Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Image and Imagination: Review

Last week, a number of bloggers posted in commemoration of C. S. Lewis’s death 50 year ago. (In particular, you might like the posts by Lars Walker and Rebecca LuElla Miller.) While I grew up reading Lewis’s Narnia series and have since read a large group of his other works, I don’t have anything profound to add to their thoughts. Over the past week, however, I have been reading a new collection of Lewis’s essays, Image and Imagination, released last Friday.
It would be fair to start by asking why yet another collection of Lewis essays? We already have his fiction, dozens of his essays, and volumes of his letters, so why the need for another book? The simple answer is that this book is a collection of Lewis’s academic writing. The challenge is that Image and Imagination is largely a book about literature and the analysis and study of literature, though a more mixed collection than The Allegory of Love or The Discarded Image.

Image and Imagination takes its title from an unpublished essay Lewis wrote, describing his thoughts on the link between reality and imagination. The rest of the book contain a variety of reviews, a handful of prefaces and introductions Lewis wrote for other books, and four out-of-print essays. Two of these, “The idea of an ‘English School’” and “Our English syllabus,” describe how Lewis viewed Oxford’s undergraduate English program. (Rather like Dorothy Sayer’s The Lost Tools of Learning , Lewis explains in these essays his thoughts on higher education's purpose and methods.)

As always, Lewis’s writing is excellent, and his essays are thought provoking, as far as their topics allow. I enjoyed the essays on the English program, if only because Lewis includes an argument about the true origins of English literature (Anglo-Saxon, of course, not Greco-Roman), while “Image and Imagination” takes on the old argument about the how readers understand literature from a different angle.

At the same time, Image and Imagination is a highly academic book. Just reading through some of the book reviews, I was struck by the absurdity of reading anyone’s assessment of a long-forgotten book—one which I’ve never read, am barely interested in for its own sake, and will likely never read. I suspect most Lewis fans, unless they happen to be literary scholars as well, will reach the same conclusion.

For Lewis fans reading Image and Imagination, the main value might be gleaning the various references to old Inklings friends, such as the set of essays on books by Owen Barfield, Charles Williams, and Tolkien. That, and the rare gem—as when Lewis writes in “Image and Imagination” on the impossibility of separating fiction from fact, of creating a world entirely in the author’s mind, without reference to the real world:

“To get a single blade of grass growing in that imaginary world you must make a world indeed—a real universe, self-sufficing in space and time. But only one author can do that sort of stage-set. On this view only God can tell stories.”

So, if you desperately need something new to read, or you need a Christmas present for your Lewis-loving English professor, you might find Image and Imagination interesting. Parts of it are certainly worth thinking about. Otherwise, you'll probably find his fiction or his other essays a lot more worthwhile.

[My thanks to NetGalley and Cambridge University Press for sending me a Kindle copy of Image and Imagination, in exchange for my honest opinion of the book.]

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