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An Author’s Journey: Epic Fantasy & the Literary Middle Ages (4) Medieval Language & Literature (The Shadow of Tolkien and Lewis, Part 2)

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: C.S. Lewis, "Prince Caspian" (art by Mike Kupka; Disney concept art, 2008)

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: C.S. Lewis, “Prince Caspian” (art by Mike Kupka; Disney concept art, 2008)

An Author’s Journey: Epic Fantasy & the Literary Middle Ages (4) Medieval Language & Literature (The Shadow of Tolkien and Lewis, Part 2)

Good Afternoon, Everybody!

In looking at interplay between epic fantasy and medieval literature, let’s turn from J.R.R. Tolkien to his fellow Inkling, Clive Staples Lewis, the creator of The Chronicles of Narnia and a Professor of Medieval & Renaissance Literature at Oxford & Cambridge back in the 1930s through 1950s.

Chair of Medieval & Renaissance Literature (Cambridge) & Creator of Narnia: C.S. Lewis (1898-1963)

Chair of Medieval & Renaissance Literature (Cambridge) & Creator of Narnia: C.S. Lewis (1898-1963)

C.S. Lewis wandered farther afield than Tolkien did with the Middle Earth master’s mostly Anglo-Saxon interests.  Lewis more broadly appreciated the totality of medieval literature and, in his academic work, he also strayed far into Renaissance studies. Indeed, his books The Discarded Image and The Allegory of Love have long been standards for graduate training in Medieval & Renaissance Literature.

C.S. Lewis, "The Chronicles of Narnia" (Cair Paravel, Concept Art by Vance Kovacs, Disney, 2005)

C.S. Lewis, “The Chronicles of Narnia” (Cair Paravel, Concept Art by Vance Kovacs, Disney, 2005)

With respect to how medieval literature influenced Lewis’s creation of Narnia, here’s a relevant section from the Wikipedia entry (http://The_Chronicles_of_Narnia) that sheds light on the appearance of Celtic & Greco-Roman mythologies on his writings:

C.S. Lewis, "The Voyage of the Dawn Treader" ("Reepicheep's Coracle," Disney, 2010)

C.S. Lewis, “The Voyage of the Dawn Treader” (“Reepicheep’s Coracle,” Disney, 2010)

“Lewis was widely read in medieval Celtic literature, an influence reflected throughout the books, and most strongly in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. The entire book imitates one of the immramaa type of traditional Old Irish tale that combines elements of Christianity and Irish mythology to tell the story of a hero’s sea journey to the Otherworld.  Medieval Ireland also had a tradition of High Kings ruling over lesser kings and queens or princes, as in Narnia. Lewis’ term “Cair,” as in Cair Paravel, also mirrors “Caer,” or “fortress” in the Welsh language.  Reepicheep’s small boat is a coracle, a type of vessel traditionally used in the Celtic regions of the British Isles. Some creatures in the book, such as the one-footed Dufflepuds reflect elements of Greek, Roman, and Medieval mythology while other Narnian creatures are borrowed from Greek or Germanic mythology; for example, centaurs are from the former, dwarfs from the latter… [end quotation]

C.S. Lewis, "The Discarded Image"

C.S. Lewis, “The Discarded Image”

In Lewis’ work, The Discarded Image, he concisely aligned himself with Tolkien in appreciating both the “bookish nature” of the Middle Ages, but, more importantly, the influence he saw stretching from the Late Antiquity through the Renaissance.   Here’s how Aslan’s creator put it in his own words:

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: C.S. Lewis, "The Magician's Nephew" (art by Jonathan Barry)

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: C.S. Lewis, “The Magician’s Nephew” (art by Jonathan Barry)

[from C.S. Lewis, The Discarded Image: An Introduction to Medieval and Renaissance Literature]:
“In Middle English literature, after every necessary allowance has been made for French and Latin influences, the tone and rhythm and the very ‘feel’ of every sentence … is of barbarian descent. Those who ignore the relation of English to Anglo-Saxon as a ‘merely philological fact’ irrelevant to the literature betray a shocking insensibility to the very mode in which literature exists.

