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Reading and the Moral Imagination: Plato and truth in fiction

Nota Bene: I originally published this post back in 2012, and it has been one of the most-read posts on this blog ever since. In fact, it sums up pretty well my defense of the necessity of literature — an apologia pro literatura, if you will. For this reason, I’ve decided to pin it here to the top of the blog, so that anyone who stumbles on this site accidentally will know what I’m on about. If you want to know more, try reading some of the other articles in the “popular posts” list that you’ll find in the sidebar to the right. Welcome, and don’t feel shy about leaving comments. I respond to all comments on this blog (which is how I happened to write my most popular post of all time).

I like about this edition chiefly because
it’s easy to follow who is speaking
in the dialogue.

Some time ago, I lamented the fact that people — even allegedly “educated” people — these days are reading less and less; and I began to explore the question of why this fact should alarm us. Isn’t reading just one of many ways to amuse ourselves in idle moments? Why should reading novels, say, be any better than watching movies or playing video games? After all, all three require us to enter into an imaginary world, not of our own making.

Good fiction is interested in truth

It’s true that some reading material provides merely escapist pleasures — these are what C. S. Lewis, reasoning as he does in An Experiment in Criticism, would classify as “bad” books, because they require little of the reader, and they repay that little effort poorly. Frankly, I don’t care if anyone engages in such reading, although I would be concerned about anyone who made a steady diet of such fare. What I am more concerned about is the reading of well-crafted fiction that treats carefully the kinds of “universal” questions that Aristotle refers to in his Poetics, which he said makes literature “philosophical,” i.e., capable of making us wiser. Greek culture in Aristotle’s day deeply acknowledged the importance of epic poetry, the predominant kind of literary fiction in that age. In fact, the narrative poetry of such poets as Homer and Hesiod, which told of the interactions of gods and men, were regarded with much the same kind of reverence as the Bible is in Christian cultures (not quite, however — the Greeks didn’t really have anything analogous to Sacred Scripture), and they considered such literature to be absolutely essential to education.

detail from Rafael's School of Athens
Plato points upward toward transcendent truth,
while Aristotle gestures toward the Earth.

Plato, of course, is famous for having Socrates say, in The Republic, that the “lying poets” would have no place in the ideal society. Many people, especially in modern times, have argued that this means Plato was against “fiction.” Many of those same people will go on to say that this is evidence of the way in which Plato’s views differed from those of his most famous pupil, Aristotle. A common, but simplistic, characterization of the differences between the two philosophers claims to find a marked dichotomy between the two:

  • Plato is interested in transcendent truth while Aristotle is more interested in “real life.” 
  • Plato is focuses on the theoretical and abstract while Aristotle on the practical and concrete. 
  • Plato says poetry is a dangerous pack of lies while Aristotle says it is “philosophical” and can teach us about the human condition.

Like many over-simplifications, this one is misleading. It’s worthwhile to take a closer look at what Plato really did say about poetry (or at least the poets) in The Republic; anyone who does so will find that he does not object to storytelling per se, nor does he dismiss fictional literature as just so many lies. What he objected to were the poet’s (e.g., Homer and Hesiod’s) depictions of the gods as being no better — and often much worse  — than we mere mortals. So it wasn’t the fiction he despised, it was the lies. In fact, he could not (and would not) have written The Republic — his most famous and enduring philosophical work — if he did not believe in the powerful ability of “fiction” to show us truth.

Plato’s Socratic dialogues are works of fiction

Why do I make such a claim? First of all, because Plato chose a “fictional” format for virtually all of his philosophical treatises. Famously, all of Plato’s treatises are written as dialogues, with fictionalized versions of Socrates and other real people as the participants in the discussion of whatever the topic may be: justice, beauty, etc. They are like conversations in which Plato really participated, but they are by no means transcriptions of real conversations — they are as carefully crafted as any poem. Why teach in this way? Because the dialogue format allows and invites the reader to be an imaginary participant in the discussion.

Socrates teaching
In a Platonic dialogue, the participants are trying to
get at the truth of some matter.

