Thoughts on C. S. Lewis’ The Discarded Image

Here is yet another of the articles I promised as part of my Candlemas Resolutions.  I have only four days to review the theological work and the Japanese one; otherwise, I shall fail to keep my resolutions in the very first month I made them!  And I should send little e-mail to TWWK ere then too.  Vae!  Sunt multa facienda, sed tempus fugit!  

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At any rate, let me get on to C. S. Lewis’ The Discarded Image.  This work marks the last book of Lewis’s published while he still lived.  These two hundred and twenty-three pages refreshed my knowledge of Medieval Model of the universe.  Lewis both delineates the major features of the model and offers details which will please readers more versed in the Middle Ages.  By the way, medievals and yours truly have much in common, and I think that highlighting these similarities as I write about the major points of The Discarded Image will amuse my dear readers.

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A fundamental trait in the medieval psyche is its bookishness.  Lewis is quick to remind us that when we call the Middle Ages the Age of Authority, authority is held not only by the Church but by many other authorities.  The word author derives from the word for authority.  Any classical work to survive the ravages of time and to fall into a medieval scholar’s hands was placed on the level of Gospel truth–unless it conflicted the Gospel, of course.  Lewis writes that the idea that a book could lie would be met by shock during this period of history.  Also, Lewis does a marvelous job listing the major classical authorities for a medieval scholar.  With his Consolation of Philosophy, Boethius seems to have taken first place, and Lewis remarks that even well into modernity it would have been hard to find an educated person who had not read it.

Link to Medieval Otaku: Any time I write about a rather difficult topic, I quote authority.  Those of you with whom I’ve had long discussions with in the comments sections know that I even will point to an authority even when not especially necessary.  I used to frustrate my mentor in the seminary the same way. 🙂  Also, like the medievals, I am a classicist.

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Because of this reliance on authority, medieval authors preferred to transmit stories rather than devise new ones.  They strove for accuracy rather than originality in a way repugnant to modern sensibilities, but Lewis reminds us that medieval authors often became most original when they tried to convey the facts accurately!  Almost as if they needed to rely on invention so that they could tell things more truly.  Perhaps, the greatest example of the striving for accuracy through close adherence to the authorities of the past is Dante’s Divine Comedy.  What other work relies so heavily on allusions and yet bears such a strong stamp of originality?

Link to Medieval Otaku: I have a similar tendency to praise works which might seem less creative to others because of their excessive borrowing.  I praise Shiki for retelling Beowulf by means of the vampire genre, Kill la Kill would not be so good if had not borrowed ideas from Aeschylus’s Oresteia, and a major part of Arpeggio of Blue Steel‘s greatness lies in its use of the Gospel and Acts of the Apostles.

Great Chain

The third aspect of the Medieval Model to focus on is its hierarchical structure.  God makes the universe hierarchical by placing each creature on a specific spot on the Great Chain of Being.  In high school, you probably learned about this, but here is the divinely instituted order: non-living things, plants, animals, human beings, angels, and God.  Rational beings have the higher places and irrational beings the lower.  Lewis makes the discussion on the Great Chain of Being more interesting by adding the Longaevi (fairies, elves, sylphs, etc.) to the chain.  The medieval opinion on these beings ranged from them being a third rational species besides men and angels, the ghosts of dead women, those angels who did not choose a side during the War in Heaven and were banished to the earth, to just plain demons.  The last view led to the end of the vitality of fairy tales as may well be imagined.

Link to Medieval Otaku: As a fantasy author, I cannot but add some Longaevi to the stories set in my fantasy world.  I call them yoshen, and they bear a stronger resemblance to the youkai found in Japanese folklore and anime.  Hopefully, you’ll get to read about them when my novel sees the light of day.

Without anime Girls, this article would not be complete. :)

Without anime Girls, this article would not be complete. 🙂

Before Lewis wraps up the work, he describes many theories held by the medievals on nature–both human nature and the nature of the universe.  Rather than reading another five hundred words of mine, you should pick up the book to learn Lewis’s erudite explanations.  He ends the work by discussing how the prevailing mindset influences the discoveries made in both science and philosophy.  After all, do you think that the theory of evolution could have come about outside of the worldview of the Industrial Revolution?  Do moderns not see nature as working like technology and capitalism?  That’s something to think about!  At any rate, be sure to read this book whether you’re a neophyte or more experienced in the study of the Middle Ages.  The prose is quite fluid and readable to boot–as one might expect from the author of so many beloved stories!

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9 comments on “Thoughts on C. S. Lewis’ The Discarded Image

  1. Boethius is really really awesome! The problem is that it’s one of those books that is much better to read than to explain. It also helps if you’ve been reading patristics, because then you can see more clearly that it’s Christian philosophy and not pagan. (There’s a weird faction that claims Boethius is pagan, just because he’s not explicitly mentioning Jesus.)