“For the student of culture in a narrower sense — that is, of thought, sentiment, and imagination —the barbarian elements may be less important.  Even for him they are doubtless by no means negligible. Fragments of non-classical Paganism survive in Old Norse, Anglo-Saxon, Irish, and Welsh; they are thought by most scholars to underlie a great deal of Arthurian romance. Medieval love-poetry may owe something to barbarian manners. Ballads, till a very late period, may throw up fragments of prehistoric…folklore. But we must see these things in proportion. The Old Norse and Celtic texts were, and remained till modern times, utterly unknown outside a very limited area … “ [end quotation, p. 7]

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: C.S. Lewis, "The Voyage of the Dawn Treader" (concept art by Paul Martin, Disney, 2010)

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: C.S. Lewis, “The Voyage of the Dawn Treader” (concept art by Paul Martin, Disney, 2010)

Obviously, Lewis spent a lifetime studying and teaching Medieval & Renaissance Literature, so his belief in the capacity for ancient texts to stimulate modern imaginations was an active, and daily applied principle.  However, as a fantasist, he also knew that medieval people themselves were beholden to the myths and folklore and literature of their own, 6th-15th century times.  Lewis’s passion can be seen in the following passage, where he points out the assortment of literature from which a student of medieval history (or in our case, an aspiring epic fantasist!) might choose to review the culture of the Middle Ages:

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: "God as Geometrician of World & Universe" (Frontispiece of Bible Moralisee/Gothic/mid-13thc/France/Codex Vindobonensis 2554 (Fr., c. 1250), in Osterreichische Nationalbibliothek/Vienna, Austrian Nat'l Library)

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: “God as Geometrician of World & Universe” (Frontispiece of Bible Moralisee/Gothic/mid-13thc/France/Codex Vindobonensis 2554 (Fr., c. 1250), in Osterreichische Nationalbibliothek/Vienna, Austrian Nat’l Library)

[from C.S. Lewis, The Discarded Image: An Introduction to Medieval and Renaissance Literature]:
“… [for the medieval world-view, there is] the medieval synthesis itself, the whole organization of their theology, science, and history into a single, complex, harmonious mental Model of the Universe. The building of this model is conditioned by two factors … (1) the essentially bookish character of their culture, and (2) the intense love of system.

“[Medieval people] were bookish. They are indeed very credulous of books.  They find it hard to believe that anything an old auctor (“author”) has to say is simply untrue. And they inherit a very heterogeneous collection of books; Judaic, Pagan, Platonic, Aristotelian, Stoical, Primitive Christian, Patristic. Or (by a different classification) chronicles, epic poems, sermons, visions, philosophical treatises, satires … “[end quotation, p. 11]

A.J. here:  To qualify some of Lewis’s statements, and apply those words to the ways in which an epic fantasist might want to look back on the Middle Ages and use literary “realities” as sources for his or her books, I offer just a sampling below of the kinds of medieval literature available to the 21st century reader.  Last time, I discussed Tolkien’s love of Beowulf (thought to be an 8th century work), but what Lewis was getting at in describing a “bookish culture” included everything from monastic records to the florescence of literary works in the 12th to 16th centuries, works which included the following types:

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: St. Thomas Aquinas & Scholastic Thought

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: St. Thomas Aquinas & Scholastic Thought

(1) legal treatises whose influence still reaches to us in modern times; think here of (1) legal reforms of Henry II in England, (2) Gratian’s Decretum that compiled all Church laws through the 12th C., (3) “decretists” such as Huguccio of Pisa, who started to legally consider the relationship between Church and State, and (4) canonist schools rising in Bologna, Paris, and Oxford, which continue legal programs of one form or another through the current day. (When building an epic fantasy universe, some familiarity with concerns of people 800 years ago might add a certain “civic” flavor to your stories that might otherwise be absent when you’re trying to create a believable government or urban environment … )

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: Hildegard of Bingen (Statue, n.d. Abbey Church of St. Hildegard, Rudesheim am Rhein, Germany, 1900–09)

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: Hildegard of Bingen (Statue, n.d. Abbey Church of St. Hildegard, Rudesheim am Rhein, Germany, 1900–09)

(2) Latin literature, whose expression took the form of Goliardic poetry, histories (William of Tyre, Otto of Freising, Orderic Vitalis, Hildegard of Bingen, etc.), and expressions of scholastic thought that sought to reconcile Christianity with Greek philosophy (Peter Abelard, Albert the Great, Thomas Aquinas, Roger Bacon, et al).  Sampling some of these works can be a heady experience — theorizing “how many angels can dance on the head of a pin?” isn’t far from the reality of many medieval theologians, especially when the philosophy came to the question of “universals” or “nominalism,” but, again, an epic fantasy writer will be well-served if she at least realizes that not everybody in a pseudo-medieval situation needs to be the cliché lewd rogue, corrupt priest, or troubled barmaid … surprise, medieval people were actually capable of thinking great thoughts…read them!)

