williamson’s thesis is that Lewis is intentionally and carefully shaping his intertextual use of Dante. A vast amount of data—and there really is a large number of links—will not demonstrate this thesis more than the correct data, and I found myself as a reader putting √ and X marks on the page next to stronger and weaker examples.

A more nuanced approach—and one that would increase readability—would be to admit the thinner links but use the weight of the stronger links to carry the argument. When I talked to Marsha about this at a conference, she seemed to enjoy rethinking about writing in that way. Certainly, when she has presented material in talks, she has chosen the stronger links. She also reminded me that, fresh as I found he material, the book was an older project rewritten for readers increasingly interested in medieval studies about C.S. Lewis.

Rethinking Eternal Reflections

In contemporary literary criticism, there is perhaps an over-reliance upon literary theory and approaches that can sometimes be faddish or cause the text at issue to disappear. However, when we use literary tools, we are always doing something–whether we are intentional about that or not. If we consider the roots of language, the relationship of the text to the author or reader, the kinds of political questions before and in and after the text, or the way “us” and “them” work in the story–the kinds of questions we are always asking of great stories and poems–we are doing theory. I have argued that in Lewis studies there is not always sufficient attention to theory, which is partly a reaction against a lot of scholarly nonsense that we encounter every day as critics. In the case of Reflecting the Eternal, inattention to theory means a loss of the potential impact of a great book.

In particular, how do books use other books? “Intertextual Theory” is simply a way of answering that question.

Marsha Daigle-Williamson’s dialogue with secondary sources is superb. Missing from her bibliography, however, is a grounding in intertextual theory. The resources for studying intertextuality are rich, from Gérard Genette, Roland Barthes, and Julia Kristeva of the 1960s, to later critics such as Harold Bloom, Umberto Eco, and John Hollander. While complete expertise in the field is unnecessary, knowledge of a survey like Graham Allen’s Intertextuality (2008) would show the potential that some grounding in theory could give.

For example, Daigle-Williamson is great at recognizing that Dante’s links in Lewis are multilayered, appearing in many forms beyond allusion and quotation. In the way she presents her findings, however, she has an unnecessarily linear appreciation of the texts behind Lewis’s text. Though careful readers know it is more complex, Daigle-Williamson’s approach ends up looking like so many others who talk about intertextuality in very linear ways:

However, there are many possible text relationships. We can imagine, as Marsha Daigle-Williamson has done, Dante taken up by Lewis when he is writing his 20th-century fantasy and science fiction. However, isn’t it the case that Lewis is working as a professional critic and historian, so he uses Dante, talks about him, teaches him, chats with friends about him, and so on. Lewis has infused Dante into his life in myriad ways. While that’s a complex set of interrelations, here is how we might visualize a simplified view of Dante taken up by Lewis as a critic and then used in fiction:

And indeed, does Lewis use Dante differently as a critic than as an imaginative writer? It is worth thinking about what that might look like–not just visually, but in the way that we read as readers.

But even as we create these overly simple cartoons of Lewis’ reading to capture a more complex reality, we must remember that Lewis’ conversation partners are broader than his own generation. As Lewis was a historian of Medieval and Renaissance literature, and deeply influenced by Modern writers like Dr. Johnson, George MacDonald, William Morris, and Charles Williams, we have to recognize that Lewis receives Dante through various kinds of writers and thinkers:

Thus, it matters to think not just about Dante in Lewis, but Shakespeare’s Dante in Lewis, or Milton struggling with and against Dante in Lewis, or Williams doing whatever it is Williams does with Dante in Descent into Hell in Lewis. Do you see the imaginative possibilities?

And just as the readers of Dante since Dante are part of a complex of conversation partners that make up Lewis’ idea of Dante, that must include Dante scholarship (up to Lewis’ time), and other resources, like mythologies, biblical materials, and the like:

There could be a lot of in-flow tabs there. Still, even if we use our visual imaginations, we are being too linear, for Dante himself is part of that cluster of mythological, classical, medieval, and biblical ideas and images that come to Lewis through Dante:

And if we can think of “Dante” as that complex of realities and Lewis receiving that in many ways, I wonder how often Lewis was working with Dante with his Bible open or talking through a theological concept over a pint or while preparing a radio script. Indeed, how often might Lewis have been struggling with a theological or literary question and turns to Dante as a conversation partner:

And so on. These are not all the possible intertextual links and they are reduced to their simplest components. These idea maps, however, make clear that the project of using Dante—whether conscious or not—is far more nuanced and complex than we might at first think. There is a richness to that multilayered reality that I think could enhance Daigle-Williamson’s impact because she anticipates that complexity. And I think that this is a concept that needs more attention in Intertextual Theory.

Lewis and Intertextual Theory

Intriguingly, as we are thinking about Intertextual Theory, challenging it and reshaping, it is worth noting that C.S. Lewis himself is one of the important thinkers about intertextuality. This is an argument that I made in the Inklings and King Arthur volume edited by Sørina Higgins, in editing stages at about the time that Reflecting the Eternal was coming to print. Marsha Daigle-Williamson could not have predicted my argument, though it is frustrating that scholars of Intertextual Theory have not understood the ways that Lewis can help us think about intertextuality, and I would like Lewis scholars to be more attuned to what Lewis thinks is happening as texts move and live and have their being. I believe that, my work aside, Daigle-Williamson could have used Lewis as a critic to his own material more critically–though she does refer to Lewis’ work on Dante at various points.

Going beyond this one book to theories of intertextuality, I have argued in “Mixed Metaphors and Hyperlinked Worlds: A Study of Intertextuality in C.S. Lewis’s Ransom Cycle” that when Lewis gives an intertextual nod, he is doing something quite dynamic. For example, he makes quite subtle links to three other Inklings in That Hideous Strength. In noting Barfield’s “ancient unities” or Tolkien’s Númenor or Williams’ Logres, Lewis is creating something like a “hyperlink”–so that when we mentally “click” on the link, we find ourselves jumping out of the text back into some other place, just like clicking a hyperlink on this website will bring you to another article. In hyperlinking the idea, however, I argue that Lewis is not just going back to a quotation or even a single idea, but is bringing the entire world of thought or speculative universe into his story. It isn’t just that Tolkien’s Númenor sits in a book on the fictional shelves of the Manor at St. Anne’s library, but that, somehow, the world of That Hideous Strength is bound up with the Númenorean history, its culture and values and story. Barfield’s philosophy does not merely shape the ideas of Lewis’ dystopia, but infiltrates it–as does Williams’ concept of “Logres,” deeper than a single image or idea. All of these worlds of thought and story are drawn into Lewis’ own story, providing layers of meaning and experience to the characters and the readers.

In her introduction, Daigle-Williamson lays out critical foundational approaches to the book, arguing that Lewis takes his lead from medieval authors both structurally and theologically. I think she is precisely correct in this. Dante is chief among the authors that Lewis follows, and in delineating six kinds of intertextuality, she seems to want to include the echo of world-building that I am talking about here–the hyperlinking not just of quotations or allusions, but entire worlds. Rooting herself more deeply in Lewis’ own literary work and being clear about linear and dynamic relationships between texts could help her work be clearer. And there is one more way that I think that clarity could be both useful and interesting.

If I am correct about the dynamic ways that Lewis is working intertextually-informed as they are by his own thinking about reading–we might want to ask this question: To what degree was this intertextual layering intentional on Lewis’ part?

My larger review essay of Reflecting the Eternal goes into a detailed critique of this question. Marsha Daigle-Williamson writes as if Lewis intended each link he makes, that he designed his approaches, selected all of his allusions and quotations and mental links to other worlds, understanding what those links would do for the reader in his own fiction writing. And yet, she knows that Lewis is likely a more instinctive and instinctual writer, and deals with that question in her introduction:

How conscious and deliberate are these parallels to Dante on Lewis’s part? On several occasions in response to specific queries from readers, Lewis confirms that particular parallels with Dante in his novels are intentional. Otherwise, Lewis is silent. We can only wish that readers had asked him more questions. However, the sheer number of specific allusions and parallels are evidence, at the very least, that Dante’s poem was an integral part of Lewis’s thinking (6).

