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The Surprising Imagination of C. S. Lewis

Jerry Root and Mark Neal
Published by Abingdon in 2015

C. S. Lewis & His Circle: Essays and Memoirs from the Oxford C. S. Lewis Society

Roger White, Judith Wolfe, and Brendan N. Wolfe, eds
Published by Oxford University Press in 2015

The Fellowship: The Literary Lives of J. R. R. Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, Owen Barfield, and Charles Williams

Philip Zaleski and Carol Zaleski
Published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux in 2016

Don W. King is Professor of English at Montreat College.

Twenty-five years ago most books published on C. S. Lewis fell into two broad categories. On the one hand, many books extolled Lewis as a spiritual mentor, praising him for his cerebral engagement with a culture that often dismissed Christians as intellectual lightweights. On the other hand, there were books wherein the author felt obliged to tell readers what Lewis had to say about this or that topic; in effect, these writers were compelled to re-package or annotate Lewis—as if they could hope to make clearer what Lewis had already said more clearly in his own prose. They could not. To be sure a handful of scholarly books were available then, including most notably Peter Schakel’s Reason and Imagination in C. S. Lewis: A Study of Till We Have Faces, Bruce Edwards’ The Taste of the Pineapple: Essays on C. S. Lewis as Reader, Critic, and Imaginative Writer, and Peter Schakel and Charles Huttar’s Word and Story in C. S. Lewis.1 By the end of the 1990s and into the 2000s this trickle of scholarly studies developed into a modest stream, including David Downing’s Planets in Peril: A Critical Study of C. S. Lewis’ Ransom Trilogy, Doris Meyer’s C. S. Lewis in Context, Jeffrey D. Schultz and John G. West’s The C. S. Lewis Readers’ Encyclopedia, my C. S. Lewis, Poet: The Legacy of His Poetic Impulse, Diana Glyer’s The Company They Keep: C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien as Writers in Community, Bruce Edwards’s C. S. Lewis—Life, Works, and Legacy, Michael Ward’s Planet Narnia: The Seven Heavens in the Imagination of C. S. Lewis, Matthew Dickerson and David O’Hara’s Narnia and the Fields of Arbol: The Environmental Vision of C. S. Lewis, and Robert McSwain and Michael Ward’s The Cambridge Companion to C. S. Lewis.2 I list these books to illustrate that Lewis studies have matured noticeably after two and a half decades; no longer is the market only filled with books of praise or annotations. Instead, scholars are seriously exploring Lewis as a writer per se.

A case in point is the first of three books I consider in this essay, C. S. Lewis & His Circle: Essays and Memoirs from the Oxford C. S. Lewis Society. Editors Roger White, Judith Wolfe, and Brendan N. Wolfe offer readers a tasty feast of the best presentations made before the Oxford C. S. Lewis Society since its inception in 1982. There is much to delight in as there are sections including philosophy, theology, and literature as well as several wonderful memoirs of Lewis, his brother, Warren, and several other Inklings. The first group of essays deals with philosophy and theology. Alister McGrath’s “C. S. Lewis, Defender of the Faith,” which was presented to the Society in 1998, is a cogent overview of Lewis as an apologist and anticipates in an abbreviated manner McGrath’s 2013 biography, C. S. Lewis—A Life: Eccentric Genius, Reluctant Prophet. McGrath argues that by reading Lewis we can learn much about how to present the Christian faith to a secular culture, noting in particular that

Lewis helps us to understand how the imagination retains both its hold on human nature and its capacity to break through the barriers of both secularism and rationalism. It is not simply Lewis’s ideas that we must treasure, but the means by which he expresses them—above all, a well-told story. (13)

