Norman Cantor on C S Lewis on the Middle Ages

In my forthcoming book Medieval Wisdom for Modern Protestants, a number of British writers will serve as guides into the period: C S Lewis, J R R Tolkien, G K Chesterton, Dorothy L Sayers and others. The medievalist Norman Cantor, in his 1991 book Inventing the Middle Ages, spends a chapter talking about how Lewis, Tolkien, and their Oxford colleague Frederick Maurice Powicke shaped modern views of the Middle Ages. Together he labels these men “The Oxford Fantasists.”

There is good stuff in this chapter of Cantor’s on the sort of medievalism (that is, “modern uses or construals of the Middle Ages”) that Lewis and friends (including Barfield and Williams) fashioned.

Tolkien, as medievalist, though he didn’t do much in his field apart from the fantasy writing that absorbed so much of his time, was for example “the leading scholar on the subjects of two precious fourteenth-century poems written anonymously in the Midlands, about seventy miles from Oxford, in the dialect of that region. These poems, Sir [206] Gawain and the Green Knight and Pearl, are now regarded, along with Beowulf (c. 800) and the works of Chaucer (late fourteenth century), as the greatest medieval poetry in the English language. There is no more beautiful poem in any medieval language than Pearl, an allegorical elegy for a dead child. Tolkien was responsible for the definitive text of Sir Gawain, published in 1925. . . .” (205-6)

“Lewis in the war years was by far the best known of the Inklings group, both within the academic world and even more among the general public. He had established his reputation as a leading medieval literary historian with The Allegory of Love (1936), a pioneering and influential study of medieval romantic literature. . . .” (206)

“Of all the medievalists of the twentieth century, Lewis and Tolkien have gained incomparably the greatest audience, although 99.9 percent of their readers have never looked at their scholarly work. They are among the best-selling authors of modern times for their works of fantasy, adult and children’s. . . . In 1949 Jack Lewis’s smiling face graced the cover of Time magazine, and he gained a huge audience in the United States.” (207)

“At the end of the war Lewis was the center of a popular transatlantic Christian cult, and his scholarly reputation also advanced steadily—eventually he published five scholarly books—but it is more likely that Tolkien, then regarded by many of his colleagues, possibly including Lewis, as a burnout case and a somewhat embarrassing failure who ought to resign his prestigious chair and give a younger and more productive man a chance at it, whose fame will be of infinite duration. It now looks as though The Lord of the Rings is one of the enduring classics of English literature and that a century from now, [208] while Lewis’s reputation will have flattened out, Tolkien will stand in the company of Swift and Dickens as a creator of imaginative fiction and in the lineage of fantasy writers going back to the author of Pearl, which he himself rescued from very deep obscurity.” (207-08)

Here’s an important insight:

“In terms of shaping of the Middle Ages in the popular culture of the twentieth century, Tolkien and Lewis have had an incalculable effect, and the story is far from ended. Their fictional fantasies cannot be separated from their scholarly writing. Their work in each case should be seen as a whole and as communicating an image of the Middle Ages that has entered profoundly and indelibly into world culture.” (208)

“[Tolkien and Lewis] legitimated for each other their singular careers, in which, while conscientiously fulfilling their teaching responsibilities, they took time (in Tolkien’s case almost all of it) from their scholarly work to transmute their medieval learning into mythopoetic fiction, fantasy literature for a mass audience that communicated the sensibility of medieval epic and romance.” (208)

“They were resented and envied by their colleagues, Lewis thereby failing to get the chair he wanted at Oxford and forced to find one at Cambridge . . . Tolkien losing much of his credibility in his colleagues’ eyes. Strengthening each other’s resolve, they persevered and transcended the academic world and became international media figures.” (208)

“Their fantasy writing was a very serious undertaking. It was not done as a hobby or primarily as a moneymaking venture, although they both died well-off from it. They wanted to impart a sense of [209] medieval myth to the widest audience possible. They wanted to represent to the public the impress of the kind of traditional ethic they derived from their devotion to conservative Christianity.” (208-9)

I think this twin statement cuts right to the heart of Tolkien’s and Lewis’s fiction. They saw the medieval era and the Christian values it embodied as a vibrant corrective to many of the ills of their own age, and they saw what Tolkien called “fairy stories” as the best way to communicate these values to their time. In so doing, they also communicated those values to our time.

