altOn Stories and Other Essays on Literature by C. S. Lewis, edited by Walter Hooper (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1982; originally written between the mid-1940's and the early 1960's)

This is a surprisingly delightful, eclectic collection of essays. They are less informal than Mere Christianity, which was originally a series of radio broadcasts, but more accessible than his deeper, more philosophical works, like Miracles: A Preliminary Study. Not that these are any less intellectually honest, but the shorter lengths and the variety of subjects make On Stories a joy to read, with relatively little effort.

Table of Contents

On Stories
The Novels of Charles Williams
A Tribute to E. R. Eddison
On Three Ways of Writing for Children
Sometimes Fairy Stories May Say Best What's to Be Said
On Juvenile Tastes
It All Began with a Picture
On Science Fiction
A Reply to Professor Haldane
The Hobbit
Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings
A Panegyric for Dorothy L. Sayers
The Mythopoeic Gift of Rider Haggard
George Orwell
The Death of Words
The Parthenon and the Optative
Period Criticism
Different Tastes in Literature
On Criticism
Unreal Estates

From "On Stories"

Lewis is speaking of a film version of H. Rider Haggard's King Solomon's Mines, but he captures much of my complain about the film version of The Lord of the Rings.

At the end of Haggard's book ... the heroes are awaiting death entombed in a rock chamber and surrounded by the mummified kings of that land. The maker of the film version, however, apparently thought this tame. He substituted a subterranean volcanic eruption, and then went one better by adding an earthquake. Perhaps we should not blame him. Perhaps the scene in the original was not "cinematic" and the man was right, by the canons of his own art, in altering it. But it would have been better not to have chosen in the first place a story which could be adapted to the screen only by being ruined.

It is usual to speak in a playfully apologetic tone about one’s adult enjoyment of what are called "children’s books." I think the convention a silly one. No book is really worth reading at the age of ten which is not equally (and often far more) worth reading at the age of fifty—except, of course, books of information. The only imaginative works we ought to grow out of are those which it would have been better not to have read at all.

[N]othing can be more disastrous than the view that the cinema can and should replace popular written fiction. The elements which it excludes are precisely those which give the untrained mind its only access to the imaginative world. There is death in the camera.

It is very difficult to tell in any given case whether a story is piercing to the unliterary reader's deeper imagination or only exciting his emotions. ... The nearest we can come to a test is by asking whether he often re-reads the same story.

It is, of course, a good test of every reader of every kind of book. An unliterary man may be defined as one who reads books once only. There is hope for a man who has never read Malory or Boswell or Tristram Shandy or Shakespeare's Sonnets: but what can you do with a man who says he "has read" them, meaning he as read them once, and thinks that this settles the matter? 

From "The Novels of Charles Williams"

Good characters in fiction are the very devil. Not only because most authors have too little material to make them of, but because we as readers have a strong subconscious wish to find them incredible.

From "On Three Ways of Writing for Children"

A children's story which is enjoyed only by children is a bad children's story. The good ones last.

Since it is so likely that [children] will meet cruel enemies, let them at least have heard of brave knights and heroic courage. Otherwise you are making their destiny not brighter but darker. ... I side impenitently with the human race against the modern reformer. Let there be wicked kings and beheadings, battles and dungeons, giants and dragons, and let villains be soundly killed at the end of the book. Nothing will persuade me that this causes an ordinary child any kind or degree of fear beyond what it wants, and needs, to feel.

The question "What do modern children need" will not lead you to a good moral. If we ask that question we are assuming too superior an attitude. It would be better to ask "What moral do I need?" for I think we can be sure that what does not concern us deeply will not deeply interest our readers, whatever their age. But it is better not to ask the questions at all. Let the pictures tell you their own moral. For the moral inherent in them will rise from whatever spiritual roots you have succeeded in striking during the whole course of your life. But if they don't show you any moral, don't put one in. For the moral you put in is likely to be a platitude, or even a falsehood, skimmed from the surface of your consciousness. It is impertinent to offer the children that. For we have been told on high authority that in the moral sphere they are probably at least as wise as we. Anyone who can write a children's story without a moral, had better do so: that is, if he is going to write children's stories at all. The only moral that is of any value is that which arises inevitably from the whole cast of the author's mind.

