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Thursday, September 20, 2007

C. S. Lewis on how to read as a literary critic

To enjoy our full humanity we ought, so far as is possible, to contain within us potentially at all times, and on occasion to actualize, all the modes of feeling and thinking through which man has passed. You must, so far as in you lies, become an Achaean chief while reading Homer, a medieval knight while reading Malory, and an eighteenth century Londoner while reading Johnson. Only thus will you be able to judge the work 'in the same spirit that its author writ' and to avoid chimerical criticism. C. S. Lewis, A Preface to Paradise Lost, p. 64. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1964) The book is criticism (mainly positive) of John Milton's work.

Interesting. I wonder if Lewis had thought of fantastic literature, not just literature from the past, when he wrote this? (The book was originally published in 1942, and I don't believe Lewis had written any fantastic literature at the time, and I'm not sure that he had heard Tolkien reading any of his aloud, either, at that point.) The book is dedicated to Charles Williams, because of his own analysis of Paradise Lost, but Lewis had read at least one, and probably more of the novels by Williams, which are, I believe, somewhat fantastic. I tried reading one of them once, but couldn't get into it.

By his logic, then, you would need to become, as far as possible, a rabbit to criticize Watership Down fairly, or a hobbit to criticize Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings. And, perhaps, a talking animal or a faun to criticize Lewis's own Narnia books. Good authors help us to do just this, I think. No doubt there are a few million people, some of them older than Rowling, who have temporarily become students at Hogwarts, for example. The hard part would be to fairly criticize an author who doesn't do that for us. For some people, apparently no author of fantastic literature draws them in in this way. I guess they shouldn't criticize it, then, according to Lewis. As usual, he was on to something.

Thanks for reading.


Weekend Fisher said...

Have you ever read C.S. Lewis' Letters to Children? In several letters he offers (solicited) advice on their writing, some of it nearly along the lines you suggest. Fascinating stuff, for those of us who are into the craft itself ...

Take care & God bless
Anne / WF

Martin LaBar said...

No, I haven't read that. (I hadn't read the book I mentioned in this post until this week, either) I probably should.

About the only writing I do is this blog.

Thanks for reading, and for your comment.