Archives For Writing

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Have you ever wondered if publishers change the covers on their books trying to trick you into buying an extra copy? While I’m sure some unscrupulous publishing houses may have engaged in such questionable practices, surely they would never do so with the books of so honest a man as C.S. Lewis!

Over the past forty years I’ve purchased multiple copies of various works by C.S. Lewis. Occasionally I’ve needed to replace a loan copy that was never returned. A number of times when I’ve taught a class on one of his works, I’ve provided everyone with a personal copy. Sometimes I’ve purchased them with the sole intent to give them to the curious—I have some on my bookshelf right now waiting for the right home.

Through the years I have been struck by the frequency with which covers change. Sometimes, of course, it’s due to different publishers gaining rights to the titles. Often, though, it seems to be based almost on whim. Consider, for example, the diversity in covers for the final volume in C.S. Lewis’ space trilogy. (I picked this title arbitrarily, because of the interplanetary subject matter.)

If you examine the collage of covers, you’ll note some similarities and image reuse. However, the thing that surprised me was the way that a single publisher, Pan Books, had no fewer than four different covers. (Perhaps there is something to the suspicion that booksellers are more than happy to sell multiple copies to inattentive readers?)

It’s no secret that book covers are extremely important. They can increase the sales of marginal works and suppress the distribution of exceptional books. Their enormous influence gave rise to the wise maxim: “Don’t judge a book by its cover.” Jesus applied a variation of this theme to the publicly righteous hypocrites of his day when he said, “woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of dead people’s bones and all uncleanness” (Matthew 23:27, ESV).

Sadly, I’ve begun reading more than one book that bore an inviting cover and was filled with decomposing grammar, decaying plotlines and putrid characters.

On a website for creative artists, a fan of C.S. Lewis’ works recently experimented with creating innovative covers for three of Lewis’ most popular books.

Will Jacott explains,

screwtape cover.jpg I wanted to convey an accurate image of the book, while also allowing for some ambiguity so the reader could project their own meaning onto the cover. C.S. Lewis books are traditionally marketed toward Christian audiences, and often have light-hearted covers. . . . I wanted the books to appeal to a non-Christian audience, and I wanted the books to have a gritty and more emotional feeling, while also alluding to the extraordinary qualities inside the book.

I believe Will succeeded in his goals . . . and also made the covers simpler and more striking than many of the cluttered covers that adorn my shelf.

C.S. Lewis’ Thoughts on Book Covers

In 1915, Lewis wrote to his closest friend, Arthur Greeves, about hoping to get a library-worthy copy of The Faerie Queene by Edmund Spenser.* Unfortunately, he found the most suitable edition unappealing. “The pictures are tolerable but the print, if I remember, rather coarse (you know what I mean) and the cover detestable.”

In 1936, Lewis was writing to a friend in which he recommends the books of Charles Williams. After commending Williams’ skill in portraying virtuous characters, he adds, “the fact that Gollancz publishes them (in lurid covers) suggests that all this substantial edification—for it is nothing less—must be reaching the ordinary thriller-reader.” The comment makes me wonder what Lewis would have thought of some of the contemporary covers chosen for his own books.

Pauline Baynes was the illustrator with whom Lewis worked for The Chronicles of Narnia. In 1951 Lewis provided her with a sketch of the map of Narnia and its surroundings. The next week he wrote to her.

My idea was that the map should be more like a medieval map than an Ordnance Survey–mountains and castles drawn–perhaps winds blowing at the corners–and a few heraldic-looking ships, whales and dolphins in the sea. Aslan gazing at the moon would make an excellent cover design (to be repeated somewhere in the book; but do as you please about that.)

In a 1958 letter to Jocelyn Gibb, Lewis discusses his changes to the editing proofs of Reflections. His remarks about the cover of the book are interesting, particularly as they reveal his distaste for handwriting fonts, at least in that context.

About the Dust Cover, I like the colour scheme and wouldn’t object. If you have it, I should go for the best design, and archaeology be damned. But I don’t like the letters. We have very nice plain Roman Capitals now . . . and I think it a bad fashion to substitute printed mimicry of ugly handwriting. I wish all publishers would stop it.

Even if the handwriting were a beautiful script, which this is not, the whole idea that decoration consists in making everything masquerade as something else, is surely wrong. Do you like smoking-rooms on ships made up to look like Scotch baronial halls?

