‘Name C. S. Lewis’s greatest book.’ ‘English Literature in the Sixteenth Century.’ ‘Come again?’
Well, don’t forget that Literary Criticism was Lewis’s real job. If we are too dazzled by his string of apologetics and children’s books we are in danger of being like those hobbits who only knew Gandalf, the Opponent of Sauron, as a maker of wonderful fireworks.
Chez nous, we have just finished reading the introductory chapter: ‘New Learning and New Ignorance’ (I say reading but I mean one of us reading out loud to the other—the test of good writing, which Lewis’s prose passes with honours.)
This chapter has 64 pages. It would make a book in itself, especially if the names of people, books, places, and events which Lewis assumes that we know were all expanded or footnoted. It is an outstanding study of the cultural history of the sixteenth century.
That century was very important for the history of ideas. But how many of us know the real story, as opposed to the superficial narratives which interested parties on all sides hand out? Lewis shows us that the truth, as ever, is more complicated. If you like history to support your prejudices and your knowledge to remain shallow, don’t read this book.
For the protagonists of ‘progressive thinking’, this was when the New Learning sprang up to banish the ignorance of the Dark Ages. For art historians, it was the pinnacle of the ‘Renaissance’ (Lewis puts the word in quotes when he can’t avoid using it). For scientific humanists, it was when Science began to shape people’s thinking. It was an age of geographical discovery. And of course, it was when Protestantism first emerged.
Around these cherished landmarks, lots of potted, stereotyped ideas have gathered. Lewis, one of the twentieth century’s champions of clear and honest thinking, deconstructs many of our simplistic notions.
The so-called ‘rebirth’ or renascentia, which has given rise to our multivalent word Renaissance, was originally coined to describe the revival of Augustan Classical Latin and the rediscovery of ancient Greek and its literature. The men (and they were probably all male) responsible for this are known as ‘humanists’. They are not to be confused with our present-day friends of secular outlook—though it is arguable that a tenuous historical thread connects them.
Lewis’s first paradox (of many) is to declare that he cannot see any causal connection between the humanists of the renascentia and the remarkable and unprecedented flowering of English literature in the last quarter of the sixteenth century, in which Shakespeare, Marlowe, Spenser, and Sidney starred. The temper of the humanists was so nitpicking that some of them would not use an inflected form of a Latin word if that particular form had not been used by Cicero. This was not exactly the spirit to power the unfettered soaring of Shakespeare’s dramatic and linguistic inventiveness.
But I have hardly begun to unpack the treasures of ELISC. More to come in another blog.