Branches to Heaven - A Review

In the process of editing a volume of essays on The Christian Mind of C.S. Lewis, I’ve had the opportunity to read most of Lewis’s published works in the past year or so. I’ve also needed to read the secondary literature about Lewis to better understand his work and how it has influenced contemporary Christianity and even non-Christian literary interpretation.

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Lewis is so popular among Christians that there are literally dozens of books broadly interacting with his work. This started even during his life and has continued unabated for the fifty years since his death. Many of the books are formulaic to a fault. They tell the story of Lewis’s early life, show how he was converted, then relate how his fiction was a form of apologetic, etc. A lot of these books are critically banal and biographical hagiographic. That works for a handful of introductory volumes, but it gets really boring to read when the differences between one book on Lewis and another are a few nuggets that someone identified along the way.

For those looking for an insightful introduction to the life and work of C. S. Lewis, I heartily commend the 1998 volume, Branches to Heaven: The Genuises of C. S. Lewis, by James Como. (I should note that Como is one of the contributors to the volume of essays I’m editing, but I commend the book on its merits, not based on personal connection.) Como has also published, Remembrances of C. S. Lewis, an early collection of first-person accounts from those who knew Lewis well. Como has stood as a bridge for those of us later scholars interested in Lewis who did not know the man and have not had opportunity to engage with those who met with and lived with a figure who has now risen to be a folk hero.

Como’s Branches to Heaven, manages to critically celebrate the life and work of Lewis. There is no question that Como is a fan, after all, the subtitle includes the word “geniuses.” However, Como critically engages with Lewis to show the strengths and weaknesses of his work, and points to some of the ways that Lewis, particularly in his early life, fell short of the Christian ideal. In particular, Como deals carefully with the obscure relationship between Mrs. Moore and Lewis, in a way that is respectful and simultaneously non-hagiographic. There is little question that Lewis was saved from sin and that his sanctification was progressive.

The most unique aspect of Como’s book is that he approaches Lewis’s work as a rhetorician. Como was professor of rhetoric and public communication. He situates the non-fiction, prose fiction, and poetry of Lewis within the context of classical rhetorical disciplines. This is exceedingly helpful because there is obviously a lot more going on in all of Lewis’s work than modern literary analysis tends to uncover, and that something has a great deal to do with Lewis’s own rootedness in the classical tradition. Como helps to explain the enduring draw of the work of C. S. Lewis because he helps to answer the question why Lewis’s work is so compelling, aside from its general agreement with orthodox Christianity. In other words, many other faithful Christians have done political commentary or fiction, but I can think of none that have been as enduringly effective as C. S. Lewis. Como’s analysis shows why that enduring popularity exists and why it is warranted.

For those casually interested in Lewis, Como’s book will be informative and engaging. For serious students of the legacy of C. S. Lewis, Branches to Heaven is essential reading.

The Gospel in Dorothy L. Sayers - A Review

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Dorothy L. Sayers is one the most brilliant writers of the twentieth century. Her work spans a number of genres, from detective novels, to religious stage productions, radio dramas, apologetic essays, and translations of Dante’s Inferno and Purgatorio that are still in print.

Sayers is less popular than C. S. Lewis, in part, I think, because he wrote children’s literature that draws new generations of readers more readily into his camp. Sayers was, however, no less witty and intriguing a figure as Lewis.

In fact, it is encouraging that more of Sayers’ work seems to be returning to print. There are a number of her essays that are hard to find, but which politely dismember opposing arguments in terms that make the power of her logic perfectly clear. Her detective novels, which are now somewhat dated period literature, are good stories in addition to their subtle arguments for truth. Christians, especially evangelical Christians, need a good dose of Dorothy L. Sayers.

The latest release in the Plough Publishing series celebrating the gospel in a range of writers is The Gospel in Dorothy L. Sayers. This anthology curates selections from all genres in chapters focused on particular topics like judgment, equality, creativity, and the cross. In some cases, entire essays are reprinted, like her powerful and satirical essay, “The Dogma is the Drama.” In other cases, the editor has selected a few paragraphs from a novel, or a scene from a play.