The child as a reader is neither to be patronised nor idolized: we talk to him as man to man. But the worst attitude of all would be the professional attitude which regards children in the lump as a sort of raw material which we have to handle. We must of course try to do them no harm: we may, under the Omnipotence, sometimes dare to hope that we may do them good. But only such good as involves treating them with respect. We must not imagine that we are Providence or Destiny. I will not say that a good story for children could never be written by someone in the Ministry of Education, for all things are possible. But I should lay very long odds against it.

From "Sometimes Fairy Stories May Say Best What's to Be Said"

In the Author's mind there bubbles up every now and then the material for a story. ... This ferment leads to nothing unless it is accompanied with the longing for a Form: verse or prose, short story, novel, play or what not. When these two things click you have the Author's impulse complete. It is now a thing inside him pawing to get out. He longs to see that bubbling stuff pouring into that Form as the housewife longs to see the new jam pouring into the clean jam jar. This nags him all day long and gets in the way of his work and his sleep and his meals. It's like being in love.

From "On Science Fiction"

Speaking of the charge of "escapism" in some literature:

I never fully understood it till my friend Professor Tolkien asked me the very simple questions, "What class of men would you expect to be most preoccupied with, and most hostile to, the idea of escape?" and gave the obvious answer: jailers.

From "A Reply to Professor Haldane"

I am a democrat because I believe that no man or group of men is good enough to be trusted with uncontrolled power over others. And the higher the pretensions of such power, the more dangerous I think it both to the rulers and to the subjects. Hence Theocracy is the worst of all governments. If we must have a tyrant a robber baron is far better than an inquisitor. The baron's cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity at some point be sated; and since he dimly knows he is doing wrong, he may possibly repent. But the inquisitor who mistakes his own cruelty and lust of power and fear for the voice of Heaven will torment us infinitely because he torments us with the approval of his own conscience and his better impulses appear to him as temptations. And since Theocracy is the worst, the nearer any government approaches to Theocracy the worse it will be. A metaphysic, held by the rulers with the force of a religion, is a bad sign. It forbids them, like the inquisitor, to admit any grain of truth or good in their opponents, it abrogates the ordinary rules of morality.

From "Different Tastes in Literature"

In literature the characteristics of the "consumer" of bad art are [easy] to define. He (or she) may want her weekly ration of fiction very badly indeed, may be miserable if denied it. But he never re-reads. There is no clearer distinction between the literary and the unliterary. It is infallible. The literary man re-reads, other men simply read. A novel once read is to them like yesterday's newspaper. One may have some hopes of a man who has never read the Odyssey, or Malory, or Boswell, or Pickwick: but none (as regards literature) of the man who tells you he has read them, and thinks that settles the matter. It is as if a man said he had once washed, or once slept, or once kissed his wife, or once gone for a walk.

From "Unreal Estates"

A book's no good to me until I've read it two or three times.

Posted by sursumcorda on Thursday, May 30, 2019 at 8:35 am | Edit
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I guess I'm very unliterary. I rarely read anything twice.



Posted by Kathy Lewis on Saturday, June 01, 2019 at 7:34 pm

Maybe you just have a better memory than most of us. :) But I suspect that you may indeed be "unliterary" to Lewis. At least, if my memory doesn't fail me, you are a great reader, but you read mostly non-fiction, and he's talking about literature, the kind you can fall in love with and get something new out of with every re-reading.

A child who reads Darwin's On the Origin of Species in junior high is certainly not un-literate, but may be more likely than most to become un-literary in Lewis' sense.



Posted by SursumCorda on Saturday, June 01, 2019 at 9:18 pm
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