C.S. Lewis and the Middle Ages.
The subject of C.S. Lewis's work with, and influence By, the Middle Ages is well worth exploring. Lewis's literary scholarship is too often seen as separate from his apologetics and fictional work; a book that helps scholars and general readers to appreciate the effect of Lewis's medieval scholarship on the rest of his oeuvre would be very useful. Robert Boenig's C.S. Lewis and the Middle Ages attempts to do just this; the result is an over-ambitious book that succeeds in its informational but not its analytical goals.
Boenig notes that he will attempt to answer three questions: "What comprised [Lewis's] scholarly work about the medieval period, and what were his contributions to the ongoing professional discussion about the significance of the literature and culture of the Middle Ages? Why was he first attracted to medieval narratives and treatises, both scholarly and devotional? What was the impact of medieval modes of creativity on his imaginative writing?" (3). Even under the best of circumstances, it would be difficult to address all three of these questions adequately in only 150 pages.
Chapters 1 and 2 comprise the stronger half of the book. In Chapter 1, Boenig systematically summarizes Lewis's major work on medieval literature, focusing on The Discarded Image (20-28), The Allegory of Love (29-39), "What Chaucer Really Did to Il Filostrato" (39-41), and other essays (41-48). It is a useful overview for readers who are unfamiliar with Lewis's academic work in literature. In particular, Boenig's summary and discussion of Lewis's The Allegory of Love makes accessible for non-medievalists an excellent book that is probably more often appreciated at a distance than actually read.
Chapter 2 traces Lewis's personal interest in the Middle Ages. Boenig's careful work with Lewis's letters provides insight into the way that Lewis's early reading of medieval and quasi-medieval books shaped his imagination. Boenig's discussion of Lewis's mock-medieval letters to E.R. Eddison, T.H. White, and Ruth Pitter (73-78) provides a delightful glimpse of Lewis's playful side.
Unfortunately, this chapter begins to show Boenig's difficulty in dealing with Lewis's wide-ranging interests, a problem that recurs in his approach to Lewis's source material. Boenig is surprised that Lewis is "eager to defend the Middle Ages" (49) in his academic work, but
when we turn to his personal writings, we often have a hard time finding this apologist for the Middle Ages. To be sure, Lewis writes about medieval books and charts his engagement with them. But he writes about books from other periods as frequently as he does about those from the Middle Ages, and he moreover makes little or no attempt to convince his correspondents that this enjoyment precludes that offered by books from other eras. (49)
Surely it is not mysterious that Lewis, who was widely read, was interested in topics that included theology, philosophy, apologetics, and astronomy, and had many non-medievalist correspondents, would not limit himself to talking about medieval literature. However, Boenig seems insistent on making Lewis's lack of medieval monomania into a puzzle, referring to it repeatedly (50, 64, 71), such that this non-issue distracts from an otherwise informative chapter.
In Chapters 3 and 4, Boenig moves to an analysis of Lewis's fiction. His general approach is sound; Boenig says that in the second half of his book, he wishes "to further the discussion recently begun in Michael Ward's influential 2008 book, Planet Narnia: The Seven Heavens in the Imagination of C.S. Lewis" (3), noting that "Ward has pointed out Lewis's detailed use of the medieval planets; I wish to broaden our appreciation of Lewis's medieval vista" (4). Specifically, Boenig claims that "Lewis's muse was a reactive one, for to a greater or lesser extent each of his works of fiction has either an identifiable source or several recognizable sources; Lewis reacted to these works, developing his own ideas and grafting them, like a medieval gardener imping shoots onto fruit trees, onto an already well-rooted stem" (79). So far, so good. However, Boenig goes on immediately to make a stronger claim: "Though they are all are Lewis's own stories, his creative works often depend on prior texts that Lewis expects his readers to know. The counterpoints between the prior texts and Lewis's new texts generate Lewis's artistic success as well as establish what one could term his theses" (79, emphasis mine).
Boenig does not address or even acknowledge what Ward calls "the problem of reception" (Ward 4). If Lewis's artistic success depends on the reader's recognition of the counterpoint between prior and new texts, it is difficult to account for Lewis's continuing popularity and influence among readers who cannot possibly be familiar with these prior texts. Surprisingly, Boenig neglects to address Lewis's defense of "stock responses," though Lewis's discussion of that idea in Chapter VIII of A Preface to Paradise Lost is highly germane to the argument.
Boenig argues that "each of his works of fiction" (79) has a recognizable source, though he offers an analysis of only five: Out of the Silent Planet, Prince Caspian, The Great Divorce, That Hideous Strength, and The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (80). If Boenig had demonstrated convincingly that these five books supported his larger thesis, one could make the case that his argument is more broadly valid. However, as noted above, Boenig is too quick to assume a single source text for Lewis's novels, resulting in over-simplified analysis; his use of sources also leaves much to be desired.