The paragraph concludes correctly, but must we narrow “thinking” to the conscious activity of making links between two authors and their respective text-worlds? Daigle-Williamson clearly views the process as an active, conscious one on Lewis’ part, concluding that,

“Once a specific genre was chosen [for his next piece of fiction], Lewis’s use of Dante was necessarily tailored to that genre” (205).

I would push back on this point for various reasons. Primarily, we don’t know all parts of Lewis’ writing process, but only the final product supplemented by a few letters and an occasional draft scrap in archives. In her footnote to the section I quoted, Daigle-Williamson refers to a caution that Michael Ward gives about the hidden nature of an author’s work, but reveals her hope that as time goes on, “more and more of Lewis’s literary strategies will be uncovered” (211). As a critic and writer and historian, I hope the same. But this fascination with scrying an obscured strategy can draw the reader away from the extraordinarily helpful analysis to the question of the credibility of the writing strategy thesis. In this case, there is simply not enough evidence to go far with Daigle-Williamson on the intentionality thesis.

Moreover, as we think of ourselves and our relationship with books, is not the process of intertextuality more dynamic than linear? True, we intentionally quote or echo an author at the dinner table, on social media, or in our writing. But have you not gone back to work that you have some distance from and discovered links that you never imagined? When we fully immerse ourselves in a text and an author as Lewis did of Dante and the period, we find literary accents slip into our speech and narrative perspectives begin to shift as the way we make connections or view the world takes on new forms. This intertextual relationship is subtle and sublime: the question of strategy and authorial intention, beyond its unavailability to us, is a different kind of question.

As biographers of Lewis, we want to keep asking the question, “What did Lewis know he was doing here?” As readers of his fiction, though, I don’t think we have to be limited in this way. There is so much richness that springs out of Lewis’ deeply referential stories. As they work on us emotionally, subconsciously, and in unseen ways, I think we need to give room for the instinctive element in Lewis as well.

If we flip the question from “Lewis’s use of Dante” (see p. 201) to “where Dante is in and behind Lewis’ fiction,” we avoid some of the limitations that a question of specific intention would require. In that latter question, Daigle-Williamson is a master, and we can agree with her that Dante is Lewis’ guide in the way that Virgil was Dante’s guide. This is an elegant argument. Distinguishing these things will highlight her very fine conclusion:

A reader can find many quotes from Dante in all of Lewis’s nonfiction, including his letters, but after his first novel, Lewis never again quotes Dante’s poem directly in his longer fiction. The Divine Comedy recedes from a kind of facile visibility to be woven into the fabric of Lewis’s stories in subtle, powerful ways (201-2).

Concluding Thoughts

Loving what I have received from Reflecting the Eternal, I hope that certain things will follow from Marsha Daigle-Williamson’s work (and my own provocations) here.

First, as C.S. Lewis’ poetry can enlighten his fiction and has value on its own, I hope that someone will do for Dante and Lewis’ prose what Daigle-Williamson did for his fiction. For example, in the second of Lewis’ “Five Sonnets,” we read:

                                                        but first
Down to the frozen centre, up the vast
Mountain of pain, from world to world, he passed.

Here we see a Dantean allusion where Dante’s spatial geography is echoed in the human experience of pain. What would a spatial reading of Lewis’ poetry look like? How does Lewis bring not just Dante’s words and images but his entire world into his poetry? I hope for a second volume subtitled Dante’s Divine Comedy in the Criticism and Poetry of C.S. Lewis is in the works–though, sadly, it will need to come from the hand of another scholar.

Second, C.S. Lewis read so much and so broadly that it would be impossible to trace his entire book journey. However, I hope that, out of the community of scholarship, this book might provoke other similar explorations of the various threads of Lewis’ ingrained intertextuality. What about Lewis’ other canonical friends, like Homer, Augustine, Boethius, Edmund Spenser, John Milton, Jane Austen, the Inklings, or the Arthuriad?

Finally, my interest in intertextuality is not anatomical–the links between texts–but how authors build their speculative universes and create meaning, how they invite other fictional worlds into their own, and how our reading experience is richer as a result. Still, I hope that we can be clearer in our methods as critics. Doing so, and seeing Lewis as a theoretician as well as critic and historian, will show Lewis’ value for helping us thinking about writing and reading (i.e., literary theory) in more effective and inviting ways.

Some Blog Posts on Intertextuality

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John Garth, Maximilian Hart, Kris Swank, and Myself on Ursula K. Le Guin, Language, Tolkien, and World-building (Friday Feature)

“Ursula Le Guin’s map of Earthsea, a primary piece of world-building by name-making” John Garth

Happy Friday everyone! I am preparing for the upcoming Signum University Ursula K. Le Guin course that I am precepting (for which there may be a spot or two open, and you can see a second invite here). Elbow-deep in Le Guin (right now I’m reading her Hainish Cycle stories of the 90s before I go back to Rocannon’s World), and chomping at the bit to reread Earthsea, one of my favourite series, I thought I would share a couple of Le Guin resources for lovers of her work, both connected to “language” with some connections back to Tolkien–but in strikingly different ways.

I hope you know about the Mythlore special issue on Le Guin, just published this summer (2021). Among the great articles, Prof. Kris Swank (of the Le Guin worldbuilder course) has written about “Ursula’s Bookshelf.” You can also check out my articles, “‘A Novelist’s Business is Lying’: A Farewell to Ursula K. Le Guin (1929-2018)” and “‘Inventing a Universe is a Complicated Business’: Ursula K. Le Guin’s Introduction to the Hainish Cycle.”

John Garth, “Ursula Le Guin, the language of Earthsea, and Tolkien

Always thoughtful, writerly historian John Garth had an article earlier this year on his website about Le Guin and language. While Le Guin has more fully worked out implications of her Hainish world and its names, the idea of language runs deeply through Earthsea. Garth asks whether there could be a tribute to Tolkien embedded in Le Guin’s classic fantasy novel, A Wizard of Earthsea. I was skeptical at first about Garth’s winsome answer, but found the article brought a number of things together for me. “Ursula Le Guin, the language of Earthsea, and Tolkien” is worth reading not just for the thought experiment but for what the experiment produces when it comes to constructed language invention.

Thesis Theater and Paper: Maximilian Hart, “Draconic Diction: Truth and Lies in Le Guin’s Old Speech” (Full Video and Full Paper Link)

I was pleased this summer to be the second reader for an exciting project by one of Signum University’s bright MA students. Beginning with curiosity about “Old Speech” in Ursula K. Le Guin‘s Earthsea series, under the supervision of Kris Swank, Maximilian Hart has pulled together a paper that draws on linguistic theory, Platonism, and Taoism in a conversation between Le Guin and the theories of language and story of the InklingsC.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and the oft-forgotten but ever-present Owen Barfield. And, best of all, there are dragons–and the question about whether dragons can deceive in Old Speech. If you enjoy Le Guin’s work, or if you are curious to see the Inklings as thinkers in writers in dialogue with a later speculative fiction writer, you can see the full video from Signum’s Youtube page below, and you can find the full paper here.

Maximilian Hart, “Draconic Diction: Truth and Lies in Le Guin’s Old Speech”

Thesis Abstract

Ursula K. Le Guin’s Earthsea series enters an ongoing dialogue about the nature of language; in it, she proposes a language spoken by dragons and wizards, “the Old Speech,” a language fundamentally unlike our human languages. It is a language in which it is impossible to lie, a language which is simultaneously descriptive and generative: to say the name of a thing is to have the thing come to be. This Old Speech is what the ancient poetic unity of language—to use Owen Barfield’s terms—might look like: a language in which the Tao, the underlying reality of a thing, is named in every word, a language in which every word is a narrative and true. However, dragons, not the titular, and ostensibly central, wizards, are the true poets of Earthsea; the dragons are the ones who see with a poet’s eye and who are actually capable of wielding the Old Speech in its ancient, unified, fully poetic sense, a sense which encompasses all shades of meaning and existence and narrative in one word. Le Guin’s Old Speech, then, can best be understood as a true language of Barfieldian ancient unity, and the dragons are not liars but poets practicing their art.

For the PDF of the paper, click here.

About the Presenter

Maximilian Hart is a high school English teacher and has been a student at Signum University since 2016. His academic focus is currently on studying the works of Ursula K. Le Guin and her approaches to language. When he’s not reading books for class or his own high school students’ papers, he’s spending time with his wife and children or pretending to improve at chess or woodworking.

