This section contains 5,578 words
(approx. 19 pages at 300 words per page)
Critical Essay by Paul Piehler
SOURCE: "Myth or Allegory? Archetype and Transcendence in the Fiction of C. S. Lewis," in Word and Story in C. S. Lewis, edited by Peter J. Schakel and Charles A. Huttar, University of Missouri Press, 1991, pp. 199-212.
In the following essay, Piehler examines Lewis's critical study of allegory, historical varieties of allegory, and the use of allegory in Lewis's fiction.
I sometimes find myself bothered by the recollection that in Lewis's Oxford it was fashionable to say things like "Of course his academic work is quite brilliant, but why on earth does he waste everyone's time with all this religious stuff?" Since I was at that time enough of a hireling of Giant Zeitgeist to make that kind of remark myself without even having taken the trouble to read any of his religious writings, apologetic or fictional, I welcome the opportunity to recant for such shallow timeserving.
Nor can I be accused of attempting to revive a dead issue. The horse is alive and could stand some more flogging. A few years ago, a famous student of Lewis's who was a successful candidate for that Oxford Professorship of Poetry denied to Lewis, in the course of a handsome tribute to Lewis's greatness as a scholar, inserted the comment, "Setting aside his novels, which I take it are simply bad—he developed in later years a telltale interest in science fiction, which is usually a reliable sign of imaginative bankruptcy."
John Wain's casual phrasing here would seem to imply that his views are so widely accepted among intelligent people that any actual argument to justify his contumely would be quite superfluous. Nonetheless, my own reading of Lewis's work leads me to quite opposite conclusions: in respect of Lewis's quite central interests in allegory and myth, his fictional works have been undervalued, and his scholarship has been in some respects overvalued. And since all discussions of allegory tend to involve reference to at least two levels of reality, and thus to become somewhat complex, I shall, for the sake of clarity, summarize my conclusions in the form of four propositions:
First, Lewis's most famous scholarly work suffers from a strange critical flaw. The writer of The Allegory of Love never quite produced a sustainable definition of allegory.
Second, the problem of definition arises from a failure to make a necessary distinction between two diametrically opposed forms of the genre, the allegory of vision and the allegory of demystification.
Third, the outcome of this failure to resolve what is in fact a quite ancient critical dilemma is reflected not only in inconsistency in his theoretical position, but also in a constriction of scope in his own attempt at an allegory of demystification, The Pilgrim's Regress.
Fourth and most important, Lewis's readings in medieval visionary allegory inspired not only his academic scholarship but his literary imagination and are powerfully reflected in the structures and imagery of his own fiction.
As a scholar C. S. Lewis is deservedly most famous for The Allegory of Love. Although it appeared relatively early in his career, it was never equalled, in scope or authority, by any of his later works, brilliantly successful as they have been. Yet, paradoxically enough, Lewis himself had a surprisingly low opinion of allegory, as opposed to what he saw as the alternate or rival mode of symbolism. He writes, for example, "There is nothing 'mystical' or mysterious about medieval allegory; the poets know quite clearly what they are about and are well aware that the figures which they present to us are fictions. Symbolism is a mode of thought, but allegory is a mode of expression." Thus, for Lewis "the allegorist leaves the given—his own passions—to talk of that which is confessedly less real, which is a fiction." He does not see himself as "reaching after some transcendental reality which the forms of discursive thought cannot contain." The symbolist, on the contrary, "leaves the given to find that which is more real." Allegory then would seem to be no more than a way of dressing up prettily what the poet and presumably his audience already know, so that if he wishes to explore and communicate new or transcendent truths he must have recourse to symbolism.
