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Customer Review

2 of 4 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Worth a look, but includes some misleading & inaccurate claims, 18 Oct. 2012
This review is from: Into the Wardrobe: C.S. Lewis and the Narnia Chronicles (Hardcover)
The centerpiece of this book is the chapter 'The Genesis of Narnia,' a useful summary of the creation process behind the wonderful Narnia books. Downing cherry-picked most of this information from the thousands of pages of letters, essays, nonfiction books and biographies published by and about C.S. Lewis. He also includes a few new observations not published elsewhere, revealing for instance that the country of Calormen featured in 'The Horse and His Boy' was based primarily on the 'Arabian Nights' collection (his source was an unpublished letter from Lewis). Downing's book also includes a brief biography of Lewis and chapters on Narnia's spiritual vision, moral psychology, classical and medieval elements, an exploration of Narnian names, literary artistry, and a helpful appendix on Narnian allusions which might be obscure to modern or non-British readers.

'Into the Wardrobe' becomes frustrating when Downing speaks from his position as a published author, college professor and "C.S. Lewis expert" to forward some sketchy or inaccurate claims, in particular: (1) that Rudolf Otto coined the word 'Numinous,' (2) that the Narnia books are not allegory, and (3) that C.S. Lewis disliked source criticism.

1. Downing claims that Rudolph Otto coined the term 'numinous,' which is not true: According to the Oxford English Dictionary the word numinous was coined in 1640 A.D., to mean "the sense of nearness of the divine," and it still means precisely the same thing today. It is true that Otto suggested in his book 'Idea of the Holy' that since God is all-powerful we puny humans must automatically regard him as terrifying despite his benevolence, and this conception of the numinous was influential on Lewis and several other intellectuals of the time ("Safe?" said Mr. Beaver. "...Who said anything about [Aslan] being safe? 'Course he isn't safe. But he's good"). However, if you look up numinous in any modern dictionary, you'll see that Otto's attempt to globally update the word's definition was unsuccessful. Anyway, even if Otto had managed to modify the meaning of 'numinous,' that is simply not what it means to coin a word. For example: if I redefined the word "God" in this Amazon review to mean "a giant purple frog," would that mean I had "coined" the word God?

2. Downing states that Narnia is not an allegory because (a) it does not always have one-to-one allegorical correspondences, and (b) Lewis did not encourage his readers to think of Narnia as an allegory, but as a "supposal" (as in "Let us suppose that..."). To the first point, it is a fundamental misunderstanding of allegory to believe that a piece must be restricted to one-to-one correspondences to qualify as allegory. Consider Edmund Spenser's 'The Faerie Queene,' one of the most-referenced allegories in the English language and a special favorite of C.S. Lewis. On page 321 of 'The Allegory of Love,' Lewis mentions that the Faerie Queene has allegorical correspondences to both the Christian virtues and politics. Queen Elizabeth alone corresponds to at least three different characters (from Wikipedia's Faerie Queene page):

"[Queen] Elizabeth...appears most prominently in her guise as Gloriana, the Faerie Queene herself; but also in Books III and IV as the virgin Belphoebe, daughter of Chrysogonee and twin to Amoret, the embodiment of womanly married love; and perhaps also, more critically, in Book I as Lucifera, the 'maiden queen' whose brightly lit Court of Pride masks a dungeon full of prisoners."

While it's true that Lewis encouraged a child correspondent to think of Narnia as a "supposal" rather than allegory, is it perhaps the case that Lewis felt that it is proper in romance (which today we would call 'fantasy') for the inner meaning to be carefully hidden?

"As is proper in romance, the inner meaning is carefully hidden." -C.S. Lewis in a letter to Arthur Greaves (18 July 1916)

Lewis referred to the hidden element in fantasy stories as the 'kappa element' (kappa meaning hidden), and he held a lifelong enthusiasm for that subtle hidden meaning behind words which can express "things that can't be directly told," even stating in his book 'Spenser's Images of Life' that "all great truths should be veiled." Carefully keeping Narnia's allegorical inner meaning hidden does not disqualify it as allegory.

3. Downing wrote that "Lewis generally disliked source criticism, the interpretive approach that assumes major characters and images in a story can usually be traced to something in an author's life or reading habits." This is very misleading. Lewis held a lifelong fascination with what he (in common with most English-speaking literary scholars of his time) called quellenforschung (German Quelle, source + Forschung, research), the study of tracing sources for a literary work. In his introduction to 'George MacDonald; An Anthology,' Lewis wrote: "I am a don, and "source-hunting" (Quellenforschung) is perhaps in my [bone] marrow." On page 375 of 'Letters of C.S. Lewis,' the author writes to praise Charles A. Brady for being "the first of my critics so far who has really read and understood all my books," specifically stating "The Quellenforschung is good." Many of Lewis' scholarly books, in particular his 'Allegory of Love,' include facts and guesses on the literary sources informing his favorite authors on nearly every page. It's true that Lewis wrote a cautionary essay called 'Psycho-Analysis and Literary Criticism' on the dangers of mistaking an armchair psychological diagnosis of the author for literary criticism. He was also wearied by quellenforschung done badly, as when a few critics misguidedly assumed The Lord of the Rings had anything to do with the atomic bomb. Neither fact changes the reality that C.S. Lewis held a lifelong fascination with identifying the literary sources for his favorite books.

Casual readers may come away from Downing's book misled into believing that identifying the Narnian books as "mere" allegory, or acknowledging that Lewis loved hunting down the literary sources for his own favorite stories, would somehow diminish his achievement. The reality is almost completely the reverse: his Narnian stories have such profound power to convey a sense of the numinous *because* Lewis was able to identify, distill and revivify the allegorical insights of John Bunyan, Dante, Edmund Spenser, George MacDonald, Boethius and his other literary heroes.
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