C. S. Lewis and the Scholarship of Imagination in E. Nesbit and Rider Haggard

Article excerpt

To explore the scholarship of imagination as C. S. Lewis practiced it, it is useful to begin with two poetic and striking passages. The first is from Lewis' great book The Voyage of the Dawn Treader: Caspian, the Narnian, expresses wonder to his friends from Earth:

   "Do you mean to say," asked Caspian, "That you three come from a round
   world (round like a ball) and you've never told me! It's really too bad of
   you. Because we have fairy-tales in which there are round worlds and I
   always loved them. I never believed there were any real ones. But I've
   always wished there were and I've always longed to live in one. Oh, I'd
   give anything--I wonder why you can get into our world and we never get
   into yours? If only I had the chance! It must be exciting to live on a
   thing like a ball. Have you ever been to the parts where people walk about
   upside-down?"

      Edmund shook his head. "And it isn't like that," he added. "There's
   nothing particularly exciting about a round world when you're there. (208)

The second passage is from The Enchanted Castle, by E. Nesbit, whose work Lewis studied before writing his Narnia books:

   When you are young so many things are difficult to believe, and yet the
   dullest people will tell you that they are true--such things, for instance,
   as that the earth goes round the sun, and that it is not flat but round.
   But the things that seem really likely, like fairy-tales and magic, are, so
   say the grownups, not true at all. Yet they are so easy to believe,
   especially when you see them happening. And, as I am always telling you,
   the most wonderful things happen to all sorts of people, only you never
   hear about them because the people think that no one will believe their
   stories, and so they don't tell them to any one except me. And they tell
   them to me, because they know that I can believe anything.(44)

What one notices here are motifs central to my topic: the motifs of belief; imagination; cosmology (the model by which reality is constructed); the telling of stories; the otherworldly and mysterious; and also a quirky humor. It is as if the Lewis passage is a transformation of the Nesbit passage.

Even C. S. Lewis' detractors--and there are many of them--acknowledge that he was a great scholar. What they do not acknowledge is that Lewis was also a great scholar of the imagination, an adept in the practice of narrative creation. Admittedly, Lewis' expertise in this respect lay in a certain kind of story, but then few writers do go beyond a limited repertoire of genres. Lewis' preference was essentially for romance: a kind of narrative in which the marvelous and fantastic are not only allowed but are required by the form. A subset of romance as Lewis knew it was children's literature, and Lewis showed a respect for and interest in children's literature that is rare among highbrow scholars: Lewis cites E. Nesbit in his Studies in Words and cites The Wind in the Willows when seeking an example of the numinous. The disdain for children's literature--some would say prejudice--is very much alive, still, as if taking a serious interest in the subject were childish or in no way equal to interest in other literary areas. Articles on children's literature in PMLA are rare enough.

At the same time, Lewis seemed to view children's literature not exactly as children's literature. He viewed it generically; that is, he wrote stories aimed at children not so much because he wanted to write for children tout court, but because he had in mind certain generic configurations and images that were appropriate for that genre. The materials determined the genre that should receive or contain them, rather than the other way round. He did not decide to write a children's story and then looked for things to put in it. He had motifs in mind which found their logical home in that specific kind of romance known as children's literature. …