    Personally, I find that I can comprehend philosophy better in audiobooks, maybe because I have to listen at a slower pace; or maybe because I tend to listen while walking or biking, and different brain areas activate. Boethius is ideal for this, because he alternates prose and poetry sections.

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    • The edition of Boethius I have contains both his Consolation of Philosophy and his On the Holy Trinity. Why would a pagan strive to understand the Trinity? Well, I figure that some academics feel they need to stand out at any cost, which is probably the sole reason for that faction.

      As far as I know, Boethius is the only philosopher to write in poetry, which is a very cool thing about him. I’ll have to try listening to philosophy on audio book. It sounds like an excellent way to make a long car ride more interesting.

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      • Boethius was modelling his stuff (I think) on folks like Lucretius, and some of the classical philosopher poets whose works are lost, like Epimenides who said the bit about “In Him we live and move and have our being.” He was supposed to have a prophetic gift as well as being a philosopher poet, so he was the total vates/filidh package.

        But yeah, most philosophers didn’t try it.

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      • I remember reading some Lucretius. The most startling thing about his work is that he writes it in the format of an epic, but his Epicurianism is decidedly not epic! I forgot about Lucretius when I wrote that Boethius was the only philosopher who wrote in poetry. You mention Epimenides and, a Pre-Socratic philosopher also wrote poems–I wish that I could remember his name.

        And Librivox is a great resource for audiobooks, except that I don’t like most of the readers’ delivery. My favorite one is Adrian Praetzellis, who does a great job in Treasure Island, The Wind in the Willows, and Mr. Midshipman Easy.

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  2. I forgot to say that Librivox has a startling amount of philosophy among its Public Domain audiobooks, although Audible has a fair amount of stuff you can pay for.

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  3. […] for magical powers.  It is obvious from Martha’s flashbacks that Maria is one of the Longaevi, so her powers have no diabolical author.  Who would execute a fairy for having magic […]

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  4. Gaheret says:

    My present theory on History is as follows: as our true Renaissance is yet to come and the Old World (the world of the Pagans and Israel before the coming of Our Lord) has ended and now subsists only as a legacy or testimony, ours are better characterized as the Middle Ages than “the Modern Age”, “the Postmodern Age”, “the Contemporary Age” or whatever, as every age is “modern” or “contemporary” when it´s happening. The Inevitable Progress and the Enlightenment of Humanity are, in my view, dreams of the human mind which came from a secularized History of Salvation: therefore, we should acquire again that sense of living in a variable, ever-changing, hopeful, sometimes grim and always colourful period while the Nations coexist with the Catholic Church and the Jewish People, instead of the focauldian never-ending show where all left is representation, or Fukuyama´s end of history, or the hegelian rational sum of historic contraries or the almost-here progressive Utopia.

    The Discarded Image model is, in my view, very useful for us as a culture. Firstly, because it portrays a Cosmos, and we need to see the Universe and Nature as a Cosmos again, with eyes of wonder, searching for patterns, parallels and answers and not only operating and classifying it. Secondly, because the thinkers of the Model, naÏve as they may have been sometimes, always tried to find connections between the order of the world and themselves, and this is a very useful attitude for intellectuals (the “humanist approach”, in a good way): in a rational world, all which is true has something to teach us humans! Thirdly, because as you said, respect and reverence for the wise of the past is far superior to contempt and rebellion by default. Finally, because it is useful to artists and poets of any kind, as it illustrates how to fit the imaginary in the logic of reality and therefore co-create, as Tokien did, using “the refracted light” and even pagan mythology (as a reflection of the human search for the Divine), viewed through a Christian lens. As the Arthurian Cycle did with the old Welsh miths, or the Christian monks with the Greeks, or this very blog of yours with Japanese Anime.

    Your novel sounds interesting. Longaevi! I once used the concept in one of mine. I´m looking forward to see it finished…

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    • Your idea of the present stage of history might be the correct one. I think that we are closer towards the end than the beginning. Sister Lucia of Fatima fame did say that the final battle between God and the devil will be over the family and marriage. We see that battle very clearly in our times. St. Vincent Ferrer claimed himself to be one of the angels mentioned in the Apocalypse, and this was back in the 14th century! We’re much closer to the end than the beginning to my mind.

      I love the Discarded Image C. S. Lewis describes in his book. As you say, it is far more useful for artists and much healthier for the human mind.

      For my book, I really need to make only a few changes at this point and to design a cover. I’ll let you see it when its done. May your own novel be completed soon!

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