Hendrickson Publishers interviewed Marsha Daigle-Williamson about her newly released book Reflecting the Eternal: Dante’s Divine Comedy in the Novels of C.S. Lewis.
1. Who or what inspired you to write about the connection between Dante and C.S. Lewis?
To answer this we need to go all the way back to my dissertation in Comparative Literature at the University of Michigan, when I was having trouble finding something to write about. I was so stymied about moving forward that I actually prayed for a topic. I happened to be reading through some of Lewis literary essays again, and as I read one of his three essays on Dante, the idea came to me that Lewis’s novels generally involved journeys, and I wondered how his fictional journeys might compare to the journey in The Divine Comedy.
Since both authors were Christians, I assumed that there would be some similarity in the spiritual tenor of their journeys and maybe in some of their stages as well. That was about all I expected to find. I had taken a two-semester course in The Divine Comedy and had read all of Lewis’ novels, but I still had no clue about all the connections that were really there. The dissertation forced me to look more closely at Lewis’s texts and Dante’s verses, and I slowly began finding minor details and major patterns that lined up between Lewis and Dante. The dissertation was only the beginning of a much longer journey of finding links because about two-thirds of this book contains “new links” I have found since that time.
2. Which chapter of Reflecting the Eternal did you find the most interesting to write, and why?
That is a hard question because I have to say I find writing very difficult. Not all authors and scholars feel that way, and many are at ease when they are writing, but I would rather have a root canal than write.
In retrospect, I think that the conclusion was the most interesting because it forced me to pull together everything together into that was dispersed throughout the book for a bird’s-eye view of overarching patterns in Lewis’s novels. And it is the shortest chapter. So it was the least painful. 🙂
3. What new or surprising information did you learn throughout the writing and researching process for Reflecting the Eternal?
I had no idea how much Lewis drew on Dante’s characters, journey stages, events, etc. Even after I wrote the dissertation over thirty years ago, I had only discovered a small portion of what I have since found (and some of it only in the last two or three years or so).
As I have gotten to know The Divine Comedy better (reading different translations, hearing conference papers, keeping up on the literary criticism of his poem), I kept finding more links. I am sure my book has not covered all of them; I believe there are many more links still lurking underneath the surface. But at least I have gotten the topic out there. Now others have the opportunity to add lots more in the future. Once people know there is “gold to be found in those hills,” then others know it’s a good site for prospecting and they can go looking for more gold.
4. Which of C.S. Lewis’ works is your personal favorite? Do you have one in particular that you turn to again and again?
Those are two quite different questions for me. First, asking for my personal favorites has no single answer. Different books are favorites for different reasons. I find the second part of The Voyage of the “Dawn Treader” very uplifting and great fun; I love the narrative voice in all of The Chronicles of Narnia; the Great Dance vision at the end of Perelandra led me into an unexpected spiritual experience of the reality of what was being said, and I still find it spiritually refreshing whenever I read it; The Great Divorce sheds such a clear light on wrong attitudes that are so easy to fall into, etc. There is something specific to each book that makes it special to me.
As for which book I turn to again and again, I find that Mere Christianity and The Screwtape Letters need to be returned to at least every five years because there are so many sections that come to the fore in ways they did not before. I think of them as “new passages that Lewis added since I last read it!”
5. If you had more time to dig even more deeply into the works of Dante and C.S. Lewis, what would you research or study?
Apart from trying to be on the alert for other links that might surface that I have missed (and I am sure I have), I might be interested in pursuing further how Lewis uses Dante in his non-fiction works. It would be intriguing to track how those mentions are clues—Hansel and Gretel breadcrumbs—to what Lewis might be expected to have incorporated in his fiction. I do point out some of those in the book, but there is much more to find!
Marsha Daigle-Williamson (PhD, University of Michigan) is Professor Emerita at Spring Arbor University where she taught English for over twenty-five years and won numerous teaching awards. She serves as translator for the Preacher to the Papal Household, and has translated sixteen books from the Italian as well as publishing over forty articles, profiles, and reviews. Dr. Daigle-Williamson has presented at the International Congress on Medieval Studies eight times in the past ten years and has been a member of The Dante Society of America for over fifteen years.
For more information about Reflecting the Eternal and a full description of the book, visit Hendrickson’s store website.
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