The Scholarly Lewis: A Review of The Medieval Mind of C.S. Lewis

The Scholarly Lewis: A Review of The Medieval Mind of C.S. Lewis

In my view, chapter 5, where Baxter illuminates Dante’s influence on Lewis, is Baxter at his best. Baxter compellingly shows that in Dante Lewis found a model poet who is able to furnish our imagination with images that enable us to love God and his kingdom as we should. Dante’s images of core Christian teachings kindle the fire of our loves, which often wanes when only taught in abstract and purely didactic ways. Moreover, Dante taught Lewis how to communicate these truths in palpable imagery: “decapitated troubadours, sinners who scream at God, blind beggars leaning on one another’s shoulders for support, or the souls on Saturn buzzing around like tops to express their joyful zeal” (91). This chapter sings and is exactly what I would have guessed the book was about. 

Grove City, PA. Most of us first encounter C. S. Lewis’s works in one of two forms: the imaginative or the apologetic. As children, we wander into The Silver Chair or as young adults we wrestle with Mere Christianity. We immediately come to delight in Lewis’s ability to enchant and instruct, to explain and defend Christianity through simple prose and astounding images, and to weave tales that usher us into profound truths. Jason Baxter’s The Medieval Mind of C. S. Lewis: How Great Books Shaped a Great Mind aims to show that, in addition to these two better known “Lewises” – the imaginative and apologetic (or devotional) – there is a “third” Lewis: Lewis the medieval scholar, a role that provided the inspiration for his imaginative and apologetic works. That is, Baxter contends that this third Lewis is not related to the other two as a mere addition but rather as a source or foundation. Baxter explains, “The purpose of this book is to explore how this third Lewis is just beneath the surface even in his more appreciated imaginative and devotional writings. We will see that the great medievalist was not a successful modernizer of Christianity and writer of fiction despite the fact that he spent so much time studying old, dusty books, but because of them” (6).

As the reader will observe, there are two central aspects of the third Lewis. First, he is a “a great medievalist.” Second, his studying of ancient works is part of what makes his apologetic and fictional works so great. Let’s consider these claims in turn. While at times the third Lewis seems simply to be the scholar at Oxford and later Cambridge, it becomes clear that Baxter is really interested in Lewis’s scholarship connected to the medieval period, and so gaining clarity on this third Lewis requires us to grasp exactly what the medieval period covers. Here we find a rather odd feature of Baxter’s book. Where exactly we draw the boundaries of the medieval period will be a disputed question in part because it depends on the distinctive concerns of various scholarly communities. Lewis himself noted that the distinction between Medieval and Renaissance literature had for too long been “exaggerated.” Thus, one could understand that Baxter might endorse a definition of the medieval period that others would dispute. But, as far as I can tell, Baxter’s definition of the medieval period, or what he calls “the Long Middle Ages,” (9) is all his own. It extends from Plato (4th century B.C.) to Samuel Johnson (17th century A.D.) and “sometimes even to Wordsworth” (11). I can’t say I have ever heard of a scholar who suggested that Plato was medieval.

When I first encountered this puzzling periodization, I was inclined to think the best way to gloss Baxter was that he is really interested in Lewis the premodern. This hypothesis seemed justified insofar as so many of Baxter’s chapters focus on the way the books of the Long Middle Ages formed Lewis’s aversions to many aspects of modernity and populated his imagination with ancient, more grounded ways of being. From the fact that Lewis denies knowing such modern thinkers as Tillich and Brunner while being on intimate terms with St. Augustine, Dante, Thomas à Kempis, Edmund Spenser, Richard Hooker, George Herbert, John Milton, Thomas Traherne, and William Law, Baxter concludes, “In sum, this was C. S. Lewis the medievalist” (4). While such a list hardly justifies the conclusion that Lewis was a medievalist, all these works might reasonably be considered premodern.

A second hypothesis that occurred to me was that Baxter was especially concerned with those authors who contributed to or expounded on the Medieval Model of Reality, the great synthesis of pagan and Christian learning developed over a thousand years, which aimed at explaining everything from the nature of God and the heavens to the nature of plants and rocks, and which began to be widely abandoned in the late 17th century. Lewis describes this model of reality in his masterful The Discarded Image. Plato contributed to it, and Spenser was deeply informed by it, and so perhaps that is the best way to understand Baxter. And yet even this does not seem quite right, as some 20th century figures, such Rudolf Otto and Martin Buber, figure significantly in Baxter’s discussion of works that influenced Lewis (in chapters 6 and 7 respectively). In the end, the works discussed by Baxter as significant influences on Lewis belie any simple taxonomy.

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