Imaginary: Introducing C. S. Lewis

Welcome ladies and gentlemen, to today’s second section in this series of lectures: Beyond Medieval and Fantasy Literature, hosted by the University of Cambridge. This morning we heard from J. R. R. Tolkien on how he uses the genre beyond its conventions, and in a few moments we have the privilege of inviting C. S. Lewis, our Chair of Medieval and Renaissance English Literature, to speak to us about the use of allegory in his own novels, the Chronicles of Narnia.

Just before I came up here to introduce professor Lewis, I was told to “invite Jack to the stage,” which left me confused as to who ‘Jack’ was. But apparently Jack is what professor Lewis would prefer over his name Clive. So say hello to Jack afterwards, and I’m sure he’ll appreciate it.

For those of you, either from Oxford or here at Cambridge, who were or are students of professor Lewis – and I am one of them – I know you are anticipating the insight he will give us today, as he does so often when we approach him in his office. Some of my classmates and I have wondered where it is that his sense of rationality and critical thinking come from? Professor Lewis tells us of his own tutor, someone who he claims has had a great influence on him. One W.T. Kirkpartrick. He refers to this man as “The Great Knock.” None of us are entirely sure what The Great Knock was like as a person, but we do have this story. The first time he met his tutor, which was as he got off the train in the countryside in Surrey, England, he made a comment on how he didn’t expect the ‘wildness’ of his surroundings. And at this point, the Great Knock is supposed to have pounced on this and said: “STOP. WHAT DO YOU MEAN BY WILDNESS AND WHAT GROUNDS DO YOU HAVE FOR NOT EXPECTING IT?” I think this is why he makes a point of impressing on us today the need to always choose words carefully, and lay out arguments clearly.

At the same time, in his own writing, Lewis freely uses strange but poignant metaphors. There’s a famous part in the book Mere Christianity which submits to the reader that with the kind of things Jesus says he must either be Son of God as he claims, or a lunatic (“on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg”) or a liar. But not merely a great moral teacher. And this is not an argument unique to Lewis, but in all the seriousness of the matter, he does manage somehow to refer to a “poached egg”.

Perhaps it is this voice, this tell-it-like-it-is voice, that causes some to either love his writing or hate it. Two of my friends, actually have quite different opinions about professor Lewis, and it is not what you would expect. My conservative and very religious friend – you know who this is, professor Lewis – has a certain dislike for your arguments, but my other friend, who is very anti-Establishment, has a great admiration for you.

So, what professor Lewis will speak about today is how allegory is used in Medieval texts, in the traditional understanding of allegories, that they are a kind of representation that conveying a meaning other than the literal. But he will also draw on his own works to show how the use of representation can be more broad than allegory. In his Narnia series, he does not want to just represent the Christian story in symbols, but to strip away the “stained glass and Sunday School associations,” to get at the heart of the matter. He uses more of a “supposition”: suppose we laid down our present day associations with ‘religion’ – what would it all have been like?

So without further ado, please welcome C.S. Lewis – Jack!

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