Now Cantor’s take on why Lewis and Tolkien were so attracted to the medieval period. I am less interested, by the way, in whether this portrayal is accurate in every detail, than in the way it helps us think about how these “Inklings” authors may have used the medieval past to speak a certain sort of prophetic word in their own time. That, in turn, will I hope help us think about how we use the past:

“Both men were deeply affected by a nostalgia and a love for a rapidly disappearing England graced by the middle-class, highly literate Christian culture into which they had been born. They saw a continuity of this culture stretching back into the Middle Ages, when, in their perception, it originated. For them, these vibrant, imaginative, complex Middle Ages were in many essentials still activated in the donnish [that is, professorish] world of mid-twentieth-century Oxbridge [that is, Oxford and Cambridge] and the English countryside, if not so much in London. Lewis and Tolkien wanted not only to preserve but to revitalize through their writing and teaching this Anglo-Edwardian retromedieval culture. In the mechanistic, capitalistic, aggressive age of Harold Macmillan and Margaret Thatcher, [210] it looked as though their program of cultural nostalgia would have little long-range impact. In the 1990s we cannot be so sure of that.” (210)

Cantor elaborates on this, as he calls it, “nostalgic” program of the Inklings:

“Lewis saw himself, Tolkien, and his other Oxbridge friends as spokesmen for an ‘Old European, or Old Western Culture,’ that was under siege. We know [writes Cantor] where Lewis and Tolkien would stand in the current dispute about the canon of literature.”

A few words on this: today people such as Harold Bloom, following up on the work of Mortimer Adler and others involved in promoting “Great Books” programs, are defending the “Western Civ” class and the idea that there is an identifiable canon of Western literature that shaped America and Europe and that still needs to be taught to us—as not just a literary curiosity, but a form of moral education. Their opponents in this debate are multiculturalists and postcolonialists, who see as much bad as good in that Western heritage, and who insist that a broader palette of cultural sources, non-Christian and non-Western as well as Christian and Western, be taught in the moral education of our schools and universities.

Continues Cantor, “They [Lewis and Tolkien] were ‘dinosaurs,’ and it might be that ‘there are not going to be many more dinosaurs,’ said Lewis. But they were going to fight the last good fight. In Lewis’s words, ‘the preservation of society, and the species itself, are ends that do not hang on the precarious thread of Reason: They are given by instinct. . . . We have an instinctive urge to preserve our own species. That is why men ought to work for posterity.’ This instinctive urge for preservation of humankind is not pursued through natural spontaneity but rather through highly literate discipline. Preservation is mediated through the literature and philosophy of the Middle Ages and the subsequent heritage deriving from and developing out of medieval . . . culture. Their chief vehicle in this perilous journey of salvation was mythic fiction. As Lewis wrote of the sixteenth-century poet Edmund Spenser, they sought ‘to produce a tale more solemn, more redolent of the past, more venerable, than any real medieval romance . . . to hand on to succeeding generations a poetic symbol of the [Middle Ages] whose charms have proved inexhaustible.’” (210)

Cantor goes on to put the Inklings’ imaginative writing in the context of a British Empire that was, by the late 1930s, clearly in decline, exacerbated by the heavy economic toll of war. He concludes, “The response to economic and imperial decline was in the Britain of the forties a literary ambience of despairing resignation, suspicion of and incapacity to sustain an advanced technological society, and an intense but short-lived Christian revival.” He sees that temperament in the time’s chief writers, such as T. S. Eliot, and even later writers such as George Orwell. (212)

