Wouldn’t it be amazing to read about the adventures, struggles, triumphs, thoughts, and dreams of real animals? C.S. Lewis thought so.
Admittedly, referring to the thoughts and dreams of a squirrel or a hummingbird is a bit fanciful. But isn’t it feasible to imagine that a pregnant doe is hoping to find a lush meadow, or that a beaver who’s just finished a fine meal is gratefully contented as he snuggles down for the night in his lodge?
In one of his thought-provoking books—which I enthusiastically recommend to everyone who likes to read—Lewis describes exactly how reading is vital to expanding our world. “Those of us who have been true readers all our life seldom fully realise the enormous extension of our being which we owe to authors” (An Experiment in Criticism).
In this volume, Lewis argues that books are better measured by how they are read, than by how they are written. In other words, Lewis is making the case that the true value of a book is not determined by the skill the author applied to its creation. Instead, Lewis writes, “so far as I can see . . . the specific value or good of literature [is that] it admits us to experiences other than our own.”
Lewis continues, with a fascinating discussion of his “experiment,” which flips traditional literary criticism on its head. Don’t rush through the following excerpt from the argument. It’s well worth taking your time to ponder his words and see if you agree.
[The experiences of others] are not, any more than our personal experiences, all equally worth having. Some, as we say, ‘interest’ us more than others. The causes of this interest are naturally extremely various and differ from one man to another; it may be the typical (and we say ‘How true!’) or the abnormal (and we say ‘How strange !’); it may be the beautiful, the terrible, the awe-inspiring, the exhilarating, the pathetic , the comic, or the merely piquant. Literature gives the entrée to them all.
Those of us who have been true readers all our life seldom fully realise the enormous extension of our being which we owe to authors. We realise it best when we talk with an unliterary friend. He may be full of goodness and good sense but he inhabits a tiny world. In it, we should be suffocated. The man who is contented to be only himself, and therefore less a self, is in prison.
My own eyes are not enough for me, I will see through those of others. Reality, even seen through the eyes of many, is not enough. I will see what others have invented. Even the eyes of all humanity are not enough.
At this point we arrive at the utterly Lewisian notion that even animals (e.g. uncivilized “brutes”) would be capable of broadening the horizons of our own thinking.
I regret that the brutes cannot write books. Very gladly would I learn what face things present to a mouse or a bee; more gladly still would I perceive the olfactory world charged with all the information and emotion it carries for a dog.
Literary experience heals the wound, without undermining the privilege, of individuality. There are mass emotions which heal the wound; but they destroy the privilege. In them our separate selves are pooled and we sink back into sub-individuality.
But in reading great literature I become a thousand men and yet remain myself. Like the night sky in the Greek poem, I see with a myriad eyes, but it is still I who see. Here, as in worship, in love, in moral action, and in knowing, I transcend myself; and am never more myself than when I do” (An Experiment in Criticism).
On the Subject of Reading & Rereading
If you need any more encouragement to seek out a copy of this wonderful book, allow me to share with you two profound points Lewis makes in support of his distinction between “literary” and “unliterary” people. (Lewis, of course, does not demean the latter. On the contrary, he grieves for the “tiny world” they choose to inhabit.)
The majority [of unliterary people], though they are sometimes frequent readers, do not set much store by reading. They turn to it as a last resource. They abandon it with alacrity as soon as any alternative pastime turns up. It is kept for railway journeys, illnesses, odd moments of enforced solitude, or for the process called ‘reading oneself to sleep.’
They sometimes combine it with desultory conversation; often, with listening to the radio. But literary people are always looking for leisure and silence in which to read and do so with their whole attention (An Experiment in Criticism).
In terms of rereading, Lewis was a fervent advocate of reading good books more than once. Most of us would say lack of time is the greatest deterrent to rereading classics, but most of us do have some favorites that we have returned to more than once.
The majority never read anything twice. The sure mark of an unliterary man is that he considers ‘I’ve read it already’ to be a conclusive argument against reading a work. We have all known women who remembered a novel so dimly that they had to stand for half an hour in the library skimming through it before they were certain they had once read it.
But the moment they became certain, they rejected it immediately. It was for them dead, like a burnt-out match, an old railway ticket, or yesterday’s paper; they had already used it (An Experiment in Criticism).
In contrast, Lewis describes how “those who read great works, on the other hand, will read the same work ten, twenty or thirty times during the course of their life.” Many of us would initially think our rereading frequency falls short of those specific tallies, perhaps we should reconsider. After all, most readers of Mere Inkling reread with great frequency portions of a particular library of sixty-six books,* gathered together in a book called the Bible.
* More books in the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox collection of the Scriptures, which include seven Deuterocanonical books. Fewer, of course, for our Jewish friends who follow the teachings of twenty-four books, which are also included in the Christian Bible.