About Signum Thesis Theaters

Each of our master’s students writes a thesis at the end of their degree program, exploring a topic of their choice. The Thesis Theater is their opportunity to present their research to a general audience, and answer questions. All are welcome to attend!

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Good C.S. Lewis Studies Books That Did Not Win the Mythopoeic Award: Part 2: C.S. Lewis Biographies

A couple of weeks ago I wrote that “Tolkien Studies Projects Sweep the Mythopoeic Scholarship Award Shortlist in Inklings Studies.” This was a double-edged post that congratulated the authors of editors of five great Tolkien books while noting that, once again, C.S. Lewis studies projects have been locked out of this prestigious award for Inklings Studies. Because I was writing to commend these strong Tolkien studies and urge authors and scholars to write greater Lewis books, I thought I would share some of the good and useful books of the last decade that did not get a Mythopoeic Award nomination.

Last week, I made the first post in this “Good C.S. Lewis Studies Books That Did Not Win the Mythopoeic Award” by talking about various good and excellent studies on C.S. Lewis on Theology, Philosophy, and Spiritual Life, which is the centre of my particular studies these days. Today, I want to focus on C.S. Lewis biographies. Indeed, the last study focussed primarily on Lewis to be nominated was Alistair E. McGrath’s C.S. Lewis–A Life: Eccentric Genius, Reluctant Prophet, published all the way back in 2013. Critical Lewis and Inklings biographies have been recognized by the Mythopoeic Awards, including winning books by Roger Lancelyn Green and Walter Hooper, Joe R. Christopher, George Sayer, and Philip and Carol Zaleski’s The Fellowship. Alan Jacobs nominated The Narnian is also, in my estimation, in this class. Indeed, Jacobs’ The Narnian is one of the best literary biographies I have read–as strong as Abigail Santamaria’s biography of Joy Davidman (which perhaps also deserved a win). I have included Sayer, McGrath, and Jacobs in my vlog, “5 C.S. Lewis Biographies for 5 Different Readings“:

Remember, I have warned you that I would cheat here and there, and if I am missing something crucial, let me know. Here are some more good, helpful, interesting, or excellent Lewis (and Lewis-related) biographies from the last decade that did not win the Mythopoeic award but that any student or committed reader of C.S. Lewis should read.

Devin Brown, A Life Observed: A Spiritual Biography of C.S. Lewis (2013)

Besides being a pretty generous mentor to emerging scholars and young readers, Devin Brown has been producing books about Lewis and his writing for some years. His 2013 biography, A Life Observed: A Spiritual Biography of C.S. Lewis (2013), provided precisely the element I was looking for as I began my PhD that year. Brown focuses on “Lewis’s spiritual journey and his search for the object of the mysterious longing he called Joy (always capitalized), a quest which he claimed was the central story of his life” (xi). What Brown adds to the many Lewis biographies of the period is the precise focus on questions of spiritual life, Christian development, discipleship, and Lewis’ relationship to the numinous, what he calls Sehnsucht or Joy. This book landed on one of my Top 5 lists and pairs well with Will Vaus’ The Hidden Story of Narnia: A Book-by-Book Guide to C.S. Lewis’ Spiritual Themes (2010), Lyle W. Dorsett’s oral history-based Seeking the Secret Place: The Spiritual Formation of C.S. Lewis (2004), and David C. Downing accessible and brilliant Into the Region of Awe: Mysticism in C.S. Lewis (2005).

Patti Callahan, Becoming Mrs. Lewis: The Improbable Love Story of Joy Davidman and C. S. Lewis (2018)

Patti Callahan turns from her career as a popular novelist to the study of Joy Davidman, American poet, literary convert, and ultimately “Mrs. Lewis,” late-of-life companion to C.S. Lewis. Callahan balances the historical work of people like Abigail Santamaria and uses some recently discovered love poems to C.S. Lewis to structure a novel about Joy’s life. It is a fictional retelling, so we should be aware of some of the conceits used to make the story flow. I am not someone who feels he can truly judge the biographical novel as a genre, so you can perhaps ignore me when I say there were many parts that I did not feel this was “Joy” for me. I still quite liked reading the novel as a novel. As a resource for Lewis studies, moreover, it provides a nice bedside table book for thinking about Lewis in new ways. Check out my resource post, “The Places of Joy Davidman and C.S. Lewis,” including podcasts, interviews, and a pretty cool timeline. You may also find this helpful: “Joy Davidman’s Conversion Story ‘The Longest Way Round’: Audio Narration and Doodle.”

James Como, C.S. Lewis: A Very Short Introduction (2020)

I was thrilled when I heard that New Yorker James Como was writing the “Very Short Introduction” volume for C.S. Lewis when someone showed me the text in a galley-proof form. I purchased Como’s bio of Lewis as soon as it hit the stories. Honestly, I was surprised this little volume was as good as it is. Not because of James Como, who has invested 50 years into reading C.S. Lewis well. But I have read about 20 of these Very Short introductions, and have looked at another dozen or so. Frankly, they are not all winners. Though they typically balance brevity and thoroughness, this one is peculiar for the strong voice of the text. Como writes in a lively style within a very understated series. Effectively, Como gives us a 120-page summary of Lewis’ life organized as a study of his texts, and thus evages the trap of providing us with merely a narrative timeline. Como’s choice pays off for a quick, thoughtful, and accessible introduction to Lewis’ life. There are even a few surprises and refreshing moments, particularly in his treatment of Till We Have Faces and Letters to Malcolm.

Joel D. Heck, From Atheism to Christianity: The Story of C.S. Lewis (2017)

Joel Heck has done what few scholars have done: Dr. Heck has spent the last number of years (at least a decade, but probably much longer) working on the minutiae of C.S. Lewis’ life, providing a list of the major events and activities of Lewis’ daily activities. Gleaned from letters, journals, biographies, historical references, manuscripts and other archival material, Heck has provided a 1,200+ page, 1,000,000+ word, text searchable resource of Lewis’ life, and a detailed bibliography of his 528 known publications (see here). From Atheism to Christianity is a readable biography focussing especially upon Lewis’ teen years–a time of loss, artistic development, friendship, and war–and his intellectual development in his 20s, up to the point of his conversion (1930-31). No one knows Lewis’ movements better in the period, though I would still encourage readers to reread David Downing’s Most Reluctant Covert (2002) and consider Norbert Feinendegen’s argument in “The Philosopher’s Progress: C.S. Lewis’ Intellectual Journey from Atheism to Theism” (2018). Also important are Norbert Feinendegen and Arend Smildeès edited piece, “The ‘Great War’ of Owen Barfield and C. S. Lewis edited by Norbert Feinendegen and Arend Smilde (Inklings Studies Supplements № 1 (2015)), and a Lionel Adey book that’s a bit older. I am pleased that Heck did not fall into the writing style of William Griffin, whose 1986 C.S. Lewis: The Authentic Voice = Clive Staples Lewis: A Dramatic Life, which reads like an FBI report of a person of interest. With Heck’s book, there is still a narrative. Combined with his resource page, scholars have what they need to work on their own.

Harry Lee Poe, Becoming C. S. Lewis (1898–1918): A Biography of Young Jack Lewis (2019)

I am still in the middle of this particular book and I am not sure that it yet warrants being included in the “good” pile. “Good” is a very high bar for me, frankly. Whether or not it is good, it is an important resource for Lewis researchers. The first of a trilogy of deep-dive, detailed biographies by a long-time Lewis reader, Hal Poe, covers Lewis’ formative years until the end of WWI. The second volume, The Making of C.S. Lewis: From Atheist to Apologist walks down the same road that David Downing and Joel Heck have done in focussing upon Lewis’ conversion–not to mention every other biographer. Not only does Poe boldly retread these same steps, but he largely ignores what scholars and biographers have said–though he will occasionally take on an argument by a biographer (Jacobs, McGrath, Sayer, Green & Hoopers), and there are a couple of mentions of Downing and Heck in volume 2, The Making of C. S. Lewis (1918-1945): From Atheist to Apologist (2021)–though I do not think he has taken into account Norbert Feinendegen’s argument, and do not know to what degree he has dialogued with Andrew Lazo and Alistair McGrath on their important conversion work.