“This was the sad ambience, the bitter, depleted world in which Lewis and Tolkien wrote. They had, however, a more positive response to these conditions and events than the postimperial stoicism, cultural despair and resigned Christian pessimism that were the common response of their British contemporaries. They were not prepared imaginatively and intellectually to withdraw and accept defeat. Out of the medieval Norse, Celtic, and Grail legends, they con-[213]jured fantasies of revenge and recovery, an ethos of return and triumph. As Chaucer said in Troilus and Criseyde, they aimed to ‘make dreams truth and fables histories.’ A mythopoetic vision of medieval heroism was to be communicated to the masses through fantasy stories. ‘That something which the educated receive from poetry,’ Lewis wrote in 1947, ‘can reach the masses in stories of adventure, and almost in no other way.’” (212-13)

So, what was the substance of that vision, according to Cantor? It was something he calls “the Medieval imagination.”

“For Lewis the quest for the Middle Ages was the pursuit of ‘the compulsive imagination of a larger, brighter, bitterer, more dangerous world than ours.’ In his view, this medieval imagination was the product of the tense interaction of three cultural traditions. One was the romantic tradition that attained its highest [214] development in the courtly literature, the love poetry of the aristocracy of northern France, southern England, and the Rhine valley in the late 12th and 13th centuries—the world of ‘courtly love.’ A second strand in medieval imaginative culture lay in the vast and complex, often university-based, learned conception of a cosmic and world order that came to fruition in the late 13th and 14th centuries and is expressed both in academic treatises and in Dante’s Divine Comedy, which draws heavily upon this systematic learning. Underneath these two cultural traditions, courtly love and the learned structure of cosmic order, lies a third force, the pristine instinctive feeling of a warrior society that became hedged about and largely, but not entirely, submerged by the consciously developed other two cultures.” (213-14)

“This is the essential Lewis view of medieval literature of art [says Cantor—I encourage you to test this description of Cantor’s against your own reading of Lewis’s Discarded Image and the other Lewis material we’ll read this semester]. When he began to propound it, in the mid-1930s, it was very much a vanguard conception. No one in the English-speaking world had up to then the learning, insight, and courage to attempt such a sophisticated definition of high medieval culture. There had been valuable discussions of particular poets and treatises on philosophy and theology. But Lewis tried to define the essence of the twelfth-century literary imagination and did so in a formula that has withstood the challenge of a half century of research and reflection: The world view in 12th– and early-13th-century literature is the product of the romantic courtly tradition interacting with a search for learned order while to some extent perpetuating the underlying instinctive feeling of a warrior society.” (214)

“How does this medieval culture, so defined, relate to us? How does it affect our consciousness? Medieval culture is both different from ours and very much in communication with ours, Lewis believed. In this way there is an ambiguous, tensile, and creative relationship between the medieval heritage of literature and art and our own way of thinking and seeing. To read medieval ‘literature aright you must suspend most of the responses and unlearn most of the habits you have acquired in reading modern literature.’ [Those are Lewis’s words.] It is easy enough to perceive that ‘in every way, if we have not outgrown, we have at least grown away from, The Romance of the Rose,’ the French romantic masterpiece of the late 13th century. On the other hand, [says Lewis] ‘such a view would be superficial. Humanity does not pass through phases as a train passes through stations. Being alive, it has the privilege of always moving yet never leaving something behind. Whatever we have been, in some [sense] we are still. Neither the form nor [215] the sentiment of this old poetry has passed away without leaving indelible traces on our mind.’ So [says Cantor] here is the second quality of medieval literature, after its tripartite foundations in romance, learned order, and primitive instinct: It is both separate from us and highly accessible to us and interactive with our own being. [Repeat that.] In the language . . . of Freud and Jacques Lacan, it is our other.” (214-15)

“A third characteristic of medieval culture as seen by Lewis is its paradoxical combination of generalizing visions of unity with an intense concentration on the particular.” (215)

Yes indeed! A good example of this universal + particular style would be Dante’s very systematic and also highly concrete and particular style of writing, in his Comedia. This “systematic particularism,” as we might call it, gelled nicely with the theological and broadly intellectual trend born of the 1930s and 40s called neo-Thomism, under such French Catholics as Jacques Maritain, “a philosopher who taught at the Sorbonne in Paris and after 1941 at Princeton, and Etienne Gilson, the historian of medieval philosophy, who held chairs in Paris and Toronto.” Gilson, by the way, was the one who said that Chesterton’s biography of Thomas Aquinas had never been surpassed. “In the United States neo-Thomism gained support not only in Catholic institutions like Fordham University, in New York, but also at the University of Chicago,” where educational theorist and Great Books wallah Mortimer Adler was one of its proponents.

