Sunday, June 10, 2012

C. S. Lewis's Impact Part 2: Literature

The year was 2005 when I read my first C. S. Lewis book, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, and I knew then that I was a goner. The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe along with the rest of the Narnia Chronicles, came to me like a breath of fresh air. 

Around the time of this first reading, I was around twelve or thirteen years old, and I was in a time warp. I grew up loving stories of faraway lands and brave heroes, but I was nearly a teenager and soon I would have to expand my reading horizons beyond children's books. I tried to like young adult fiction, really I did, but my heart just wasn't in it. YA fiction can generally be divided into three categories - teen drama, teen issues, and the supernatural - and most of it was aimed at teenage girls. Teen drama (who's taking who to the 
prom?, OMG he cheated on you! etc.) didn't, and doesn't, interest me. Books on teen issues (drugs, gangs, slums etc.) felt like it was from a world I didn't inhabit and I felt disconnected to the characters. Even the supernatural books had none of the beauty, joy, or even mystery that I recalled from children's books. It was all vampires and werewolves, with nothing to balance the gloom. That or they were mass-produced fantasy series that I've never had much of a liking for. I remember feeling tugged between stories that I enjoyed and stories that were "fit" for my age group. Around this time, I began to mentally categorize books and movies into two categories - books that I enjoyed, and books that were "mature" or "smart". The Oscars didn't help - my favourite movies usually lost or were absent entirely. These "mature" stories were missing something, but I didn't know what it was.

When I read Narnia, I loved it first as one of those "enjoyable" stories, but I soon picked up on the deeper themes of the story. Yes, it was  a children's story, and it had all the things that make my heart swell, but it was also mature and thought-provoking. I read the Narnia books again and again, venturing deeper into its labyrinthine pages. Of, course, I eventually decided to read more books by C. S. Lewis, and I discovered a very interesting person. Here was a professor of English, who liked and respected children's stories and didn't look down on things like magic or talking animals. Thanks to C. S. Lewis, I no longer categorize stories as I used to. In fact, I suspect many of the children's stories I enjoyed from my childhood, and still enjoy, have more artistic merit than much of the books I read for English class. Certainly Narnia does.

Most interestingly, I learned from Lewis, along with Tolkien, that this condescending attitude towards "fairy stories" is actually quite recent. I discovered that in the past stories with fauns, chivalric knights, and dragons were actually taken seriously. "Fairy stories" have a better standing today than they did in Lewis's and Tolkien's day (largely thanks to them), but they are still often seen as inferior to "realistic" stories. 

Through Lewis, I discovered the classics.

I remember being at the library, looking at the Star Wars books (Star Wars was my main reading passion at that point), when I happened to glance over at the classics section. They almost felt like forbidden fruit. No one actually reads those dusty old things, do they? Am I allowed? But I saw no reason not to pick one up. I glanced at the spines and many of the titles I recognized from reading Lewis's non-fiction. The first classic I read was Hamlet and, while I enjoyed, it was Paradise Lost that introduced me to epic poetry and pushed me over the edge. It had the things I loved, but it was an adult book, a well-respected one at that. 

Over time, I began to see what the "mature" books had been lacking: what Tolkien called the Numinous and what Lewis called Joy. Beauty is a mysterious thing. It has no apparent function or use, but I feel like I would fight to preserve it. Beauty is its own reward. It upsets me to see beauty trampled upon (heck, to this day it genuinely upsets me to hear Santa Claus-pedophile jokes). This why I don't like seeing trees getting down. The tree won't feel any pain, and it's dropping leaves all over the sidewalk, but darn it all, it's beautiful. Try talking someone out of chopping a tree down and see what happens ("What use is the tree?"). Beauty doesn't just look or sound nice, it haunts you. It fills you with desire for a time or place you've never known (or have you?). It keeps you up at night. This type of thing is almost entirely cut out of contemporary fiction. I don't know why. It isn't because of all our "modern suffering", because our ancestors went through much more than us in the modern West do and they still expressed these things in genuine works of art. It really is a wonder to think that materialism (i.e. the belief that nature is all there is and that there is no supernatural, not the love of material things) has become popular in the cushiest society the world has ever known.