Stephen Logan’s “C. S. Lewis and the Limits of Reason” (1999), furthers this focus on Lewis’s imagination by way of discussing the limits of rational thought and setting Lewis in the context of other important English writers, including Samuel Taylor Coleridge, C. H. Sisson, Louis MacNiece, T. S. Eliot, Seamus Heaney, Philip Larkin, John Keats, Ted Hughes, William Wordsworth, and Matthew Arnold. Logan engages all these writers as he lays out the problem with an over-emphasis on intellectualism (which he says permeates universities), “or the habit of attaching undue importance to conscious ratiocination and believing that that is the sole or principal means by which you gain access to truth” (36). He looks briefly at several of Lewis’s poems as examples of Lewis working to integrate reason with imagination, and he concludes his essay by noting that by marrying Joy Davidman late in his life, Lewis’s “intuition took priority over ratiocination” (48). This section ends with two fine essays on Charles Williams—Kallistas Ware’s “Sacramentalism in C. S. Lewis and Charles Williams” (1998) and Paul S. Fiddes’s “Charles Williams and the Problem of Evil” (1992). The only disappointing essay in this section is Elizabeth Anscombe’s “C. S. Lewis’s Rewrite of Chapter III of Miracles” (1985). Anscombe is the philosopher with whom Lewis had an important debate at the Oxford Socratic Club in 1947 in which she challenged several of Lewis’s arguments regarding naturalism. Unfortunately, the attempt to reconstruct Anscombe’s talk via an imperfect audiotape and an incomplete draft manuscript is unsatisfactory, primarily because of the reconstruction challenges but also owing to Anscombe’s closely argued points that are beyond the range of non-philosophers.

The second set of essays considers literature. Rowan Williams’s (Archbishop of Canterbury, 2002-2012) “That Hideous Strength: A Reassessment” (1988) concerns what he judges to be the “most interesting and most challenging, though in some ways also most deeply flawed, of Lewis’s major works” (91). He considers THS under-rated but ranks it second only to Till We Have Faces. He does finds weaknesses in the novel, including wooden “good” characters (for example, Ransom), the unconvincing “atmosphere” at St. Anne’s, the “flatness” of the evil characters, the relationships between men and women, and the obvious influence of Charles Williams on the novel. However, among the minor strengths he assigns to THS is its narrative style, pace, and dialogue; moreover, he says the novel “taps a kind of deep well of natural English comedy” (92). He also praises the novel’s characterization, notably Mark Studdock and Merlin. Among the novel’s major strengths Williams points to Lewis’s uncanny ability to portray “the phenomenology of evil, or the phenomenology of temptation” (106). In addition, Williams argues that a second major strength of THS is Lewis’s brilliantly realized “alliance of good with matter and createdness over against a false spiritualism” (108; italics in original).

Malcolm Guite’s “Yearning for a Far-Off Country” (1999) applies a poet’s eye to Lewis’s essay “The Weight of Glory,” his autobiography, Surprised by Joy (1955), and his poem “Set on the Soul’s Acropolis the Reason Stands.” In exploring each work, Guite considers Lewis’s theology of desire, or as Lewis puts it in “The Weight of Glory,” “the inconsolable secret” that we all long for something that is hinted at in nature, poetry, music, or beauty, yet in each we only find images of what we really desire. Lewis goes on to add that

[these] are good images of what we really desire; but if they are mistaken for the thing itself they turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of their worshippers. For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited. (112)

As Guite puts it, Lewis is adept at illustrating that this “beyondness” we all desire “is not a subjective beyondness…it’s an objective beyondness…[that is] ‘really there.’ And our yearning for it is part of the evidence that it’s really there” (113-114; italics in original).

Michael Piret’s “W. H. Auden and the Inklings” (1996) is a biographical look at Auden’s debt to the Inklings, particularly J. R. R. Tolkien and Lewis. Piret explores several “affinities between Auden and Lewis as Christians: both adult converts, both with a passion for poetry and myth which left them no less convinced about the importance of doctrine and dogma” (126-127). He also points out that both were conservatives regarding liturgical reform and both had unique signpost experiences that foreshadowed their later movements to Christian faith: for Lewis it was his experience of Joy as recounted in Surprised by Joy while for Auden it was an epiphany he describes in his “The Vision of Agape.” Once while sitting with three friends,

quite suddenly and unexpectedly something happened. I felt myself invaded by a power which, though I consented to it, was irresistible and certainly not mine. For the first time in my life I knew exactly—because thanks to the power, I was doing it—what it means to love one’s neighbor as oneself. (128)

With regard to Tolkien, Piret notes that Auden was one of the first reviewers to endorse The Lord of the Rings, especially via Auden’s 1961 essay “The Quest Hero.” Other essays in this section are Tom Shippey’s “The Lewis Diaries: C. S. Lewis and the English Faculty in the 1920s” and Walter Hooper’s “It All Began with a Picture: The Making of C. S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia.”

