Imagination and the Arts in C. S. Lewis: Journeying to Narnia and Other Worlds.
C. S. Lewis has become the Elvis of Evangelicals; his reputation and mystique continue to grow a generation after his death in 1963. His Chronicles of Narnia and his love for and loss of Joy Davidman late in his life have broadened his appeal even further, so that at last count nearly 150 books have been published about Lewis's life and writings. Amid this seeming embarrassment of riches, there is cause for actual embarrassment: in that mountain of books are only a handful of genuinely valuable secondary works, books that are critically informed and that go beyond plot summary or pithy quotations to offer significant analysis and evaluation. Thankfully, Peter J. Schakel's newest book, like his earlier ones, offers a substantially new contribution to Lewis studies.
As its title suggests, Imagination and the Arts in C. S. Lewis: Journeying to Narnia and Other Worlds has a dual focus: Lewis's views on imagination in general and his interest not only in literature but also in art, architecture, music, and dance. Schakel begins with the bold, but assuredly valid, assertion that "imagination is, except for salvation, the most important issue in Lewis's thought and life" (2). The opening chapter goes on to review how the concept of imagination has evolved since Shakespeare's time, noting especially Coleridge's (and Owen Barfield's) view of Imagination (with a capital I) as a faculty for attaining truths not available to the analytical intellect. Schakel shows how Lewis's conversion in his early thirties caused him to redefine the role of imagination, not as Spiritual Awareness in and of itself but as an image-making faculty that could reflect spiritual realities.
The closing chapter again takes up this theme, noting that for Lewis making Art is not in itself a moral activity, as some New Critics might assume, but that "the artistic imagination could be used in service of the moral imagination" (164). Schakel offers a balanced and thorough summary of Lewis's changing views on imagination and on the moral content of artistic creations. While most Lewis commentators merely summarize his views without daring to critique them, Schakel perceptively observes that, while Lewis's view provides a salutary corrective to those like F. R. Leavis who would seem to espouse a Religion of Art, Lewis himself may have been unrealistic about the power of the reader's imagination to engage the text as a thing-in-itself, unaltered by the reader's own values, experiences, and attitudes (21).
The middle chapters of the book more from theory to practice, surveying Lewis's interests in various art forms and showing how they are interwoven in his own works of fiction, particularly the Chronicles of Narnia. Chapter two discusses Lewis's love of books as physical objects in themselves and his bibliophilic habits during his school years (habits largely abandoned in his twenties when Lewis's meager income supported not only himself but also Mrs. Moore and her daughter Maureen). This chapter goes on to discuss various editions of the Chronicles of Narnia, noting some textual variants in the British and American versions and commenting on the quality of binding, paper, and illustrations in each succeeding edition. Chapter two may be of interest primarily to collectors and perhaps could have come later in Schakel's book, after more substantive chapters on how profoundly Lewis's sensibilites were influenced by the arts, as evinced by his letters and his own fiction.
Chapter three offers an engaging practical application of reader-response theory, showing how someone who reads the Chronicles of Narnia in their original published order (The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe first) may well have a more imaginatively satisfying experience than one who reads the seven books in the order in which they are now printed (with The Magician's Nephew first, since it comes earliest in the Narnia timeline). Schakel argues cogently that the reader of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe who shares the children's sense of mystery about a lamppost in the middle of nowhere, or their numinous awe at the first mention of Aslan, will have a more emotionally rich experience than one who starts out having read The Magician's Nephew. This second reader already knows about the lamppost and Aslan, not to mention the wardrobe itself and the professor who owns it, but such knowledge diminishes the story by robbing it of its mystery.
Chapters four and rive offer further examples of how critical theory may be usefully applied to actual texts, showing what "narratology" means in practical terms. Chapter four focuses on Lewis's preference for atmosphere, the "feel" of a story, over plot. Unliterary readers may lose interest in a story once they know the ending, as if it were yesterday's newspaper, but more literary readers (as well as children) can enjoy a story many times over, savoring not just its suspense but the quality of suspensefulness, an ongoing feeling of uncertainty or danger. Schakel finds this quality abundantly present in Lewis's own fiction, particularly the Chronicles of Narnia, whose "explorations of matters beyond and above everyday life, concerning origins, endings, aspirations, purpose, and meaning," give the stories a strong mythopoeic appeal (62). Chapter five focuses on the narrating voice of the Narnia stories, a thoughtful, colloquial persona who, Schakel ably argues, is "apart from Aslan--the most important character in the Chronicles" (88).
Chapters six through eight take up Lewis's interest in other art forms besides literature--music, dance, drawing, painting, architecture, and even clothing. Schakel documents through letters and diaries how much more deeply engaged Lewis was in art and music than is usually recognized, and he goes on to show how often non-literary arts play an important role in Lewis's own writings, both fiction and non-fiction. For example, music and dance appear frequently in Narnia, not merely to signal gladness and festivity but also to reflect the order of the cosmos and sometimes to evoke that elusive experience of joy. Occasionally in these chapters one may feel that Schakel is pressing to make his point. Lewis's massive erudition in the discipline of literature is virtually unrivaled by anyone in his generation or ours, but his references to painting and music more often than not call to mind familiar works of the sort one encounters in an introductory Art Appreciation course. Sometimes Schakel offers lengthy catalogues of Lewis's references to art or music or dance in his fiction, with not enough attention to the thematic implications or evocative power of a particular episode. Readets who admire Schakel's perceptive and eloquent interpretation of the Great Dance passage in Perelandra may wish that he had dwelt more fully as well on the Malacandrian funeral dirge in Out of the Silent Planet or the comic-solemn Snow Dance at the end of The Silver Chair.
All in all, Schakel has performed a valuable service for serious readers of Lewis in this book. He is thoroughly knowledgeable about Lewis and his many commentators, and he offers a variety of literary comparisons and counterpoints, ranging from Homer to Harry Potter. Schakel is also well informed critically and can identify the sources of Lewis's thinking in Plato or Coleridge, as well as contextualize and assess his critical theories in terms of his own contemporaries, such as the New Critics, or ours, such as reader-response theorists. Taken as a whole, Imagination and the Arts in C. S. Lewis is a welcome contribution to Lewis studies, one that should not be overlooked amid the flurry of new books of the kind Lewis himself lamented--the sort that begin, "Lewis was born...."