I believe Plato wanted his students to learn the way he learned from Socrates. That is why his philosophical dialogues are modeled on the kind of discussions that Socrates regularly engaged in in real life. Typically, they portray the philosopher and his friends trying to get at the truth of some concept by starting with their own assumptions and then putting them to the test to see if they hold water. True to life, this method does not lead directly to a clean, clear view of the truth of the matter; rather, the dialogues often reach a point at which the interlocutors find themselves at loggerheads, unable to reach an agreement, but not really sure why. (If you’ve had a college philosophy class, you may recall that this situation, in Greek, is called aporia). Some of Plato’s early philosophical dialogues end at this point, leaving the reader to figure out why the discussion came to an unsatisfactory end, or how the dialogue might have advanced had it been allowed to continue. The dialogue format, in other words, gets the reader imaginatively engaged in the discussion at hand, in such a way that s/he is likely to continue mental rumination after the reading has come to an end.

I remember the first time I read Plato’s Euthyphro, in which the title character is discussing with Socrates the nature of piety — Socrates had almost gotten Euthryphro to arrive at a good general definition of piety, when Euthyphro gets frustrated and throws in the towel, just a moment too soon. I’m sure I must have groaned with frustration, because I knew he had quit at just the wrong moment — I wanted to shout after him as he walked away, “Come back! You were almost there!” At that moment, I could see what piety was, even if Euthyphro could not. (Don’t ask me — read the dialogue!)

By the time he wrote The Republic, Plato seems to have refined his use of the dialogue as a way to get at philosophical truth. Here, when Socrates’ interlocutors reach aporia or deadlock, on the subject of the nature of justice, he doesn’t let them throw in the towel; instead, Plato has Socrates say, “Well, let’s look at this another way …” When they come up empty on defining “justice in the soul” (i.e., how the individual can behave justly), Socrates suggests that they widen the focus and try envisioning “justice in the city” (i.e., what a just society would be like). Even here, their first attempt at creating a just “city of words” (a made-up city that exists only in their imaginations) is not very good, and Socrates starts to suggest several features that such a just city would need to have in order to function. He gets his conversational partners to agree with each addition before moving on. It’s in this context of creating (theoretically) a just city that Socrates makes the startling assertion that the poetry of such literary giants as Homer and Hesiod should not be allowed to pollute the minds of schoolboys. His reason is that such poets portray the gods in such a way that they make poor role models for young men destined to become the guardians upon whom the city will have to depend for its safety and good order.

Good fiction teaches us to recognize, and to love, what is true

Plato Myth of the Cave
The “myth of the cave” is a parable that illustrates
the nature of, and the need for, philosophy.

Plato makes it pretty clear that the objection is not that all poetry corrupts but that lying poetry corrupts — in other words, poetry (fiction) should lead the imagination closer to truth, and should hold up models for us to emulate and present images that reflect truth. The Republic itself is full of “made up stories” of this kind. For instance, the famous “myth of the cave” (mythos being simply the Greek word which means “story”) is a kind of parable or analogy that Socrates uses to help his young friends see something that they were having trouble envisioning earlier when they were inventing their theoretically just city. The thing about parables, though, is that they are not necessarily self-explanatory. This is why Socrates tells them his parable and then explains what it means — much as Christ did with his own followers when he taught them in parables (see, for instance, Matthew 13). In other words, the made-up tale is a way of conveying a truth that the young men could not grasp directly with their minds; another way of saying this is that they are not yet able to contemplate the truth (in the sense that Plato used that term), so he had to create an illustrative tale.

There are other instances of Socrates in The Republic using parables or “noble fiction” (γενναῖον ψεῦδος, often translated “noble lies”) for instruction for those who can’t grasp certain kinds of verities with their naked intellects. In each case, the fiction is meant to convey truth, and is intended for those who are not yet (and may never be) capable of grasping the truth with their unaided intellects. Aristotle undoubtedly, as a student of Plato, learned the value of these stories, and perhaps they helped shape his belief that poetry (fiction) can be “philosophical” (help its audience become wise).