There is no better way to end this column than by quoting C.S. Lewis’ glorious description at the finale of The Chronicles of Narnia. As the stories end, the children are ushered into heaven by Aslan who, as he spoke, “no longer looked to them like a lion; but the things that began to happen after that were so great and beautiful that I cannot write them.”

All their life in this world and all their adventures had only been the cover and the title page: now at last they were beginning Chapter One of the Great Story which no one on earth has read: which goes on for ever: in which every chapter is better than the one before (The Last Battle).

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* Lewis would have loved to own this critical edition of The Fairie Queene, which would not be published until seventeen years after he wrote this letter. And, today, you can download volume one for free!

 

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In 1957, C.S. Lewis wrote an encouraging letter to a young author whose first book had been written at the age of fourteen. Jane Gaskell’s Strange Evil was described by the Times Literary Supplement as “a fantasy of macabre and gorgeous nonsense.” The review even alluded to Lewis himself in its description of the novel.

Judith, who poses nude for a living, is carried off to a C.S. Lewis-ish land where a monster called Baby conducts his reign of terror and where one extravagantly gory battle follows another.

Miss Gaskell is eloquently fascinated by words, the longer and more lush the better, and her book reveals an undoubted talent for fanciful description.

Gaskell went on to become a journalist. She also authored several more novels, and ultimately became a professional astrologer.

But, returning to the young girl and her first publication . . . Lewis considered the young girl worthy of encouragement.

My wife and I have just been reading your book and I want to tell you that I think it a quite amazing achievement–incomparably beyond anything I could have done at that age. The story runs, on the whole, very well and there is some real imagination in it.

The idea of the gigantic spoiled brat (had you a horrid baby brother once?) is really excellent: perhaps even profound. Unlike most modern fantasies your book also has a firm core of civilised ethics. On all these grounds, hearty congratulations.

Lewis does, however, offer a suggestion for how the book may have been improved. “I hope you will not think it impertinent if I mention (this is only one man’s opinion of course) some mistakes you can avoid in future.”

In a fantasy every precaution must be taken never to break the spell, to do nothing which will wake the reader and bring him back with a bump to the common earth. But this is what you sometimes do.

The moving bar on which they travel is a dull invention at best, because we can’t help conceiving it as mechanical. But when you add upholstered seats, lavatories, and restaurants, I can’t go on believing in faerie for a moment. It has all turned into commonplace technological luxury!

This concept is noteworthy for writers—especially writers of fiction, for whom imagination is an indispensable ingredient. We must avoid elements that derail the story, as inappropriate technology can sometimes do.

Beware of the Temptation

I suspect most writers today experience technology as a more concrete threat to their vocation than the inopportune example Lewis was noting. It’s not that we include too many or too few mechanical or scientific references in our work. The problem is that we are so distracted by the wonders of the world in which we live, that we never get around to putting the pen to paper.

Some of us can lose ourselves in the internet or social media. One fascinating read leads to another and we wonder “where the time has gone.” Vast programming “on demand,” is ready at a moment’s notice to occupy (or, sometimes, numb) our minds. And even when we do sit down at the keyboard, emails and messages interrupt our concentration.*

Technology, of course, is not only dangerous to writers. It can distract any of us from what is most important in life. How many hours have we squandered when we could have spent our time with family or friends? Why do we prefer to anesthetize ourselves with digital opiates, rather than helping a neighbor?

Not long ago, Christianity Today conducted an interview with Richard Foster. Foster’s 1978 book, A Celebration of Discipline, has been extremely influential in calling believers to lives of deeper simplicity and prayer. In their article they mentioned a revision in the preface that speaks powerfully to me.

Oh, for the day when all we had to do was turn off the television if we wanted solitude and silence! . . . we are bombarded by the broad distractions of constant noise, constant demands, constant news. Everyone, it seems, wants us to be accessible 24/7 and to respond instantly to any and every request.

Neuroscience studies are now showing us that the neural pathways of our brains are being rewired accordingly, so that our physical capacity for sustained attention is decreasing.

We, of course, complain endlessly about our wired world. But—let’s be honest—we do enjoy our technological gluttony. There is, however, a better way to live.

I’m going to close this post with a personal prayer. Feel free to join me in it, if you desire.

Gracious Father, forgive me my trespasses, and deliver me from the sin of technological gluttony to which I so often surrender. Draw me away from the table of excess, and lead me on that better path . . . the way that leads to life, and to you. Amen.


* Many of these distractions can be significantly decreased by setting your software to provide fewer “notifications” when various things occur. For example, I recently had to reset my iTunes because the program was throwing up a message every time a new song began.

