C. S. Lewis: His Literary Achievement

I have a confession to make: I do not often read secondary works on C. S. Lewis. This may sound strange, coming from someone who has now written three books on Lewis. However, one reason I don’t read more secondary works on Lewis is because it is almost always more fun reading Lewis himself.

And so, with fear and trepidation, I began reading the updated edition of Colin Manlove’s book: C. S. Lewis: His Literary Achievement soon to be released by Winged Lion Press. The fact of the matter is: I was immediately delighted. Manlove writes jargon-free prose that I think would delight Lewis himself. Also, with so many books written about Lewis by Americans, like myself, it is a pleasure to read a work on Lewis by a Brit.

Manlove, as the title of his book suggests, approaches Lewis from the literary angle. What could be more appropriate, since Lewis was a Professor of Medieval and Renaissance English Literature? At the same time, Manlove is not shy of dealing with the vibrant core which motivates all of Lewis’ fiction—sehnsucht, the seemingly unquenchable desire for something or someone completely out of this world. Manlove does not avoid the theological contentions of Lewis’ fiction but faces them head on, most often with great respect.

Each of the chapters is relatively brief, while covering a good bit of ground. This makes for easy reading of each chapter in one sitting—something highly valued, I think, by today’s busy readers. Manlove takes us on a chronological journey through Lewis’ fiction beginning with Lewis’ first creaky attempt at theologized fiction in The Pilgrim’s Regress and ending triumphantly with Lewis’ greatest masterpiece, Till We Have Faces. By the end of the tour we realize how much Lewis’ literary development was like Dante’s struggle from hell, through purgatory, finally breaking through to paradise. My favorite chapter is the one dealing with the Narnia books. Manlove tells us much about the possible literary antecedents of these marvelous books and offers keen insight as to why these are such enjoyable stories for people of all ages.

Though this is a second edition it is a most welcome one. Manlove’s re-worked introduction is almost the best part of the book. Professor Manlove also debunks some of the common myths about Lewis and his work:

That he was chauvinistic. If so, then why so many female characters, especially one as strong as Orual?

That he was Anglo-centric. If so then why does Lewis take so much delight in his creation of Calormen?

Manlove says of Orual, the main character in Till We Have Faces: “It is only when she gives her self away that she gains it: and the self that she gains is no fixed thing but has many faces, not excluding Psyche and Ungit. At that point the self is another kind of ‘nothing’, not an empty void on its own, but a thing without boundaries, merged in the natures of all others.” In this revealing book of literary criticism Manlove unveils that what he has said of Orual could also be said of Orual’s creator, C. S. Lewis.

However, for all its diversity, Manlove clearly demonstrates how Lewis’ fiction was all of a piece. And he shows, marvelously, how Lewis came, full-circle as it were, by the time of writing Till We Have Faces. In every chapter Manlove conveys, even to the lifelong reader of Lewis’ works, fresh insights, new angles from which we can perceive the many-faceted jewel which is the work of this twentieth century literary great. In this book we are re-introduced to the writer, as well as the great reader of literature who was C. S. Lewis, the man who wished he could smell the world through the nose of a dog or see the world through the eyes of a bee. And it is as if we are meeting the man and his work for the first time.

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Will Vaus, author of Mere Theology, The Professor of Narnia and The Hidden Story of Narnia.

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