The second half of the book, “Memoirs,” was most interesting to me. The first group of essays in this section are memories of Lewis by his family and friends, including Joan Murphy (a Lewis cousin); George Sayer, whose biography, Jack: C. S. Lewis and His Times3 is arguably still required reading for those interested in Lewis’s life; Ronald Head (Lewis’s vicar at Holy Trinity Church); and Stella Aldwinckle (founder of the Oxford Socratic Club). Most intriguing, however, is Peter Bide’s “Marrying C. S. Lewis” (1995). The story of Bide marrying Lewis and Joy Davidman while it was believed she was on her death bed is well-known, but Bide’s recollection of the events leading up to the marriage have heretofore not been widely shared. As Bide describes it, there had been one case in his parish where he had quite unmystically prayed for a little boy, Michael, who appeared certain to be dying. He left the room assuming the boy would be dead by the morning; instead the next morning Michael was sitting up in bed and eating a hearty breakfast. Bide writes:

Now, I found this theologically extremely puzzling. I had visited all sorts of other patients in this hospital: I’d prayed for them, I’d laid hands on some of them, and they’d died. Why was Michael…selected from all this? It really worried me…and the next time I went up to see Jack Lewis, I discussed it with him. We went over the top of Shotover [the hill behind Lewis’s home, the Kilns], as we nearly always did, and I told him how I found this incomprehensible. I don’t think he’d got any special answers to this—I don’t even remember what he said about it, to tell you the truth. But this is the basis on which he sent for me later on. (189)

Accordingly when Bide—at Lewis’s request—arrived at the hospital to pray for Joy, Lewis surprised him by asking that he marry them even though admitting that what he was asking was not fair. Bide shared his reservations—and there were several—but in the end he said to himself, “‘What would He have done?’ …Of course he would have married them, wouldn’t He?” (190). Bide also relates in his essay his irritation that of the many versions of the story that had gone out (including most famously the film Shadowlands), no one had directly consulted him. In some ways, then, his essay sets the record straight.

The second group of essays, “Memories of the Inklings,” begins with Hooper’s “The Inklings” and Owen Barfield’s “Lewis and/or Barfield” (1985). The latter essay is particularly rich, principally because Barfield reveals that the intense interchange of philosophical opinions between him and Lewis—often referred to as the “Great War”—ended with Lewis’s conversion to Christianity. Barfield writes:

[On one occasion] what I wanted to do was to see what relation there was between his “stance” after his conversion and the kind of opinions he held before it, and also to see how far we were still in accord. As soon as the conversation took that direction, he broke it off sharply. I don’t think I ever heard him speak with such emotion. He simply refused to talk at that sort of depth at all. (215)

Although this distressed Barfield, he later makes the point that while Lewis developed and changed with regard to many of the things he believed, Barfield “never changed at all. As I have often said, I have the feeling, when I write a book, that I always write the same book over and over again, though perhaps in a different context or from a different approach” (215-216). This is important, Barfield notes, because often people writing about the two of them confuse their opinions, along the lines of arguing something like “Both Lewis and Barfield believe…” The net effect of this is attributing to either Lewis or Barfield opinions that neither actually held. Barfield’s essay, then, is an important corrective to this kind of muddled thinking.

The last two memoirs are by John Wain, himself an Inkling, poet, and novelist. In “Nevill Coghill and C. S. Lewis: Two Irishmen at Oxford” (1989), Wain discusses how both men influenced him, especially in regards to their Irish background. However, I found myself particularly entranced by Wain’s other memoir, “Brother and Friends: The Diaries of W. H. Lewis” (1986). Wain begins his essay by recounting an Oxford dinner story in which someone had turned to him and said that Warren Lewis was a bore. Wain quickly set the fellow straight:

W. H. Lewis was a delightful man with a very well-stocked mind, tolerant, generous, imaginative, with a great sensibility, very sensitive to music, very sensitive to visual impressions, deeply read, very gifted in verbal expression. He wrote extremely well and was a very interesting person to talk to, a good listener, unobtrusive, not concerned to push his own point of view….I found him a totally delightful person. (223)

Wain first met Warren in 1943 within ten minutes of meeting his more famous brother who became his tutor—“it was a major thing in my life to be taught by him” (224). More than a tutor-pupil relationship developed so that eventually Wain became a regular attendee at the Inklings’ meetings. Wain recalls instances during tutorials when Lewis would ask his brother to recommend books that Wain should read concerning eighteenth-century literature “and of course in the field he had chosen to study, namely seventeenth-century France” (225).

