Reflecting Eternal Light: C.S. Lewis and the Role of the Author

By Carl Nellis, Editor

Marsha Daigle-Williamson’s Reflecting the Eternal: Dante’s Divine Comedy in the Novels of C.S. Lewis, available now, traces the relationship between C.S. Lewis and Dante’s Divine Comedy.

This short excerpt comes from the book’s first chapter, “Lewis, Dante, and Literary Predecessors.” Dr. Daigle-Williamson illuminates the context in which Lewis understood Dante’s work, and how he positioned his own storytelling in relation to the work of the Italian master.

In The Discarded Image Lewis describes the concept of literature held by medievalists and sums up his own position equally well: “Literature exists to teach what is useful, to honour what deserves honour, to appreciate what is delightful,” and if that be the case, then the content of literature should be “useful, honourable, and delightful things.” [1]

Lewis reaffirms this concept in his essay on “Christianity and Literature,” where he writes,

“Our whole destiny seems to lie in . . . acquiring a fragrance that is not our own but borrowed, in becoming clean mirrors filled with the image of a face that is not ours. . . . Applying this principle to literature, . . . we should get as the basis of all critical theory the maxim that an author should never conceive himself as bringing into existence beauty or wisdom which did not exist before, but simply and solely as trying to embody in terms of his own art some reflection of eternal Beauty and Wisdom.” [2]

For Lewis, then, the proper subject matter of literature consists in values or truths that are superior to literature and for whose sake literature exists.

In terms of literary predecessors, this meant that Lewis’s approach to writing was intentional “imitation,” receiving inspiration and ideas from writers of the past and at times purposely echoing them as part of adding layers of meaning to his own work. As Lewis noted in The Personal Heresy, this way of seeing creative work is a centuries-old tradition. When Virgil, for instance, has Aeneas unsuccessfully attempt to embrace the shade of his dead wife Cruesa three times, he is echoing the passage from Homer in which Odysseus tries to greet his dead mother in Hades. Dante’s pilgrim replicates that action with the very same result when he sees his dead friend Casella on the shores of purgatory (see Purg. 2.76–81). This echoing of his predecessors enriches the scene by drawing the stories of Homer and Virgil into The Divine Comedy. In the same way, Lewis’s novels are enriched by the many stories he draws on.

Lewis’s approach to “imitation,” in addition to being a centuries-old tradition in Western literature, is also explicitly based on his reading of the New Testament. In “Christianity and Literature,” Lewis points out that “In the New Testament the art of life itself is an art of imitation: can we, believing this, believe that literature is to aim at being ‘creative,’  ‘original.’ and ‘spontaneous’?” [3] Although Lewis derives his rationale here for “imitation” from Church teaching, this kind of approach to one’s predecessors is the procedure that was generally recommended and adopted by Western writers until the modern period.

Despite the variations that occurred in the interpretation and application of the concept of “imitation” during successive literary ages, there was at least a consensus that predecessors were to be respected, studied, and followed. Literary achievements were models for new authors, deep wells for inspiration, sign posts to assist and guide them along the well-trod path that lay before them.

This passage demonstrates that the idea of reflection was a metaphor central to Lewis’s conception of creativity, and of the religious life. Lewis took this metaphor of the artist as a mirror reflecting eternal light from critical passages in Dante’s Divine Comedy.

Over the next few weeks, we will explore more passages from Dr. Daigle-Williamson’s book that show Lewis imitating and adapting Dante’s images and metaphors of light. These passages explore the numerous ways that Lewis turned to his medieval master as a source of illumination. Our next post will open Reflecting the Eternal ways that Dante used light as a central metaphor The Divine Comedy.

[1] C. S. Lewis, The Discarded Image: An Introduction to Medieval and Renaissance Literature (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1964), 214. Lewis is echoing Paul’s admonition in Philippians 4:8: “whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is anything worthy of praise, think on these things” (RSV).

[2] C. S. Lewis, “Christianity and Literature,” in Christian Reflections, ed. Walter Hooper (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1967), 7.

[3] Lewis, “Christianity and Literature,” 8.

Reflecting the Eternal by Marsha Daigle-WilliamsonReflecting the Eternal: Dante’s Divine Comedy in the Novels of C.S. Lewis is available now!

It is for Lewis fans, teachers of Lewis and their students, Lewis critics and scholars, Dante lovers, and general readers. Readers will learn more about the ideas, structural patterns, and narrative details in Lewis’s novels that have links to Dante’s poem, how a modern writer successfully turned medieval poems into modern stories, and how Lewis and Dante both expressed theological and spiritual principles in literature of the highest order.

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.

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