“What neo-Thomism projected was an image of a medieval culture tending always on the side of synthesis and unity. Against the fractious, atomizing nature of modern culture and the disordered curriculum of modern education, medieval culture was held up as an ideal contrast of striving to bring everything together. [In his Discarded Image, Lewis shows how that sort of world-embracing systematization was a chief characteristic of medieval culture.] St. Thomas Aquinas was particularly praised for his efforts to integrate Catholic theology with Aristotelian philosophy, the vanguard science of the day.” (215)

Lewis, since he emphasized this bookish, systematizing nature of medieval culture, was appealed to “by the neo-Thomists to support their point of view and confirm their program, which was to sustain traditional learned order (‘the Great Books’ in Chicago parlance) in the midst of the disturbing variety and instabil-[216]ity of modern life. Lewis’s phenomenal popularity in America in the 1940s and 1950s stemmed partly from the compatibility of his perception of medieval culture with neo-Thomist principles.” (215-16)

“But Lewis saw more deeply into medieval culture than the neo-Thomists did. He knew there was another side entirely to medieval sensibility in contrast with system building, and this was a love of the particular, a propensity to concentrate on small facts and distinctive experience and to relish the individual and the concrete. In that respect, medieval culture had much in common with the modernism of the early 20th century, in which Lewis, like others of his generation, was educationally reared and which had become inextricably intertwined with donnish Oxbridge mentality.” (216)

Here Cantor quotes The Discarded Image, as Lewis’s summing up, written near the end of his life. “The medieval imagination . . . ‘is not a transforming imagination like Wordsworth’s or a penetrative imagination like Shakespeare’s. It is a realizing imagination.’ Dante was obsessive about ‘extremely factual word-painting: the details, the comparisons, designed at whatever cost of dignity to make sure that we see exactly what he saw. Now Dante in this [says Lewis] is typically medieval. The Middle Ages are unrivaled, till we reach quite modern times . . . in the sheer foreground fact, the “close-up.”’” (216)

Cantor concludes, “Lewis was a great emancipator in medieval studies” in Discarded Image as well as “the two other major scholarly works that he published: The Allegory of Love (1936) and English Literature in the Sixteenth Century Excluding Drama (1954). They are bold, original, seminal works that rocked the transatlantic Anglophone world of medieval studies and did a great deal of good. . . . Lewis’s [Allegory of] Love was a watershed. . . .” (217)

“Lewis’s account of nondramatic 16ht-century English literature . . . is today very much worth reading because of his subtle and passionate argument that Renaissance literature, such as the poetry of Edmund Spenser, is still functioning within the language and concept formations of medieval culture. In other words, Lewis maintained vehemently that contrary to the viewpoint of the followers of Jacob Burckhardt, the Renaissance is only a late and special chapter in the history of medieval culture, not the dawn of a new era.” (217)

3 responses to “Norman Cantor on C S Lewis on the Middle Ages

  1. I mean, really, “…didn’t do much in his field apart from the fantasy writing…”> JRRT’s “not much” is most scholars’ live’s work….

  2. Rates poorly because overlooks very substantive contributions to medieval studies by Tolkien, including rescuin g Pearl from “very deep obscurity” and proving that midlands English long remained largely untocuhed by Norman influence (Ancrene Wisse), quite apart from the definitive texts of Gawain, Pearl, Sir Orfeo, and many other essays (some collected in The Monsters & the Critics, faturing the title essay, yet another of his definitive works).

  3. Commenting on my own post. Now I know I’m a geek.

    Just wanted to add: for more on how Lewis, Tolkien, and friends can help us find a usable medieval past, see my related article on Christianity Today’s history blog:

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