According to Jerry Root and Mark Neal, Lewis wrote in at least seventeen literary genres: apologetics, autobiography, educational philosophy, essays, fairy stories, journal, letters, literary criticism, literary history, lyric poetry, narrative poetry, the novel, religious devotion, satire, science fiction, short story, and translation (03). Is there a thread that runs through these each of these genres? Root & Neal say Imagination. In The Surprising Imagination of C.S. Lewis, they provide a taxonomy of the various ways Lewis employs imagination (or warns of its misuse).
Lewis’s various genres showcase different aspects of hisimagination. “He wrote in a literary form that helped him best set forth a certain body of idea”(4). Root & Neal divide their exploration of Lewis’ imagination along generic lines, exploring first his non-fiction (autobiography, religious writing and literary criticism) under the heading of “Imagination and the Literature of the Mind.” Part 2, “Imagination and the Literature of the Heart, looks at Lewis’s fiction and poetry. Of course the aspect of imagination described in each of Root and Neal’s chapters may exist in multiple works of Lewis (and genres) but they chose a principle work which highlights what they wanted to say about Lewis’s imagination, and citing other Lewis lit along the way.
Part 1 showcases hoe Lewis employed imagination to orient himself toward reality. His autobiography, Surprised by Joy, reveals a baptized imagination–regenerate and oriented toward the discovery of God (16). Mere Christianity exemplifies Lewis’s use of shared imagination: creativity that connects and communicates with his audience (17, 28). The satisfied imagination ‘”delights in the familiar the simple, the mundane, and the repetitive in a manner that brings our minds back to the eternal source of order and repetition”(31). Letters to Malcom Chiefly on Prayer provide the lens for mundane imagining. Lewis’ literary criticism in An Experiment in Criticism and The Discarded Image explore the awakened imagination and the realizing imagination. The awakened imagination is an ‘invitation to break out of the dungeon of self’ and awaken to new ideas (57). In The Discarded Image Lewis described the medieval cosmology and how their worldview determined their vision, and their interpretation of the past. Lewis exploration helps us evaluate the past and present, and gives us space to question our own assumptions.
In part 2, we see that not all of Lewis’s descriptions of the imagination are positive. He begins cheerily enough by describing the penetrating imagination of A Horse and His Boy (which employs metaphor to give us a deeper knowledge of a reality), the material imagination of The Voyage of the Dawn Treader and examines the primary imagination in Out of the Silent Planet (our use of the five senses to understand and interpret the world). But imagination can take a dark turn. That Hideous Strength describes Lewis’s idea of the generous imagination , “[the] deificaiton of an idea or thing to the point that borders on adoration or vilification. Simply put it seeks to embellish a thing beyond what it deserves. Its effect is to weaken the self and narrow the soul” (121). The Great Divorce explores the transforming imagination through its characters—a projected, overidealized and inflated expectation of the objects of our affection which leads inevitably to disappointment and disenchantment. The Screwtape Letters take us deeper into the realm of projection (and hell) by showcasing a controlled imagination which projects one’s self-seeking desires on others (155). Root and Neal end on a happier note, showing how Lewis’s poetry provide a lens for the absorbing imagination—a synthesis between old ideas and new consciousness which transcends our own particularity (171). An appendix explores additional use of imagination by C.S. Lewis.
Anyone who has gone through the wardrobe with Lewis, or read his religious writings knows he was a deeply imaginative man with a broad intelligence. Root and Neal do an excellent job of exploring and naming the various ways that Lewis employed imagination. But I don’t like the title. Lewis’ imagination was comprehensive, far-reaching and full-orbed. But surprising? If you have read Lewis at all, you aren’t all that surprised by Lewis’s imagination and penetrating insights.
But my misgivings about the title (which may not even be Root’s and Neal’s fault), shouldn’t put you off. An exploration of Lewis’s fulsome imagination is worthwhile and Root and Neal summarize ideas and analyze how Lewis employed them. This book will enhance your understanding of Lewis and deepen your appreciation of his writing. Root and Neal make good use of Lewis’ scholarship and shows what one mans imaginings reveal. I give this four-and-a-half stars.
Note: I received this book from the publisher through Handlebar Media in exchange for my honest review.