This book may not be the best place to start for those who are seeking to learn about Dorothy L. Sayers.  Though the anthology shows the range of her work, much of the power of her writing takes chapters to unfold. Her characters grow, mature, and endear themselves to readers over several novels. For example, her portrait of Bunter, one of my favorite characters in all of literature, can only be fully appreciated by reading all of the Lord Peter stories.

My concern with the approach of this volume is that people will miss the genius of Sayers while getting the idea that she was moralistic in her writing, because of the topical selections. There is no question that the gospel is woven through Sayers’ writing, but her work is worth exploring because it is good even before its moral power becomes apparent. Sayers herself, I believe, would shudder to think that people would read her work because she is a Christian rather than for the artistic quality of it.

At the same time, with the growing interest in Sayers studies, this is a timely and helpful volume. For those who have already come to appreciate her work, The Gospel in Dorothy L. Sayers offers a buffet to sample some of her other offerings. Also, the book can make a handy reference volume (much like books of quotes by Chesterton and Lewis) since it can be hard to remember just where and exactly how Sayers said something in one of the books one has read. The editor has done well to select many of the most significant passages, such that this book may serve as a shortcut for those writing on Dorothy L. Sayers.

NOTE: I received a gratis copy of this volume with no expectation of a positive review.

The Faun's Book Shelf - A Review

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A quick glance at the work of C. S. Lewis could cause the casual observer to divide his work into several distinct bundles. The first is his apologetic work, which was really his cause for fame, in which category I would include his substantial journalistic engagement. The second category that is easy to recognize is his fiction. And, the third category, which is often ignored by all but his more ardent fans, is his professional work in literary criticism.

All three categories are significant. And, in all three categories, readers get a consistent witness to the author. The ideas of C. S. Lewis are clearly present through three significantly different genres of writing. This sort of consistency is part of what makes Lewis worthwhile to read, even when some of the issues he addresses are no longer major topics of concern.

Though he is consistent throughout his work, C. S. Lewis’ fictional work is the most significant. In his technical work on literature, Lewis shows how culture has shifted regarding epistemology. In his apologetic and journalistic work, Lewis argues why it is better to be a Christian. However, in his fictional work, Lewis illustrates what is wrong with contemporary thought and how realistic, Christian modes of thought can make the world a better place.

By writing fiction, Lewis makes concrete what is somewhat abstract in his non-fiction writing. (Though as writers go, his non-fiction is much more concrete than most.) This is, in part, a result of his understanding of and reliance upon the power of myth.

In his recent book, The Faun’s Bookshelf, Charlie Starr traces the power of myth—or, in contemporary parlance, the power of story—in C. S. Lewis. The main argument is advanced on two levels: (1) Starr shows how Lewis uses pre-existing myth and weaves it into his fiction, (2) Starr also demonstrates how Lewis creates myth to convey his ideas in a convincing way. The exploration of these topics is set in the larger context of considering why myth matters and how it can be used by those of us who are not literary geniuses like C. S. Lewis. Starr, a former English professor, focuses on the work of Lewis, but his broader point applies to the use of myth and stories in all media and genres.

The book is divided into four parts, each with three chapters. In Part One, Starr explores the general definitions of myth, including the idea that myth may not mean fictional. Rather, Starr presents a vision of myth that is consistent with Lewis’: Myth may well be the careful retelling of true stories in an evocative, imaginative manner. Part Two examines how Lewis used pre-existing cultural myths in his fictional work to deepen the myth he is creating. For example, Lewis borrows Silenus from Greek mythology and puts him on the shelf of a Narnian faun with the book title, The Life and Letters of Silenus. Starr explores how that title reflects the Narnian longing for a better time of feasting and celebration.

In Part Three, Starr flips the script to examine the way that Narnian mythology questions the reality of our world, especially with titles like, Men, Monks, and Gamekeepers; A Study in Popular Legend. The reader knowns that men, monks, and gamekeepers exist—or that they existed—but those realities appear to be distant legends in Narnia. So may our myths bear the echoes of truth with a great deal more clarity than we realize. Part Four takes up more general questions necessary to understand Lewis’ approach to myth, by considering Lewis’ broader thinking on myth, the influence of Norse mythology in his life, and taking up a somewhat obscure but important possible contradiction in the writing of Lewis on myth.