The casting off of what everyone experts have written to focus on primary readings is wearisome to me, and the lack of scholarly substantiation of quite a number of his often interesting historical claims means that researchers cannot adequately respond. Unfortunately, thus far (halfway into the first biography), Poe’s biography also lacks the literary vivacity that the material warrants and that I know he is capable of. In this first biography, Poe is often plodding through the details of particular events, though he has mini-essays throughout where he pops out a trait or idea and shows Lewis’ mind and imagination in formation. For the researcher, though, there is one thing that make this first volume indispensable: Hal Poe provides the absolutely invaluable service of quoting broadly from the Lewis memoirs, compiled by Warren Lewis and available only in a couple of archives. Whatever merits the book may lack as a bedside table memoir, the first volume absolutely makes up for in providing scholars who cannot simply pop into the Wade or the Bodleian at will access to the Lewis Papers.

Abigail Santamaria, Joy: Poet, Seeker, and the Woman Who Captivated C. S. Lewis (2015)

When writing about Santamaria’s biography of Joy (see here), I admitted that I saw it as a model piece of work. It did not win the Mythopoeic Award, and though I think that the biography did not need “C.S. Lewis'” in the title (for Davidman’s life is rich and peculiar on its own), it is now a strong resource for Lewis studies. I know that Joy was artistic, brash, fierce, and relentless, but Santamaria helped me see that, at heart, she was also a poet and a romantic, finding herself in one misplaced love after another as she struggled through in her vocation as an artist, a thinker, a mother, and a partner. It is also true that Joy Davidman was the woman who captured C.S. Lewis’ heart. She is the person who inspired Lewis to write the book and radio talks entitled, The Four Loves. And when Joy died of cancer, we read of his great sorrow and loss in A Grief Observed. Santamaria helped me reconcile the various “Joy” figures in my mind, images I pulled together from Davidman’s poetry, letters, and writings, as well as Lewis biographies. I also exorcised or adapted other images, including challenging my Debra Winger-Joy Davidman mental mosaic, and having confidence to challenge some moments in some C.S. Lewis biographies that have never sat well with me. I don’t know that I have the final “Joy” in my mind, but this well-researched biography is the most compelling I have ever encountered. Abigail Santamaria’s stunning biography, Joy: Poet, Seeker, and the Woman Who Captivated C.S. Lewis, takes her meticulous research and providential discoveries, and combines these with careful editorial decisions, a responsible reading of lives and texts, and skillful prose,dupon the life sketches that came before.

Thanks for reading these mini-reviews. If you have biographies that you think I am missing, let me know. Next week will include “Literary Studies on C.S. Lewis,” followed by “C.S. Lewis Reception Studies” the following week, as well as a deeper dive into Marsha Daigle-Williamson’s Reflecting the Eternal: Dante’s Divine Comedy in the Novels of C.S. Lewis (2015) and some books from 2021 that may be essential reads in the year to come. You can see the three articles composed of a dozen reasons why I think that Lewis scholarship (as a whole) is not as strong as Tolkien scholarship (as a whole):

I followed that up by editing a piece by Connor Salter (see “Lewis and Tolkien among American Evangelicals“), and Connor did a second interesting, though less connected piece: “The Once and Forgotten T.H. White: Lessons from Obscurity.” I also made a resource pack with the hope of transforming readers into better scholars (if they want to make their field stronger: “5 Ways to Find Open Source Academic Research on C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and the Inklings.”

Posted in Lewis Biography, News & Links, Reviews | Tagged , , , , , , | 20 Comments

Thesis Theater: Maximilian Hart, “Draconic Diction: Truth and Lies in Le Guin’s Old Speech” (Mon, Aug 16, 6pm Eastern)

I was pleased this summer to be the second reader for an exciting project by one of Signum University’s bright MA students. Beginning with curiosity about “Old Speech” in Ursula K. Le Guin‘s Earthsea series, Maximilian Hart has pulled together a paper that draws on linguistic theory, Platonism, and Taoism in a conversation between Le Guin and the theories of language and story of the InklingsC.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and the oft-forgotten but ever-present Owen Barfield. And, best of all, there are dragons–and the question about whether dragons can deceive in Old Speech. If you enjoy Le Guin’s work, or if you are curious to see the Inklings as thinkers in writers in dialogue with a later speculative fiction writer, I would encourage you to join this free, one-hour, online event. And in case you missed it, there may be a spot or two open in the brand new Le Guin course that I am precepting for, with lectures by Kris Swank (Max’s supervisor).

Thesis Theater: Maximilian Hart, “Draconic Diction: Truth and Lies in Le Guin’s Old Speech” (Mon, Aug 16, 6pm Eastern)

Signum master’s student Maximilian Hart will present his thesis “Draconic Diction: Truth and Lies in Le Guin’s Old Speech” and respond to questions from the audience in an interactive Thesis Theater. The discussion will be facilitated by Maximilian’s thesis supervisor, Kris Swank.

Thesis Abstract

Ursula K. Le Guin’s Earthsea series enters an ongoing dialogue about the nature of language; in it, she proposes a language spoken by dragons and wizards, “the Old Speech,” a language fundamentally unlike our human languages. It is a language in which it is impossible to lie, a language which is simultaneously descriptive and generative: to say the name of a thing is to have the thing come to be. This Old Speech is what the ancient poetic unity of language—to use Owen Barfield’s terms—might look like: a language in which the Tao, the underlying reality of a thing, is named in every word, a language in which every word is a narrative and true. However, dragons, not the titular, and ostensibly central, wizards, are the true poets of Earthsea; the dragons are the ones who see with a poet’s eye and who are actually capable of wielding the Old Speech in its ancient, unified, fully poetic sense, a sense which encompasses all shades of meaning and existence and narrative in one word. Le Guin’s Old Speech, then, can best be understood as a true language of Barfieldian ancient unity, and the dragons are not liars but poets practicing their art.

About the Presenter

Maximilian Hart is a high school English teacher and has been a student at Signum University since 2016. His academic focus is currently on studying the works of Ursula K. Le Guin and her approaches to language. When he’s not reading books for class or his own high school students’ papers, he’s spending time with his wife and children or pretending to improve at chess or woodworking.

About Signum Thesis Theaters

Each of our master’s students writes a thesis at the end of their degree program, exploring a topic of their choice. The Thesis Theater is their opportunity to present their research to a general audience, and answer questions. All are welcome to attend!

Click Here to sign up for this free, online event.

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“The Once and Forgotten T.H. White: Lessons from Obscurity” by G. Connor Salter

Terence Hanbury White was one of the founding fathers of fantasy in the twentieth century, producing nearly twenty-five novels, including the beloved modern Arthurian retelling, The Once and Future King. Still, much of T.H. White’s life remains a mystery and there has been little scholarship on his work. This gap stands in contrast to the Inklings, where, especially in the case of J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, there is a large and robust field of scholarly works. While White’s Arthuriad has not invited scholars and biographers in the way that Lewis’ Narniad and Tolkien’s Middle-earth has done — and despite the fact that he does not have seem to have met the Inklings in person — T.H. White’s life intersected with the Inklings in intriguing ways.

Born in 1906 – 8 years after C.S. Lewis – White died in 1964, outliving Lewis by less than six months. Like Lewis, he disliked his given name – White’s friends called him Tim, Lewis’ friends called him Jack. Like Lewis, his childhood included traumatic English boarding school experiences and family tragedy – White’s parents separated when he was young, and in a 1939 journal entry he compared his manipulative mother to an incubus. At least two Inklings knew his work: Tolkien and Lewis both had copies of The Sword in the Stone,  and while Lewis disparaged it in a 1940 letter, seven years later he wrote to White saying he loved Mistress Masham’s Repose and invited White to the Inklings if he ever visited Oxford. White read at least one of Lewis’ books, reviewing Till We Have Faces for Time and Tide in 1956 (The Fellowship 450).