The Matrix and the Myth of the Cave have a lot in common
The Matrix and the Myth of the Cave have a lot in common

We will always need “noble fiction”

I think it is a great pity that our schools and universities no longer teach literature as a way of grasping universal truths about human nature, presenting models from which we can learn. As a consequence, young people (and adults as well, for that matter) now have little or nothing to form their moral imaginations, while the culture at large feeds them a constant stream of images of violence and brokenness, with no censure implied, intended, or allowed. We have lost the idea that truth is beautiful, or that the beautiful is true; instead, popular reading material (as well as television and film) is often tawdry and shallow, when it is not full of darkness, despair, and depravity. “Realism” is offered rather than truth, and stories that show good people triumphing while wicked ones suffer are deemed “unrealistic” and untrue.

Is there no one left to tell us “noble lies”? If you know any contemporary writers who tell morally uplifting  or instructive tales, please mention them in a comment.

©2012 Lisa A. Nicholas

If you would like to read more about literature and the moral imagination, read this (or click the tab at the top of the page).

Please leave your thoughts or comments below!

Ruminating on The Father’s Tale



sheep chewing cud
Here I am, ruminating on The Father’s Tale
In Book Ten of his Confessions, Saint Augustine of Hippo
refers to the memory as “the stomach of the mind” – an image that probably
seems strange to many modern readers, but one that has been very useful to me.
He wasn’t talking about the kind of stomach we humans have – which are a kind of way station for food on its way to the intestinal tract – but the kind of stomachs found in
sheep (as well as cattle and goats, etc.), i.e., a ruminant stomach. The
ruminant stomach stores food until it can later be brought back up and chewed
over (ruminated).
I’ve always loved this idea of the memory as somewhere that
we store our experiences until we have a chance to bring them back to mind and
“chew them over” or ruminate upon them. Animals who literally ruminate (chew
food that they have already swallowed) do so in order to get the nutrition out
of what they have eaten, and to be able to digest it properly; in a similar way, as Augustine understood, our memory lets us bring back
things we have already experienced and not only “taste” and feel them again, but
also derive more profit from them than if we just let them sit in our memory
unexamined. When we ruminate (in the figurative sense) we get more out of our

Some of us are more inclined toward rumination than others.
I am definitely a “ruminant creature,” and one of the reasons I started this
blog a few years ago was to give myself an excuse to ruminate on things I’ve
read. In fact, I would say that rumination provides a great part of the
pleasure of reading.
This is why I prefer to read books that will reward
further thought – books that are “good” in the sense that C. S. Lewis used that
term in An Experiment in Criticism.  One of the problems of reading things
that are the literary equivalent of junk food is that they really don’t provide
much of a “mental cud” – if you try ruminating on them, you find that there is
nothing there.

Good books require thorough chewing to nourish the soul

The Father's Tale by Michael D. O'Brien

 A lot of my rumination these days occurs while I am taking a
walk along the shore of the lake where I live. There’s no telling what will
come to mind as I walk along. This morning, it was Michael D. O’Brien’s The Father’s Tale, a book I read a couple of months ago, which I’ve been allowing
to sit in the stomach of my mind until it was ripe for rumination. I have
been planning to write about this book here, and find that there is a lot to
discuss – which suggests that it is a very good book.