If this is all there is to allegory, it would hardly be worth discussing as anything more than a deservedly obsolete literary device, in no way relevant to the understanding of Lewis's fiction. But when we turn from his theories of allegory to actual interpretations, we discover hints that it may well be more important than his theoretical discussions imply. Considering The Romance of the Rose, for instance, he warns us not be misled by modern allegory into thinking that "in turning to Guillaume de Lorris we are retreating from the real world into a shadowy world of abstractions." Nor do allegory and symbolism, or at least myth, seem so far apart in his elucidation of Lord Mirth's park in the same work:
But, of course, its classical and erotic models only partially account for it. Deeper than these lies the world-wide dream of the happy garden—the island of the Hesperides, the earthly paradise, Tirnanogue. The machinery of allegory may always, if we please, be regarded as a system of conduit pipes which thus tap the deep, unfailing sources of poetry in the mind of the folk and convey their refreshment to lips which could not otherwise have found it.
Lewis's sharp theoretical distinction between allegory and symbolism is by no means original with him but goes back as far as the critical writings of Coleridge, who doubtless based his views on the relatively trivial allegories of eighteenth-century classicism, as opposed to the new symbolism characteristic of Romantic poetry.
But we shall not need to explore any further the well-known but all too misleading distinction Lewis made between allegory and symbolism, for it goes nowhere unless it is applied to actual allegorical texts. And then it will turn out that the relationship between the two is almost the exact opposite of what the theory would lead us to expect. At all events Lewis makes no use of this distinction in his actual analysis of medieval allegories.
Nonetheless a useful theoretical division of this type can be made—even given practical application to actual allegories—but in rather different terms. While the majority of medieval allegories, as we shall see, do consistently reach after myth, archetype, and transcendence, there is another type equal in antiquity (if not in dignity) to the main tradition, a type which specifically and deliberately turns away from the evocation of spiritual realities. In fact this feature is its chief raison d'être. Let us take a look at this poor cousin, for she has an important role to play, and let us name her the allegory of demystification.
The great example of this secondary type is Prudentius's fourth-century Christian poem of the wars of the Virtues and Vices, the Psychomachia. These battles within the soul were depicted in terms of gory but repetitious clashes between ponderous, all too vociferous, allegorized warriors, modeled on the battle descriptions of Vergilian or Statian epic. Today, for most readers, these epic combats seem quite repugnant when they are not simply boring. And most notably the persons and locales are totally deficient in the numinous or archetypal aura characteristic of true visionary allegory. Nonetheless, the Psychomachia was an immensely popular work for over a thousand years and the subject of innumerable imitations, as well as sculptural and mural illustrations.
What, then, accounts for the intense and long-lived popularity of the work? The reason is not hard to find if we look at the kind of "psychoanalysis" that preceded Prudentius's work. Prior to the knock-'em-down style battles between Anger and Patience, Lust and Modesty, hacking each other about in their greaves and corslets, we find earlier heroes assaulted by infinitely more sinister powers. One sees them at work in Aeschylus's Oresteia, in the form of the Furies—they whom the Greeks, in their anxiety to speak inoffensively of such dread avengers of crimes and sin, named the Eumenides, the "Kindly Ones."
Thus, when the early Christian reader of Prudentius work up in the small hours quivering in the cold sweat of some nightmare encounter with the Eumenides or Hecate, the sinister queen of darkness, he could take comfort from this new psychology. Prudentius had replaced such mysterious and terrifying beings with figures like Cultura Veterum Deorum, "Cult of the Ancient Gods," a scarcely intimidating daytime warrior who is ruthlessly smashed down by a single barehanded blow from the redoubtable Lady Fides.
This allegorical procedure, tedious as it sounds today, was extremely significant in an age when mankind desperately needed a method of coping with the negative forces that assault and over-whelm the reason. Thus Prudentius's allegorical procedures effected a separation between the sin itself, the punishment of the sin, and the supernatural terror which bonded these fears together, constituting an act of psychological analysis and demystification fundamental to the control of these dark irruptions from the underworld.
The spirit and style of Prudentius's Psychomachia survived the iconoclasm of the Reformation, which put an end to the old style of numinous visionary allegory. It prevailed in the tepid rationalistic allegorizations of the eighteenth century and was thus indirectly influential in forming Coleridge's and Lewis's low opinion of allegory as a genre.