The Once and Future King, has often often been compared to the Inklings’ work as a seminal fantasy text. Jack Walter Lambert’s 1958 review of The Fellowship of the Ring for the Sunday Times compared it to The Sword in the Stone (The Fellowship 423). In his 1973 study Imaginary Worlds, Lin Carter called White one of “the modern masters of British fantasy” (94), predating Lewis’ fantasy works by a few years. Locus Magazine’s 1987 poll of great fantasy novels listed The Lord of the Rings as #1, The Hobbit as #2, The Once and Future King as #6, and The Chronicles of Narnia as #26. Today, White’s work has impacted writers like J.K. Rowling, Neil Gaiman, Lev Grossman and Helen McDonald.

However, there hasn’t been much recent scholarship on White. There is only one biography, written in 1967 by Sylvia Townsend Warner. Three book-length studies on White were published between 1970 and 1995: T.H. White by John K. Crane, T.H. White and the Matter of Britain by Martin Kellman and T.H. White’s The Once and Future King by Elisabeth Brewer. A new study appeared in 2007: T.H. White’s Troubled Heart by Kurth Sprague, a posthumously published dissertation from 1978. Lesser known books have appeared here and there – Edwin Mellen Press published an essay collection on White and a study of White and Malory in 2008 – and various theses can be found online, although many appear to be from the 1980s.

Results are only slightly better if you search open access journals on the Inklings and Arthurian topics. As of August 2021, Mythlore’s archive lists 3-4 articles on White, all written in the 1990s. Discounting excerpts from Sprague’s book, JSTOR lists fewer than 10 articles on White since 2000. MUSE Open Access lists one French essay from 2017, Mallorn lists 4 pieces (none of them focusing on White), and Inklings Forever has a 2004 essay on Narnia and pedagogy… which makes an offhand reference to White. The most complete online resource on White appears to be England Have My Bones, highlighted by The Guardian in 2006… but barely updated since the 1990s. Compare this to the mountains of books, documentaries, studies, and online communities devoted to the Inklings, and it’s a staggering gap. As Lev Grossman commented in 2010,

“I often wonder why White isn’t considered one of the founding fathers of modern fantasy, the way Tolkien and C.S. Lewis are. Perhaps one day, in the future, he will be.”

I’d like to consider some reasons why T.H. White’s work has been understudied. This article will build on ideas presented by Brenton Dickieson on Tolkien versus Lewis scholarship, considering how popular perception and good scholarship affect academic work.

Finding an Entry Point

Writing about an author’s work is easier with a definitive version of the work. Yes, alternate versions – such as The Hobbit’s first edition, where Gollum willingly bets his ring in the riddle game and Bilbo wins it – create cool side trails to study. However, scholars have the best chance to create a body of scholarship when they all work from a complete, definitive text.

When it comes to The Once and Future King, this isn’t easy. The series began as five books:

  • The Sword in the Stone (first published 1938)
  • The Witch in the Wood (first published 1939)
  • The Ill-Made Knight (first published 1940)
  • The Candle in the Wind (first published 1958)
  • The Book of Merlyn (first published 1977)

White wrote all five books before 1942, but didn’t release The Candle in the Wind until he combined the first four into The Once and Future King in 1958. This four-in-one book is the text most readers know, and has significant changes from the standalone versions. Instead of containing The Witch in the Wood, it contains a rewritten version titled The Queen of Air and Darkness. The Once and Future King didn’t include The Book of Merlyn, which publishers rejected years earlier for its anti-war message. However, White worked two scenes from The Book of Merlyn into the 1958 version of The Sword in the Stone. The University of Texas acquired The Book of Merlyn with the rest of White’s archives after his death, and published it in 1977. Since then, at least one edition has combined all five books. White also revised The Sword in the Stone for the first American edition, removing scenes that the publisher objected to – most notably, Arthur accompanying Robin Hood to hunt cannibals.

These changes make it hard to do a definitive study on The Once and Future. As Brewer writes, “its protean nature constantly eludes all efforts to define, categorise, or evaluate” (T.H. White’s Once and Future King vi). Imagine if Tolkien had published the three installments of The Lord of the Rings, re-edited The Fellowship of the Ring twice, radically changed all three installments for the complete book… and then after Tolkien died, his estate published an unused sequel. Studying The Once and Future King requires scholars committed to not just seeing how the story changed in draft form, but also in published form over almost 40 years.

Debatable Scholarship Models

In his Tolkien versus Lewis scholarship series, Brenton Dickieson described the impact that Christopher Tolkien’s work had on Tolkien studies:

“It was scholarship that bred scholarship, modelling good practices (many that he had to make up as he went along) while giving ample space for future readers and researchers to come along after him.”

A central problem with studying White is there hasn’t been a Christopher Tolkien (or for that matter, a Walter Hooper) figure to model good scholarship. In fact, the two most influential White scholars have been sharply criticized.

The first notable scholar is Sylvia Townsend Warner, who wrote T.H. White: A Biography. Warner was a prolific poet and novelist, but this was her first and only biography. Richard Orwam, director of the University of Texas’ Harry Ransom Center which holds White’s letters and other papers, said this about Warner’s research:

“Correspondence accompanying the letters indicates that the letters were made available to White’s biographer Sylvia Townsend Warner, although she made no use of the materials. Although Warner’s portrait of White has served well for forty years, few would disagree that there is a compelling need for more biographical research on this complex and often enigmatic personality” (T.H. White’s Troubled Heart, pg. xi-xii).

On its release, Warner’s biography garnered sharp responses for claiming that White was homosexual, an assessment that some of White’s friends agreed with. Julie Andrews (who met White through playing Guinevere in Camelot) wrote in her memoir Home, “I believe Tim may have been an unfulfilled homosexual, and he suffered a lot because of it.” White’s literary agent David Higham was less convinced, arguing that like his client Dorothy Sayers, White was “maligned by a posthumous biographer, though this time out of innocence” (Literary Gent 212) compared to Janet Hitchman’s Sayers biography. Higham describes White as crushed by a romantic relationship with a younger woman that ended after World War II, “indeed, I think he never got over it” (Higham 213). Higham goes on to say this about White’s later romances:

“Tim’s distress led him to odd vagaries, which included bouts of drinking… But he was still set towards woman, still, too, towards girls much too young for him to marry, unless a miracle should happen. No miracle did: all he achieved was an affair or two. He did have affairs: I knew of at least one of these while it was going on and indeed, when I knew that the biography was in train, I got in touch with that girl, too, and asked whether she would mind standing up to be counted. She agreed to do that. I gave the biographer her address, so that she could get in touch on her own with someone so important in Tim’s story. But she never, [Warner] told me, took that step. So she was able to present Tim in such a light that a reviewer could call him a raging homosexual. Perhaps a heterosexual affair would have made her blush” (Literary Gent by David Higham, 213).

Obviously, questions about an author’s sexuality are inherently hard to verify. Still, Warner not using White’s letters in her research and allegedly ignoring evidence contradicting her claims raises questions about her accuracy. Today, her book still has admirers, but a mixed reputation. A 2014 article in The Paris Review praised its writing style, while admitting its thoughts on White’s sexuality are speculative. Lev Grossman’s 2010 NPR piece on T.H. White states,

“there is only one half-decent biography of him, and it was written in 1967.”

The second notable scholar is Kurth Sprague, who wrote T.H. White’s Troubled Heart and edited two collections of White’s work: the poetry collection A Joy Proposed (1980) and the short story collection The Maharajah and Other Stories (1981). The Mahajarah has some admirers, but at least one major detractor. In the Hugo Award-winning Encyclopedia of Fantasy, John Clute points out that Sprague collected many of the short stories from Gone to Ground, White’s 1935 novel that uses a frame narrative to weave short stories into a cohesive plot. Clute notes that Sprague reprinted these stories “without any source being cited – all hints of the Frame Story were carefully excised, and individual titles were supplied for each item.” Clute is harsher in the companion volume The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, stating that Sprague reprinted the stories “without acknowledging his actions, eliminated the author’s linking material (amounting to at least fifty pages of narrative) while substituting his own story titles for White’s arrangement by chapter, invisibly stripping these tales of their intended context and hoped-for impact.”

Thus, a key problem with White scholarship is that previous work hasn’t produced the best models to work from. There has been excellent work, but also questionable work that needs to be reconsidered.

Getting the Big Break

Dickieson argues in his first Tolkien versus Lewis scholarship post that Tolkien scholarship has benefitted from several “creative breaks,” events that allowed scholars to develop the field in important ways. The first creative break was that

“Tolkien’s popularity after the publication of The Lord of the Rings was explosive. From ‘Frodo Lives’ movements to local societies, the commitment of Tolkien readers has been clear.”