You wouldn’t know this from many of the reviews that appear
on the internet. Google “Michael D. O’Brien The Father’s Tale” and you’ll find
that the reviews that show up in the first couple of pages of results complain
a lot about the length of the book (nearly 1,100 pages — one reviewer suggested that you could trim it down to 300 pages and not lose the “essential story”) and the “absurdity” of
the plot. Most readers considering this novel will be put off by such remarks and, like the reviewers who say such things, like the rich young man to whom Jesus said, “You are very near to the Kingdom. One
thing more is required of you,” they will go away sad, never knowing what they are missing. Or perhaps they are more like Euthyphro, whom Socrates had been
guiding toward a true understanding of piety, but quit the discussion at the
last minute, saying it made his head hurt and, anyway, he had more pressing
things to attend to.
The truth is that this book is probably fare too rich for
such readers, who have been weaned on modern novels that traipse expeditiously, and superficially,
through plot points to their happy endings. Such books are the literary
equivalent of a quick meal at Chili’s. The Father’s Tale is not such a one. It is a rich and
varied banquet, one to be savored and ruminated before being digested.
Just as
a banquet is not gulped down in one mouthful, nor quickly digested before
bedtime, I don’t think I can do this book justice in a single discussion. So I
will discuss different aspects of the book in separate posts. These will not be
“reviews” in the usual sense, but reflections on things that I find have
spurred my own reflection.  

Literature, like life, takes us on unexpected journeys

I’m going to discuss this book as if you all have already
read it – so take the spoiler warning as read. Of course, many, if not most, of
you have not yet read The Father’s Tale – that’s okay. Perhaps my discussion of
it will make you want to read it (I hope so). Let me warn you right now,
though, that this is a huge book – both literally and figuratively (nearly
1,100 pages). And it’s a little slow getting started, so hang in there. After
the first 75 or 100 pages, though, it just gets better and better and better,
right up to the last page. 

Reading as adventure, by Alex Vitti
As you read, you may find that the book seems constantly to be
changing from one kind of story into another
– don’t let this upset you. The
author has divided it into four separate parts, which suggests that these kinds
of changes are deliberate, and together they create the overall architecture of
the story. At the beginning of each part, the protagonist’s life takes a sharp left turn. And what happens when you make four left turns? Well … read it, and you’ll see. As the old Shaker song says, By turning, turning, we come ’round right.

By the way, it’s always good to think about not only the contents of a story, but the way they are arranged. I sometimes do this deliberately, as a formal exercise, and I find it gives me a
kind of “God’s eye view” of the plot, revealing the integrity of the story, which
may not be evident in a single, superficial reading (the only kind of reading
that many novels deserve or require).

If you haven’t read The Father’s Tale, but are beginning to
think maybe you should, get started. Don’t rush, but keep going once you begin.
Think of it as an adventure – not as if you were jumping on a jet to get from New
York to Johannesburg
in the shortest time possible, but as if a friend has kidnapped you to take you
on an around-the-world ramble whose itinerary is unknown to you.
Like Alexander
Graham, the protagonist of The Father’s Tale, you will go places you never
expected, experience things that may seem unpleasant and uncomfortable at the
time, you may even reach a point at which you despair of ever reaching the end
of the journey, but at the end you will know that you have been greatly
enriched by the experience.
Update 2015: I realize I didn’t say much about the novel in this post — probably because I didn’t know where to start, it stirred up so many ideas in my mind. But I will get back to it one of these days, honest! Meanwhile, I’ve read O’Brien’s Voyage to Alpha Centauri (his first and only venture into science fiction) which I also liked very much. If you get a chance, read it — there is a big surprise, about two thirds of the way through, one you won’t want to miss.

©2013 Lisa A. Nicholas

Please leave your thoughts or comments below!

Read any work with greater understanding

Owl reading a book

You’ll grow wiser as you read!

I thought I would offer here the following method of analyzing any serious work, which can be used by intelligent readers with no particular expertise in the subject matter of the work being read (I’ve also published this over on my Catholic Social Teaching blog). This is a method I developed for my Humanities students at the University of Southern Indiana, who were usually not accustomed to dealing with primary works and needed some guidance in developing good reading skills. This method is intended to be used for “non-fiction” works of all sorts, although it can (and has) been adapted for reading literary (poetic, fictional, or dramatic) works.

I will confess that this method (which the students found very helpful, not only in my class, but in upper level classes in their majors) is one I boiled down from Mortimer Adler’s How to Read a Book (which I’ve referred to several times before). One way in which I’ve improved on Adler’s method (if I may say so) is to put “evaluation” last – with undergraduate students particularly, who seem to have remarkably few analytical skills, it was necessary to emphasize that an opinion must always be predicated on knowledge and understanding of the matter being opined, otherwise it is just prejudice (i.e., literally, judging before having knowledge or understanding).

