In his introduction to English Literature in the Sixteenth Century, C. S. Lewis thrashes the bushes searching out potential causes for the surprising efflorescence of brilliant literature that sprang up near the end of the sixteenth century. At the beginning of the century, “the prose is clumsy, monotonous, garrulous; their verse is either astonishingly tame and cold or, if it attempts to rise, the coarsest fustian. In both mediums we come to dread a certain ruthless emphasis; bludgeon work. Nothing is light, or tender, or fresh. All the authors write like elderly men. . . . Then, in the last quarter of the century the unpredictable happens.
Many of C. S. Lewis’ most profound experiences were literary. From a young age, Lewis was a voracious and engaged reader who immersed himself in Classic and Romantic literature and ancient mythologies. The characters and ideas he encountered in his readings left deep and lasting impressions on how he viewed himself and the reality around him. What depictions and symbols of females in literature affected Lewis’ understanding of females? How do his literary ideas of the feminine determine the female characters he creates? Are Lewis’ experiences of females in literature consistent with the life experiences of real women? How do these multiple influences manifest themselves in female representations in the Chronicles of Narnia?
These questions are significant, considering that an estimated sixty-five million people have read C. S. Lewis’ multi-volume Chronicles of Narnia. It is safe to assume, simply on the basis of demographics, that roughly one half of these readers are female. What do these stories, written by a man who “no sound delights…more than male laughter” (W. H. Lewis 14), say to female readers about what femininity is and about what is valuable about females? With what sorts of characters can female readers identify in Lewis’ stories, and how are female characters represented?
Reading with C. S. Lewis: this was my chosen approach when I co-authored a reader’s guide to Lewis’ classic story. Why was that a natural choice? The answer: Lewis bequeathed a richer legacy of literary criticism and theory that addresses his imaginative writing more than any other author I know. From Lewis’ nonfictional writing we can glean a large and detailed picture of how Lewis thinks we should read literature, and how we should not read it.