Writing in 1975, just a few years after the American counterculture made The Lord of the Rings a bestseller, Colin N. Manlove suggests why this demographic embraced Tolkien: “the trilogy came just when disillusionment among the American young at the Vietnam War and the state of their own country was at a peak. Tolkien’s fantasy offered an image of the kind of rural conservationist ideal or escape for which they were looking” (Modern Fantasy 157). Jane Ciabattari’s 2014 BBC article “Hobbits and hippies: Tolkien and the counterculture” goes further:

“Middle Earth was a literary escape hatch for a generation haunted by the Vietnam War and the atomic bomb, a return to simple living. Many felt the experience of reading the text itself is akin to an acid trip… Also appealing to the burgeoning anti-war, feminist and civil rights movement activists was Tolkien’s political subtext of the ‘little people’, the Hobbits, and their wizard ally, leading a revolution. The military industrial complex targeted by protestors resembled Mordor in its mechanised, impersonal approach to an unpopular war. When he is drafted into bearing the Ring to Mount Doom, Frodo feels an ‘overwhelming longing to rest and remain at peace… in Rivendell.’ Those who led the fight against Sauron’s army stood reluctantly, hoping this would be the ‘War to End All Wars.’”

While one can certainly see these connections, in many ways The Once and Future King is closer to counterculture ideals than The Lord of the Rings. White wrote most of the series during World War II, which he had conflicted feelings on. After The Sword in the Stone was published, White wrote a letter explaining he believed “the central theme of Morte d’Arthur is to find an antidote to war” (Letters to a Friend 117-118), and his tale would bring that theme to new audiences. The Queen of Air and Darkness is full of Merlin and Arthur debating whether Might is Right, how to create a feudal system that minimizes war. The Ill-Made Knight and The Candle in the Wind describe the Round Table as a way to direct knights from bloodshed to noble causes. The Book of Merlyn shows Arthur discussing his failures with Merlin and some talking animals he met in the first book; together they debate why of all animal species, the human species has such violent capacities.

In short, The Once and Future King depicts war as waste, which should have made it perfect material for the counterculture; however, it wasn’t “discovered” the way that The Lord of the Rings was. This could be because The Book of Merlyn wasn’t published until 1977, when the Vietnam War was over and many counterculture elements were wrapping up. Another reason may be that while The Once and Future King shares the counterculture’s hatred of war, it’s not a story about “tuning out of the system.” White’s King Arthur doesn’t quit his kingdom to start a commune: he tries to clean the system from inside.

The Power of Adaptation: Another Creative Break

It’s common knowledge that a movie based on a book can lead many to discover the book for the first time. However, the adaptation’s quality is also an important factor. Dickieson argues that while Disney’s Narnia films had their moments, they were not great films and didn’t get attract new scholars to Narnia the way that Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy did. He calls Jackson’s trilogy the fourth creative break, which

“inspired a generation of new Tolkien scholars to put their minds and hearts to the task of thinking resonantly about Tolkien, the worlds he made, and the worlds he inspired. Young adults, especially, watched the films, bought the books, and read or reread with new eyes.”

Well-made adaptations can draw readers to the original story, creating new scholars along the way. Mediocre adaptations generally don’t have the same effect. This is an important point to consider with The Once and Future King, which has two notable adaptations: the 1963 Disney movie The Sword in the Stone and the .

Disney’s The Sword in the Stone got mixed reviews at the time, and even today feels like a minor effort. It’s enjoyable but not incredible, especially compared to Disney classics like Sleeping Beauty – another medieval fantasy film, released just four years earlier. Cynics may describe it as a runner-up to the “Disney Dark Ages,” that era of flawed filmmaking from Walt Disney’s 1966 death until The Little Mermaid started the Disney Renaissance in 1989. Camelot had White’s input and more success, but can’t be called a great adaptation of The Once and Future King, for two reasons.

First, turning White’s story into a musical meant it couldn’t be a close adaptation. Four books worth of plot had to be condensed into something fitting theatre time constraints. Original songs had to be added, and the plot structured for easy transitions into songs and dances. Adaptation always changes things, but Camelot is less adaptation and more transformation. It starts with White’s ideas and evolves into a different entity. Thus, it doesn’t introduce audiences to The Once and Future King: it introduces them to its own vision.

Second, Camelot was never an acclaimed show. The original production did well commercially, but an article in Playbill states the reviews were mixed and the show almost failed until The Ed Sullivan Show raised its profile. When award season came, it won Tonys for its actors and music, not the plot. According to a 1993 New York Times article, new appreciation for the music is the primary reason that critics are kinder today. The 1967 movie Camelot left much to be desired, and its best moments (such as Arthur verbally fencing with Mordred in his throne room) are dialogue from the play rather than White’s books. Today, when Camelot plays to audiences, critics often view it as fun but old-fashioned. Reviewing a 2015 production, Christopher Arnott wrote, “what was once a rousing modern medieval allegory now seems staid and old-world.” Camelot clearly connects with people, but more as a fan favorite than as an acclaimed classic like West Side Story. Equally importantly, its primary appeal is its music, not the material from White’s books. Therefore, at least in this discussion’s context, it doesn’t qualify as a great adaptation.

Because White’s work hasn’t been adapted well yet, his work hasn’t gained the creative break that Tolkien’s work has. However, that may change soon: Disney announced plans in 2015 for a live action remake of The Sword in the Stone, still being developed as of June 2021.

Concluding Thoughts

Having considered challenges to analyzing T.H. White, it’s worth looking at some advantages. Here are some areas waiting for new scholars to explore:

White’s life. As mentioned above, there hasn’t been a new biography of T.H. White in over sixty years. Given the difficulties mentioned with Warner’s biography, it’s high time for fresh eyes to consider White’s complicated and adventurous life.

White’s minor works. White was a prolific author, and The Once and Future King is the tip of his output. Orwam writes that the University of Texas’ White archives “include manuscript materials for 108 novels, short stories, articles, poems, and other works” and “along with the novelist’s manuscripts, the Ransom Center owns more than 400 volumes, quite a few of them heavily annotated, from White’s library” (Sprague xi, xii). Even scholars who can’t visit the White archives can use recently reprinted works (such as The Goshawk). Researchers in Canada and the United Kingdom researchers have a particular advantage, where White’s works have entered the public domain and many are available as ebooks.

White’s influence on contemporary fantasy. One of the more bizarre moments in White scholarship came in the 2000s, when journalists accused J.K. Rowling of plagiarizing Neil Gaiman’s Books of Magic. Gaiman denied these allegations, noting the similarities seemed to go back to The Sword in the Stone and perhaps “we were both just stealing from T.H. White.” Despite this interesting opportunity, there hasn’t been much written on White and Rowling, other than connections made between Arthur and Harry, Merlin and Dumbledore. The same is true of studies on White and Gaiman, and many other contemporary writers influenced by White.

Arthurian mythology. Brewer describes White’s interest in telling the Arthuriad while “bringing out its mythic power” (19), and much has been written about the Inklings’ interest in mythology and Arthurian literature. The recent publication of The Inklings and the Matter of Britain (plus a 2018 Signum University class on the subject) makes it even easier to consider these writers in that context.

Fantasy and warfare. The Once and Future King presents a complicated view of war, contemplating the role of force in defeating evil. Lewis and Tolkien, both World War I veterans who knew the dangers of bloodlust, also explored this idea, albeit in different terms and reaching different conclusions than White. It’s also worth noting that all three men wrote fantasy/science fiction exploring this subject during World War II: White wrote The Once and Future King, Lewis wrote the Space Trilogy, and Tolkien was drafting The Lord of the Rings during that period.

Medievalism. Even though he wasn’t a professional medieval scholar like Lewis or Tolkien, White studied the period, both for his Arthurian work and as a passion project. His primary academic contribution is The Book of Beasts, his translation of a medieval bestiary.

Nature and “the old ways.” Brewer notes that The Sword in the Stone shows a passion for trees that White shared with Tolkien (39-40). The same book shows nostalgia for pre-Industrial England, and Sprague highlights White’s “love of the past and refusal to have much truck with the present” (66). This description could apply to Lewis, whose love for the medieval period extended beyond his studies.

