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CS Lewis C. S. Lewis: His Literary Achievement, Colin Manlove

C. S. Lewis’s well-deserved reputation for being an apologist who conveyed the ageless truths of Christianity in a fresh, genial way that could speak with equal power to logicians hungry for rational proofs and lovers of beauty hungry for mystery has sometimes obscured the fact that he was also a very fine literary author. His seven Chronicles of Narnia are not just vehicles for “smuggling theology” into a theology-averse age (though the phrase is Lewis’s), but novels written within the fairy tale genre that are rich with concrete images and complex themes. The three very different novels that make up his Space Trilogy are not only used by Lewis the Christian to explore the nature of temptation, spiritual warfare, and redemption but by Lewis the artist to expand the imagination of his readers and to engage in what his friend Tolkien called sub-creation. The Pilgrim’s Regress offers a critique of the false “isms” of the twentieth century while playfully reworking Bunyan’s timeless allegory; The Great Divorce mounts an apology for hell while providing intense psychological insight into human character and motivation; Till We Have Faces incarnates in fiction Lewis’s apologetical argument that Christ was the myth made fact while presenting a first-person narration of great subtlety and power.

In C. S. Lewis: His Literary Achievement, Colin Manlove, a critic who specializes in fantasy and who has taught English Literature at Edinburgh University, takes us on an exciting journey through all thirteen novels. Working in the tradition of such top-notch Lewis scholars as Peter Schakel, Thomas Howard, and Clyde Kilby, all of whom he pays tribute to in his notes, Manlove celebrates (and sometimes critiques) Professor Lewis the literary author who is as careful in constructing his novels as he is passionate about endowing them with deeper Christian meanings. Without ignoring or downplaying biblical connections, Manlove turns his critical eye toward unpacking the thematic patterns that underlie each of the novels.

In his introduction, written to accompany this new reprinting of his book (it first appeared in 1987), Manlove explains what is unique about his method of analysis. Whereas most critics take an a priori approach to Lewis—that is, they come to the novels looking to find a pre-chosen connecting idea or concept, whether Christian or secular—Manlove opts for an a posteriori approach that tries “to let Lewis’s books speak for themselves” (2). Lewis himself claimed that The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe began not with an a priori decision to retell the gospel in fairy tale terms, but with a series of a posteriori images that came into his head and would not leave.  Manlove takes up the novels as a lover of Lewis’s imagery and story-telling powers and then tries to make what he can of them as aesthetic objects.

And this defines both the strengths and weaknesses of the book. For all the precision of his analysis, Manlove’s readings of the thirteen novels never quite come to life as they should. Somehow Lewis’s overarching genius—his ability to fuse reason and imagination, logic and faith, argument and desire—is never quite felt. We don’t see into Lewis’s soul, even if we gain a shaper understanding of his craftsmanship. Part of the problem is Manlove’s insistence on reading the books in isolation (though he helpfully points out some of the popular books that influenced Lewis) rather than as parts of a greater whole. One simply cannot unpack fully the intricacies of Perelandra without reading it alongside The Problem of Pain and A Preface to Paradise Lost—and the same goes for The Pilgrim’s Regress and Surprised by Joy, Out of the Silent Planet and The Discarded Image, That Hideous Strength and The Abolition of Man, The Great Divorce and The Screwtape Letters, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and Mere Christianity, and Till We Have Faces and The Four Loves. More generally, the Chronicles themselves need to be seen in fuller conversation with Lewis’s other works. The Magician’s Nephew and The Last Battle, in particular, need to be parsed via The Great Divorce, The Screwtape Letters, and “The Weight of Glory.”

Still, there is a great deal to be learned from this book. And, perhaps oddly, that learning will be increased in direct proportion to how much previous knowledge of Lewis the reader brings with him. One who knows little of Lewis, or who knows only Lewis’s writings and not the voluminous criticism those writings have produced, will likely gain little from Manlove’s exacting analyses of style, characterization, and theme. But those who have delved deeply into the secondary literature will recognize at once that Manlove has uncovered aspects of Lewis the artist that have not been appreciated before. And for that, all Lewis scholars should be thankful for the republication of C. S. Lewis: His Literary Achievement.

Manlove shows particular sensitivity to the shape of Lewis’s narratives, whether they be circular or linear (or both), move outward toward others or inward toward the self. Though Manlove is not the first critic to point out the circular nature of The Pilgrim’s Regress, he does well to remind us that “the threatening Landlord John left behind is actually the source of all his desire, and in running away from him he is also running towards him” (19). He also demonstrates convincingly that, from a literary standpoint, the best part of The Pilgrim’s Regress is the opening section where Lewis successfully captures “the child’s point of view, where everything in the world seems strange and abrupt” (16). More generally, Manlove shows that Lewis’s skills as an artist blossomed as his imagery grew more precise.

Manlove’s analysis of The Space Trilogy draws attention to the many devices Lewis uses to capture and convey the strangeness of Mars and Venus. In Out of the Silent Planet, Lewis finds endless ways to defamiliarize us. By the end of the novel, the “alien becomes ‘natural’, the human grotesque, the Moon apparently seen from Earth turns into the Earth seen from space, [and] empty and dark space becomes the home of life and light” (45). In Perelandra, Lewis draws us in “by the seeming likeness of things [on Venus] to our own world, but this only makes us feel more forcibly the differences” (56). Lewis was a writer keenly aware of shifting textures and landscapes, and Manlove helps us to see the results of that awareness.

One area where Manlove excels is in working through the “two movements, of deadly shrinkage and widening joy” (97) that play themselves out in so many different ways in Lewis’s fiction: in the contrasting trajectories of the N.I.CE. and the Society of St Anne’s (That Hideous Strength), in the ghosts and Real People of The Great Divorce, in the adult and child protagonists of The Magician’s Nephew, in the good and evil characters who get thrown into the stable at the end of The Last Battle, in the various stages through which Orual progresses in Till We Have Faces. His readings of the Chronicles are less interesting, mostly because he never taps the full numinous power of Aslan, but he does make some good observations along the way: that Prince Caspian embodies “a very Shakespearian view, whereby the macrocosm reflects the microcosm” (141); that what Prince Rilian’s mother tried to whisper to him before he died was likely a request that he not seek vengeance on her slayer; that Puddleglum’s strength comes from his ability to see through false appearances; that the first half of The Magician’s Nephew appears accidental while the second half seems organized.

In some ways, Manlove’s most provocative reading is saved for the end, where he struggles hard to resuscitate the reputation of Orual and to convince us that she is not as guilty as most readers assume in her “betrayal” of Psyche. Manlove’s apology has merit, though I would argue that if Till We Have Faces is read in close conjunction with The Great Divorce and The Four Loves, the nature of Orual’s guilt is revealed to be somewhat worse than Manlove suggests. Still, I must applaud the discerning comparison Manlove makes between Till We Have Faces and Henry James’s The Sacred Fount: “like the narrator of The Sacred Fount, Orual can in part be viewed as a spiritual vampire. But the contrast with James is that in Till We Have Faces, both views, of Orual innocent and of Orual guilty, are simultaneously true. Where James leaves us with a hideous indeterminacy, Lewis leaves us with a paradox” (219).

For drawing out this paradox and many others, Manlove deserves the thanks of all lovers of Lewis.

Books mentioned in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore. This essay originally appeared in St. Austin Review and is republished here by the gracious permission of the author.

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