Shelf Life: The Discarded Image

Thought I would try something different. I grabbed a random book from my shelves for something of a review, or a justification. I’m gonna call this, if it becomes a bit of a thing, Shelf Life.

My favourite CS Lewis book is probably The Discarded Image. Forget Narnia, this is where Lewis really properly creates another world. It’s subtitled an introduction to Medieval and Renaissance literature but it’s more than that, it provides a cultural overview of an entire swathe of time and understanding. If the past is truly a foreign place, then this is a good a guide-book to the ‘Medieval Model’ of thinking as one can find.

However, there are a few big provisos. This book too represents a foreign place to a contemporary reader: namely Oxford of the early 1960s where Lewis first delivered the contents as lectures. Lewis’ language is as distancing to the here and now as Piers Plowman is, without the weird ye olde spelyngs. His talk of ‘savages’ and ‘savagery’ is the worst kind of prejudice and cultural imperialism, while the assumption readers understand Latin without translations is annoying. I find I react against Lewis’ writing when he sometimes equates barbarian with Pagan, perhaps because of an intellectual bias, but also perhaps because of his famed Christianity. He also uses ‘he’ and ‘men’ when generally talking about people, so if you’re looking for a feminist treatise, this aint it.

Lewis’ clear love for the Medieval mind-set never overwhelms his sense of his own ‘now’. While he says much I disagree with and much that challenges my views (and I don’t claim to be scholar), this is a book that works hard to explain where Western culture comes from and why people believed what they did and even what they still believe. Lewis demonstrates how the West has changed from 1000s of years ago, while also revealing how much it has changed since this was first published in 1962.

Lewis’ famous contemporary and friend was JRR Tolkien and they had completely different positions on what literature, imagination and writing were for. Tolkien’s famous retort to Lewis about storytelling is called On Fairy Stories and is well worth a read, especially when compared to the Lewis chapter entitled The Longaevi. Tolkien has a tender and playful poetic sensibility that Lewis doesn’t quite grasp, despite his equally profound knowledge. This is one of the reasons I prefer Middle Earth to Narnia.

If you’ve ever wondered where JK Rowling got some of her ideas, or the background to who believed what and when about gravity or a spherical earth, or worried about what constitutes the meaning of ‘original’ in writing and if it matters at all, or the themes John Donne explored in his poetry all in one book, then you do a lot worse than give The Discarded Image a try.

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