Moreover, when we turn to Lewis's The Pilgrim's Regress, the only work he explicitly acknowledged as allegory, we find it to be largely composed in the limited psychomachia style, but written for an age when the urgency of such apotropaic demystification had long passed. It fits very well the definition of allegory Lewis made in a letter of 1958, where it is described as "a composition … in who immaterial realities are represented by feigned physical objects." In terms of this definition, The Pilgrim's Regress is a highly successful, indeed brilliant, work. Every character or scene encountered by the hero constitutes an ingenious representation of such assorted "immaterial realities" as Virtue, the Spirit of the Age, the Heroic Ideal, Philosophical Idealism, Mother Church, the Sin of Lust, and, finally, Death itself—all designed to constitute a convincing semi-autobiographical account, in allegorical terms, of Lewis's own intellectual and psychological journey from childhood credulity, through many phases of skepticism or apostasy, to genuine religious conversion.
Of course, there is something not quite satisfactory about The Pilgrim's Regress, and doubtless it merits no more than its relatively minor place in the Lewis canon. Why? Lewis himself gave us some indication of the problem in his preface to the second edition of 1943, where he clarifies, among other things, his system of psychological geography. North, for example, stands for excessive rigidity of thought, emotion, and belief, and South for excessive laxity. However, he goes on to confess, "But it remains true that wherever the symbols are best, the key is least adequate. For when allegory is at its best, it approaches myth, which must be grasped with the imagination, not with the intellect." But in fact the intellectual significance of the allegory is at once so precise and so obscure that Lewis was prompted to emulate the editors of the original Pilgrim's Progress by putting explanatory "running heads" at the top of each page.
The point is a crucial one. Compared to his later fiction, The Pilgrim's Regress is remarkable for its high proportion of "feigned physical objects" intellectually translatable into "immaterial realities" and equivalently for its low degree of that elusive but infinitely attractive "mythic" quality, which appeals primarily to the imagination and constantly challenges while constantly eluding cogent translation into intellectual terms.
The Pilgrim's Regress, therefore, works very well as an allegory of demystification, indeed as an allegory satirical of contemporary intellectual life, as its hero, John, visits the various schools of heresy or worldliness north or south of the true road. But it lacks a transcendent dimension. Unlike the true visionary allegory that inspired his later fiction, but faithful to the limited, reductionistic tendency of the psychomachia tradition, The Pilgrim's Regress does not, for instance, grant us more than the briefest glimpse of the landlord's castle on the other side of the stream of death. The work seems best defended as a legitimate but preliminary intellectual reconnaissance to discover and mark out the best routes to the place of transcendence.
Lewis does not seem to have changed his theoretical position on allegory, though in his later writings we find the role he previously attributed to symbolism being taken over by myth. In a letter to Peter Milward written in 1956, he says: "My view wd. be that a good myth (i.e. a story out of which ever varying meanings will grow for different readers and in different ages) is a higher thing than an allegory (into which one meaning has been put). Into an allegory a man can put only what he already knows; in a myth he puts what he does not yet know and cd. not come by in any other way." The weakness of this rather shaky polarity between allegory on the one hand and symbolism or myth on the other becomes clearer when we take a closer look at the way in which allegory actually functions in the Middle Ages. At the same time we shall see how Lewis's own fiction is itself largely based on the themes and structures of medieval allegory.
Confusion often arises concerning the term "allegory" because the word can refer either to a certain method of writing or to a complete work written in this allegorical style—in other words, to a mode of writing or to a genre. In The Pilgrim's Regress it is easy to miss the distinction, for it both functions as an allegory in the sense of genre and is written in the mode of allegory throughout. Indeed, the very thoroughness with which Lewis infused allegory of mode into his allegory of genre turns out to be its major limitation.
This odd situation in which allegory fails, it seems, by remaining too faithful to its own definition makes a good case for changing either the genre or the definition. Fortunately, the second, less drastic solution is available to us. If we turn our attention to great medieval visionary allegories which Lewis revived for the modern imagination, we find they contain a much higher proportion of myth than is perceptible in The Pilgrim's Regress. Moreover, the distinction between mythic and allegorical creation turns out to be not at all so hard and fast as it was to become in later centuries.
