A Literary Experiment: On Lewis

The subject of this experiment in literary criticism is the following books by C.S. Lewis; The Screwtape Letters, (Lewis, 1942), The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, (Lewis, 1950), Mere Christianity, (Lewis, 1952), and Till We Have Faces, (Lewis, 1956). My goal was to discover if, by using Lewis’ methods of literary criticism I could achieve a greater comprehension of his various works and perhaps even of Lewis himself. I found that by using various methods of literary criticism—be a true reader, surrender to the text, and be like a child—I was able to connect with the text in a much more significant way. Using these methodologies helped me to identify a number of thoughts and themes that spanned all four texts. The two biggest themes it brought up for me were the idea of the unexpected, and the concept of God’s holiness as reflected in the idea of terrible beauty. Using Lewis’ own methods of literary criticism to survey these four books gave me a deeper understanding of the texts and of Lewis’s considerable skill as a writer and master storyteller. My goal, as a reader, was to meet Lewis where he was, regardless of the genre, and do my best to enter into his world.

Method

For our first text, Mere Christianity, (Lewis, 1952), I intended to use the methodology of surrendering myself to the text and not asking myself what I think of his ideas while reading them. Rather, I determined I would just let the text “happen” to me and see where that led in my reading. While I was able to maintain that method throughout that first book, I found myself engaging in another methodology as well.

I used marginalia as I tried to understand analogies, look up allusions and unknown words, re-read sections, etc. This was a new and, to my delight, very effective method for me, one which I ended up utilizing for all four books. As I was reading I would jot down a quick note in the margin whenever I noticed a theme, recognized an allusion, loved a passage, etc.  For words I wasn’t familiar with, I would look up the definition and note it in the margin. I followed the same process when I found allusions to ideas or biblical passages that I wasn’t sure about. I would pause my reading, research it, and return to the text, making a note it in the margin.

I had intended to use the same methodology of surrendering to the text for our third book, Till We Have Faces (Lewis, 1956), but I quickly realized that critical technique was pulling me out of the story, rather than helping me to better understand it. I found I was so busy looking for data that I was missing the point of the text. So I decided instead to approach the story in a child-like fashion; curious, imaginative, believing, looking for the wonder rather than the facts. I also tried to let Lewis’ compelling descriptions paint a mental picture for me to see if that allowed me to enter the story more fully. I found that by approaching the book in this fashion, I was consuming the text in units of scenes and passages rather than propositions and paragraphs. I ended up finding this methodology so effective for Parts One and Two of Till We Have Faces (Lewis, 1956), that I continued using it for our final book, The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe (Lewis, 1950).

Results

The first thing I noticed during this experiment in literary criticism is that the process of writing notes in the margins and seeing them visually on of the page improved my retention of the content of the text I was commenting on. While I utilized this approach for all four texts, I did notice that the content of my marginalia changed based on the text. The first two books we read grappled with heavier theological ideas and I found my comments in the margins were more technical in nature. Whereas for the last two books, on which I used a different methodology, my marginalia was more literary in nature.

The second thing I noticed early on in this experiment was that I had to fight my natural tendency to critique as I read. It was a habit I wasn’t even aware I had. I found the result of fighting that tendency very helpful in terms of allowing me to grasp the entirety of Lewis’ ideas before critiquing them. Often where I thought he was going at first turned out to be incorrect, or at least incomplete. And surrendering to the text allowed deeper themes to emerge for me over the course of reading all four texts.

For example, a major theme that emerged for me in Mere Christianity (Lewis, 1952), was the idea of the unexpected, and how often God Himself is not what we’d expect. Lewis first brings this concept up in chapter two where he says, “Reality, in fact, is usually something you could not have guessed. This is one of the reasons I believe Christianity. It is a religion you would not have guessed. If it offered us just the kind of universe we had always expected, I should feel we were making it up” (Lewis, 1952, pp. 41-42). Throughout the book, Lewis comes back to that idea several times, including in the final chapter, New Men, where he uses, of all things, Evolution as a jumping off point to explain Christianity (Lewis, 1952, pp. 218-225).  Lewis’ recurring theme of the unexpected seems to be his way of connecting in the minds of his readers the more esoteric ideas of Christianity to the soundness of reality. And he also uses it to keep his readers on their heels, so to speak, by presenting almost iconoclastic ideas. (Or at least ideas that challenge the shallow, dogmatic beliefs held about Christianity by so many.)

In The Screwtape Letters (Lewis, 1942), this theme of the unexpected comes out in the way that Screwtape counsels his nephew. One would suppose that the schemes of demons would focus on a man’s basest desires for sex, money, power, and fame. But Lewis surprises us by having the demons target such pedestrian vices as our sense of ownership (pp. 112-114), unselfishness (pp. 141-142), and fatigue (pp. 166-167). For example, Lewis, through Screwtape writes, “…fatigue makes women talk more and men talk less. Much secret resentment, even between overs, can be raised from this” (p. 167). Lewis’ unexpected twist of having his demons target the mundane gives this book such a ring of truth that I am tempted to categorize it as non-fiction.

