One must approach any criticism of Lewis’s style with fear and trembling. In terms of literary grace, he is the master and we are the mere peons. With that said, this book sometimes suffers from organization. He begins with a fascinating suggestion that courtly love poetry was a celebration of adultery. Perhaps it was. From there he moves to a persuasive, if not entirely related, discussion of the fall of the gods. This fall is important, for it allowed later thinkers to speak of a universe that was neither pagan nor ordinary. In any case, the point was not to glorify paganism. The pagan gods were a heuristic device.
Similar to the decline of the old gods, there is a parallel of the movement of mythology to allegory. There is a reverse movement from deity to hypostasis to decoration (Lewis 94). In other words, as he later says, the gods have “died into allegory” (98).
With the rise of allegory, and before the rise of Thomism’s Aristotle, the medievals had to find a place for “Natura.” Rather than an opposition between nature and grace, Lewis notes, “Nature appears, not to be corrected by grace, but as the goddess and vicaria of God, herself correcting the unnatural” (111). Whatever its undeniable explanatory power may have been, Platonism always had a dangerous relationship with paganism.
Lewis has written one of the most important chapters of criticism on The Romance of the Rose. We, however, will not explore it. The Romance is not as familiar to us as it was to Lewis, and we are probably better served by his chapters on Chaucer and Spenser. We speak of the Chaucer of Troilus and not of the Canterbury Tales. This is a magnificent essay, but I am going to disagree with some of Lewis’s main conclusions, which we will see below.
Even though Troilus is a Trojan hero at war with the Greeks, for all practical purposes he is a Christian knight, “a new Launcelot” (220). Chaucer’s readers would have seen London in his description of Troy.
I agree with Lewis that Cryseide is neither very good nor very wicked. I just do not think she was that bad. She was a victim of fortune. Did she betray Troilus? Not really. True, she left him, but that was not her choice. And if Troilus did have a claim on her, he should have married her. If he was too scared to do that, it is hard to see why we should feel sorry for him.
We end with Edmund Spenser, the most underrated, yet easily one of the best poets. Like other critics of Spenser, Lewis notes where Spenser copied the Italians. Unlike these critics, though, Lewis does not fault Spenser for it. The problem is not that the Italians are good and Spenser is mediocre. Rather, they are strong in different ways. The Italians tell a better story, yet Spenser is a deeper and more profound writer.
One of the reasons Spenser is such a great thinker (and this is also one of the reasons people enjoy C. S. Lewis) is his ability to make strange situations seem all too familiar. You are already familiar with “that type of love” or “that type of betrayal.” Indeed, in Lewis’s memorable description, Spenser’s first readers would have been like that “nervous child [who] heard tales of a panel slid back at twilight in a seeming innocent manor house to reveal the pale face and thin, black body of a Jesuit” (388). Speaking of influences, the previous quote suggests, not the Platonic academies, but the rustic country chapel. Spenser’s power is his ability to use “the popular symbols he found ready made to his hand” (390). Lewis rounds this chapter out with a careful discussion of certain motifs in Spenser.
This is not Lewis’s greatest work. Many of his references are unknown even to readers of British literature. Moreover, his thesis is not that clear at times. But for the serious student of Lewis, it is worth reading. Every page or so provides lucid commentary and instruction.