Lewis’s “third world”

DS Ketelby drew my attention recently to an article by New Yorker “critic-at-large” Adam Gopnik, entitled “Prisoner of Narnia: How CS Lewis Escaped”. Now, in some ways this is an astonishingly ungenerous and sour treatment of Lewis (drawing heavily on the AN Wilson account of Lewis’ life, particularly his sex-life), but there are some good insights in there as well.

First, Gopnik observes how the adulation for CS Lewis among many American Christians (for whom he has become a figure literally “incised on stained glass”) may be more counter-productive for his legacy than the general apathy towards him in England, at least outside conservative evangelical circles:

Lewis is defended, analyzed, protected, but always in the end vindicated, while his detractors are mocked at length: a kind of admiration not so different in its effects from derision.

Praise a good writer too single-mindedly for too obviously ideological reasons for too long, and pretty soon you have him all to yourself. The same thing has happened to G. K. Chesterton: the enthusiasts are so busy chortling and snickering as their man throws another right hook at the rationalist that they don’t notice that the rationalist isn’t actually down on the canvas; he and his friends have long since left the building.

A second interesting point made by Gopnik relates to how Lewis’ faith informed his writings as a professor of English literature, and in particular how Lewis (in his book, The Allegory of Love) makes “a profound historical argument about the literary imagination” when he describes a fundamental change that occurred in Western literature during the Renaissance. Gopnik writes:

Until the time of Tasso and Ariosto, [Lewis] points out, writers had two worlds available to them: the actual world of experience and the world of their religion. Only since the Renaissance had writers had a third world, of the marvellous, of free mythological invention, which is serious but in which the author does not really believe or make an article of faith.

He then quotes Lewis as follows:

The probable, the marvelous-taken-as-fact, the marvelous-known-to-fiction — such is the triple equipment of the post-Renaissance poet. Such were the three worlds which Spenser, Shakespeare, and Milton were born to. …

But this triple heritage is a late conquest. Go back to the beginnings of any literature and you will not find it. At the beginning the only marvels are the marvels which are taken for fact. … The old gods, when they ceased to be taken as gods, might so easily have been suppressed as devils. … Only their allegorical use, prepared by slow developments within paganism itself, saved them, as in a temporary tomb, for the day when they could wake again in the beauty of acknowledged myth and thus provide modern Europe with its “third world” of romantic imagining. …

The gods must be, as it were, disinfected of belief; the last taint of the sacrifice, and of the urgent practical interest, the selfish prayer, must be washed away from them, before that other divinity can come to light in the imagination. For poetry to spread its wings fully, there must be, besides the believed religion, a marvellous that knows itself as myth.

When we sit down to write a romance, then, we make up elves and ghosts and wraiths and wizards, in whom we don’t believe but in whom we enclose our most urgent feelings, and we demand that the world they inhabit be consistent and serious.

This is reminiscent of Chesterton’s argument in his biography of St Francis of Assisi, that it took the thousand years of the Dark Ages to cleanse Nature of its pagan associations, so that Francis could then take that same Nature and employ it in praise of its Creator.

The final point from Gopnik’s article is a bit more controversial, so I’ll save that for my next post – to follow shortly.

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