Over the years Wain became very fond of Warren, praising not only the things I have already noted, but also his army service, his easy conversation, his humility, his contentedness with his life, and his prose. About the latter, Wain claims Warren’s prose style was akin to his brother’s: “It’s always rhythmical, cogent, economical memorable. The words are right, the rhythms are right. The words are in their right order, the images are right, there is no clumsy sentence anywhere. It’s absolutely superb prose” (228). He illustrates Warren’s prose by multiple references to Letters of C. S. Lewis which Warren edited as well as his diaries, Brother and Friends: The Diaries of Warren Hamilton Lewis.4 I cite only one of Wain’s many examples, this one from Warren’s portrait of his father, Albert. Regarding Albert’s inability to enjoy a holiday, Warren writes:

I never met a man more wedded to a dull routine, or less capable of extracting enjoyment from life. A night spent out of his own home was a penance to him: a holiday he loathed, having not the faintest conception of how to amuse himself. I can still see him on his occasional visits to the seaside, walking moodily up and down the beach, hands in trouser pockets, eyes on the ground, every now and then giving a heart-rending yawn and pulling out his watch. (230-231)

Wain loved Warren Lewis for many reasons, in large part because he was a simple, uncomplicated man who yet had a depth of feeling, thought, and experience. As this and the other essays in C. S. Lewis & His Circle: Essays and Memoirs from the Oxford C. S. Lewis Society suggest, readers have much to look forward when opening this volume.

The Fellowship: The Literary Lives of J. R. R. Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, Owen Barfield, and Charles Williams by Philip and Carol Zaleski is a remarkably good book. Although the lives of Tolkien, Lewis, Barfield, and Williams have been told many times, this is the best attempt at interweaving the stories of the brightest of the Inklings. Anticipating objections that this limited focus leaves aside other important Inklings such as Lord David Cecil, Hugo Dyson, and Warren Lewis (who nonetheless is featured on a smaller scale), the Zaleskis write:

[Not only are they] the best-known of the group…they are also the most original, as writers and as thinkers, and thus most likely to be read and studied by future generations. They make a perfect compass rose of faith: Tolkien the Catholic, Lewis the ‘mere Christian,’ Williams the Anglican (and magus), Barfield the esotericist….Somehow they found one another and together created one of the great literary sagas of the ages: the story of the Inklings. (12)

Perhaps the finest insight the Zaleskis offer is the contrast they draw between the kind of literature the Inklings produced with that of the much larger group of writers—sometimes referred to as the Bloomsbury Group—who were permanently disaffected and disillusioned by World War I. They note the well-documented story of “the rising generation of British writers [who] reacted to the catastrophe by severing ties to tradition and embracing an aesthetic of dissonance, fragmentation, and estrangement.” The Inklings, on the other hand—Lewis, Tolkien, and Barfield had fought in WWI—represented many others who longed “to reclaim the goodness, beauty, and cultural continuity that had been so violently disrupted” (9). The authors argue that it is the legacy of the Inklings— rather than that of the Bloomsbury Group—that now shapes modern religion and culture.

This biography of the Inklings moves chronologically so chapters are not devoted to one writer at a time but often move back and forth between two or three at the same time. What results is a kind of parallel reading of the lives. In general this technique works well although on occasion there is an inevitable jolt or abrupt transition as they turn from one life to the next. I did not find this overly bothersome, probably because of the major strength of the writing: clear, concise prose sprinkled with penetrating observations and well-crafted sentences. For instance, when they write about how Barfield’s early love of music impacted his writing, they put it this way:

When he grew up to be a philosopher and wordsmith, he came at words as a musician might, searching out the rhythm and melody in poetry, and the secret songs that language sings as it matures over centuries, songs that reveal, or so he believed, the secret history of consciousness. As an old man, he confessed that if he were forced to choose between music and poetry, music would win out. (100)

In another case, they evaluate Lewis’s Ransom trilogy, noting,

The whole possesses a mythopoeic unity that lends strength and beauty to each part. The trilogy begins with an invasion of unfallen worlds by wicked men and ends with an invasion of our fallen world by planetary angels. Souls are continually in motion….Taken as a whole, the trilogy’s portrait of salvation and damnation was Lewis’s most ambitious attempt before Narnia to write a convincing theological anthropology and recover a sacramental cosmos in which moderns could live. (329)

