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.
With the understood premise that I have garnered my data from C. S. Lewis himself, I propose to cover three topics: how not to read how to read The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, and how to read a children’s book as an adult reader.
How Not to Read
I need to be honest with you: my editor found this approach uninvitingly negative and excised it from my book. I think she was wrong to do so. We cannot read very long in Lewis’ criticism before we sense that Lewis was preoccupied with sparing his readers from wrong ways of reading. Just recall how much of An Experiment in Criticism is devoted to analyzing wrong ways of assimilating art and literature. Here are specimen chapter titles: “The Few and the Many,” “False Characterisations,” “How the Few and the Many Use Pictures and Music,” “The Reading of the Unliterary,” “On Misreading by the Literary.”
“The first thing to grasp about the sonnet sequence,” writes Lewis in his big book on sixteenth-century English literature, “is that it is not a way of telling a story” (English Literature in the Sixteenth Century excluding Drama 327). Lewis devotes half of his famous essay on Hamlet to an analysis of how not to read the play, that is, by fixing attention on the characters instead of the play: “I confess myself a member of that school which has lately been withdrawing our attention form the characters to fix it on the plays” (“Hamlet: The Prince or the Poem?” 93).
Lewis believed that readers need to be cut off at the pass from incorrect ways of reading, and I therefore conclude that to read The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe in the spirit of Lewis’ own ways of reading literature, we must avoid the pitfalls that he himself delineates. Here is what Lewis thought about three common forms of misreading; and, as I elaborate them, you will doubtless recognize them as ways in which Christian readers commonly deal with the Narnian Chronicles.
Bad practice #1 is using The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe instead of receiving it. C. S. Lewis is against using a work of literature in the sense of immediately harnessing it to advance a reader’s agenda of interests or beliefs. This is not to imply that we do not make use of what we read. Rather it comments on an author’s right to be listened to before being judged, and also asserts a proper sequence by which we should go about assimilating a work of literature. In An Experiment in Criticism, Lewis states this principle: “We sit down before [a] picture in order to have something done to us, not that we may do things with it. The first demand any work of any art makes upon us is surrender. Look. Listen. Receive. Get yourself out of the way” (19).
The application of this principle to a reading of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe is two-fold. For someone who is reading the story for the umpteenth time, Lewis’ directive is an encouragement to stare at the text carefully, deliberately looking for new effects, new meanings, new intricacies. For any Christian reader, moreover, Lewis’ axiom of receiving rather than using is a call to not be coercive or impatient regarding the religious meanings of the story. The religious meanings can be trusted to reveal themselves at the appropriate time, which, let me say, is a relatively late point in the story. Lewis’ formula is, “let the pictures tell you their own moral” (“On Three Ways of Writing for Children” 33).
Bad practice #2 is to value The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe primarily as a collection of ideas. Lewis saves some of his sternest warnings for this practice. He claims that to regard a work of literature “as primarily a vehicle for . . . philosophy is an outrage to the thing the poet has made for us” (An Experiment in Criticism 82). Furthermore, “one of the prime achievements in every good fiction has nothing to do with truth or philosophy . . . at all” (An Experiment in Criticism 83).
Now, let me anticipate a later point that I will make and say that Lewis would not wish us to think that The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe is devoid of religious ideas, nor that we should make something of them. The caution is that we should not reduce a work to its ideas, thereby suppressing other equally important aspects of it.