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'The Discarded Image: An Introduction to Medieval and Renaissance Literature' by C.S. Lewis

On a clear, starlit night, go outside and look at the stars.

Try to imagine what it was like looking up at the night sky in Mediaeval times -the stars were eternal and unchanging, occupying a perfect sphere next to God.

See if you can see a planet (they are brighter and do not twinkle like stars, being much closer to the earth). Imagine that that object has an actual influence over you and the way in which you behave.

The Discarded Image was the last book that C.S. Lewis wrote, and in essence it summarises a number of lectures and talks he gave on the subject of Medieval and Renaissance Literature, a subject he taught for the greater part of his lifetime. The ‘image’ that has been ‘discarded’ is the general picture of history, science, and theology that served as the foundation for literature in the Western world from the turn of the first millennium A.D. up until around the early 1600s.

It’s probably my favourite non-fiction book, along with Northrop Frye’s Anatomy of Criticism. Lewis elegantly describes how the pieces made up the whole, giving a world view which to all intents and purposes gave as complete a picture of the universe as we have today from modern physics, as far as the ordinary reader or viewer is concerned. The extremely knowledgeable Lewis outlines how authors, historians, philosophers, and religious writers wrote about the various facets of the world they knew.

If you want to understand Lewis’s fictive creations -not just Narnia and its inhabitants, but also the planets of the Space Trilogy, as well as the bureaucratic Hell of The Screwtape Letters, you’d be wise to read The Discarded Image. For example, in a discussion about how Man can have Free Will if God is all-powerful and all-knowing, Lewis points out:

Strictly speaking, He never foresees; He simply sees. Your ‘future’ is only an area, and only for us a special area, of His infinite Now. He sees (not remembers) your yesterday’s acts because yesterday is still ‘there’ for Him; he sees (not foresees) your tomorrow’s acts because He is already in tomorrow. As a human spectator, by watching my present act, does not at all infringe its freedom, so I am none the less free to act as I choose in the future because God, in that future (His present) watches me acting.

Lewis drew upon in his world-creation throughout all his fiction: you have only to follow all of Aslan’s sayings to see the connections.

It’s a treat, and will probably change the way you view the world, at least the worlds of Lewis’s fiction. For example, Lewis points out that our very notion of what a book and an author are, and the roles they have, have not always been seen the way they are today:

It follows that the book-author unit, basic for modern criticism, must often be abandoned when we are dealing with medieval literature. Some books — if I may use a comparison I have used elsewhere — must be regarded more as we regard those cathedrals where work of many different periods is mixed and produces a total effect, admirable indeed but never foreseen nor intended by any one of the successive builders.

I have read The Discarded Image several times, always with pleasure. It has prompted me to go out into the night and look at the stars, not as we look at them today -spots of burning gas in an incomprehensibly vast nothingness- but as heavenly creations, beings in their own right, patrolling the heavens beneath Heaven itself.

For much more about C. S. Lewis and his works, visit Tolkien and Lewis World here.

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