When I am listening to the soundtrack of The Lord of the Rings, I don’t care to be told that “The Foot of Orthanc” is coming up as the strains of “The Road to Isengard” are fading away.

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If you don’t know the meaning of “hamartia,” you’re not alone. But it’s a very important word, for more than one reason, so read on.

Hamartia describes a feature many writers of fiction or drama instill in their most memorable characters. It simply means “tragic flaw.” The deep character defect which cannot be overcome by sincere intention or persistent effort.

Merriam-Webster describes it this way.

Aristotle introduced the term in the Poetics to describe the error of judgment which ultimately brings about the tragic hero’s downfall. As you can imagine, the word is most often found in literary criticism.

However, news writers occasionally employ the word when discussing the unexplainable misfortune or missteps of übercelebrities regarded as immortal gods and goddesses before being felled by their own shortcomings.

Despite being a thespian in high school, I never formally studied drama. So I didn’t encounter the word there.

Likewise, I have written consistently since earning a Journalism degree four decades ago. However, since I have a 37:1 nonfiction to fiction ratio, I did not know this Greek word had found its way into the English lexicon.

I was surprised to discover its English meaning in my usually-familiar word of the day email (from The Free Dictionary).

While I was unfamiliar with its English usage, I already knew the word. I originally met hamartia (ἁμαρτία) while studying the New Testament in Greek. Hamartia literally refers to “missing the mark,” and it is the primary biblical Greek word for sin.

The first usage of the word in the sense of being an inner quality, occurs in Aristotle’s Poetics.  Aristotle writing as a pre-Christian philosopher, naturally perceived the literary device in a pagan manner.

The Greek word hamartia translates pretty directly as “error” or “shortcoming” without any necessary overtones of guilt or moral failure. Our modern conception of tragedy and the “tragic flaw” of the hero usually involves the concept of hubris, or overweening pride, that leads to disaster.

Macbeth, for instance, has the arrogance to think he can overstep the laws of God and state, and ultimately pays dearly for this arrogance. Macbeth is a tragic hero with a clear tragic flaw: his downfall results from a moral failing and can be seen as divine retribution proportional to his guilt. But Macbeth also contains heavy Christian overtones that would of course be found nowhere in Greek tragedy.

An understanding of Aristotle’s concept of hamartia—and indeed an understanding of Greek tragedy in general—relies on an understanding of the ethics and cosmology of the ancient Greeks. . . . Greek ethics are based more on the notion of virtue than obligation.

What of the Consequences?

In a 2014 article entitled “C.S. Lewis: The Anti-Platonic Platonist,” Grace Tiffany skillfully explores the Platonic echoes in Lewis’ writings. In discussing his literary examples of human failings, she writes:

There are of course Biblical models justifying Lewis’ “negatively capable” presentations of misguided characters . . . An older philosophical source, if not a Platonic one, also justifies mimetic representations of evil by the argument that these are morally purgative.

Imitations of hamartia, or tragic error, produce “fear and pity” (Aristotle, Poetics 1453b)—compassion for the character elicited by a skilled simulation of his psychology, naturally accompanied by a healthy fear of ourselves making similar mistakes. What ensures the fear is, of course, the dramatization of the horrible end to which hamartia has led . . . (Christianity and Literature 63.3).

In 1953, C.S. Lewis wrote to a correspondent that sin was more than merely making a mistake. In doing so, he alludes to the change in the meaning of the word ἁμαρτία.

No. I don’t think sin is completely accounted for by faulty reasoning nor that it can be completely cured by re-education. That view has, indeed, been put forward: by Socrates and, in the early 19th Century, by Godwin.

But I think it overlooked the (to me) obviously central fact that our will is not necessarily determined by our reason. If it were, then, as you say, what are called ‘sins’ would not be sins at all but only mistakes, and would require not repentances but merely correction.

Returning to the literary or dramatic definition of hamartia as a tragic flaw, it seems to me that this term offers a fitting parallel to the word sin.

Ever since humanity’s fall, we suffer the curse of bearing original sin, a tragic flaw. It is a scar that no medical or psychological treatment can cure and no amount of determination can repair. This tragic flaw will be our doom. Unless, that is, there is One who is capable and desirous of restoring us to our original health and purity. One, perhaps, in whose own image you and I were created . . .

This wonder is something well worth pondering—and perhaps one day, writing about.

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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.

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Who among us has lived a life free of typographical errors? When we learned to type (or “keyboard”), our typing speed was influenced by the number of incorrect characters we included.