At the outset of The Divine Comedy, the type and pattern of all visionary allegories, the reader finds himself in the most famous of allegorical landscapes, Dante's selva oscura. With respect to this dark and fearsome forest, it would be much more difficult than in The Pilgrim's Regress to distinguish the specific roles of the literary forms, the myth, allegory, and symbolism that underline and shape its imagery. In Dante's experience of mortal terror when he comes to realize he has lost his way in the wilderness, the surface allegorical significance of wandering from the true path merges seamlessly into the traditional mythic adventure of the dreadful encounter with the dark forest and its monsters experienced by almost every mythic hero from Gilgamesh to Frodo. Long before Dante, classical philosophers had made an allegorical identification of the forest with chaos—that is, matter in that unthinkable, fearful condition before it receives the imprint of form. But such different levels of meaning are distinguishable only through the prisms of analysis. It would surely be inappropriate to Dante's intention (and to a proper experience of the poem) if we were to become overly conscious of these distinct elements as we read the text, whereas in reading The Pilgrim's Regress we should on the contrary be missing an essential part of the experience if we failed to remain alert to the separate but parallel lines along which story and interpretation are progressing. Indeed, the "running heads" are there to prompt the forgetful.
There is nothing precisely equivalent to Dante's dark wood in Lewis's fiction. But if we think about the way in which the experience of the wood prepares us for the reading of Dante's adventures in the afterworlds, the structural function of the wood if you like, then we can find many equivalences. As Dante and Lewis would be sufficiently aware, their readers will almost inevitably come to these works in a "normal" state of mind—that is, they will be clenched firmly in the grip of the prevailing, rarely questioned assumption that everyday experience gives us all we know or need to know of the true reality of things.
How then to break the spell of this existential inertia? What happens in the dark wood is what one might term a "disorientation experience," a disturbance of the normal postulates of everyday life sufficiently severe and sustained to cause the hero and, through him, ourselves (insofar as we participate imaginatively in the experience) to doubt the coherence of our familiar world as a sole or sufficient reality.
Such experiences of disorientation seem an essential preliminary to acceptance of the very different postulates of visionary realities shortly to be revealed to the hero. They occur, moreover, in just about every serious medieval vision. Not surprisingly, there is nothing similar at the opening of The Pilgrim's Regress. On the other hand, Lewis's later fiction abounds in such allegorical motifs, despite the fact that, in his view, these works are in no way to be thought of as allegories. Writing of the Narnian stories in a letter dated as late as 1958, he describes them rather as "suppositions," distinguishing them from allegory as follows:
Allegory and such supposals differ because they mix the real and the unreal in different ways. Bunyan's picture of Giant Despair does not start from supposal at all. It is not a supposition but a fact that despair can capture and imprison a human soul. What is unreal (fictional) is the giant, the castle, and the dungeon. The Incarnation of Christ in another world is mere supposal; but granted the supposition, He would really have been a physical object in that world as He was in Palestine and His death on the Stone Table would have been a physical event no less than his death on Calvary.
Important as this distinction is, it is nonetheless these fictional, "suppositional" works that resemble and indeed appear to be inspired by the visionary allegories Lewis became familiar with during his writing of The Allegory of Love. It is in these that we find, for example, the preliminary disorientation experiences we have already identified. Thus, the first of the Narnian histories opens with young Lucy exploring the mysterious wardrobe, which she discovers would on occasion transform its dark recesses into the enticing, if somewhat menacing entrance, to a Narnian forest. In The Magician's Nephew, the "wood between the worlds" functions as a similar though rather more complex "locale of disorientation." In later stories, where the children are more accustomed to the Narnian reality (as, presumably, are most of Lewis's readers), we find fewer of these disorientation experiences, though in The Voyage of the "Dawn Treader" the shock of being plunged into the great ocean swells of the Narnian seas in the opening scene acts as a requisite and effective preliminary disorientation for benefit of the obnoxiously skeptical Eustace.