A reader’s familiarity with the individual biographies of Tolkien, Lewis, Williams, and Barfield will largely determine how much “new” material he or she will find in The Fellowship. I know Lewis’s life quite well, Tolkien’s less so, and Williams’s and Barfield’s only modestly. It is not surprising then that I picked up nothing new about Lewis’s life. However, regarding Tolkien’s life, even though I knew his Roman Catholicism sometimes caused Lewis discomfort, I was not aware of how pervasive Tolkien’s faith was on his family and working life. In giving advice to his son Michael who was experiencing a crisis of faith—in part because of the scandals of sinful clergy—Tolkien related “his own suffering at the hands of ‘stupid, tired, dimmed, and even bad priests.’” He urged his son not to leave the Church, advising him via a letter to bolster his faith through the Holy Communion:

Tolkien tells his son that he “fell in love with the Blessed Sacrament from the beginning—and by the mercy of god never have fallen out again.” He urges frequent communion (he himself communicated daily whenever possible), preferably in difficult or distracting circumstances: “Choose a snuffling or gabbling priest or a proud and vulgar friar, and a church full of the usual bourgeois crowd”; it is the Eucharistic miracle that matters, not its setting….The Eucharist is the center of the Church, of the faith, of the hope of all believer; Tolkien is Roman Catholic because Rome has always safeguarded the Eucharist. (468)

Even though Tolkien strenuously objected to many changes prompted by Vatican II, he never abandoned his faith, and he shared that faith on many occasions with family and friends.

I have had only a passing knowledge of Williams’s interest in magic and the occult. It is certainly present in novels such as Descent in Hell (1937) and All Hallow’s Eve (1945). Accordingly I was fascinated by the Zaleski’s exploration of what they call Williams’s “magical career.” They note that despite Williams’s distrust of “occult power, for it threatened to usurp the power proper to God,” he loved occult ceremonies “which he entered into with gusto [and]…the promise of real, immediate, spiritual transformation, the Christian metanoia so seemingly unattainable in the mundane world but held out so tantalizingly in the esoteric subworld” (231). I have a greater familiarity with Barfield’s life, mediated by my studies of both Lewis and Ruth Pitter, a poet the two men held in high regard. The authors do a thorough job of tracing Barfield’s introduction to and long-held devotion to Anthroposophy as well as his work in a law office; they also deftly explore Barfield’s writings as a philosopher, essayist, poet, and novelist.

I was quite taken with their examination of Barfield’s life because of a personal interest. Even though I have spent my career writing about and teaching Lewis, I never met him; I was twelve when he died. Williams was long dead before I was born, and though I might have hoped to meet Tolkien before he died in 1973, I did not. However, I did meet Barfield on one occasion. In late November 1997 I was in England doing research on my book on Lewis as a poet. I had been trying to screw up the courage to get in touch with Barfield since he knew Lewis’s poetry longer and better than anyone else. He remembered Lewis when he first met him as one “whose ruling ambition was to become a great poet. At that time if you thought of Lewis you automatically thought of poetry.”5 I kept resisting both my internal urgings as well as those of other Lewis scholars that I seek out Barfield; I did not want to be the “ugly” American bothering him with questions and queries. At the last minute I finally relented. I was staying near Gatwick for my return flight to the States the next day when I finally put in a call to Barfield. Fortuitously, he was living in a rest home thirty minutes from the airport, so I when I called and explained why I wanted to speak with him, he graciously invited me over with one caveat: “Yes, I will be happy to speak with you, but you must remember I am a very, very old man.” He was ninety-nine.

When I arrived and was ushered into his room, I witnessed all the stereotypical images I associated with a British writer. Barfield’s walls were lined with bookshelves and filled with volumes of various sizes and shapes. The light was dim, save for a small lamp sitting on a table next to Barfield, and the air smelled richly of pipe tobacco. He was frail, but his voice was strong and his mind was sharp. He was seated in chair, his lap covered by a well-worn wool blanket. He was smoking a cigarette, and his woolen cardigan sweater was littered with ashes and a half dozen or so holes, burned no doubt by falling bits of hot ash. He was most friendly and interested in my questions about Lewis’s poetry. Yet what I remember from that meeting had nothing to do with Lewis’s poetry. Instead, it was two remarks Barfield made almost in passing. “You know,” he said wistfully, “Jack [Lewis] was my best friend, and he was my best friend from the time I first met him.” I can only imagine how much Barfield missed Lewis, having outlived him some thirty-four years. Then he remarked: “Jack was the most outgoing, gregarious, friendly person I ever knew.” I recall this comment many times when I see film or stage accounts of Lewis’s life; I do not think any of them capture this aspect of Lewis’s personality. Our conversation went on for another forty-five minutes or so, and my last image of Barfield is of a happy face lightly shrouded by ascending cigarette smoke as I left his room. He died just over two weeks later on December 14, 1997. I have been forever grateful for that visit and memory.