Anyway, I offer this method to my readers, as it may be useful in reading all sorts of works in fields in which one is not particularly well-versed. If you use it consistently, over time you’ll find that you can read all sorts of serious works with greater ease and understanding. You’ll also find, as you read a broader range and more books, that you begin to hear a kind of ongoing conversation amongst the books of your acquaintance. As you’ll see, the absolute key to understanding any work is context-context-context!

Four-Question Analysis of Any Work of Non-Fiction

You’ll find as you go through this method that the keynote is “context.” No work is self-interpreting, neither should it be read simply against the background of the reader’s own experience or opinion. To learn from any work, one must be careful to read it by its own lights in order to understand what the author was trying to convey. Once this understanding has honestly been reached, one should see how the work has contributed to, or perhaps even diverted, the historical discussion of its subject matter. When this has been done – and only then – can the reader arrive at an intelligent evaluation of the work.

1. The Rhetorical Context: What is it about as a whole?

  • What kind of work is it?
  • What is the central thesis or claim? How does the author support his argument?
  • What kind of audience does the author seem to address?
  • What purpose is the author trying to achieve?

There is nothing more surely guaranteed to produce misunderstanding than  to fail to read a work in its proper context. This is true of everything from the Bible to the instruction manual for an appliance. Consider how disastrous it would be to read the Bible as if it were merely an instruction manual, like the one that comes with your toaster or hairdryer (undeniably, many people have tried to do so), and or to fail to notice that Jonathan Swift is being satirical when he suggested in “A Modest Proposal” that English overlords deal with the overpopulation of their Irish subjects by eating their babies as a delicacy.

2. The Argument of the Work: What is said in detail, and how?

  • What are the key terms and what is meant by them?
  • What are the author’s leading propositions?
  • What argument does the author present, and what are its components?
  • How do the different parts of the argument work together to support the leading propositions?
  • Does the author solve the problem he  addresses? If not, does he recognize or acknowledge that he has not solved it?

Understanding key terms is crucial to comprehending what the author is trying to say. Once again, context is important in understanding terminology correctly. Then again, it is important not simply to understand individual examples or claims, but to understand them in the context of the work as a whole – are they major claims, or do they support some proposition? Are they statements the author makes, or propositions he is refuting?

(In a fictional work, you should consider the theme of the story. What point is the author making about the way life is, or the way we should live? Do the choices and actions of his characters realistically support or illustrate that point?)

3. The Significance of the Work: The work in literary, historical, or cultural context

  • How does it relate, or respond, to other works?
  • How does it relate or respond to the cultural conditions in which it was produced?
  • How does this work reflect, change, or advance a particular understanding of human concerns?

No work stands completely on its own, nor does our attempt to understand it occur in a vacuum. Again, context is key to understanding the significance of the work. In this case, this means that we should consider how this work relates to others on the same, or similar, subject, how it changes or adds to what we already knew or what had already been said on the subject, or even how this work has changed the ongoing “discussion” represented by its particular literary tradition.

4. Evaluation of the Work: To what extent does the work express or illuminate Truth?

  • Would you say that the work is true, in whole or in part?
  • What specific valuable and true insights does the work provide?
  • To what extent does the author’s analysis or account seem incomplete?
  • In what ways does the author seem uninformed, misinformed, or illogical?

Intellectual honesty mitigates against crude dichotomies of right and wrong; a qualified appraisal is often more appropriate than an absolute approval or disapproval. A work which is mistaken or illogical in some regard may nonetheless offer insights worth gleaning. We shouldn’t disdain Aristotle’s ethical insights simply because he erroneously believe that frogs are spontaneously generated out of pond water, nor dismiss Nietzsche’s diagnosis of modern problems out of hand simply because his prescription for solving those problems seems so wrongheaded. Anyone who truly desires to grow in wisdom must restrain (and retrain) the impulse to rely on gut reactions or to give thumbs up/thumbs down evaluations of serious works.