Humor. Like Lewis, White wrote humorous works as well as fantasy, and one could argue that both men’s status as fantasists has overshadowed their considerable comedic skills.

Art. Like Tolkien, White illustrated some of his stories – the University of Texas archives contain

“twenty-four oil paintings, twelve charcoal and pen and ink sketches for [White’s play] Macbeth the Knife, and thirty-two other pencil, ink, charcoal, and pastel drawings” (Sprague xi).

Given that much has been said about Tolkien as a writer, less about him as an illustrator, it would be interesting to see how their art compares.


This guest blog by G. Connor Salter is in some ways a response to the earlier series of pieces called “Why is Tolkien Scholarship Stronger than Lewis Scholarship?” (see parts 12, and 3, and Connor’s own follow up piece here). Connor holds a Bachelor of Science in Professional Writing from Taylor University, and works as a journalist in Colorado. As a freelance writer, he has published over 300 book reviews, primarily for The Evangelical Church Library Association. He presented an essay on C.S. Lewis and Terence Fisher at Taylor University’s 2018 Making Literature Conference, and released his first audio short story series, Tapes from the Crawlspace, in 2020.

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Good C.S. Lewis Studies Books That Did Not Win the Mythopoeic Award: Part 1: C.S. Lewis on Theology, Philosophy, and Spiritual Life

Last week I wrote that “Tolkien Studies Projects Sweep the Mythopoeic Scholarship Award Shortlist in Inklings Studies“–a double-edged sword post that congratulated the authors of editors of five great books while noting that, once again, C.S. Lewis studies projects have been locked out of this prestigious award for Inklings Studies. Indeed, the last study focussed primarily on Lewis to be nominated was Alistair E. McGrath’s C.S. Lewis–A Life: Eccentric Genius, Reluctant Prophet, published all the way back in 2013.

My told-you-so tone is not because I do not think that Lewis’ work necessarily merits lighter or weaker scholarship–a point that I am carefully working through in a 3-part series on Tolkien Studies vs. Lewis Studies (see parts the first, the second, the third). And I happen to think that the stewardship of Lewis materials has been of global-class value to readers, and some of the greatest Lewis studies books are exceptional as scholarly books. Considering Lewis studies books on their own, besides Meilaendar, Lewis studies by Doris T. Myers, Walter Hooper, Kathryn Lindskoog, Joe R. Christoper and Joan K. Ostling, Lionel Adey, Don King, Peter J. Schakel and Charles A. Huttar, David C. Downing, Diana Pavlac Glyer, Michael Ward, Sanford Schwarts, Robert Boenig, John Bremer, and Monika Hilder–as well as the major biographers–deserved their nominations or wins.

So I thought that I would share quick reviews of “Good C.S. Lewis Studies Books That Did Not Win the Mythopoeic Award.” This is my own list and is no doubt narrow. I don’t know the rhetorical studies or precise philosophical volumes very well, for example–and if there is every a C.S. Lewis cookbook or walking tour of Narnia, you won’t hear from me. I have left out theses and most collections (which I usually read as individual essays), and did not include projects that I worked on. I have also cheated a little bit on these margins. But here are some good Lewis studies worth reading from the last few years, in four parts:

I’ll also include a note about 2021 books and a short series bout what I think are the best Lewis studies books you probably have read, the best ones you may not have heard of, and the best guides that I have encountered.

Chris Armstrong, Medieval Wisdom for Modern Christians: Finding Authentic Faith in a Forgotten Age, with C.S. Lewis (2016)

Chris Armstrong’s Medieval Wisdom for Modern Christians (2016)—much like his Patron Saints for Postmoderns (2009)—is written to give a resource to root contemporary seekers into the rich soils of the past. As the subtitle suggests, Armstrong uses C.S. Lewis as a primary link to medieval faith and practice. The particular strength of Medieval Wisdom for Modern Christians is how Armstrong connects with a particular social moment, especially for readers, where we are drawn back to certain ideas and modes of being from middle ages—a period foreign to most of us. Working as a professional historian and Christian leader, and using C.S. Lewis as a guide, this book is filled with meaningful ways to deepen life in church, family, and neighbourhood today. You can see my full review here.

Devin Brown, A Life Observed: A Spiritual Biography of C.S. Lewis (2013)

Devin Brown has been producing books about Lewis and his writing for some years. His 2013 biography, A Life Observed: A Spiritual Biography of C.S. Lewis (2013), provided precisely the element I was looking for as I began my PhD that year. Brown focuses on “Lewis’s spiritual journey and his search for the object of the mysterious longing he called Joy (always capitalized), a quest which he claimed was the central story of his life” (xi). What Brown adds to the many Lewis biographies of the period is the precise focus on questions of spiritual life, Christian development, discipleship, and the numinous. This book landed on one of my Top 5 lists and pairs well with Will Vaus’ The Hidden Story of Narnia: A Book-by-Book Guide to C.S. Lewis’ Spiritual Themes (2010), Lyle W. Dorsett’s Seeking the Secret Place: The Spiritual Formation of C.S. Lewis (2004), and David C. Downing accessible and brilliant Into the Region of Awe: Mysticism in C.S. Lewis (2005).

Rob Fennell, ed., Both Sides of the Wardrobe: C.S. Lewis, Theological Imagination, and Everyday Discipleship (2015)

Quite apart from my article in this volume where I first argue that Lewis has a fairly sophisticated understanding of Christology that centres his writing on the spiritual life, I think this little book as a whole has value. First, it includes a number of short, smart pieces that a particularly directed to the ways that Lewis’ “theological imagination” is formative for Christian growth and spiritual vitality. The Narnian pieces by Michael Tutton and David J. Hawkesworth work well as theological introductions to the volume, while the articles by Allen B. Robertson and Gary Thorne represent two visions for Lewis’ imaginative transformations. David Mark Purdy’s genre study on Screwtape is a critical challenge to the field and helps us think about the way we read these demonic letters as spiritual enlightenment. Though we wrote independently, my “’Die Before You Die’: St. Paul’s Cruciformity in C.S. Lewis’s Narrative Spirituality” pairs well with Chris Armstrong’s piece on Lewis and the Theologia Germanica. There are reflections on Lewis as a preacher (by Laurence DeWolfe) and the eschatological Lewis (Sarah Layman). Finally, Wayne Smith’s “The Space Between: Observations From the Threshold” is a literary gem with theological creativity. Kudos to Rob Fennel for pulling the volume together and hosting the 2013 conference that gave birth to the idea.

Edith M. Humphrey, Further Up and Further In: Orthodox Conversations with C.S. Lewis on Scripture and Theology (2017)

Drawing from various parts of Lewis’ fiction and nonfiction, biblical theologian Edith Humphrey’s Further Up and Further In creates a unique conversation in Orthodox spirituality. With a sense of her personal story, Humphrey invites Lewis into conversation with classical and contemporary Orthodox thinkers and close readings of Lewis texts. This book appeared quite late in the process of my current book on C.S. Lewis and the spiritual life, but it has been a joy to draw Humphrey’s work together with my own. She is an author creating a spiritual theology that is similar to my own approach–looking at the way that Lewis’ fiction invites us to imagine the spiritual life–and Humphrey approaches it in a light, personal, and topical way. Unfortunately, this book has not been read very widely. It may be perceived as too niche—a topical study made for Orthodox readers as Rigney’s (below) is designed for American fundamentalist readers–but I would invite you to pick up Further Up and Further In if you have the opportunity.

Alan Jacobs, The Year of Our Lord 1943: Christian Humanism in an Age of Crisis (2018)

I am fascinated by a “synchronic” approach to a history of ideas. We often go through time tracking an idea, as Jacobs did in his 2008 book, Original Sin. What would it be like, however, to steady the lens of history to a particular point in time, and to just a few neighbourhoods, and see how rich and magnetic thinkers struggled with such a dynamic moment? The result of that experiment is The Year of Our Lord 1943: Christian Humanism in an Age of Crisis. As the war tilts toward allied victory, it was clear to a number of Christian public intellectuals that English, French, and American culture faced a moral and cultural challenge in a post-Christian, post-war era–a challenge that far exceeded austerity measures and the rebuilding of infrastructure. In this technocratic age, issues of what it means to be human surfaced in poignant ways. In what ways would Christians lead, speak, and serve in this age of machines after a techno-ideological war?

