Book Review: C. S. Lewis, Studies in Medieval and Renaissance Literature

The volume in question is compiled of papers that C. S. Lewis wrote, but never published during his lifetime. The compilation was done by Walter Hooper. They include texts written in the domain of textual criticism, and discuss, among others, works by Spenser, Dante, Tasso, and Malory.

In the first article, ‘De Audiendis Poetis’, Lewis argues that in order to truly understand the writers of a by-gone age, we must adopt their beliefs and understanding of the world. That is, we actually have to take, as true their view of the world and their beliefs about the world---we have to experience their world from their perspective. This is to be distinguished from “Perspectivism”, which claims that there are many different perspectives on the world, and that none of these perspectives can be shown to be demonstrably false or true. Rather, Lewis is arguing that in order to understand a perspective we must analyse it from within, not from without. We see a similar claim proposed in Mere Christianity when he states that you can’t truly understand Christianity by observing it from without, rather, you must first accept it as true, and then by it see the world. Lewis’s basic claim is that one may discover that a given perspective is false or true, but, one cannot understand that perspective until one has entertained it as true. These claims are applied to medieval poetic literature. Lewis analyses different approaches to interpretation (the theological approach, the anthropological approach), and different ways of reading (reading as a lover of poetry, and reading as a historian seeking truth), showing the advantages and disadvantages (for truly understanding the text in question) of each approach. This article contains many important comments about how to properly interpret any text, and about which error one should avoid in interpretation.

In the second article, ‘The Genesis of a Medieval Book’, C. S. Lewis proposes to consider the process by which two medieval works of literature came into being, and, in this way, to explain the medieval approach to writing. The two works of literature that he considers are LaƷamon’s ‘Brut’, and ‘Sawles Warde’. Based upon his analysis of the genesis of these two works Lewis draws some conclusions about Medieval literature which are very important for the proper interpretation of just about anything written in the medieval period. In discussing LaƷamon’s ‘Brut’ he notes that the main source for the contents of this work was Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britanniae, and Wace’s Geste. Lewis shows that though most think that LaƷamon was primarily inspired by Wace, it can be shown that LaƷamon was just as dependent on Geoffrey as on Wace, but, also, that he either relied on other sources or invented elements. He notes that “Who, or how many people, or in what proportions each, made it what it is, is a question I cannot answer. This inability of course frustrates our curiosity as scholars.”[1] This fact, notes Lewis, renders the modern approach to Literary criticism impuissant, for, “If criticism cannot do without the clear separation of one work from another and the clear unity of the individual author with the individual text, then criticism of medieval literature is impossible.”[2] Lewis goes on to consider the metre of LaƷamon’s ‘Brut’, its poetic style, and to provide the reader with a comparison of LaƷamon’s ‘Brut’ with Wace’s Geste. Here he notes how LaƷamon’s ‘Brut’ uses “similes of the Homeric or ‘long-tailed’ type”[3] Lewis turns to the Sawles Warde, and notes its use of a certain New Testament quote. This allows Lewis to bring up an important point about Medieval use of quotations, “It is unbelievable that the Latin author misunderstood or forgot or did not reverence the sense of the original. He obviously feels perfectly free to transform it in any way that suits his purpose, provided that, thus transformed, it is still orthodox and edifying. Very possibly he regarded himself as choosing one, instead of another, from among its multiple senses.”[4] He also mentions the very “human” description of God’s actions (sitting and standing), and notes, concerning the author of the Sawles Warde, that “If he had met a real anthropomorphist, I expect he would have been quite able to explain that God was incorporeal and therefore would not really sit down or stand up. It would not, of course, follow that in the heat of composition he consciously attended to this.”[5] Having attended to these two different texts Lewis now draws an important characteristic concerning the genesis of these books: Though we know who were the authors of these books, we also have difficulty saying that they were really the authors of these works in the same sense as a modern author. That is, most of the ideas did not originate with these authors, yet they made the ideas their own. Lewis notes that the common practice, among medieval authors, was to modify, and hopefully improve, some work of literature or story that was already known. This, however, adds a certain level of difficulty to the interpretation of these works, for, though the stories are certainly quite similar to the earlier works that they modify, they cannot be interpreted in the same way as these earlier works, but must be accepted as entirely different pieces of literature which must be read and appreciated for themselves.

The third article (which is actually composed of two lectures that Lewis presented on the subject), ‘Imagination and Thought in the Middle Ages’, is probably one of the most important articles in this short compilation, especially for anybody who reads medieval literature. In this article, C. S. Lewis examines the medieval model of the universe (from many different perspectives: Its size, its nature, its compositions and constituents, its inner workings, etc.), and compares this model with the modern model of the universe. He invites the reader to put aside “scientific” considerations about the actual makeup of the universe, in order to look at the medieval model from an “imaginative, creative, and artistic” perspective. He notes that though the medieval authors may have gotten many, if not most, of the facts wrong, their imagery and imaginative approach to the universe is not (for all that) wrong. It is rather, just a different way of describing (creatively) the way the universe presents itself to us, and that the modern descriptions (turning around laws of nature, etc.) are not accurate scientific descriptions about how the universe runs, but imaginative descriptions of scientific facts which show more the modern mindset than an accurate description of the scientific facts. I would submit, indeed, that some aspects of the medieval model of the universe, taken as a creative or artistic descriptions of the universe, may even be adopted, with some modifications, today. One might submit that this article is less of an exposition of the Medieval approach to the universe (though it is at least this), and more of a throwing down of the gauntlet—a challenge to modernity—as Lewis concludes this article by asking the audience to consider the possibility that, in a sense, the modern model of the universe is just as bad off as the medieval model. Lewis says, “I suppose most people would now admit that no picture of the universe we can form is ‘true’ in quite the sense our grandfathers hoped. We would rather speak of ‘models’. And since all are only models, we should be prepared to find in each something of the nature of the artist as well as something of the object. From that point of view, too, a study of the various models has its interest. I think the medieval and Newtonian models—the one so ordered, so sublime, and so festive, the other so trackless, so incapable of form—reflect the older, more formal and intellectual world and the later enthusiastic, romantic world pretty well. What our own models—if you continue to allow us models at all—will reflect, posterity may judge.”[6]