The Surprising Imagination of C. S. Lewis by Jerry Root and Mark Neal is yet another wonderful addition to the growing scholarly work on Lewis. Root, whose encyclopedic knowledge of Lewis’s writings is breathtaking, is nicely paired with Neal, an independent Lewis scholar given to thoughtful analysis and informed opinion. The title of their book, playing off the title of Lewis’s autobiography, indicates the thematic focus of their work. Arguing that Lewis had a nuanced understanding of the imagination, they conclude that “we can be surprised and pleased by his many uses of the imagination. We can discover in Lewis a refinement of our own understanding of the gift of the imagination” (xv). Moreover, they task their book with being an introduction to all of Lewis’s published works; consequently, when they begin to discuss the differing variations of Lewis’s imagination, they draw examples from the corpus of Lewis’s published works, including autobiography, devotional works, literary criticism, fairy tales, science fiction, satire, and poetry. Chapters highlight the different forms of the imagination they see in Lewis’s works: the baptized imagination, the shared imagination, the satisfied imagination, the awakened imagination, the realizing imagination, the penetrating imagination, the material imagination, the primary imagination, the generous imagination, the transforming imagination, the controlled imagination, and the absorbing imagination. Taken all at once this listing of the varying forms of Lewis’s imagination may seem forced; however, as I worked through the chapters I found myself finding new insights that I had previously missed with regard to how Lewis’s imagination shaped and formed his literary output.

Each chapter begins with a brief introduction offering their definition of the aspect of Lewis’s imagination that will be explored thereafter. Rather than trying to discuss individually each of these twelve aspects of his imagination, I will focus on just one and leave it for the reader to explore the others (Root and Neal also include an appendix which suggests another eighteen uses of the imagination as identified by Lewis). In their discussion of the realizing imagination, Root and Neal state:

Without a use of the imagination that can help us increase our understanding of the complex world in which we live, human flourishing will be truncated. The realizing imagination helps us understand this complex world. It is like the opening of a rose in bud that matures to full flower. Lewis thought the realizing imagination one of the most important uses of the imagination and saw it as characteristic of the Middle Ages. (59)

To illustrate, they draw extensively from Lewis’s The Discarded Image: An Introduction to Medieval and Renaissance Literature (1964). Citing a line from A Grief Observed (1961), “reality is iconoclastic,” the authors argue this is Lewis’s biggest idea, one that shows up in all his books, but especially in The Discarded Image. In explaining this idea, they write:

An iconoclast is somebody who breaks idols. You may have an image of God. Nevertheless, this image may be modified by new insights….Yet if you hold onto that present understanding too tightly, however helpful it might have been in the past, it will begin to compete against the possibility of your gaining a better, more accurate knowledge of God. In cases like these, the image once helpful calcifies into an idol. (60)

God, however, is the great Iconoclast. He is the great breaker of idols, and often the tool He uses is reality. Root and Neal believe that

if we fail to see that there is always more to be known, our developing grasp of the universe will come up short. We must realize the need for and be receptive to growth. The realizing imagination is the means whereby that receptivity can flourish. This relates precisely to Lewis’s understanding of the realizing imagination. (61)

They then turn to examining The Discarded Image as Lewis’s best exposition of the realizing imagination. In many ways The Discarded Image is the culmination of Lewis’s work as a medievalist at both Oxford and Cambridge. The book contains variations and refinements of lectures he gave year after year, and the title itself suggests how Lewis’s ideas about the medieval worldview changed and developed. Moreover, as Lewis’s last literary statement, it may be something of a warning to the contemporary idols of his (and our) day: “Lewis sees the future as he examines the past. Just as the medieval worldview had to become a discarded image, so too our worldview must give way to new pictures of the world” (62). In other words, as we realize new truths, new revelations about the nature of reality, and new scientific discoveries, we can use our imagination to move on—not despising the past but embracing the new through the lens of an informed understanding of all that has gone on before. Lewis argued that “the medieval man was not a dreamer nor a spiritual adventurer; he was an organizer, a codifier, a man of system…[who] tidied up the universe.” Root and Neal observe that this “‘tidying up’ was an exercise of the realizing imagination” (64). At the same time, however, the medieval man recognized the complexity of the world and avoided oversimplification, most often grounding himself in the writings of others, including the Bible, Virgil, Ovid, Cicero, Lucian, Apuleius, Boethius, Boccaccio, and Chaucer. Perhaps the best example of Lewis’s realizing imagination is the way he “pieces together that great work of art: the medieval model of the universe” (71).

