Reading the Classics with CS Lewis

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Puritanboard Clerk
Martin, Thomas L. ed. Reading the Classics with C. S. Lewis. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2000.

This is not an invitation to the classics. There is a book for that. This is a guidebook to literary criticism from the perspective of CS Lewis. I won’t cover every essay but rather try to show how Lewis would have thought through different moments in literature.

Lewis the Teacher

While he was a skilled lecturer, that’s not really what he was for. In his tutorial role he sought to “challenge [the student’s] mind by provoking him to reexamine old assumptions and gain new insights….He only wanted to be an energizing, provocative traveling companion” (Keefe 39).

An Argument for the Classics

I haven’t always been kind to the classics approach. I don’t like whitewashing them. Much of paganism, the Greeks included, was demon-worship and pederasty (especially the Greeks). With that said, their approach also formed the questions which we are still wrestling with. And the Christian thinkers soon took over the classical discussion.


“To read Spenser is to grow in mental health.” We understand the moral allegory of Spenser not by simply noting that x = y. We have to get an emotional, even physical perception of what that moral quality feels like (Myers 91).


There is nothing really “Renaissancy” about this chapter. Some interesting observations, though. We are drawn to Lewis’s writings because he makes us feel as though we were really experiencing what he thinks the medievals would have felt when they looked at the universe. We chuckle at the Ptolemaic universe; they reveled in crystalline spheres within “spheres animated by the light of God” (Veith 107). While Ptolemaism is wrong, there is something even scientific about the Patristic and medieval focus on “light.”


Hierarchy is a key theme (Manlove 124).

Seventeenth Century

CS Lewis had an uneasy truce with John Donne (Price 141). Lewis admired him but didn’t like him. He much rather appreciated George Herbert (148). Even more, Herbert, like Bunyan, informed Lewis’s use of allegory. Pride of place, of course, goes to John Bunyan. His prose often “reaches right down” inside of you.


There is a whole chapter on John Milton, which isn’t surprising. In many ways Lewis’s Preface to Paradise Lost is better than the book. We should note in this chapter that Lewis identifies several stumbling blocks for people first getting into Milton.

A key theme for Milton, at least on one level, is hierarchy. (Lewis would later exploit this theme in That Hideous Strength). Satan’s flaw is rebellion. Of course, Milton never really harmonizes this with his own rebellion against His Majesty, Charles I.

Restoration and the Eighteenth Century

With a few exceptions, Lewis didn’t care much for the Restoration era. This is commonly called the “classical era” of English literature. But if that’s true, then Lewis raises a good point: Alexander Pope, that most classical of writers, wrote wit and satire--definitely not a classical theme.

Where the “classical” label does fit is in the later reaction of Romanticism. Romanticism in literature aims for the spontaneous. The classical aims for form and balance.

The author of this chapter suggests that Out of the Silent Planet is classical, whereas Perelandra pushes romanticism.

Towards the end of the 18th century we come to the greatest writer after Shakespeare, Samuel Johnson. As Lewis says, “Johnson always gets to the heart of the issue.” He notes that Johnson’s Rambler essays have a bracing and manly style. He even says he gets more pleasure from reading the Rambler than any other literature. Johnson’s other work on English poets is “pure Englishness” in prose.

He further notes that Jane Austen wrote with a cadence similar to Johnson. Indeed, Lewis notes that like Johnson, Jane Austen wrote with a “hardness” of “Firmness.”

The Romantics

The Romantics sought for a moral guide in nature and a belonging to nature. Lewis was too good of a Christian for this, even if he did capture the Romantic sense of “longing.” While I think the Romantic period is overrated, writers such as Blake did influence Lewis’s Great Divorce.

The book concludes with a survey of modern literature, which for humanity's sake we won't talk about.
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