December 02, 2003

The Discarded Image, by C.S. Lewis

This book was much better than I feared it would be. It's an introduction to medieval literature that I bought it when I was in Australia earlier this year, only because I'm a big-time Lewis fan and had never read any of his literary work. I figured it would be way over my head and dull as dishwater.

The facts are to the contrary, I'm pleased to say--Lewis on medieval literature is just as readable as Lewis on any other subject. And he explains many things I hadn't understood, both in his own work and in other reading I've done, and shed quite a bit of light on matters my English Lit teacher in high school merely touched on. (Mrs. Martinson, your Great Chain of Being lectures were not entirely wasted!)

I expected the book to be a survey of medieval literature, but that's not the case. Instead, Lewis attempts to capture the general world-view of the medieval age--the Model of the universe shared by readers and writers alike. In so doing he presents many examples from a plethora of authors, and gives us some idea of what they are like, but that's secondary. The primary goal is that we should have some idea of the things the authors would have taken for granted.

I won't try to explain the Model; it took Lewis an entire book, so I'm hardly likely to capture it in a blog post. But it has several aspects I'd never have guessed. First, it was the synthesis of all extant written knowledge by men who could not conceive that anyone would go to the trouble of writing a book that was not true. Most books were old and venerable, and were therefore seen as authoritative. And if all were authoritative, then inconsistencies had to be made to fit. This led to allegorical interpretations of many works that were never intended to be read that way, and one wonders if it led to the rise of genuine intentional allegory.

Second, the medieval world had almost no sense of historical period. We are accustomed to clothing the people of history in period costumes; they did not. They saw the Greeks, Romans, and Jews of history as men and women more or less like themselves, with similar skills, similar garb, similar institutions, and similiar habits. They perhaps knew less of history than we do--but at the same time they felt much closer to the Ancients than we do, for they perceived no essential gulf between themselves and the folk of ages past.

I won't say that Lewis has instilled in me a desire to go read lots of medieval literature--but I enjoyed his book very much.

Posted by Will Duquette at December 2, 2003 07:12 PM

Jack said:

'S a wonderful book that I dip back into every couple of years. It's good on its own, and useful as a handbook for later literature too. It's handy for Milton, for example.