So there it is. Try it, you’ll like it. And if you don’t, let me know why.

Learn to read intelligently, even when you are out of your depth

Child reading Mortimer Adler's How to Read a Book

My experience teaching college taught me that most college students are poorly equipped to read on their own (most of them don’t read at all, unless you hold a gun to their heads, as I’ve pointed out before), by which I mean that they don’t know how to make sense of what scholars call “primary texts” (works as they are actually written, rather than works as they are digested and described by others — such as textbooks). To help my students learn to read primary texts from any of a number of fields (e.g., I regularly taught philosophical and theological works in my Humanities classes), I developed a 4-step method for understanding, analyzing, and evaluating works of all sorts. From time to time, a student would tell me, in a tone of amazement, that this method had helped them read books and articles for their other classes. (They were amazed the method worked, I was amazed that they’d actually tried it and noticed that it worked.)

Now over on the Catholic Reading Project web site, I’m going to be reading and discussing (hopefully in the company of others — how about you?) a series of magisterial documents of the Catholic Church, and it just so happens that I am no expert on the subject, and I imagine that most of those who drop in on the project or even follow along regularly are going to be no more expert than I. For this reason, I’ve posted my 4-step method over there, in hopes that it will encourage people who might otherwise be intimidated by the idea of reading documents that were not written for general lay readers. If you enjoy reading serious works, but wonder if you’re really getting out of them what you should, you should click the link above and take a look at the method. Then let me know what you think!

The Narnia Code: Hidden inklings of the God-breathed cosmos

Michael Ward The Narnia Code
Many readers have sensed that there is more
than meets the eye in Lewis’s Narnia tales,
but Michael Ward is the man
who finally discovered what it was.

A couple of years ago, I wrote a couple of posts on Michael Ward’s theory of the unifying principle  that guided C. S. Lewis in writing the Narnia tales, and Ward’s book, Planet Narnia, in which he provides a detailed analysis of the Narnia novels. The book was based on his doctoral dissertation and was, I suppose, fairly scholarly in tone. Apparently Ward and/or his publisher felt that Planet Narnia would be heavy reading for a lot of Narnia fans, so now there is a new book which (as far as I can tell from the preview available on Amazon) is essentially Planet Narnia reworked for the popular market.

The new book is The Narnia Code: C. S. Lewis and the Secret of the Seven Heavens. Here’s a portion of the publisher’s blurb:

In The Narnia Code, Michael Ward presents an astonishing literary
discovery. Drawing on the whole range of Lewis’s writings, Ward reveals
the single subject that provides the link between all seven novels. He
explains how Lewis structured the series, why he kept the code secret,
and what it shows about his understanding of the universe and the
Christian faith. 

Readers should not be put off by the title’s similarity to The Davinci Code, which, despite Dan Brown’s claim to the contrary, is pure fiction and a load of codswallop. Ward actually does a good job of demonstrating that Lewis (a) wrote according to a set of principles that, until Ward discovered them, had eluded literary critics and exegetes and (b) he deliberately concealed his plan. In other words, there actually is a “code” which can be “decoded,” thereby yielding up new meaning to the reader who has figured out the code.

Decoding Narnia: the Medieval connection

To many modern readers, this will seem like a weird, sneaky thing to do, but it would not have seemed so to a medieval reader. What most modern critics have ignored is the fact that C. S. Lewis was a trained medievalist, and that, in scholarly circles, he is more famed and admired for his work as a medievalist than he is as a writer of children’s stories or a Christian apologist (as he is known to most general readers). He wrote several books that should be familiar to college students, if they’ve ever studied medieval literature or history, and which help to support Ward’s claim that Lewis’s background as a scholar of medieval literarture is absolutely key to a thorough understanding of his Narnia tales.

C S Lewis The Discarded Image
As Lewis knew well, medieval
culture understood the metaphysical
complexity of the universe.

