Unlocking the Lewisian Imagination

Reviewed by Ben Lima

Why did C.S. Lewis write such good books? Jason M. Baxter provides an enlightening and encouraging answer: Lewis had an encyclopedic knowledge of the great Western literary and intellectual tradition, and he recognized that tradition as a living, breathing one that could be deployed against the demystification and desacralization of the modern world. The great success of Lewis’s popular works of fiction and apologetics rests on both the vastness of his scholarly knowledge and on his determination to translate that knowledge into plain, vivid images and tales that can be easily understood by any reader, with no special background required.

Thus, readers who enjoy Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia, or his Space Trilogy, are not merely being entertained by lively stories; rather, they are (perhaps unwittingly) being given glimpses into an entirely different way of seeing the world: a worldview that was second nature for those in premodern times, but that has become increasingly unfamiliar since Newton, Descartes, Hobbes, et al., ushered in the reductive and mechanized worldview that dominates the modern world today. Lewis’s world, by contrast, is chock full of what Thomas Aquinas called “the splendor of form”: a wonderful radiance that bursts forth from every created thing, and with which human beings are called to joyfully participate as fellow creatures in celebrating God’s glory.

In taking readers through Lewis’s achievement, Baxter’s accomplishment is itself noteworthy. Baxter alternates between discussing various aspects of Lewis’s medieval scholarship as seen in works such as The Allegory of Love, The Discarded Image, and English Literature in the Sixteenth Century, and explaining how this scholarship shaped particular scenes and characters in Lewis’s fiction, or illustrations in his popular lectures. Still, Baxter’s book remains reasonably compact and very readable; not a page is wasted.

Among countless such examples, one is Lewis’s understanding of the musicality of creation. “The long, Platonic tradition,” Baxter writes, taught Lewis “to see the world as a symphony but always to take this symphony (or cathedral) as a symbol or sacrament or transposition, which gestures at something beyond.” In Lewis’s fiction, this idea appears in the creation scene in The Magician’s Nephew, when Aslan sings the cosmos into existence.

Along with musicality, another important aspect of the splendor of creation was the quality of “atmosphere” that makes a particular thing what it is. (For example, he used the word “Donegality” to indicate the totality of what makes the city of Donegal itself and nowhere else.) So achieving the correct “atmosphere” was central to his fictional vision; he wanted the characters to breathe “Narnian air.”

Lewis realized that by showing Christianity in its beauty and wonder, he could bypass the sense of obligation and inhibition that had made the faith seem so unappealing in his childhood. Lewis wanted to remove the dutiful and didactic “Sunday school associations” in order to make the things of God “appear in their potency” via the imagination.

The unity of the medieval world picture held a particular appeal.  Whereas modern society tends to segregate fields of knowledge, leaving many people ignorant of practical affairs outside their specialization, Lewis noticed that medieval education closely combined the practical and theoretical, such that an educated person was likely to know something about “farriery, forestry, archery, hawking, sowing, ditching, thatching, brewing, baking, weaving,” along with law, rhetoric, theology, and mythology. In medieval education, the abstract and the concrete were integrated.

Lewis looked to medieval cathedrals as models for creativity: “At Wells we see something on which many generations labored, which no man foresaw or intended as it now is, and which occupies a position half-way between the works of art and those of nature.” Medieval authors and artists realized that beautiful literature and art don’t come ex nihilo from the mysterious depths of an individual artist’s mind, but rather through an artist’s participation, together with generations past and future, in work on a particular corner of the magnificent tapestry of creation.

By contrast, reflecting on the post-Newtonian world picture, Lewis realized that what he called an “empty universe,” in which objective reality is fundamentally nothing but matter in motion, contains nothing but “cold, eternal silences.” In such a world, all qualities of value are first “transferred to the subjective side of the account,” but eventually “the same method which has emptied the world now proceeds to empty ourselves.”

Is, then, modernity just a curse, that produces only backward-looking resignation about the fate of living in a disenchanted age? Not at all. Baxter writes that “the positive result of our exile is our painful sense of loss and longing, which speaks to a desire, not just to see beauty, but to be beauty.” Having been exiled from the medieval enchanted cosmos, modern people don’t have the option of resting in an enchanted landscape as pagans and medieval Christians did. Instead, we must look ahead, toward the new heavens and the new earth that are promised by Christ’s resurrection. Baxter’s conclusion, “Nostalgia for the Future,” efficiently rallies his readers toward this end.

Who is the new Lewis? To be sure, such towering gifts of both scholarship and storytelling are rarely combined in the same person. But even so, readers here will see that from a Lewisian point of view, such a question is probably misguided. The highest good for an author is not to ascend the mountain of fame, and then join other greats in a literary pantheon. Instead it is, as Lewis did, to join fellow artistic laborers, like the team of masons building a cathedral, contributing to, and sharing together in, a great tradition to be enjoyed by all. Baxter’s book is among the best possible introductions to this tradition.

Ben Lima (@lectionaryart on Twitter) is an art historian and critic, and a parishioner at Church of the Incarnation in Dallas.


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