Book Review: The Discarded Image: An Introduction to Medieval and Renaissance Literature by C. S. Lewis (Five Stars)
In every period the Model of the Universe which is accepted by the great thinkers helps to provide what we may call a backcloth for the arts. But this backcloth is highly selective.
An excellent work from C. S. Lewis’s day job. A must read for students of history as well as literature. Takes the reader into the worldview of literate people of that era. Not only what they read, but how they viewed reality. Some surprises.
Medieval art was deficient in perspective, and poetry followed suit. Nature, for Chaucer, is all foreground; we never get a landscape.
Much more accessible than other scholarly books of the same genre, yet fascinating insights to a time and place so different from our own that it might as well be science-fiction or fantasy. Make no mistake, this is not easy reading. It is the survey work of the impact of the Medieval model of reality on the literature of the period, not of the model nor of the literature.
One gets the impression that medieval people, like Professor Tolkien’s Hobbits, enjoyed books which told them what they already knew.
Modern authors should review this work before presuming to write period pieces of this era. Many of their stories involve modern characters set in the Middle Ages. The reader is jarred by the anachronism, even though he or she may not realize why. Granted, most Medieval fantasy tells as much about the author’s modern attitudes as their ignorance of the Middle Ages.
With this attitude goes the characteristically medieval type of imagination. It is not a transforming imagination like Wordsworth’s or a penetrative imagination like Shakespeare’s. It is a realising imagination.
Upon third reading: Every time I re-read this book my opinion of it and its author rises.
Upon fourth reading: Just because the Medieval model was wrong should not prevent us from learning from it. And that we should understand that our modern model is also in constant revision and correction. A factor, in both cases, is that the model influences the posing of questions as much as it provides answers. “Each is a serious attempt to get in all the phenomena known at a given period, and each succeeds in getting in a great many. But also, no less surely, each reflects the prevalent psychology of an age almost as much as it reflects the state of that age’s knowledge.”