Finely ordered multiplicity. The Medieval Mind of C.S. Lewis, by Jason M. Baxter
PLUS: What is England's national epic?
Why are there not more books like this one? The Medieval Mind of C.S. Lewis traces the influences of great books on Lewis, personally and professionally. It is highly informative, clear, and every sentence follows neatly from the last. No space is wasted, nothing complex is made basic, and it is never obscure or obtuse. The main thesis is that Lewis was able to relive medieval thought for his readers and listeners and this book follows suit. I found it compelling throughout.
I loved Narnia as a child, and the Allegory of Love as a student, but this book showed me just what a clear, deep, and knowledgeable thinker Lewis was. His combination of imagination, interpretation, and moral purpose comes through strongly on every page. The book also has footnotes, not endnotes, because it is written for intelligent grown ups. I had not quite realised the extent of Lewis’ scholarship in languages, history, and theology, as well as literature.
Lewis was the very model of a public intellectual. He wrote short, insightful books that took his vast learning and expressed it in useful, condensed, often psychological terms. He gave talks on profound topics in modern, popular, and mundane mediums. He was various: he could lecture, practise criticism, write fiction; he could popularise and be highly technical. He spoke ancient languages and annotated medieval manuscripts but he had a clear abundance of common sense. His textbooks, like his popular work, aimed to immerse you in the past, not merely inform you about it. His historical specialisation was in a way of thinking as much as a time period. He was not narrow about his reading, interests, or understanding. He could see the principles of classical order in the busyness and complexity of gothic cathedrals, which he called “finely ordered multiplicity.” He was polyphonic. Finely ordered multiplicity, by the way, is a good way to think about Lewis himself, and indeed this book.
I do not think I could ever be a medievalist (or a Christian) but I am converted to the Lewisian approach where Christian morals and ideas are expressed with psychological observation and immersive clarity. He was not opposed to the modern world, as such, but wanted to expand it. He hated cars and newspapers but his mission was to try and reincorporate what was lost, not to reverse the world. He explicated the ideas that were lost in as many formats and mediums as he could. For a man who thought what he did, he is remarkably modern.
Throughout, Baxter concisely explicates medieval ideas, Lewis’s understanding of those ideas, and the way they are compressed or transposed into Lewis’s fiction and non-fiction. Every page is simple without being simplistic. Every chapter makes a cogent argument. Every argument is clearly detailed and related to Lewis’s broader work. It is the biography of Lewis’s mind. There should be many more biographies of this nature.
The reason there are not more books like this is that they do not sell. If you want to do something to improve the world today, buy yourself a copy of The Medieval Mind of C.S. Lewis.
What is England’s national epic?
What is America’s national epic? That’s the question going round Twitter. The answer is, obviously, that America is too young to have written one yet — The Aeneid came after eight centuries of Rome — but that it’s probably Moby Dick if it’s anything. (I haven’t read it, but Melville did in fact write an epic poem Clarel…) In the original tweet, Beowulf was given as England’s national epic. But it can’t be Beowulf. That belongs to pre-Norman England, a different country. So, what is England’s national epic? Some thoughts.
Let’s make a dichotomy between Homeric and Virgilian epics. Homeric epics encode cultural values. Virgilian epics are national foundation stories. England does not have a Virgilian epic — we’ve been reinvented too many times, and even if we were to have a Norman epic, it’s perhaps too late now. Our epics are Homeric. We are an Odyssean country. There are several options and no reason why we can’t take them all — that would make sense given we are such a rolling stone of a nation. There are many epics missing from this list, like the ones written by Southey or Swinburne or Morris or Browning (both of them…) which I have no desire to read whatsoever. Let me know if I am wrong about them.
The Arthurian legends. This has something of the same problem as Beowulf and anyway, who reads them anymore? The nineteenth century Arthurian revival — you have to read Tennyson — gives this a stronger claim. Everyone knows of these legends, which is perhaps a stronger claim than Beowulf. It also links to our essentially French heritage and pretensions. John Heath Stubbs wrote a long Arthurian poem I would like to read. (He seems to be republished now, not before time.)
Chaucer. Mixes vulgar humour, social mobility, and the very English ambivalence about religion. It’s a pilgrimage but mostly they talk about secular matters. What better and more recurring metaphor of England is there? Also it’s a series of stories that theoretically could go on forever, which reflects English history.
Spenser. A good claim but largely unread and perhaps too complicated. Somehow he is confined to his period too much to meet the criteria. A strong Romantic influence but never much of a national one, perhaps.
Michael Drayton. Wrote several epics that I haven’t read. Bloody good sonneteer.
The King James Bible. Potentially the clear winner.
Milton. Combines dull piety with an almost repressed love of the devil; very English. Represents that long stretch of England as a nouveau Latin culture. As close as we get to a civil war epic. (Why aren’t there more war epics in English? Drayton wrote a good non-epic poem about Crecy…)
Pope. Not his translation of Homer (although why not, and let’s add Chapman to that list) but The Dunciad. There’s something about a clever-clogs denouncing idiots in public that remains essential to the English experience. A weak claim; relevant in the age of Twitter.
Cowper. The Task was much beloved of Forster/Betjeman types, and rightly so. The essentially domestic nature of the poem argues both for and against it. Weak claim.
Dryden. Too party political. It is surprising how weak the eighteenth century claim is, considering how classical they were. Imitation was perhaps the problem.
Wordsworth. The Prelude is the essential epic of the individual romantic mind. Many sublime passages. Is it national though? Not the best Wordsworth and not easy to finish.
Byron. Ugh. No. The most overrated poet in English?
Tennyson. See above. Perhaps the strongest claim of all the poetry here. Mostly unread, alas. (I read an extract of this at a funeral once and it still has the power to hold a room.)
Middlemarch. This has to have the strongest modern claim and comes close to being Virgilian, in that it recounts the 1832 Reform Act. Good on religion, politics, class, and has a heroine.
Bleak House. That or Little Dorrit seem to get at something essential about major and petty bureaucracy, insular nationalism, and the permanent instability of class structures. Are these just too narrow in scope?
T.S. Eliot. Also no. Too purple, too self-involved, too uneven, too narrow. Eliot was a lyricist who failed in the larger forms. (I look forward to your emails.)
Tolkien. This was suggested in the original tweet. Strong claim simply by nature of being the common reader’s choice. But does it ultimately hark back too much to another England, beyond the mist? Strong claim.
Christopher Logue. Honourable mention as the best translator of Homer. Seriously underrated.
Seamus Heaney. If you think the answer actually is Beowulf he did a good version. It doesn’t matter that Heaney was Irish. It might make sense that only someone not English could actually make a modern English epic. Somehow we simply aren’t invested in our identity or our literature in the right ways. I wish he had translated the whole of the Aeneid, not just Book VI.
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