In Till We Have Faces (Lewis, 1956), the theme of the unexpected appears in various ways, but most prevalently through the sense of doom that Orual feels which never comes to pass in the way we expect. From the opening of the book, Lewis gives us the sense that we are about to read a tale of terrible tragedy and hardship. “…I will write in this book what no one who has happiness would dare to write. I will accuse the gods…I will tell all he has done to me from the very beginning…” (Lewis, 1956, p. 3). This sense of doom culminates in the Shadowbrute’s cursing of Orual after her deception, saying to her, “You also shall be Psyche” (p. 197).  But as the story unfolds from there, rather than suffering tragedy, Orual grows in fame and glory, becoming a noble warrior Queen. Along the way, Lewis draws his reader into Orual’s continual concern that the other shoe will one day drop and the curse that she shall be Psyche will take hold. But it never does. In fact, in the end, Lewis again reveals the unexpected as Orual’s vision of her and Psyche ends with the great voice of the god of Grey Mountain saying, “You also are Psyche” (Lewis, 1956, p.351). Lewis reveals that, rather than a curse, this phrase was given as a prophecy of mercy. Here I couldn’t help but wonder if Lewis was commenting on how we can often mistake the pain and hardships in our life as a curse from God when in the end we will realize that it was Him helping us to grow.

In The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe (Lewis, 1950), Lewis uses the theme of not what you’d expect in the minds of his characters more than his readers, though it serves the same purpose as in the other texts. Lewis reminds us through a children’s fantasy story that there is always something more to reality than we would have guessed. For example, what seems like an ordinary wardrobe for storing fur coats turns out to be so much more. “And next moment they all came tumbling out of a wardrobe door into the empty room, and they were no longer Kings and Queens in their hunting array but just Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy in their old clothes” (p. 205).

Another result I noticed during this experiment is that when I shifted to the methodology of be like a child it helped me to connect emotionally with the story and the characters.  And it also helped me to discover another theme that seemed common to all four texts; which is the idea of God as both beautiful and terrible. Lewis likes to portray God as not just lovely and kind, but also as powerful and dangerous.

In chapter nine of Mere Christianity (Lewis, 1952), Lewis talks about counting the cost and how God demands an exacting price from His beloved. Speaking from God’s point of view Lewis wrote, “Whatever suffering it may cost you in your earthly life, whatever inconceivable purification it may cost you after death, whatever it costs Me, I will never rest, nor let you rest, until you are literally perfect…” (p. 202).

In The Screwtape Letters (Lewis, 1942), Lewis gives us a sense of the awe of God after we learn that Wormwood’s patient has died and made it to heaven. Screwtape laments, “The degradation of it!—that this thing of earth and slime could stand upright and converse with spirits before whom you, a spirit, could only cower. Perhaps you had hoped that the awe and strangeness of it would dash his joy” (p. 173).

This theme of God’s beauty and danger is also present in the riveting scene on the mountain in Till We Have Faces (Lewis, 1956), when Psyche betrays her Shadowbrute husband out of love for Orual. To Orual’s terror, the raging power of the god of Grey Mountain manifests in lightning, thunder, toppling trees, avalanches of rocks, a raging river, and a terrible light. Amid this tumultuous scene, Orual finally catches sight of the god, narrating, “…my glimpse of the face was as swift as a true flash of lightning. I could not bear it for longer…A monster…would have subdued me less than the beauty this face wore” (p. 196).

And lastly, in what is perhaps my favorite passage in The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe (Lewis, 1950), Lewis portrays Aslan as not just lovely and kind, but also powerful and dangerous. When Mr. and Mrs. Beaver first tell the children about Aslan, Mrs. Beaver says, “If there’s anyone who can appear before Aslan without their knees knocking, they’re either braver than most or just silly.” Which prompts Lucy to ask if Aslan is safe to be around. “Who said anything about safe?” replies Mr. Beaver. “’Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King I tell you” (p. 86). 

Lewis is a master storyteller and I felt so much more connected to his writing when I entered it with eyes and mind wide open using the various methods of literary criticism we learned in this class. It was a delightful experience!


References

Lewis, C. S. (1942) The Screwtape Letters. New York, NY: Harper Collins.

Lewis, C. S. (1950) The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe. New York, NY: Harper Collins.

Lewis, C. S. (1952) Mere Christianity. New York, NY: Harper Collins.

Lewis, C. S. (1956) Till We Have Faces, New York, NY: Harper Collins.

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