20 thoughts on “C.S. Lewis & Animal Authors”
Hm. I agree in general but it’s interesting that he refers to ‘men’ throughout except when speaking of readers who lack concentration, when they magically become women
Sarada, point taken. Lewis was a product of his time and upbringing. His illustrations not infrequently sound politically incorrect to our contemporary ears.
However, there are wonderful examples showing that Lewis did not regard intellect as restricted to the masculine gender. His friendship with Dorothy Sayers provides evidence of this. The most convincing, however, is his respect for the mind of his wife, Joy. For a light-hearted treatment of this, check out our post on Scrabble: https://mereinkling.net/2019/02/12/c-s-lewis-scrabble/
Good point. It’s Sarada btw but that’s probably spellchecker
It was indeed the fault of the autocorrect function. I go to great effort getting names right, since as a lifelong “Rob,” I find it quite annoying when people who don’t know me address me as “Bob.”
I default to a person’s given/written name and wait to be invited to shift to nicknames. I usually use people’s titles, if I have a clue that is there preference.
Could you imagine, “Old Yeller” from the dog’s perspective? Totally different story. Fun ideas. If anyone could have talking animals tell awesome stories, it would have been, Lewis’ Narnians.
Have a great summer,
That’s a great example. It most surely would be a different story. Which goes for our own pets. Their tales would revolve around long and vigorous walks, frantically welcoming their “parents” home even when they’ve only been gone for a few minutes, and powerful smells both good and bad.
Glad you enjoyed it.
I never thought about it but the dogs breeds with compacted muzzles actually look like cats
Don’t tell that to the dogs.
I see what you mean. But even if you put dogs and cats in identical bodies, their differences would be quite evident.
In any case, as we are wont to say, each species is “special in its own way.”
Yes of course
Your references to animals’ perspectives put me in mind of Narnia, but also of a handful of children’s novels with animal protagonists (Shoebag, Hank the Cowdog, The One and Only Ivan).
Besides those observations, I enjoyed Lewis’ explanations of the literate vs unliterate. We are only worsening: most are considered literate but use their skill to understand 284 characters or fewer. In fact, they prefer images. I worry that none will have the patience or mental character to read novels in the near future.
You know, Chelsea, I was debating whether or not to mention a couple of the animal authors you cited. Also considered mentioning those animal-authored titles penned by senior political officials.
Your concern about the future of reading (and, in a broader sense, education) is widely shared. Of course, I should be honest and say that people who are actually literate, are in agreement.
I think your article stands on its own without the references. For one, it allowed my own mind to then think upon when others had attempted to write from an animal’s view.
What concerns me the most about the future of literacy is the lack of a large group who cares.
As you know quite well from your own experience, the length of a post is critical. We need to strive for the sweet spot where we say enough and leave readers feeling satisfied and, perhaps, even desiring just a little bit more.
I would naturally write longer, more nuanced essays, but that’s not what this medium calls for. That said, I still vary the depth of treatment as dictated by the subject matter.
As for the majority of people who simply don’t care about literacy, it’s terrifying. These people vote! Well, many of them do. And they are either utterly uninformed, or captives to a single opinionated information source. (Doesn’t matter if it’s on the left or the right, sole-source input bears too great a resemblance to indoctrination for my taste.)
I really enjoyed reading this. As a lover of all things literary, it struck a deep chord within me, while I was silently exclaiming “How true!”. I think there still are a lot of readers, but there seems to be a lot of pressure to churn through books as quickly as possible, instead of taking time to savour them, reading deeply and reflecting, and then rereading over and over again. Although I will have to start rereading a lot more if I am going to make twenty or thirty rereads. And there is so little time already!
I’m happy this resonated with you. And I’m thrilled that you are surrounded by a healthy number of readers. Sadly, I know very few. My siblings don’t read. They “taught” most of their children to follow the same pattern. We love to read. Two of our three children also love to read. The youngest says he dislikes reading (as a recreational activity) but since he teaches fourth grade and has three kids of his own (who love to read) I guess he does a pretty good job of feigning enjoyment.
As for reading a book 20 or 30 times… this life is too short. However, there may be ample time to enjoy a little rereading after the Parousia.
Well, I have learned a new word today. I had not come across “Parousia” before, although I guessed you were referring to the Second Coming. I am hoping there will be ample time for many things then too. My siblings aren’t much of readers either, and neither were my parents really, so I don’t know how I ended up always having my head in a book. Thankfully my daughter is an avid reader and lover of Lewis and Tolkien too.
It’s probably simply because it’s Greek, but I think of the word Parousia in a broader context than we usually refer to when we say Second Coming. The latter seems focused on the specific event of our Lord’s return. The former, in my mind at least, includes the ushering in of the fullness of the Kingdom and the purge of all that resulted from the Fall.
Thanks for the comments, Karen. I hope you continue to enjoy Mere Inkling.
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