Since then, I've become able to enjoy stories with less black-and-white and that are more "down to earth", though I still prefer "fairy stories". And to this day the only young adult books I enjoy is the "Hunger Games" trilogy.

So Lewis's hand in my literary maturation was subtle but crucial. He showed me that the sort of stories I enjoy aren't inferior to "realistic" (though lacking some pretty crucial elements of the human experience) stories and introduced me to one of my great loves, the classics - particularly epic poetry and chivalric romance. I don't think I would have ever decided to read through the Great Books of the Western World, as I'm doing right now, without C. S. Lewis.

In my next entry I will talk about how C. S. Lewis changed my perspective on religion.



Saturday, June 9, 2012

C. S. Lewis's Impact Part 1: Introduction

I've been meaning to write this entry for quite a while. If asked who the most influential person in my life is (not including the obvious: Mom, Dad, Jesus etc.), I would have to say mine is C. S. Lewis.

C. S. Lewis (1898-1963) was a British (he was born in Ireland, but lived the majority of his life in England) professor and author. His most famous work is the children's fairy tale series "The Chronicles of Narnia", and the Narnia books were the first books by him that I read. He wrote in a variety of other genres including science fiction, Christian apologetics, literary criticism, and poetry. Aside from the Narnia books his most famous works are Mere Christianity and The Screwtape Letters and the most prestigious, though much lesser known, is English Literature in the Sixteenth Century, Excluding Drama for the "Oxford History of English Literature" series (Lewis used the apt acronym "OHEL", because of the full title's tedium). Writing books was his past-time and his professional career was a scholar. He taught as a fellow at Magdalen College at Oxford and was later appointed as the first Professor of Medieval and Renaissance Literature and Cambridge University after he convinced the school that his subject was one worth teaching.

The most important thing to say in this introduction is how similar the two of us are. Both of us have the personality type INTJ (standing for Introverted, Intuitive, Thinking, Judging) according to the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator. This is especially notable considering INTJs make up approximately 2% of the population. INTJs tend to be rational creatures, relying on their minds and reason over emotions and feelings. As can be expected, many INTJs go into the field of science, however Lewis and I, further narrowing down the 2%, are alternately cursed and blessed with a mathematical block. I do math painfully slow, often not comleting tests by the allotted time and cannot do any calculations but the very simple in my head without resorting to counting on my fingers or drawing ticks. I at least have the advantage of the calculator. Lewis wasn't so lucky. In fact, if he hadn't been a veteran of World War I, he wouldn't have been admitted into Oxford because of his math deficiencies. So with math and science out of the picture, we turned to the dusty subjects of a bygone (pre-Scientific) era - mainly literature - as our chief intellectual delight.

Our childhoods were somewhat similar. Both were happy times of relative innocence that we look back on with fondness and consider a "golden age" of sorts. We grew up out of the school system (he was taught by a tutor and I was homeschooled) with loving parents and, as far as we could see, happy homes. We grew up with a love for stories, especially ones involving knights and talking animals, that would turn us both into incurable romantics. Both of our childhood innocence was shattered at the age of eight. C. S. Lewis describes the experience in Surprised By Joy: "With my mother’s death all settled happiness, all that was tranquil and reliable, disappeared from my life. There was to be much fun, many pleasures, many stabs of Joy; but no more of the old security. It was sea and islands now; the great continent had sunk like Atlantis". I know how he felt.

So, in some ways, we resemble Jekyll and Hyde. On one hand we can be rationalistic and at times cold, but on the other hand we can be gentle and there are few things, if any, that excite us more than beauty that feels like it has visited us from beyond the end of the world (more on this later). Because our personality type is as rare as it is, and further divded from the majority of the 2% by our math deficiencies, there is little wonder that I felt like C. S. Lewis's books were made for me and have impacted me so deeply.

I'll further break down the impact of C. S. Lewis into two categories, faith and literature, in future blogs.

C. S. Lewis as a child:

C. S. Lewis writing: