Book Review: The Discarded Image

The Discarded Image: An Introduction To Medieval And Renaissance Literature, by C.S. Lewis

This book ranks as one of the later books of C.S. Lewis, and certainly one of his less well-known books, but in retrospect, looking back on his entire career as a prolific writer and as an intellectual [1], this book must surely be reckoned by those who are familiar with it as one of the most important books in his oeuvre because of the way in which this volume brings together so many of the aspects of Lewis’ thinking and, perhaps even more importantly, the influences that formed his own writing. While on the one hand this book is ostensibly a work introducing some of the more obscure but important writers and sources of the medieval scientific worldview as it made its presence known in the literature of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, it also has a lot to say, albeit implicitly, about the writing of C.S. Lewis himself. Specifically, this book demonstrates the intellectual debt that Lewis owed to the poets and philosophers of the neo-Platonic and Hellenistic Christian traditions of late antiquity and to the layered and highly mannered perspective of the High Middle Ages and later, and to the way that his own writings were immensely layered and also with the perspective of filling the empty spaces with various intermediaries between God and man, and taking with the utmost seriousness discarded worldviews that are beautiful to behold, elegant in their complicated machinery, unfamiliar in their alien perspective, and not strictly true for all of their beauty and elegance.

In terms of its contents and structure, this book is organized in a topical and somewhat chronological sense. Lewis is clearly selective in his choice of which writers to focus on—at slightly more than 200 pages, this book is definitely an introduction and not in any way an exhaustive discussion of the writing of the Middle Ages and Renaissance, which would be so bloated and unweidly as to be virtually unreadable by any but the most masochistic of scholars. The book begins with a discussion of the Medieval situation, where Lewis attempts to reconstruct the medieval world in its glory and reality for those moderns who see the world through vastly different eyes. He then, rather sensibly, discusses his reservations to broad and sweeping generalizations that will inevitably be made in the course of the introduction, as a way of warning the reader not to take his words or claims more broadly than he makes them. The next two chapters then examine various selected materials from the classical period and late antiquity, which Lewis calls the ‘seminal’ period. In the classical period he speaks of the Somnium Scipionis by Cicero, Lucan, Satitus’ and Claudian’s view of Lady Natura, and the De Deo Socratis by Apuleius. For late antiquity, Lewis chooses to focus on the writings of Chalcidius, Macrobius, Pseudo-Dionysius, and Boethius. Most readers, unless they are extremely well-read in the writings of the late Roman and early Medieval world, will be unfamiliar with almost all of these writers. After having examined various early influences for the writing of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, Lewis then speaks about the parts of the universe and the operations and inhabitants of the heavens, like angels and demons, spends a short chapter talking about the Longaevi, the longlivers of the world of fairy like elves, fey, dwarves, and gnomes, and then more lengthy chapter talking about earth and her inhabitants like beasts, the human soul, the rational soul, the sensitive and vegetable soul, the relationship of the soul and body, the human body and the human past, and the seven liberal arts of medieval education (the trivium of grammar, dialectic, and rhetoric and, very briefly, the quadrivium of astronomy, music, geometry, and arithmetic, the first of which Lewis spends some time on and the remaining three he deals with briefly. The work then finishes with a discussion of the pervasive influence of the Medieval model on the writing of later people, including, at least implicitly, Lewis himself [2].

In reading this book, the reader will likely be left with a variety of feelings. On the one hand, this book is extremely complicated, especially if one reads this book with at least one eye towards understanding the way that it gives various clues about the importance of the medieval model on Lewis’ own writings, especially the importance of the planets as conceived by medieval poets in Lewis’ own poetry as well as his space trilogy and the Chronicles of Narnia. On another level, the book is a sign of the author’s immense and obscure reading, impressive but without showing off too visibly, although the obscurity of the materials discussed is likely to put the reader in the disadvantageous position of not being familiar with the writings and thus dependent either upon what Lewis quotes or refers to from them or in the equally frustrating position of trying to find available translations of this immensely obscure material to read for themselves. Those readers who have limited interest in the thinking of Hellenistic Christians or outright pagan poets and philosophers, and who have no tolerance of the enduring pagan influence on writers and thinkers who consider themselves to be Christians will likely have little interest in this book’s examination of the persistence of pagan thinking within the ‘Christian’ medieval worldview, nor with Lewis’ obvious admiration of such heathen thought. Although this is a greatly important work in understanding Lewis’ thought and the influences upon his thought, it is likely to be a work that deters most readers, making its obscurity as readily understood as it is lamentable.

[1] See, for example:

[2] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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6 Responses to Book Review: The Discarded Image

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