For instance, Boenig says that "One can argue that the Arthurian romance The Quest of the Holy Grail, with some side glances at Sir John Mandeville's Travels, is the major source for The Voyage of the Dawn Treader" (80). Boenig does not choose The Voyage of the "Dawn Treader" for extended analysis, but he does footnote this claim with a reference to Ward's Planet Narnia, where the relevant passage runs: "In constructing this picaresque romance, Lewis had many sea-voyage stories to draw upon, such as Homer's Odyssey, the Irish tradition of immram, the Anglo-Saxon poem The Seafarer, the voyage of St. Brendan, and Mandeville's Voiage and Travaile. Of sun-voyage stories there are fewer sources, but it seems likely that one model was Paradise Lost" (Ward 108). Ward does not even mention The Quest of the Holy Grail in this context, nor suggests that Mandeville's work is more influential than the other six voyage stories he mentions; following the reference weakens rather than strengthens Boenig's claim.
Similarly, when Boenig argues that H.G. Wells's The First Men in the Moon "becomes Lewis's prior text" (81) for Out of the Silent Planet, the evidence does not support his claim in the way he suggests it does. Boenig cites a letter to Roger Lancelyn Green in which Lewis says "What immediately spurred me to write was Olaf Stapledon's Last and First Men...and an essay in J.B.S. Haldane's Possible Worlds [...] I think Wells' 1st Men in the Moon the best of the sort I have read" (qtd in Boenig 82). Boenig does go on to show from the letters that Lewis was very fond of The First Men in the Moon, but it is difficult to see why, when Lewis specifically names Stapledon and Haldane as direct influences, Boenig ignores those two authors entirely and claims The First Men in the Moon as the source text for Out of the Silent Planet. In the rest of this chapter, Boenig addresses Lewis's influence by William Morris. Boenig showed in Chapter 2 that Lewis had read and been influenced by Morris, but the specific claim that Morris's Child Christopher and Goldilind the Fair is the source for Prince Caspian (92) is based only on a number of plot similarities (93) that are all common to folk and fairy tales in general.
In Chapter 4, Boenig's analysis of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is badly flawed due largely to his handling of source material. On the basis of one letter in which Lewis briefly recommends Aulen's Christus Victor as a counterbalancing read to another theologian (131), Boenig concludes that "Lewis, in other words, is persuaded by Aulen with a possible nudge from [A.G.] Herbert, that Mr. Morland should rely on Christus Victor for sound Christian doctrine" (131). The only other reference to Aulen that Boenig supplies is another letter in which Lewis lists his theological influences, adding "'I liked but cd. make no use of Aulen's Christus Victor'" (qtd in Boenig 132) Boenig is not simply selecting examples: these are the only two references to Aulen in the Collected Letters; Aulen is not mentioned at all in Walter Hooper's C.S. Lewis: The Companion and Guide. It seems unwarranted, then, that Boenig would argue for "how much Lewis is influenced by Aulen's classic theory of the Atonement" (142).
Since Boenig in fact notes Lewis's comment that he had learned doctrine from a wide range of literary and premodern theological and devotional books rather than from modern works of theology (132), it would have been useful if Boenig had taken Lewis at his word, and traced the various sources that Lewis might have used. Unfortunately, Boenig's assumption that Lewis was directly responding to Aulen's book, contra the evidence, makes it difficult to have confidence in Boenig's analysis of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.
Whenever Boenig's claims are more modest, and he assesses a text as one source among many for one of Lewis's books, the results are significantly better. The best of the analyses is of The Great Divorce in Chapter 3, in which Boenig examines how Lewis used elements of the medieval dream vision, with specific references to passages in Dante, Chaucer, Lydgate, and Guillaume de Lorris. Boenig's comparison of That Hideous Strength to T.H. White's The Once and Future King is unconvincing as an argument that Lewis was deliberately responding to and critiquing White (130), but it is worthwhile as a literary analysis of Lewis and White's contrasting takes on Merlin. In the Epilogue, Boenig offers an insightful reading of a passage from That Hideous Strength, showing how Lewis used and transformed "the riddle game between the Norse god Odin and the giant Vafthrudnir in the Vafthrudnismal, one of the poems included in the Old Norse Elder Edda" (146). Boenig provides a careful reading of the way that Lewis gives a "creative response" (148) to the source, opening up new insights for the reader.
In the end, C.S. Lewis and the Middle Ages is a chimera. While the second half of the book is badly flawed, the Introduction, Epilogue, and Chapters 1 and 2 are genuinely valuable, and some elements of Chapters 3 and 4 may spark ideas for further research and reading. This book will be of use to readers who are looking for background information to better appreciate Lewis's scholarship as a medievalist. The work of exploring Lewis's broader interaction with medieval literature, and its impact on his writing, remains to be done.
Ward, Michael. Planet Narnia: The Seven Heavens in the Imagination of C.S. Lewis. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008.
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|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2013|
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