C. S. Lewis opens “A Preface to Paradise Lost” with an imperative for all would-be critics: “The first qualification for judging any piece of workmanship from a corkscrew to a cathedral is to know what it is—what it was intended to do and how it is meant to be used. After that has been discovered the temperance reformer may decide that the corkscrew was made for a bad purpose, and the communist may think the same about the cathedral. But such questions come later. The first thing is to understand the object before you: as long as you think the corkscrew was meant for opening tins or the cathedral for entertaining tourists you can say nothing to the purpose about them.”
Lewis goes on to note that regarding Paradise Lost, the first thing we need know is “what Milton meant it to be,” a need which he argues is “specially urgent in the present age because the kind of poem Milton meant to write is unfamiliar to many readers.”
Lewis concludes that we can know we have misunderstood an author’s intention when we “regard as faults … those very properties which the poet labored hardest to attain and which, rightly enjoyed, are essential to its specific delightfulness.”
Perhaps—now sixty years after the initial publication of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe—we have come to a point in time where similar claims could be made about the Chronicles of Narnia. The first qualification before judging Lewis’s classic fairy stories is to be sure we understand what they were intended to do, a need which could similarly be argued is “specially urgent in the present age.” Why does this need exist? Because the kind of story Lewis set out to write in the summer of 1948 is unfamiliar to many modern readers since the general intention of many writers today has become so different from that of Lewis.
In an essay titled “The Judgment of Memory” Joseph Bottum describes how in recent years fiction writers have become better and better at serving up finer and finer observations about objects which get smaller and smaller, better and better at writing prose that takes the form of revelation but which in fact does not intend to reveal anything. Gone is the sense that the author intends to use these details to say something which goes beyond them—that all these exquisite details are supposed to add up to something. Gone, Bottum writes, is the sense that we live in what he calls “a universe of intelligibility,” a world which can to some extent be understood, a world with purpose and meaning.
“One way to tell the literary history of the twentieth century,” Bottum states, “is to follow the progression of an extremely bookish people who grew more and more uncertain, more and more diffident, more and more self-conscious about the entire idea of telling a story or using the narrative finality of stories to convey unified judgments about society, history, or even themselves.” If past writing was story-driven, contemporary literature has become more and more detail-driven, and while details are critical to storytelling, a mere catalog of details does not satisfy the soul.
In several of his essays, Lewis explains that he wrote fairy stories because they were the form that could say best what he wanted to say. One kind of critic of the Chronicles of Narnia fails to understand Lewis’s underlying intention, fails to recognize that Lewis intended his fiction to go beyond mere observations and to say something. Even A Grief Observed, although beginning in observations, does not stop there but ends in conclusions and truths that Lewis works his way through to.
If one kind of critic fails to understand the Chronicles’ basic intention because it differs radically from that found in many current works, a second kind of critic is well aware of their intention and derides all books with such a goal.
Lewis describes this second type of critic in his essay “On Science Fiction,” arguing: “Many reviews are useless because, while purporting to condemn the book, they only reveal the reviewer’s dislike of the kind to which it belongs. Let bad tragedies be censured by those who love tragedy, and bad detective stories by those who love the detective story. Otherwise we shall find epics blamed for not being novels, farces for not being high comedies, novels by James for lacking the swift action of Smollett.”
Lewis goes on to say that he himself did not like detective stories and so if he attempted to write a review about one detective story in particular, he would “infallibly write drivel.” Lewis’s point about “criticism of kinds” is not that it is worthless but that “it should not masquerade as criticism of individual works.”
“Who wants to hear a particular claret abused by a fanatical teetotaler?” Lewis asks. One might look at these two types of critics and echo: “Who wants to hear the Chronicles of Narnia abused by people who either fail to understand Lewis’s intention or, understanding it, detest it?”
J. R. R. Tolkien makes a similar point about critics who attempt to evaluate a specific work of a type they dislike in general. In the Foreword to the second edition of The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien states: “Some who have read the book, or at any rate have reviewed it, have found it boring, absurd, or contemptible; and I have no cause to complain, since I have similar opinions of their works, or of the kinds of writing that they evidently prefer.”
Lewis intended the details in the Chronicles of Narnia to add up to something. Lewis’s storytelling in the Chronicles of Narnia, and in all his fiction, was intended to provide insight into the human condition—penetrating insight, I would claim—and to reveal truths about life, our life. In a world were fewer and fewer works seek to do this, and fewer and fewer critics find merit in those that do, I would argue that perhaps one reason these books and their film adaptations are so widely popular is because they are so widely needed.
Devin Brown is a Lilly Scholar and Professor of English at Asbury University, where, among other duties, he teaches a class on Lewis. He is the author of Inside Narnia: A Guide to Exploring The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (Baker 2005) and Inside Prince Caspian: A Guide to Exploring the Return to Narnia (Baker 2008). His third book on Lewis and Narnia, Inside the Voyage of the Dawn Treader, will be released next month.