steepholm (steepholm) wrote,

The great and the ingrate: Or, C.S. Lewis and me (again)

 And my C. S. Lewis fannishness is well documented in these pages, but in at No. 11? I do love the Narnia books, and I'm in awe at the quality of the man's mind, but he would have scoffed at the idea that he was a great writer, and so do I. *scoffs*  [ETA: That sounds a bit ungenerous. I do think him a very great man of letters.]

A certain party – we’ll call her Dame Splinter to preserve her anonymity – has taken me to task over these remarks in my last post. That scoff showed a ‘brutal’* and ‘vicious’* side of my character she’d not previously suspected. In vain did I protest that I was scoffing with, not at Lewis, and that in fact my Scoffing With C. S. Lewis (Baton Rouge Evangelical Press, 2007) is selling like hot cakes in the States. Apparently that's not how it came across.

*Words quoted may vary from those actually spoken.

Okay, so why do I hesitate to call CSL a great writer? After all, as Dame S points out, his books have been loved by generations of children, including me, and I certainly rate him as highly as many of the other people in that list of the 50 Best.

I suppose the main problem is that I sense a limitation in Lewis's stylistic range – and I don’t know whether one can be a great writer without also being a great stylist. This isn’t a matter of his reining himself in because he was writing for children: it’s evident throughout his work (and his generic range was wide).  Lewis’s style happens to be one I like a lot, but I suspect I like it partly because I like him so much – the way you might forgive (or even enjoy) a favourite uncle even as he launches into a familiar story for the fifth time. But then, how did he manage to become a favourite uncle in the first place, Dame Splinter might object – and indeed, to that I have no answer.

There are some other negatives, of course. Lewis’s characterization is often vivid, but equally it can be insipid, not least with his protagonists. There are some rather embarrassing plot holes, too (what was Lucy thinking of to visit Mr Tumnus a second time when he'd already told her it would put him in great danger? Obviously CSL just wanted her out of the way while the White Witch seduced Edmund). I can think of other writers who are subtler or more exuberant, and even more truly inventive - though few can match Lewis as an imaginative bricoleur. There are also passages where I have to hum loudly as I'm reading so as not to notice that certain beliefs about modernity, women and the vital importance of the blood royal are being served up in a rather unappetising way.

And yet, and yet... even if all that's true, what writer doesn't have faults and limitations? Ben Jonson was always carping about Shakespeare, but even he admitted that he "had an excellent fancy, brave notions, and gentle expressions” – and those things are certainly true of CSL too. It’s a poor show if I can’t be as generous spirited as Ben Jonson, now isn’t it? In fact, it would be easy to make a case for Shakespeare’s being a bad writer, if one really wanted. Isn’t he sometimes a bit prolix? Isn’t his plotting occasionally sloppy? Aren’t a lot of his jokes a bit groan-making? Didn’t he borrow plots and even plagiarize whole passages  from Thomas North and John Florio? And as for his children! He really doesn’t know how to do them, does he? In fact, he mostly kills them off as quickly as possible:
the Princes in the Tower, Macduff Junior, Mamilius, the Boy in Henry V (okay, I think that was Adrian Noble, but working from a hint in the text). When it comes to slaughtering innocents, Shakespeare out-Herods Herod.

But I shall say no more against Shakespeare, in case I get Dame Splinter on my back again. Besides, I’m one of his biggest fans! And I do think with him (and CSL) that Ben got it right: “He redeemed his vices with his virtues. There was ever more in him to be praised than to be pardoned.” Who can ask for more, this side idolatry?

Tags: books, c. s. lewis
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