In the case of the planetary trilogy, Ransom's experiences upon arriving on Malacandra constitute a powerful and unusual disorientation experience, as he strives to make conceptual sense of the dizzyingly elongated vegetation, the near perpendicular mountains, and the grotesquely distorted appearance of the terrifying sorns—all baffling to his system of perceptions, nurtured on earthy Thulcandran landscapes. At the opening of Perelandra, on the other hand, we encounter a quite brilliant use of a contrary technique, the familiar made strange, when Lewis takes what should have been a tranquil evening stroll from the railway station to Ransom's cottage and transforms the gentle south-country scenery, in some uncanny fashion, into a landscape of nightmare.
Nonetheless, no instance of this disorientation experience compares with the intensity of confusion and terror experienced in the shifting, chaotic landscape of Dante's dark wood. Dante was of course reporting a more massive account of an otherworld experience than anything attempted by Lewis—or anyone else for that matter. None of Lewis's heroes is ever depicted as being in the intensity of spiritual peril Dante experiences at the start of his visionary journey, and the disorientations in the novels are appropriately milder experiences.
The most important of the allegorical motifs Lewis has in common with Dante is the earthly paradise. Almost every major work treated in The Allegory of Love embodies a striking instance of this motif, usually in a position of great importance in the story. Its occurrence in myth is equally pervasive, and, as in the case of all such major archetypes, when medieval allegory took over the motif, it acquired not only a Christian dimension but a greatly enhanced rational or explanatory element that nonetheless leaves the original power of the myth intact.
So far as Lewis's own fiction is concerned, the focal image of the earthly paradise similarly constitutes a focal point of almost all his work. But there is a striking difference in the nature of the paradise archetype as opposed to that of the dark wood. The disorientation and subsequent panic consequent upon getting lost in a forest are quite comprehensible experiences. But to the rational mind, it must seem hardly credible that anyone has ever encountered in normal waking experience an earthly paradise of the type that appears so frequently in the myths and allegories of every culture. These paradises, moreover, appear not as the setting for incidental adventure but as the ultimate goal of a sustained heroic quest, frequently comprising an underworld journey, the ascent of a sacred mountain, and the penetration of some formidable protective wall or similar barrier. Dante himself has to descend to the very lowest circles of hell and then make the painful ascent of Mount Purgatory before reaching the portals of the earthly paradise. And these, he tells us, have to be entered through a wall of flame so fierce that he would have leaped into molten glass to cool himself (Purgatorio, 27.7-51).
Thus The Divine Comedy and other medieval allegories had a primary role in supplying motif and inspiration for such Lewisian paradises as Meldilorn in Malacandra, the holy mountain of Perelandra, the country of heaven in The Great Divorce, the Narnian garden of Aslan, and the palace of Psyche in Till We Have Faces. Significantly, however, in The Pilgrim's Regress the hero never attains more than a brief and obscure vision of paradise, though his whole journey is inspired by his longing to find the source of the "sweet desire" that has haunted his life from his earliest childhood. This omission is characteristic of a work whose images tend to represent one-dimensional, intellectualized versions of the ancient archetypal patterns we have been describing. But only That Hideous Strength, with its grim, back to "the silent planet" theme, lacks a paradise. Its sacred grove, Bragdon Wood, at once eerie selva oscura and protoparadise, is desecrated by man's malice, greed, or indifference, and is finally destroyed in an apocalyptic cataclysm. This act of destruction echoes, perhaps, Milton's rationale for God's iconoclastic obliteration of the earthly paradise in Paradise Lost: "To teach thee," as Michael puts it to Adam, "that God attributes to place / No sanctity, if none be thither brought / By Men who there frequent, or therein dwell."
