Reading the Classics with C.S. Lewis


Ah, the good old days! If only I had been born earlier, when people like C.S. Lewis taught in the universities, when a Christian could be taken seriously as a scholar…

But what if I told you I just finished a comprehensive English literature course, with plenty of theology and philosophy thrown in too, taught by C.S. Lewis and some of his brightest students? That's certainly what it feels like, now that I have made my way through Reading the Classics with C.S. Lewis.

This was another find on the sale shelf at our local Daughters of St. Paul bookstore. Those lovely sisters always seem to know what I need to read and they sneak it onto the sale shelf when I'm about to visit the store.

I had just finished writing a review of Natural Philosophy, a unique text integrating physics and philosophy (see the Fall 2004 issue of Heart and Mind magazine). As part of that review, I also recommended some writings by C.S. Lewis on the error of scientism, the belief that scientific investigation is the only valid way to learn about reality. Lewis and his like-minded colleagues argued that science only describes certain physical properties of creation, and that many other important aspects of life are best experienced and described through literature, poetry, religion, art and other unquantifiable things. These humanities tell us more about what it means to be human than do science and technology.

With this newfound appreciation for Lewis as a philosopher of culture, I was hoping to find a reading list to help me fill the gaps in my own formation as a thinker and as a human — books Lewis would recommend if I could ask him. Also, I hoped there would still be time to try to steer my children toward a deeper appreciation of literature, and I knew I had a lot to learn before I had much to say to them on this topic. I had always been more of a math and science type of person (biology degree, biology and chemistry teaching credentials…). Even after I converted to Catholicism, I would tend to turn up my nose at poetry and novels and instead read books on more "scientific" topics like theology and Church history — that is, books that did not wring out your emotions, make you feel like you had experienced another person's troubles, and change your perspective by the end of the story. But, Lewis indicated, if you are missing out on these experiences, you are neglecting the development of an important aspect of your humanity.

It was at this point that I strolled into a St. Paul Book and Media Center and spotted a lonely paperback book on the 50% off rack, Reading the Classics with C.S. Lewis. On first glance, the book appeared to be close to a reading list — chapters by a number of university professors on different periods of English literature and an analysis of Lewis's opinions on various works of each period. I thought I would go through the chapters and make a list of books I should read, either by myself or with my children. However, the book turned out to be more scholarly than I had anticipated. I trudged through it, feeling like a novice, and realizing how superficial my experience with English literature is. I stuck Post-It Notes on the edges of pages so I could go back and re-read important sections. When I finally finished, I had a new appreciation of English literature as an academic discipline (I thought they just read and wrote books…) and, most importantly, I knew what I didn't know about literature, so I could begin to remedy that, guided by C.S. Lewis and some of his admirers.

My primary experience of C.S. Lewis until recently was as a writer of children's fiction. My children and I read and re-read the Chronicles of Narnia. Later, my son and I read Lewis's Space Trilogy. I had read a great deal about Lewis and his writings. I knew that many Catholic writers whom I admired (such as Peter Kreeft) considered Lewis's high Anglican theology to be very close to Catholicism — so close that Catholics generally can trust him as a worthy guide. I knew that, like his good friend, J.R.R. Tolkien, he was a professor of something-or-other at a prestigious university, but I imaged that this wasn't much of a job and that he spent most of his time writing. However, after reading Reading the Classics with C.S. Lewis, I now see that Lewis was primarily a student and teacher of literature, as well as a respected literary critic, and his wonderful writing came out of a scholar's deep understanding of the form and function of literature.


Lewis's Literary Formation

Lewis was blessed with the excellent education of the British school system; students read classics in Latin and Greek and were introduced to philosophy and logic. Lewis's parents were book lovers as well — he always had good books available to him at home and knowledgeable family members with whom he could discuss books. His family hired a tutor to help him prepare for Oxford University. Students at Oxford would read the "must-read" books of the traditional English literary canon (some of which Lewis already read as a younger student or on his own time).

As Martin noted in his introduction to Reading the Classics with C.S. Lewis, "Lewis's mind was nurtured on the study of literature." Often, people who admire Lewis's theological or fiction writing are unaware of the importance of literature in his development as a Christian thinker.