Even worse, some infernal source birthed the idea of “autocorrect,” which is occasionally useful for documents, but just as frequently deadly for emails and texts.

Lewis’ own books have included a number of typographical errors. Arend Smilde, a Dutch scholar and translator, has noted a fair number of them on his valuable website.

The truth is, it is possible for errors to creep in whenever original manuscripts are copied.

Even with the Scriptures, existing manuscripts include various minor variations, since the autographs have been lost to history.

This fact necessitates the need for “textual criticism,” and many earnest biblical scholars have devoted their lives to discerning the original text. (“Criticism” in this use, does not connote negativity. It simply refers to study, such as with “literary criticism.”)

Textual criticism diverges significantly from the so-called “higher criticisms” which frequently result in confusion and doubt.* Comparing actual texts is fundamental to the study of all literary creations.

C.S. Lewis wrote a brilliant essay entitled “Modern Theology and Biblical Criticism,” which is currently known as “Fern-Seed and Elephants.” In it, he distinguishes between the various types of criticism and affirms textual examination as utterly valid.

We think that different elements in this sort of theology have different degrees of strength. The nearer it sticks to mere textual criticism . . . the more we are disposed to believe in it. And of course, we agree that passages almost verbally identical cannot be independent. It is as we glide away from this into reconstructions of a subtler and more ambitious kind that our faith in the method waivers; and our faith in Christianity is proportionally corroborated.

The sort of statement that arouses our deepest scepticism is the statement that something in a Gospel cannot be historical because it shows a theology or an ecclesiology too developed for so early a date. For this implies that we know, first of all, that there was any development in the matter, and secondly, how quickly it proceeded.

When books are published, errors slink in. This generates errata, which are presumably corrected in any subsequent editions of the work. (It dawns on me that I’ve never seen an erratum, noting there is only one mistake in the work.)

The Genesis of Today’s Thoughts

Curiously, the article that led me to think about textual errors involves the substitution of an i for an e. The result is that for centuries, people mistakenly believed that Rome had a “Little Temple of Ridicule.” The notion was that the ancient Romans so loved humor, that they “went so far as to erect a ridiculi aedicula, or chapel of laughter.” This curious article is well worth reading (hint: it has something to do with Hannibal’s retreat).

It’s not that the idea of humor shouldn’t be celebrated. On the contrary, laughter features broadly in C.S. Lewis’ works. In a letter written shortly after his marriage to Joy, he alludes to Dante’s portrait of heaven. It is an image Lewis affirmed, and one that I happily anticipate.

Of course Heaven is leisure (“there remaineth a rest for the people of God”): but I picture it pretty vigorous too as our best leisure really is. Man was created “to glorify God and enjoy Him forever.”

Whether that is best pictured as being in love, or like being one of an orchestra who are playing a great work with perfect success, or like surf bathing, or like endlessly exploring a wonderful country or endlessly reading a glorious story—who knows? Dante says Heaven “grew drunken with its universal laughter.”


* For an informative discussion of the different forms of criticism, see this conversation. In response to the question “How is it, then, that the Higher Criticism has become identified in the popular mind with attacks upon the Bible and the supernatural character of the Holy Scriptures?” the author writes:

Some of the most powerful exponents of the modern Higher Critical theories have been Germans, and it is notorious to what length the German fancy can go in the direction of the subjective and of the conjectural. For hypothesis-weaving and speculation, the German theological professor is unsurpassed.

Some of the men who have been most distinguished as the leaders of the Higher Critical movement in Germany and Holland have been men who have no faith in the God of the Bible, and no faith in either the necessity or the possibility of a personal supernatural revelation.

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When C.S. Lewis died, one of his Cambridge colleagues uttered a shocking statement—to his Cambridge students.

“C.S. Lewis is dead,” announced F.R. Leavis to his English literature students at Cambridge University a few days later, while the world mourned for Kennedy (the President was assassinated the same day).

American novelist and essayist D. Keith Mano, then studying at Cambridge, remembers Leavis continuing his brief commentary on Lewis’ passing as follows: “They said in the Times that we will miss him. We will not. We will not.

Who knew the world of literary criticism could be so ill-mannered?

In my readings about C.S. Lewis and his life I’ve noted references to a fellow English professor at Cambridge who waged a lengthy academic argument with Lewis over the heart of English education.