The fourth article, “Dante’s Similes”, is a consideration of how Dante develops his different similes in the Divine Comedy. Lewis notes three regular classes of simile and notes that all of these are found in Dante. He notes, however, that there is a fourth class of simile that is peculiar to Dante. He claims that Dante’s peculiar use of simile is such that the reader feels that Dante is accurately describing the world of his Divine Comedy. This is due, says Lewis, to how Dante integrates Aristotelian philosophy, and medieval biology and physics, into his similes.

The fifth article, “Imagery in Dante’s ‘Comedy’”, is, essentially, a catalogue, with brief commentary, of the various types of Metaphorical images that Dante uses in the last 11 canto’s of his Divine Comedy. Lewis draws some tentative conclusions, from these observations, about the way that Dante uses imagery in the rest of the Divine Comedy. In “Dante’s Statius”, the sixth article in this book, Lewis considers what is was about the works of Statius, as known by Dante, that had Dante thinking that Statius was (or at least portraying him as) a Christian author. The seventh article, “The ‘Morte DArthur’”, is a short critique (positive and negative) of the positions of Professor Vinaver concerning his views of Malory’s Arthurian legends, as published in Vinaver’s edition. Lewis provides many very interesting comments about the Arthurian Legends.

In “Tasso”, the eighth article in the book, C. S. Lewis looks at the main work of Tasso, and notes that in spite of having received much applause, an having influenced many authors, it remains true that Tasso has not been imitated nearly as much as other authors who are not so frequently applauded. This article, which might seem of little value to any except either a C. S. Lewis fanatic or an expert in medieval and renaissance literature, does contain some very interesting comments about Beauty and evil, and about the medieval mind. Lewis notes that in medieval and renaissance literature it was not unheard of to encounter an evil being that was beautiful beyond description, but that the modern imagination seems to have difficulty believing that beauty and evil can go hand in hand. Lewis says, “Perhaps in the world built by industrialism beauty has become so rare and evil so undisguisedly ugly that we can no longer believe ill of beauty. With the old poets it was not so. They believed that a thing might be perfectly beautiful, might be of a beauty to break the heart, and yet be evil.”[7]

The ninth chapter, “Edmund Spenser, 1552-99”, is an introduction to the life and works of Edmund Spenser that is well worth reading for anybody who is interested in Late-Medieval Protestant literature. In this chapter Lewis notes some of the modern attitudes that may prevent a modern person from actually enjoying and understanding the Faerie Queene. The most interesting of the obstacles is, that “the picture-language of allecgory is ultimately derived, as I have said, from the unconscious. But by Spenser’s time allegory (both literary and pictorial) had been practised so long that certain symbols had an agreed meaning which everyone could understand directly, without plunging into the depths. Many of these are lost on the modern reader who does not know the Bible, the classics, astrology, or the old emblem books.”[8]

The tenth chapter, “On Reading ‘The Faerie Queene’” is a brief introduction to the Faerie Queene, providing some tips on how to read it. The eleventh chapter, “Neoplatonism in the poetry of Spenser”, is a book review of Dr. Robert Ellrodt’s book with the same title. The twelfth chapter, “Spenser’s Cruel Cupid”, is a discussion of Spenser’s portrayal of Cupid in the Faerie Queen, III, xi, 48. The Thirteenth chapter, “Genius and Genius”, is an interesting discussion of the different meanings the word “Genius” has been given by different authors in ancient and medieval writings. The book finishes with a short article, “A Note on ‘Comus’”, which discusses some technical details about the history of the manuscript of the short work known as Comus.

[1]C. S. Lewis, “The Genesis of a Medieval Book”, in Studies in Medieval and Renaissance Literature, ed. Walter Hooper (1966; repr., Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 22.


[3]Ibid., 31.

[4]Ibid., 34.

[5]Ibid., 36.

[6]C. S. Lewis, “Imagination and Thought in the Middle Ages”, in Studies in Medieval and Renaissance Literature, ed. Walter Hooper (1966; repr., Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 62-63.

[7]C. S. Lewis, “Tasso”, in Studies in Medieval and Renaissance Literature, ed. Walter Hooper (1966; repr., Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 116.

[8]C. S. Lewis, “Edmund Spenser, 1552-99”, in Studies in Medieval and Renaissance Literature, ed. Walter Hooper (1966; repr., Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 141.

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