In a concluding chapter, Root and Neal quote for a second time (they cite it as well in their introduction) Lewis’s claim that at the core of his being was an imaginative man:

[In all my books] there is a guiding thread. The imaginative man in me is older, more continuously operative, and in that sense more basic than either the religious writer or the critic. It was he who made me first attempt (with little success) to be a poet. It was he who, in response to the poetry of others, made me a critic, and, in defense of that response, sometimes a critical controversialist. It was he who after my conversion led me to embody my religious belief in symbolical or mythopoeic forms, ranging from Screwtape to a kind of theologized science fiction. And it was of course he who has brought me, in the last few years, to write the series of Narnian stories for children.6

In reflecting over this quote and the explorations they have made into the various aspects of Lewis’s imagination, the authors conclude that

Lewis’s uses of the imagination are, at the end of the day, reconciling. They help his readers to reconcile themselves to a larger world. It may be a world full of complexities: a world of sorrows and triumphs, failure and redemption. But his worlds…are also worlds of the “happily ever after,” full of hope.

In other words, they are like the real world, flush with “idealism without illusion.” Lewis “brings his readers out of the cold vulgarity of daily life…[and] it is with Lewis’s full and fertile imagination that we his readers are able to see with sharper eyes” (194).

Both Inklings scholars and general readers will find much to enjoy in these three books. I plan to recommend them to my students, my colleagues, and fellow Inklings scholars. May the harvest of these kinds of books be bountiful and beneficent.

Cite this article
Don W. King, “A Circling Fellowship and an Empowering Imagination: C. S. Lewis and the Inklings —A Review Essay”, Christian Scholar’s Review, 45:4 , 365-376


  1. Peter Schakel, Reason and Imagination in C. S. Lewis: A Study of Till We Have Faces (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1984); Bruce Edwards, The Taste of the Pineapple: Essays on C. S. Lewis as Reader, Critic, and Imaginative Writer (Bowling Green, OH: Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1988); and Peter Schakel and Charles Huttar, Word and Story in C. S. Lewis (Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press, 1991).
  2. David Downing, Planets in Peril: A Critical Study of C. S. Lewis’ Ransom Trilogy (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1992); Doris Meyer, C. S. Lewis in Context (Kent, OH: Kent State University Press, 1994); Jeffrey D. Schultz and John G. West, The C. S. Lewis Readers’ Encyclopedia (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1998); Don W. King, C. S. Lewis, Poet: The Legacy of His Poetic Impulse (Kent, OH: Kent State University Press, 2001); Diana Glyer, The Company They Keep: C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien as Writers in Community (Kent, OH: Kent State University Press, 2007); Bruce Edwards, C. S. Lewis—Life, Works, and Legacy, 4 vols (Westport, CT: Praeger, 2007); Michael Ward, Planet Narnia: The Seven Heavens in the Imagination of C. S. Lewis (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008); Matthew Dickerson and David O’Hara, Narnia and the Fields of Arbol: The Environmental Vision of C. S. Lewis (Lexington, KY: University of Kentucky Press, 2009); and Robert McSwain and Michael Ward, The Cambridge Companion to C. S. Lewis (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010).
  3. George Sayer, Jack: C. S. Lewis and His Times (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1988).
  4. Warren Lewis, ed., Letters of C. S. Lewis (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1966); Clyde S. Kilby and Marjorie Lamp Mead, eds., Brother and Friends: The Diaries of Warren Hamilton Lewis (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1982).
  5. Owen Barfield, address given at Wheaton College, October 16, 1974. Marion E. Wade Center, Wheaton College, Wheaton, Illinois.
  6. C. S. Lewis, Letters of C. S. Lewis (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1966), 260.

Don W. King

Montreat College
Don W. King is Professor of English at Montreat College and former Editor of Christian Scholar's Review.