The challenger to Lewis’ history-oriented approach advocated a critical position, which diluted concern for the intentions of the original writers. I’m not a lit major, so I’ll leave the description at that.*

F.R. Leavis, a dynamic influence at Cambridge, dreaded the arrival of Lewis when he moved from Oxford to a distinguished chair tailor-made for him. The two scholars shared several traits which might have disposed them to friendship.

Both were veterans of the Great War.** One difference between the veterans is curious. Leavis declined to join the Officers’ Training Corps while a student, and chose ambulance service when conscription began. Lewis, on the other hand, voluntarily joined the OTC, even though he (as an Irishman) was exempt from the conscription.***

Another similarity between the two was that they inspired many students. Far from the caricature of droning academicians, Lewis and Leavis drew fans and even disciples from the student body. (In a recent post I mentioned the affectionate nickname some of the former’s students had for him: Papa Lewis.)

The Problem

Most writers believe this second “similarity” factored into the strained relationship between the two. Both had strong personalities, and bold convictions. They did not, however, share a common temperament. Lewis was normally respectful of his philosophical adversaries. Leavis, not so much. The following comes from “C.S. Lewis and the Art of Disagreement.”

The fact that Lewis could approve of atheists [and] liberals . . . reinforces Brewer’s point that Lewis would not allow disagreement to become personal. He could always distinguish the man from the man’s opinion, and he knew the difference between an argument and a quarrel. He would not allow himself to be betrayed into aggression, but would, where necessary, draw rein on a dispute with a wry smile and an agreement to disagree.

His public written controversy on literature with E.M.W. Tillyard (later published as The Personal Heresy) was conducted with pugnacity but without personal animus. And though Lewis laid into the arguments of another colleague, F.R. Leavis, with great forcefulness in the pages of An Experiment in Criticism, he never named Leavis within those pages, but covered his opponent in a thoughtfully woven cloak of pseudonymity.

Contrast that to Leavis’ comment with which we began, in which he “celebrates” Lewis’ passing.

Lewis was quite aware of Leavis’ animosity. In a 1961 letter to the publisher of The Screwtape Letters and Screwtape Proposes a Toast, the author strikes the Cambridge Review from the publications scheduled to receive review copies.

I’ve not additions to make, but one subtraction. Delete Cambridge Review. It’s mainly in the hands of Leavisites who will blackguard any book of mine, and I don’t know why we should let them have a free copy for their sport!

Lewis scholar Brenton Dickieson wrote a column about George Watson’s critique of Lewis. Watson met Lewis at Oxford and later joined him on the faculty at Cambridge.

Here are George Watson’s first evaluative words of Lewis: “Like F.R. Leavis, he was an offensive critic.” Awesome. I think it is an evaluation that would have made Lewis chuckle, particularly in his positive comparison with Leavis, the closest thing Lewis ever got to having a Sherlockian arch-nemesis.

However, Watson (note the name) is careful to remind us that Lewis “reveled in diversity as much as Leavis detested it.” That diversity in Lewis is one of the features that (I believe) most draws and repels readers today.

In the aforementioned article, “Lewis and Cambridge,” Barbour candidly describes the disparity between the spirit of the two nemeses.

“[Lewis’] controversies were always impersonal and often ended with the participants finding a good deal of common ground, whereas Leavis’s controversies . . . tended to end in anathematizing and deeply personal wounding.”

Leavis’ reputation for engendering conflict was so pronounced The Guardian actually included the following in his obituary:

Perhaps the most telling counter-assault on him was by C.S. Lewis, who said that the use of subliminal code words like “maturity” and “relevance” smuggled in an entire value system that was never made explicit for scrutiny. Others accused him of being a crypto-Marxist.

Leavis never replied, which was a pity, but then his weapons during his long career of humiliations in the Cambridge English faculty also included silence, internal exile and cunning.

His most murderous and underestimated weapon was ridicule, which he deployed in lectures with the virtuosity of a music-hall star and with an insensitivity verging on paranoia.

The Essence of Their Differences

Exploding English: Criticism, Theory, Culture includes a chapter entitled “Leavis, Lewis, and Other Oppositions.” It’s précis suggests one reason Lewis’ criticisms have possessed a longer lifespan than those of Leavis.

Lewis and Leavis . . . were the dominant figures in literary study in the middle decades of the twentieth century. . . . it is Lewis’s arguments and assumptions that seem to be the more challenging and which have something to contribute to contemporary debates.

This assessment echoes Lewis’ own view that the Leavis tsunami may have crested. Just a month before his death, he wrote to Basil Willey about his retirement. Willey would retire from his own chair two years later.

