Exploring C.S. Lewis’s Vocation
A Review of
The Neglected C. S. Lewis
Exploring the Riches of His Most Overlooked Books
Mark Neal and Jerry Root
Review by Betsy Susan Morgan
The Internet is heavier on reviews than on Table of Contents, so let us first say what ‘neglected’ works are covered.
The authors discuss eight works, one chapter each, in the order in which the works were published. They are:
Lewis traces the changing attitude towards courtly love, adultery, and passion in marriage through the literature of the Middle Ages.
Lewis and E. M. Tillyard argue over a three year period in a scholarly journal about how much one needs to know about the author (in this case, Milton) in order to comprehend his work. Tillyard wants to get into Milton’s mind; Lewis claims all we need is the text.
Lewis provides an introduction and guide to Charles Williams’s Arthurian poems and the theological ideas that underpin them. Williams is dense; Lewis attempts to make him less dense and this essay tries to make him less dense still; it is still dense.
Lewis’s contribution to The Oxford History of English Literature. Exhaustive. Lewis read every book written or translated in English during this period. The overview of poetry, translators of the Bible, Sidney, Spenser’s Faerie Queene, etc. is illuminating. When Lewis said to Tolkien, “If they won’t write the kinds of books we want to read, we shall have to write them ourselves,” he might have been thinking of the sixteenth century.
Lewis presents seven principles of meaning change, which are nicely outlined for us; the dangers of the death of language and language misuse are pertinent in today’s climate.
Lewis presents five different mindsets of readers which are outlined for us; he objects to critics who evaluate a book as good or bad and don’t leave the full experience up to the reader.
Lewis presents the ideas the medieval world believed, how that image affected their lives and art, and how the image ultimately had to be discarded; Lewis thought we could learn from them.
Two essays are summarized cogently and with a prescient statement as to how they apply to us today. However, Jane Austen and Sir Walter were writing at the beginning of the nineteenth century, not in the seventeenth.
These books are literary criticism/history, Lewis’s bread and butter, so to speak. He made his living teaching and writing about literature and literary periods. His more popular works were his avocation. These works are the result of his vocation. We have here the lectures he presented to his students. His goal was to introduce various literary works or a literary period. The lectures of an excellent Oxford don are nothing to be sneered at. Unfortunately, as we move further away from a grounding in the Liberal Arts and from a knowledge of Past Times, we need an introduction to Lewis’s introductions. Here we have it. Usually one reads literary criticism after one reads the works being critiqued. This book reverses the order. It criticizes works we have never read. Remarkably it works.
However, The Neglected C.S. Lewis is something more than a series of book reports. Some of the chapters are integrative. They integrate the book under discussion with various of Lewis’s other writings and reading. For example, in chapter six which focuses on An Experiment in Criticism, the author references an essay in Selected Literary Essays, A Preface to Paradise Lost, Studies in Medieval and Renaissance Literature, “Meditation in a Toolshed”, “On Stories”, The Weight of Glory, Of Other Worlds, Lewis’s introduction to an anthology of George MacDonald, The Discarded Image, and Letters to Malcolm with little side notes about G. K. Chesterton and George MacDonald. What we find is how integrated Lewis’s life was, how his ideas and values deepened across decades, across his works (fiction and nonfiction), as well as how remarkably his personal self and professional self were the same.
There are also pertinent analyses taking Lewis’s ideas and applying them to issues of our own time. We can, for example, apply his ideas to our screen time or to our ‘awesome’ and sloppy use of language.
The presentation of the material is an academic’s dream. I never thought, “Where did Lewis say that?” without finding a footnote telling me. The 3½ page Bibliography seems complete; every book mentioned is here with its full citation, waiting for you to search through used book sites or order them on Interlibrary Loan. The Index is likewise marvelously thorough. Almost all books and authors are indexed. The book includes an Appendix of seven other literary works that one can pursue after you exhaust these.
The book is attractively put together. It is a paperback, but the paper is not cheap, the binding, while not stitched is well-glued, and there is a unique pen and ink picture of Lewis on the cover and title page. There are five photographs illustrating the book, including two by author Mark Neal, that provide a different perspective from the ones we have seen in all the biographies. Most of the books discussed are easily available in paperback in the used book market. However, the OHEL volume can get pricey and Arthurian Torso starts over $50. There is always InterLibrary Loan.
Many of Lewis’s books were compilations of lectures. Likewise, The Neglected C.S. Lewis “grew out of a series of lectures” (165). There are some repetitions of the sort one would do for an audience that meets once a week or once a month. They strike one oddly, when one reads the book rather quickly or more than once. The book is a delight for a literature buff, who is ready to read each essay again after reading each book discussed. The knowledge, erudition, analysis, synthesis, and application to modern culture are remarkable. Not many of us can read a book by Lewis and remember the other books by him we have read years or decades ago and make the connections that are made here. On the other hand, if you have no intention to read these neglected works, you would do well to read these essays and see some of the influences on Lewis’s creative life. It is a fascinating journey.