The Faun’s Bookshelf is a worthwhile book based on two distinct contributions. First, Starr has done good work in synthesizing Lewis’ thought on myth and providing context for much of his use and reuse of myth. This makes the book a valuable resource for Lewis studies. Second, the book takes up the important question of the power of stories to shape culture. As people grapple with the acquisition of meaning and the power of myth, a study that shows how an expert used fiction to deepen reality is a welcome contribution.

This book will be most interesting for those that enjoy Lewis already. It is well-written in accessible prose, so that it should not be consigned to the stacks of academic libraries. The Faun’s Bookshelf would be an excellent secondary text for a university level course on C. S. Lewis, or even as part of a high school elective. Meanwhile, the book explores important questions that can deepen ongoing discussions on Christian participation in the arts.

NOTE: I received a gratis copy of this volume from the publisher with no expectation of a positive review.

The Fellowship - A Recent Book for Inklings Fans

For many fans the Inklings, anything about C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien and their assorted friends is welcome. We’ve pored over the literary works of both men and the apologetic contributions of Lewis and still celebrate any tidbit that might help to explain why their stories move us so deeply and inspire us to live more richly.

At this point, decades after the last of the first-generation Inklings have died with only Christopher Tolkien—J. R. R. Tolkien’s son—­­still alive, many books have been written about this literary club and their assorted works. And yet, avid readers still snap up new entries into the discussion. In reality, there are still untapped manuscripts, correspondences, and connections to be made, so many of these works make legitimately original contributions to the field.

The 2015 volume The Fellowship: The Literary Lives of the Inklings is just such a volume. Penned by a husband and wife team who both teach at Smith College, Philip and Carol Zaleski, this book groups Tolkien, Lewis, Owen Barfield and Charles Williams. Barfield is much less discussed in Inklings studies, in part because his public prominence largely occurred after the Inklings had ceased meeting and in part because of his connection to Tolkien and Lewis. Williams is better known, but less popular than Tolkien and Lewis, in part because of his esoteric version of Christianity.

The Zaleski’s have accomplished a feat in this volume. They have written a scholarly tome that is lucid and engaging. There are places where the tempo drags a bit, but given there are just over five-hundred pages of text, enticing the reader to make it to the finish line is in itself an accomplishment.

Summary

The format of the book is mainly chronological, though in an attempt to weave back and forth between the four figures they are discussing, there are points where the tales get out of order. However, the markers in the text are clear and shift in timeframe does not result in a confused muddle, as it too easily can. Overall, the book emphasizes the literary lives of Tolkien and Lewis more than the other two. This makes sense, since Barfield and Williams are less publicly known, have a less significant body of work, and are interesting in large part because of their influence on Tolkien and Lewis.

The book is a literary biography, which means that it emphasizes the written work of the four men, using biographical data to inform the argument. It shows how their literary works developed and the circumstances under which they evolved.

In our day of electronic communication, one wonders if such a project will be possible for whoever contemporary authors of interest will be. However, the Inklings left behind ample correspondence, diaries, and other artifacts to piece together a reasonable history.

Analysis and Conclusion

The weakness in this volume, as in many literary accounts of the Inklings, is that theology is handled in a confusing and sometimes non-discerning manner. Specifically, the four Inklings discussed in this volume are all discussed as equally Christian. Yet, Williams was syncretistic, bringing elements of the occult and other mystical theories into his Christianity. Similarly, Barfield engaged in downright pagan practices. Both Barfield and Williams were quite far from any orthodox version of Christianity, but those divergences are glossed over in this volume. Additionally, the Zaleski’s—who are Roman Catholics—take great pains to pitch Lewis as on the threshold of Catholicism in several instances. They are also apologetic as times when Lewis makes statements that clearly differentiate Christianity from other religions, particularly Judaism. As intriguing as this volume is, it isn’t clearly a reliable source for the theological lives of the Inklings.

That notwithstanding, this is an excellent book. Others who are interested in the Inklings will find this a rich resource that should influence Inklings studies for years to come. The Zaleski’s should be applauded for their careful research and elegant prose.

Note: I received a gratis copy of this volume without expectation of a positive review. Also, the above link is an affiliate link.