To struggle with the question, Alan Jacobs turns to a number of Christian intellectuals, mostly disconnected from one another, and the popular work they did in 1943. Jacobs looks at the lectures, talks, broadcasts, poems, essays, journals, and reviews of Jacques and Raïssa Maritain, T.S. EliotC.S. LewisW.H. Auden, and Simone Weil, as well as figures like Charles Williams, Mortimer Adler, Reinhold Niebuhr, Hannah Arendt, Jacques Ellul, and the WWII-era Oldham-Mannheim “Moot,” a religious, male serial conversation about Christian faith and public order in Britain. The conversation that results from these Christian intellectuals is a movement to restore a Christian understanding of the world in contemporary culture. For C.S. Lewis studies, Jacobs’ treatment is an effective contextual and comparative rereading of The Screwtape Letters and The Abolition of Man, resulting in a strong book that sets Lewis within his intellectual culture. A companion volume would be Samuel Joeckel’s The C.S. Lewis Phenomenon and the other volumes in the “reception” part of this series.

Sharon Jebb, Writing God and the Self: Samuel Beckett and C.S. Lewis (2011)

Theologian Sharon Jebb’s under-appreciated dissertation is a careful and highly readable study of Beckett’s Three Novels and Lewis’ Till We Have Faces. Jebb’s deeply theological study is in conversation with ancient theologians (like Augustine and Teresa of Avila) and contemporary ones (like Charles Taylor and Rowan Williams), offering a cultural theology of the self. Beckett and Lewis are an unusual pairing but a fruitful one. In particular, her analysis of God-knowledge and self-knowledge in Lewis is a significant discovery–even if the study itself is fairly narrow. While this is the oldest volume in our list, I want to mention it because it is too often missed by students and scholars of Lewis and should be on every Till We have Faces bibliography.

Joe Rigney, Lewis on the Christian Life: Becoming Truly Human in the Presence of God (12 hrs)

While this article shows that there are some books on Lewis and spirituality–and quite a number of devotional style materials–intelligent, integrated conversation about C.S. Lewis and the spiritual life is still limited. Rigney’s is the closest book so far to a full treatment of Lewis’ spiritual theology–though he does not use the words “spirituality” or “spiritual theology” anywhere in the book. I have some anxiety about Rigney’s connection to Bethlehem College & Seminary, which does not accept women in their seminary program–and, indeed, Rigney is speaking specifically to fundamentalist and conservative American readers, so the audience is somewhat narrow. While the book is limited by the questions that Rigney brings, nowhere in Lewis on the Christian Life do I see Rigney bending Lewis to his perspective. Unless you know that Rigney is offering a double critique–on the one hand, inviting fundamentalist and conservative Christian readers to be shaped by Lewis, and critiquing Lewis on perceived weaknesses on the other hand–the chapter on “Theology” is a bit strange as it sits in the text. But it is a book that grows throughout the reading, so that the later chapters on “Pride and Humility,” “Christian Hedonics,” and “Healthy Introspection” are among the best. It is a very American book (Lewis was not American, but many creative readers are), and it is very evangelical (Lewis was not evangelical, but many faithful readers are), but it brings a strong reading to a great many topics that a diverse set of readers have questions about. While not comprehensive, it is a warm and personal book as Rigney treats various topics one-by-one in a structured, catechetical way. Ultimately, we must admit, it is really a Christian doctrine book with a focus on personal response rather than a treatment of spiritual theology as a discipline itself–but it is the best of its kind so far.

Gary S. Selby, Pursuing an Earthy Spirituality: C.S. Lewis and Incarnational Faith (2019)

This book is perhaps as closely related to my work as Joe Rigney’s and came out the week after I submitted my thesis on the same topic. I have written an extensive review and critique of Pursuing an Earthy Spirituality, which also works as a critique of certain ways of narrowing the way we read C.S. Lewis in certain contexts. I won’t repeat the arguments I made there. Like Rigney, Selby is offering a self-critique, working to supplant a “bleak fantasy” or “negative spirituality” of evangelicalism with a holistic, vibrant, joyful, sensual, incarnational spiritual life suggested to us by Lewis. The book description captures what Selby is doing fairly well: “By considering themes such as our human embodiment, our sense of awareness in our everyday experiences, and the role of our human agency–all while engaging with the writings of Lewis, who himself enjoyed food, drink, laughter, and good conversation–Selby demonstrates that an earthy spirituality can be a robust spirituality.” Ultimately, Selby is arguing that there are two features to a healthy spirituality that we see in Lewis: consciousness and choice. Like many of the writers on Lewis featured here, Selby is a teacher who has found Lewis to be an engaging classroom conversation, and it is a very accessible read.

Michael L. Peterson, C.S. Lewis and the Christian Worldview (2020)

While the field Lewis studies still awaits a comprehensive study of Lewis’ philosophical thought that accounts for his entire corpus, Peterson’s recent C.S. Lewis and the Christian Worldview is a remarkably brief primer that draws students and scholars to many of the critical philosophical perspectives of Lewis. Peterson is sometimes reductionistic in his definitions—including “worldview” in the title, leaving out symbolic and praxeological elements. Overall, however, Peterson provides an accessible introduction to Lewis’ thought. Whatever philosophical weaknesses it might have and whatever seemingly injudicious choices he might make, Peterson shows that it is possible to take the ideas, images, and statements scattered across the disparate writings of a popular thinker and systematize them into a coherent whole.

Charlie W. Starr, The Faun’s Bookshelf: C.S. Lewis on Why Myth Matters (2018)

While Charlie Starr is a friend and writing partner (see our co-written piece on “The Archangel Fragment” in Sehnsucht), I have no concerns about objectivity on this score. Charlie has become a leading C.S. Lewis scholar, particularly on Lewis’ handwriting and, the focus of this book, Lewis’ conception of “myth.” Moreover, I have been critical of Charlie’s work in the past (see here), while still consistently praising his perceptive eye (see the footnotes to my paper here) and publishing his work (see here). Most would not know, but Charlie’s doctoral dissertation, “The Triple Enigma: Fact, Truth, and Myth as the Key to C.S. Lewis’s Epistemological Thinking,” is a study of remarkable philosophical depth and literary capacity–and perhaps the longest study on a single passage in Lewis’ works! The Faun’s Bookshelf is a lighter touch but no less philosophically deft, as it sketches for interested readers Lewis’ multi-level fascination with myth–from being a lover a mythology to his work as a literary critic, Christian public thinker, and the maker of one the 20th-century’s great myths, The Chronicles of Narnia. As we might expect, from Charlie, beyond a study of “meaning” in Lewis, we also have a number of intriguing close readings of things that we might normally pass over–including the book titles on Tumnus’ bookshelf. While this study may lack some of the heft that a Mythopoeic Award nomination might require, and though I would quibble at points, as a literary resource it is critical, accessible, and enjoyable to read.

Donald T. Williams, Deeper Magic: The Theology Behind the Writings of C.S. Lewis (2016)

Despite several popular books about C.S. Lewis’ Christian teaching and some good theological treatments, there is as yet no comprehensive and critical theological treatment.  Donald Williams is closest with Deeper Magic, a brief systematic theology of Lewis’ thought. While not comprehensive, Deeper Magic comes out of a lifetime of writing about Lewis and is as strong as such a tight treatment could be. Williams’ traditional systematic theological treatment smartly adds “poimenics” for practical theological considerations, but, like so many Lewis scholars, his primary interest in this area is apologetics and evangelism. I would like to press Williams on the incarnational and cruciform theological centre of Lewis’ thought because I think he misses some implications for spiritual theology. However, with respect to Will Vaus who has done some good work to invite readers to a C.S. Lewis theology, Williams has provided the strongest and most accessible volume in the past decade. I also like that Williams is a poet and would love to see what a theological treatment completely given over to that poetic mode would look like.

I hope you can see the thematic links in this collection of studies. Despite some great work done and some good books for your pencil-behind-the-ear reading times, we are still missing the comprehensive volume in each of these major areas of philosophy, theology, and spirituality. I believe this coming decade will change that reality.

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