My dear Basil . . . I have an idea that Cambridge ten years’ hence might suit us both [better] than the Cambridge we have known. . . .

I hope your success will follow you . . . [if not], then our English school, with its neglect of language, becomes purely a school of literary criticism. And criticism, thus isolated, seems to me a positively mischievous instrument of education.

In “C.S. Lewis, Literary Critic: A Reassessment,” which appeared in Mythlore, William Calin describes Lewis’ passionate defense of English authors whose reputations were in jeopardy.

A Preface to Paradise Lost does for Milton what The Allegory of Love did for Spenser, and Lewis does for epic what he had previously done for allegory and fin’ amor [courtly love]. . . . In sum, Lewis defends his authors language from the strictures of Eliot and Leavis; he defends his worldview and its artistic embodiment from the prejudice of 1930s agnostic university faculty in English. . . .

When he tells students “Don’t read criticism” [Lewis] alludes again to Leavis and his disciples, who fetishized the term “critic.” Lewis would have called himself a scholar or an historian.

The following passage from A Preface to Paradise Lost is telling. Leavis is the unnamed standard bearer for the worldview he rejects. It reveals Lewis’ keen discernment in understanding of his unbridgeable difference with Leavis.

It is not that [Leavis] and I see different things when we look at Paradise Lost. He sees and hates the very same that I see and love. Hence the disagreement between us tends to escape from the realm of literary criticism.

We differ not about the nature of Milton’s poetry, but about the nature of man, or even the nature of joy itself.

The Apostle Paul described this difference in his correspondence with the Corinthians.

Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might understand the things freely given us by God. . . .

The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned. . . . But we have the mind of Christ.

In an excellent article entitle “Three Great Critics: F.R. Leavis, T.S. Eliot, and C.S. Lewis,” Michael Aeschliman**** closes with a gospel-oriented thought.

It is pleasing to conclude by imagining C.S. Lewis, T.S. Eliot, and F.R. Leavis now conversing together amicably, recollecting emotion in tranquility, in another and better and more luminous realm, toward which all three of them were fervent pilgrims throughout their embattled but noble lives.


* There are ample online sources available to describe the contrast in detail. For example, Brian Barbour’s Modern Philology essay, “Lewis and Cambridge,” provides a superb explanation of the struggle in its broader context.

** Lewis served in the trenches, where he was seriously wounded. Leavis was fortunate enough to avoid frontline combat by serving in the Friends Ambulance Unit. This site provides a helpful account of his service on an Ambulance Train which shuttled the wounded to ports.

*** There is no record of which ambulance train carried Lewis homeward after his injury, but wouldn’t it be ironic he and Leavis had unknowingly encountered one another at that time?

**** Aeschliman is the author of The Restitution of Man: C.S. Lewis and the Case Against Scientism.

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Few writers attain their full potential without the advice and encouragement of others.

C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien recognized that fact.

For many years they gathered regularly with a number of other keen minds, almost all of whom shared their Christian faith. (Notably, Owen Barfield who was an Anthroposophist, was a notable exception.)  Some writers visited the community as guests.

I’ve written in the past about the great benefit provided by Inkling-style literary criticism. It’s all about synergy.

Mount Hermon Christian Writer’s Conference is one of the premier gatherings of its sort. After many years of hoping to attend, my wife and I journeyed to California for its Fiftieth Anniversary this past week. What a blessing!

In addition to hundreds of zealous writers, the conference was attended by twoscore publishers, agents and writing experts who generously shared their vast knowledge. And I use that word “generously” in a literal sense. The faculty made itself accessible to a degree I have never before witnessed (and I am a veteran of innumerable professional conferences). The speakers were sincerely interested in encouraging each and every participant.

Classes were available for writing novices, journeymen and experts. I found the track on screenwriting to be the most helpful for my own current needs. I hope to put these new lessons into practice in the next few years.

I can confidently assure you that Mount Hermon will also offer the sort of advice and encouragement that you need to advance your own skills to the proverbial “next level.” If you are interested in attending Mount Hermon, you can learn more here.

Back on the Home Front

If you have never enjoyed the benefits of gathering locally with other writers, I strongly encourage you to consider it now.

If you’re on a critique-group-hiatus due to past disappointments, why not look for a fresh group with a healthier focus?

I sincerely believe most of us become better writers while growing together, than we do wandering on our own. Mount Hermon reinforced that conviction.

I encourage each of you to reach your own full potential—with a little help from some new friends.