Curiously enough, the sources Lewis specifically acknowledged were all relatively modern. One might instance William Morris's heart-stirring but ultimately inconclusive paradise quests, the eerily unpredictable wanderings of George MacDonald's heroes (who do, however, finally attain the land of heart's desire rather than merely go in quest for it), and the brilliantly imagined wanderings of Maskull on Tormance in David Lindsay's Voyage to Arcturus (perhaps the most profound, surely the most provocative antiparadise romance ever written). One could also trace lesser debts to the early Yeats, to H. G. Wells, even to E. M. Forster perhaps. But apparently Lewis never alluded directly to his major debts to the medieval paradise visions as sources of inspiration.
What is the psychological significance of this paradise archetype, which, by definition, can never be encountered in normal experience? In terms of the psychology of landscape, man has dwelt, since the dawn of what we think of as human consciousness, in tense polarity between the settlement or city he has constructed and the other landscape, against and in defiance of which the city has been built—the wilderness, the unknown outerness. Since that dawn, man's energies have been persistently and in the main successfully directed to extending the area of the city at the expense of the wilderness, both in geographical and in concomitant psychological terms.
But consider the paradox underlying this expansion of the city: the more successful it is, the more diminished the power of the wilderness and the less, therefore, the energizing stimulus of this tension on the peoples who have pushed the wilderness back too far. Finally, today, the wilderness survives at all only as the result of the extraordinary efforts of such groups as the Sierra Club. Or in specifically psychological terms, the city is the very manifestation and representation of man's capacity for reason and order, while the wilderness manifests deep and awesome potentiality—in modern terms, the subconscious. Again, normal consciousness is totally dependent on a healthy balance between these mighty opposites, city and wilderness, reason and the subconscious.
But for the romantic, the lover of myth and allegory, the admirer of Lewis's fiction, this is hardly the whole story. From the intuition, that faculty of man which preeminently mediates between reason and subconscious, comes the message, the "Sweet Desire," from that land beyond the dark forest where the tension between the mighty opposites of city and wilderness is finally resolved and transcended. For this garden is the place where one may find the aching awesome beauty of the wilderness ordered and harmonized, walled and protected by the rationality we associate with the city. Psychologically, therefore, in this place reason and the subconscious are finally reconciled, the psyche reintegrated, and perfected.
Thus, as we might expect, if we look at the medieval allegories that embody this motif, we find that in such works as Bernardus's Cosomographia, John of Hanville's Architrenius, Dante's Purgatorio, Chaucer's Parliament of Fowls, Spenser's "Mutability Cantos," the garden is the place where the intellectual and emotional problems raised by the work find their solution, as intellect, emotion, and intuition achieve a harmony transcending all other expectations of happiness.
But in an age where commercial and political spokesmen tend to encourage expectation of instant gratification of desires, we can hardly avoid the question of why the hero has to endure such long, arduous, and quite frequently terrifying experiences on his wilderness journey before reaching his goal. Psychologically, however, these preliminary ordeals seem essential. In the first place, the ordeal of disorientation, the dark wood experience, purges the hero of what one might call the epistemological parochialism of his city, his tendency to think of the reality conventions of his civilization as prevailing in the universe as a whole.
In this way he becomes attuned to function in a region where external forms and inner realities have a startlingly close relationship, as compared to the city where the divisive analytical consciousness keeps the connections between mental and physical events to a minimum. Once this is achieved, the qualities of rationality and mental stability he has acquired in the city will be tested against the horrors and seductions manifesting out of the untamed forces of the subconscious. Thus, the final experience of paradise will synthesize and transcend both civic and wilderness elements of his existence. For each of these powerfully opposed forces must be fully manifested and reconciled within him before the external goal of paradise can become an inner reality.
The rationality of the city will not be sufficient in itself, however, for there will come to him on his journey spiritual beings who will bestow upon him the advice without which his journey could not be made nor his experiences comprehended. These spiritual beings may take such forms as gods, angels, or revered ancestors. In medieval allegory they frequently appear as personifications but by no means resemble the rather pallid figures of modern allegory. With all the dignity of their poetic ancestors, the gods of classical Rome, or the Platonic ideas from which they derive philosophically, they are usually so numinously awesome that the hero is liable to lose consciousness at the mere sight of their manifestation, suffering the kind of perturbation that Lewis reports of his own—one presumes fictional—account of his meeting with the Malacandrian Oyarsa in the opening chapter of Perelandra. He will also frequently have to discriminate against the advice or seductions of spiritual powers that would lure him from the true way. Finally, even after attaining paradise itself, there will be illuminating dialogue with the benevolent powers of that place, so that the experience may be comprehended intellectually as well as emotionally and the fullest possible integration of the faculties of the soul be attained.