Literature was so important to Lewis that he spent a great deal of time analyzing how it affected his thinking (metacognition, as the cognitive scientists would say, or thinking about one's thinking). He claimed there were two kinds of readers, literary and non-literary. According to Bruce Edwards in his contribution to the collection, "Literary Criticism,"

The literary, because they are schooled in literary technique and appreciative of aesthetic achievement, reread "the great works" throughout their lives, feel impoverished when denied the "leisure and silence' which sanctifies their reading experience, find first readings so momentous they can only be compared to love, religion, or bereavement, and talk to each other about books "often and at length" (Experiment 1-3). The unliterary, by contrast, rarely reread a work, use reading only for "odd moments of enforced solitude" or pure diversion, finish a work without perceptible change to their world view, and rarely think or talk about their reading with others.
But, Lewis said, both literary and unliterary readers can be guilty of using a text, especially by looking for validation of the reader's own beliefs in the work, rather than humbly "receiving" the story the author presented.

Much of Lewis's formation as a reader, writer and thinker came through his association with the Inklings, a little group of writers and intellectuals (including Tolkien) who met at a pub to talk about literature, religion, culture and what-not and to read their latest writings to each other to get feedback.


Why Read Literature?

But in reading great literature I become a thousand men and yet remain myself. Like the night sky in the Greek poem, I see with a myriad eyes, but it is still I who see. Here, as in worship, in love, in moral action, and in knowing, I transcend myself; and am never more myself than when I do. (C.S. Lewis, An Experiment in Criticism)

But in reading great literature I become a thousand men and yet remain myself. Like the night sky in the Greek poem, I see with a myriad eyes, but it is still I who see. Here, as in worship, in love, in moral action, and in knowing, I transcend myself; and am never more myself than when I do.

To Lewis, literature is an important medium for humans to express our humanity, as well as a way for us to teach each other how to be truly human, with lessons transmitted across the ages and through varied cultures. Lewis allowed himself to experience the world through the "myriad eyes" of writers of great literature (and even some middling works), including writers he disagreed with religiously or philosophically. He was careful to read a work as the author intended it, not using his own beliefs as a filter, and trying to understand it in the context of the time period and culture in which it was written.

Between his late teens and early 30's, Lewis rejected the Christian faith of his family. But as he absorbed the moral lessons of the literature he was reading and grew in self-knowledge, he re-converted. He learned about the right order of the universe from religious allegories like Spencer's Faerie Queene and Milton's Paradise Lost. The sense of unfulfilled longing in ancient mythology and in the writers of the Romantic period directed him back to Christian mysticism. He saw the results of sinful human behavior in characters of novelists who did not share his moral values.

In a personal letter he wrote about the 19th century novelist Thackeray: "There is really an un-faith about Thackeray's ethics: as if goodness were somehow charming & …infantile. No conception that the purification of the will…leads to the enlightenment of the intelligence." Lewis's view, according to Kate Durie in her essay, "Victorians," is that:

Goodness, then, depends on the systematic and intelligent application of the will; it is not an instinctive response or natural impulse, but is something to be worked at obediently and thoughtfully. As such it is a tough and a maturing discipline.

Lewis developed this kind of insight with the help of his literary readings. Lewis particularly enjoyed allegory, a genre which he felt could convey deep meaning in a particularly effective manner. The trick is to "surrender" to the message in the text, not to try to analyze it intellectually "as if it were a cryptogram to be translated."

But as Lewis wisely says, reading allegory is like going to sleep: the harder we try, the worse we fare. If we "surrender ourselves with childlike attention" ("Spenser" 137), we grasp holistically the unforgettable family picture of the dead knight, his dying lady with the knife in her breast, and their innocent baby with her blood on his hands. And this picture conveys the tragedy of immoderate pleasure-seeking, not as an intellectual conclusion, but as a visceral revulsion."