First in importance, there is The Discarded Image, in which Professor Lewis demonstrates how the medieval conception of the created order (the cosmos) profoundly influenced every aspect of medieval culture. Here’s the publisher’s blurb from the Canto edition
of this book:

C.S. Lewis’ The Discarded Image paints a lucid picture of the medieval
world view, as historical and cultural background to the literature of
the Middle Ages and Renaissance. It describes the “image” discarded by
later ages as “the medieval synthesis itself, the whole organization of
their theology, science and history into a single, complex, harmonious
mental model of the universe.” This, Lewis’ last book, was hailed as
“the final memorial to the work of a great scholar and teacher and a
wise and noble mind.”

One of the key elements of the “medieval world view” was the concept of plenitude, i.e., that the world we can see is just one small part of the whole of creation and there is a densely populated, but invisible order of Creation which is every bit as “real” and varied as the parts we can see. So in the medieval view the cosmos actually had different “levels,” the visible and the invisible, which coexist side by side; in a somewhat similar way, the Bible was understood to have several layers of meaning, the literal or superficial meaning which would be plain to even the most casual reader, as well as spiritual (figurative or allegorical) meanings which lay, as St Augustine put it, “beneath the veil of the letter.” The reading habit of looking for, and finding, various levels of meaning in the Bible bled over into reading of other kinds of writing as well, so that medieval poets (i.e., fiction writers) carefully planned and built many layers of significance into their works, and astute readers were adept at recognizing the “hidden” layers of meaning. Lewis, of course, knew this thoroughly, and knew that much of the delight in both writing and reading in the Middle Ages was derived from this kind of polysemous composition.

Readers must uncover (discover) the meaning

C S Lewis The Allegory of Love
Medieval writers, in imitation of the Bible,
loved to hide their meaning
the surface.

Another work by Professor Lewis that should be familiar to students of medieval literature is The Allegory of Love
, which traces the allegorical treatment of love in western European literature from the high Middle Ages through the Renaissance. Here again is evidence of the medieval delight in finding hidden meaning in literary works, and here again C. S. Lewis literally wrote the book on it. Both The Discarded Image and The Allegory of Love have been enormously influential in the modern study and teaching of medieval literature. And yet no modern scholar until Michael Ward has really understood how profoundly Lewis the writer was influenced by the medieval images and methods that preoccupied Lewis the scholar.

This idea of a literary work being conceived and composed according to an intricate plan is quite foreign to modern readers and writers alike. Recently I was introducing some students to Dante’s Divine Comedy, a massive work composed according to a massively intricate plan structured by various numerological, theological, and typological schemata. I had made similar remarks on the structures of other medieval narrative poems we have studied. One student, who seemed surprised to realize how carefully medieval writers planned their compositions, asked me if modern writers do such careful planning, and I had to reply that this is seldom the case these days.

Flammarion woodcut of the cosmos
The Flammarion woodcut, in which a truth-seeker
peers into the hidden workings of the cosmos.

Modern novelists frequently write without any plan whatsoever and seem to think that this somehow makes a work more authentic — they claim to “wait for their Muse” for inspiration, and then “let the characters take the story where it needs to go,” as if novel writing were something that happens to the writer rather than something that the writer deliberately does (I blame William Wordsworth for this romantic tendency to regard the writer as a medium through which the forces of inspiration magically work). Even mystery writers will claim that they start their stories without knowing “whodunnit.” What nonsense! Unfortunately, many readers and critics have assumed that Lewis wrote his Narnia novels using an equally haphazard method (or lack thereof). Thank goodness Michael Ward has finally vindicated Lewis in the face of critics who accuse him of having thrown Narnia together using a meaningless hodgepodge of images (Santa in Narnia? Crazy!).

By the way, when I got a beautiful new hand-tooled leather cover from Oberon Designs for my Kindle ereader, I chose a design that caught my imagination because it seemed to sum up for me the wonder of reading, allowing us to glimpse the inner workings of the universe. I didn’t realize at the time that the image was based on a well-known pseudo-medieval engraving known as the Flammarion engraving (see image at the top of this post). Whether the image is a forgery made in the nineteenth century or not, it captures nicely the medieval belief in the invisible but magnificent reality of the created order that remains invisible to human eyes. This is a much richer conception than the scientfic worldview, which denies any unobservable, metaphysical reality. Anyway, the Flammarion image makes for a beautiful Kindle cover — check it out!

