Saturday, November 29, 2008

C.S. Lewis on chivalry and history


Two and a half years ago, early in my blogging career, I was preparing for the first presentation of the chivalry seminar for fourth-year students. One of the secondary sources I was considering using was C.S. Lewis's famous essay on courtly love. I remembered it being good, but I was taken aback by how lively and well expressed it was. I was inspired to include a quotation from the essay in one of my earlier blog entries. You can see the post here.

About a week ago, reviewing material for a new run-through of that chivalry seminar, I read the essay once more, and once again found it worthwhile. I was especially impressed by this passage, which is part of his discussion of the pioneering romance poet, Chretien de Troyes. I include it here for your enjoyment and contemplation

For him already 'the age of chivalry is dead'. It always was: let no one think the worse of it on that account. These phantom periods for which the historian searches in vain—the Rome and Greece that the Middle Ages believed in, the British past of Malory and Spenser, the Middle Age itself as it was conceived by the romantic revival—all these have their place in a history more momentous than that which com­monly bears the name.
Image: a courtly German knight, Der Schenk von Limpurg,from the early 14th-century Manesse Codex.

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Saturday, June 09, 2007

C.S. Lewis Summer Conference, San Diego, June 28-July 1

Anna Shea of the C.S. Lewis has asked me to mention the C.S. Lewis Summer Conference at the end of this month, on the topic: Finding the Way: C.S. Lewis as Pilgrim Guide in an Age of Pluralism.

I agree that some readers will probably be interested, so here is the information. Note that they have other programs.

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Thursday, May 04, 2006

C.S. Lewis on medieval literature

In preparation for my seminar on "Chivalry" I am rereading some key articles and book chapters to see how suitable they are for classroom use. One of these articles is the classic (book publication: 1936) essay "Courtly Love" by C.S. Lewis, author of Narnia, other fantasies, and a lot of Christian polemic originally intended for a popular British audience. (Material on Lewis' writings is all over the Web).

The "Courtly Love" essay is at least 70 years old this year, but it's still useful, I think, when supplemented by other more recent discussions. It is, for one thing, amazingly free of academic jargon. There are passages that take the breath away. For instance, I quoted this one for years in a course I used to teach:


It seems to us natural that love should be the commonest theme of serious imaginative literature: but a glance at classical antiquity or at the Dark Ages at once shows us that what we took for 'nature' is really a special state of affairs, which will probably have an end, and which certainly had a beginning in eleventh-century Provence. It seems -- or it seemed to us till lately -- a natural thing that love (under certain conditions) shoud be regarded as a noble and ennobling passion: it is only if we imagine ourselves trying to explain this doctrine to Aristotle, Virgil, St. Paul, or the author of Beowulf, that we become how far from natural it is.
Note the complete lack of jargon here. Also (hey, I'm a historian) how his ideas are grounded not in high-flown theoretical assertions, but in historical examples. If you want to argue with Lewis, you know where to begin. And he shows what can be done with ordinary, everyday words.

It seems to me that not too many scholars today want to be as clear and forthright as Lewis was here. But I'm not nostalgic; I think this kind of writing has always been rare.

I am actually pretty far down the ranks of admirers of Lewis's fiction -- there are now millions of adults who fell in love with Narnia as kids, not to mention the kids who are reading about Narnia now -- but I do appreciate the fact that he had a cosmic vision. I grew up a science fiction fan, before it was commonplace, and there is something that Lewis has that a lot of people lack. Look at that quote again and note this:
a special state of affairs, which will probably have an end
Ah, yes, Clive, you got that right.

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