But how is it that the rational wisdom of our great civilizations is so strangely inadequate that the hero has to undertake such an appalling journey to remedy its defects? For an answer we can turn to the greatest paradise myth, which describes the precise opposite of the psychic integration we have been discussing—the history of psychic disintegration and loss of paradise we find related in the book of Genesis. The consequence of eating the fruit of the forbidden tree is that one gains knowledge of good and evil only as separate entities that wage war against each other in endless patterns of polarity. No longer in that paradisal serenity where thought, will, and action remain in their original perfection, we form the habit of judging all events as internal or external, better or worse, active or passive, progressive or conservative, or whatever criteria one chooses.
The resulting mental fluctuations produce the transient fragmented hopes and anxieties, the cycle of malaise and satisfaction which the turns of Fortune's Wheel constantly inflict upon us. In terms of Lewis's Perelandra, this is the fate of those who allow themselves to fall into the state of separation from Maleldil that the Unman urges upon Tinidril, in the Perelandran version of the temptation of Eve. In this way, the story of the Fall provides an explanation in mythic terms of how the hero gets into the world of turbulent relativities which in the end must make it impossible to find interests or purposes in human existence other than the long journey back to absolute life.
What about the biographical implications in all of this? We are all familiar with the astonishing scope of Lewis's mental activity, ranging from ruthless rationalistic polemics to the most intense of searches for supranational transcendence. Owen Barfield, speaking of The Great Divorce as "itself a kind of myth," commented, "In that book, as perhaps not quite in any other, this ever diverse pair—atomically rational Lewis and mythopoeic Lewis—I will not say unite, but they do at least join hands."
Lewis has himself evidently trodden the way of the archetypal hero, enduring, as he has, a life in constant tension between these mighty opposites, as the romantic artist always participates in the aesthetic worlds he creates. Out of respect for Lewis's views on the "personal heresy," however, I shall say no more than that, when it comes to his own book, the author is really no more than a special type of reader.
After his experiment with "pure" allegory of demystification in The Pilgrim's Regress, Lewis achieved a remarkable degree of success in reviving the medieval visionary form and, like the medieval allegorist, in inviting his readers not merely to play the role of noncommitted observers but to be themselves participants in a healing of the soul. In this respect Lewis's work might be described in terms of the intentions that Dante attributed to his own Comedy to remove those living this life from the state of misery and to bring them to the state of felicity (Epistolae, 10.15). It is for this reason as much as any other, I believe, that Lewis's books not only enjoy extraordinary and still increasing worldwide popularity but also engender in their readers a curious kind of loyalty, a sense of commitment to they know not quite what—even if at the same time provoking the profoundest misgivings among those who do not share such hopes of transcendent routes to human perfection.
The view I am putting forward here is that Lewis's contributions to the theory and practice of allegorical writing cannot be regarded as limited to The Allegory of Love and a few passing remarks in letters and prefaces. Although his study of allegory clearly ranks among the major scholarly works of the century in its field, its most significant achievement is its description and interpretation of actual medieval allegories, interpretation which, ironically enough, is far more advanced in its implied theoretical basis than the explicit theory the book puts forward. But Lewis's most important contribution to the history of allegory goes beyond either his theorizing or his specific interpretations. It is to be seen in his fictional work, where one may experience and enjoy an extraordinary revival of what is arguably the greatest collective achievement in literary history, the visionary allegory of the Middle Ages as a mode of psychic integration and healing of soul.
This section contains 5,578 words
(approx. 19 pages at 300 words per page)