In other words, understanding the moral allegory is not merely the intellectual action of discovering that x equals y, but also an emotional, sometimes physical perception of what the moral quality feels like. (Doris T. Myers, "Spenser," p. 91)
This is important for training people, particularly young people, "to make the proper emotional responses." In her essay, Myers adds:
It is not surprising, then, that the training of the emotions began to be a more intentional eminent in Lewis's own fiction, particularly That Hideous Strength, the companion piece to Abolition, and the Chronicles of Narnia, which he began to publish in 1950. (Myers, p. 94)
Lewis also believed poetry classics are important in this kind of emotional training, especially since modern poetry can't be trusted to do the same job. In "Milton," Charles Huttar noted:
Society has the task of teaching every new generation the "delicate balance of trained habits, laboriously acquired and easily lost," that are needed for sheer survival (55). Schools bear a large responsibility in this, Lewis would argue a year later in The Abolition of Man. So, traditionally, he says now, has poetry, but "since poetry has abandoned that office" (Preface 56) we can no longer (with Milton) count on morally right responses to such elemental realities as pride, treachery, death, pain, and pleasure. Hence, poetry like Milton's is now "more than ever necessary" (56). (p. 165)


Lewis's Reading Recommendations

Faced with trying to compile a Lewis-inspired reading list, I emailed Dr. Martin and asked for some guidance. He very kindly sent me a reading list, available on the Heart and Mind website. Interestingly, he said he had envisioned homeschoolers as an important audience for this collection of essays.

Many of the contributors to Reading the Classics with C.S. Lewis noted the influence of Edmund Spenser's epic poem The Faerie Queene on Lewis. In her chapter on "Spenser," Doris T. Myers advised:

People try to get close to a beloved author by finding out the facts of his life. A better way is to follow him through the books he read. Learning about Spenser leads us into Lewis's inner life. In many ways Spenser was a model for Lewis, and the qualities he perceived in Spenser can be found in his own writing. Whether he was engaged in apologetics, literary criticism, or children's fantasy, he manifested honesty, humility, the avoidance of trendiness, "ordered exuberance," and "robust tranquility" (Sixteenth 393). Then let us read Spenser's Faerie Queene, sharing Lewis's adolescent delight in trackless forests and shagginess, his young adult approval of the poem's moral teaching, his mature appreciation of Spenser's emotional health and wisdom. To read Spenser is to learn something important about Lewis's mind; it may even lead to sharing his delight in The Faerie Queene and his deeply spiritual participation in Spenser's images of life. (p. 99)
Reading the Faerie Queene is easier said than done, however. Even in Lewis's time, with teachers and family members who were familiar with the poem's archaic language, it wasn't a quick read. Lewis outlined suggestions for getting to know this work over time.
In his charming introduction to Spenser for the anthology Fifteen Poets, Lewis describes three ways to begin one's acquaintance with The Faerie Queene. As a very young child one could have been read to from some book called "Stories from Spencer" ("On Reading" 146). Later, one's first contact with the actual text should be made, Lewis says, "in a very large — and preferably, illustrated — edition of The Faerie Queene, on a wet day, between the ages of twelve and sixteen…" He goes on to suggest that the mature reader who has missed acquaintance with Spenser in childhood and adolescence must begin by reading for the action while simultaneously paying attention to the moral allegory. He says, "It is of course much more than a fairy-tale, but unless we can enjoy it as a fairy-tale first of all, we shall not really care for it" ("Spenser" 133). But for full enjoyment, says Lewis, we need "a haunting memory" that we have met all of Spenser's questers before ("On Reading" 148); the mature reader will find this feeling in the moral allegory — that is, the portrayal of psychological laws and the struggles of men and women to become truly human. In following the travels of Spenser's knights, the reader meets archetypal characters and themes which the mature beginner has previously met in his own psychology, so that he reads the allegory with the shock of recognition that Lewis's ideal adolescent gets from having heard "Stories from Spenser" in his childhood. (Myers, p. 89)

We Catholics can keep in mind that this was written during the reign of Elizabeth I and included some anti-Catholic swipes.