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: The Epics & Sagas (Hey, is that Aslan? Nope, it's the lion from a scene in the medieval work with which Lewis was very familiar, "El Cid," art by John Vernon Lord)

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: The Epics & Sagas (Hey, is that Aslan? Nope, it’s the lion from a scene in the medieval work with which Lewis was very familiar, “El Cid,” art by John Vernon Lord)

(3) Vernacular literature, that includes everything from the pre-1000 A.D. works such as Beowulf & Alfred the Great’s translations (Pastoral Care, Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophyto heroic epics (The Song of Roland, The Song of William, The Cid, The Bruce, etc.), to Scandinavian saga literature (Volsungs, Elder Edda, Prose Edda, etc.), to Germanic lays and sagas (The Niebelungenlied, Saga of Dietrich of Bern, The Tragedy of Horn-Skinned Siegfried), to troubadour lyric poetry (http://Troubadour), to courtly romances that often oriented on the Arthurian legends (Chretien de Troyes Tristan & Isolde, Wolfram von Eschenbach’s Parzival, and Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte D’Arthur).  These works are essential reading if you’re trying to create a magical world that doesn’t duplicate Tolkien and Lewis!  Besides getting a sense of the interactions between genders, social classes, economic hierarchies, & entertainment preferences, the stories are really quite engaging and will stimulate your imagination when you try to create your own worlds…

These are but a few examples of the wealth of literary references and resources an epic fantasist can use when seeking inspiration for writing new stories for a 21st Century audience.  I’ll let Cantor provide a conclusion here, before offering final thoughts next time on how we can emerge from the long shadow cast by the works of Tolkien & Lewis. [note: bold-faced emphases & italics below are mine in the following description of Lewis by Norman F. Cantor]

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: C.S. Lewis, "The Silver Chair" (concept art for Voyage of Dawn Treader, 2010, Disney)

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: C.S. Lewis, “The Silver Chair” (concept art for Voyage of Dawn Treader, 2010, Disney)

Norman F. Cantor, Inventing the Middle Ages

Norman F. Cantor, Inventing the Middle Ages

[from Norman F. Cantor, Inventing the Middle Ages: The Lives, Works, and Ideas of the Great Medievalists of the Twentieth Century]

Medieval Courtly Fantasy + Literary Cosmic Order + Warrior Society = C.S. Lewis, "The Chronicles of Narnia"

Medieval Courtly Fantasy + Literary Cosmic Order + Warrior Society = C.S. Lewis, “The Chronicles of Narnia”

” … [underneath two cultural traditions] of courtly love and the learned structure of cosmic order, lies a third force, the pristine instinctive feeling of a warrior society

“This is the essential Lewis view of medieval literature and art. When he began to propound it, in the mid-1930s, it was very much a vanguard conception.  No one in the English-speaking world had up to then the learning, insight, and courage to attempt such a sophisticated definition of high medieval culture … the world-view in 12th- and early-13th century literature is the product of the romantic courtly tradition interacting with a search for learned order while to some extent perpetuating the underlying instinctive feeling of a warrior society.

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: The Arthurian Tradition ("Perceval, Galahad, & Bors Fulfill Grail Quest, art by Roman Pisarev)

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: The Arthurian Tradition (“Perceval, Galahad, & Bors Fulfill Grail Quest, art by Roman Pisarev)

How does this medieval culture, so defined, relate to us? How does it affect our consciousness? Medieval culture is both different from ours and very much in communication with ours, Lewis believed. In this way there is an ambiguous, tensile, and creative relationship between the medieval heritage of literature and art and our own way of thinking and seeing. [As Lewis himself stated], to read “medieval literature aright you must suspend most of the responses and unlearn most of the habits you have acquired in reading modern literature.”  It is easy enough to perceive that “in every way, if we have not outgrown, we have at least grown away from The Romance of the Rose,” the French masterpiece of the late 13th Century.  On the other hand, [again to quote Lewis] “such a view would be superficial. Humanity does not pass through phases as a train passes through stations. Being alive, it has the privilege of always moving yet never leaving something behind. Whatever we have been, in some sort we are still. Neither the form nor the sentiment of this old poetry has passed away without leaving indelible traces on our mind.”

“So [Cantor continues] here is the second quality of medieval literature, after its tripartite foundations in Romance, Learned Order, and Primitive Instinct: it is both separate from us and highly accessible to us and interactive with our own being.  In the language not of Lewis, but of Freud and Jacques Lucan, it is our Other.” [end of Cantor quotations, pp. 213-214]

Next time: How 21st Century Epic Fantasists Might Emerge from the Cave of Tolkien and Lewis!

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