Roof of Heaven Kindle cover by Oberon Designs
Roof of Heaven Kindle cover by Oberon Designs

©2012 Lisa A. Nicholas

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Recently Read: Murder, Melding Worlds, and a Soothing Mug of Bush Tea

Here are a few of the books I’ve read purely for entertainment in the past few weeks. I’ve read, or am reading, others for more serious purposes, but I’ll list them separately at another time.

Charles Todd an Impartial WitnessAn Impartial Witness: A Bess Crawford Mystery (Bess Crawford Mysteries) 

and Legacy of the Dead (Inspector Ian Rutledge Mysteries),both by Charles Todd (who is apparently actually a mother-son team of writers). These are murder mystery novels set around the time of World War I in England, the protagonist of the first being a young nurse busy patching up the wounded behind the lines in France (but getting plenty of leave in England, which facilitates her sleuthing). The second takes place immediately after the war and features a Scotland Yard detective recovering from shell shock and suffering from guilt after having to shoot a non-com for cowardice during the long, dehumanizing slog of trench warfare. The personality of the dead man continues to haunt Inspector Rutledge and offers running commentary on his investigations. Both these series are well-written; the author(s) know how to add details, turns, and unexpected revelations in a way that seems natural and reflects realistic human psychology.

Stephen King Song of Susannah Dark Tower VI

The Dark Tower VI (Song of Susannah), by Stephen King, the penultimate in his Dark Tower series. I’m currently working my way through the series for the second time (I first read them about ten years ago), after reading a notice recently that King is about to publish yet another novel connected to this series — not carrying on from the last one, but filling in details of a crucial period in the early life of the gunslinger, Roland Deschaines. This series (or serial novel) is a strange mixture of alternate universe sci-fi, fantasy, horror, and metafiction that seems to be an attempt on King’s part both to get all of his stories out of his head and also to see how they all fit together, perhaps even to understand the nature of story-telling. I’m not generally a Stephen King fan (I find him crude and shallow), but there are a number of things about this strange saga that appeal to me enough to get me past the more distasteful aspects of his writing.

Big Tent Wedding Party, Alexander McCall Smith

Saturday Big Tent Wedding Party
, the most recent in Alexander McCall Smith’s No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency series about Precious Ramotswe, the first and only lady detective in Botswana. Although the protagonist is a detective, these are not murder mysteries or even, really, crime novels — Mma Ramotswe does not accept cases involving serious criminal activity, and she prefers to settle her cases in such a way that the evil consequences of wrongdoing are minimized for all parties involved (even the wrongdoer). I find her very warm and charming, and her faith in people very refreshing. Ultimately these novels are not so much about the cases being investigated as they are about the lives and foibles of the protagonist, her friends, and family. I like the sympathetic portrayal of Botswana and its people, very different from the impression given of many other African countries in news stories. I read the twelve novels in the series back to back, as they became available from the local public library, and was afraid when I read this installment that it would be the last — a number of plot lines that have been drawn out over several volumes are finally tied up — but it seems I’ll get to enjoy at least one more installment, when no. 13, The Limpopo Academy of Private Detection, appears next month. Smith has several other series going, and I’ve read one or two from each of them, but find none of them as captivating as these stories of ordinary people, and the troubles they get into, in Botswana.

Almost all of these books I’ve acquired at no cost through the electronic lending arm of the local public library (which I love, not least because it’s impossible to accumulate late charges). With easy access to the catalog of digital books available I can get a pretty good idea of what is popular among the general reading public (at least those who rely on the library), and I must say it’s appalling what kind of trash many readers seem to prefer these days. The novels I’ve listed above are among the better offerings, however, and I would recommend them to others.