Lewis would also recommend extensive reading in mythology, probably suggesting starting with children's versions when young and graduating to the original works in adolescence. In her contribution to this book, "Myth," Maria Kuteeva writes:

The next significant episode in Lewis's biography before he went to Oxford is connected with his tutor, William Kirkpatrick. During his studies with "Kirk," Lewis was introduced into the reading of Homer in ancient Greek, along with many other authors and texts drawing on mythological material: Milton, Spenser, Malory, The High History of the Holy Grail, Beowolf, and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Apuleius, the Kalevala, Sir John Mandeville, Sidney's Arcadia, and nearly all of William Morris. (p. 267)

Lewis would also recommend a number of titles of "speculative fiction" (which would include science fiction and fantasy).

Lewis lists the speculative works, ancient and modern, whose excellence derives not from their characters, their technology, or from external adventure, but from an elusive quality of spiritual suggestiveness. He includes parts of the Odyssey and the Kalevala, Spenser's Faerie Queene, Coleridge's The Ancient Mariner, Keats's Christabel, William Morris's Jason, as well as George MacDonald's Phtantasies, Lilith and The Golden Key. Among the twentieth-century writers, he includes E.R. Eddison's The Worm Ouroborous, J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings and David Lindsay's "shattering, intolerable, and irresistible work," Voyage to Arcturus ("Science Fiction" 71). Lewis concludes in his address 'On Science Fiction" that it is the new genre's spiritual possibilities, not its technical possibilities, which provide an opportunity for genuine literary expression. (David C. Downing, "Science Fiction," p. 305)
Of course, as a children's writer, Lewis would have a lot to say about children's literature. He made no secret of the fact that he enjoyed children's books (such as The Wind in the Willows) as an adult. In chapter 17, "Children's Literature," David Barratt describes Lewis' criteria for evaluating children's literature.
Lewis would evaluate a text in terms of the reading experience it allowed to the adult as well as to the child reader. The experience would be different for both, but a good text would have to allow good readings to both, hence his praise for The Hobbit and The Wind in the Willows. Such a reading experience would be measured specifically in terms of a total imaginative world, and whether the experience was integrally a part of this. The imaginative world would have a spiritual dimension to it, though the reader would not necessarily have to agree with its spirituality…He would refuse an evaluation in pedagogical terms, e.g., in terms of the age range, difficulty of vocabulary, or potential for psychological development. His reading would also resist all attempts to moralize or teach from the text (i.e., use it to do something non-literary) and would evaluate as a poor text any one that sought explicitly to teach or preach…

Second, as markers in his literary criticism of a children's text, Lewis looks for a strong story line with simple but well-defined characterization, and a clearly defined mood or atmosphere. Even more importantly he would be aware of voice and tonalities which would have to embody a sense of equality between reader and writer. That is to say, childhood would need full respect, with no attempt to talk down to the child reader, no "winking" at an adult reader over the child's head, no shared adult jokes…

Finally, Lewis posits the test of rereadability and memorability. He writes, "The nearest we can come to a test is by asking whether he often re-reads the same story" ("On Stories" 16)…Only if atmosphere, characters, the magic of another world are intensely created, will the rereading be pleasurable. The knowledge now gained of what happens next will become the pleasure of anticipation, mingling with the pleasure of discovering new features, new depths in the text." (p. 321-2)

Perhaps the best thing we C.S. Lewis admirers can do, rather than try to read everything he read, is to adopt his principles to use when evaluating literature ourselves, applying the same humble, open-minded, humorous attitude he would have if he were here today. Reading the Classics with C.S. Lewis is a great resource to help us do that. Even though the material is challenging, I think homeschoolers would be wise to use this book to develop a literary vision to guide them as they educate their children. It might take you a year to get through the book, reading a little here and there during Sunday quiet times, but the rewards will be substantial.

Download a C.S. Lewis-inspired reading list from the archives page of here. Order Reading the Classics with C.S. Lewis here.



Lesley Rice. "Reading the Classics with C.S. Lewis." Heart and Mind (Summer, 2005).

This article is excerpted from a larger article which appeared in the summer 2005 issue. It is reprinted with permission from the author, Lesley Rice.

Heart and Mind is a quarterly magazine for Catholic homeschoolers.


Lesley Rice is editor of Heart and Mind magazine. She lives in San Diego.

Copyright © 2005 Heart and Mind

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Not all articles published on CERC are the objects of official Church teaching, but these are supplied to provide supplementary information.