Non-Fiction Reviews

Reading C. S. Lewis: A Commentary

(2016) Wesley A. Kort, Oxford University Press, £17.99 / US$29.95, 299pp, ISBN 978-0-190-22134-8


As a collected set of commentaries on C. S. Lewis’ work.  Wesley A. Kort, Professor Emeritus of Religion at Duke University, organises his writing into three broad categories – 1) religious commentaries, including the Screwtape Letters, 2) the Cosmic Trilogy and thoughts drawn from this and finally 3) Narnia with the same.

In this book, Kort looks to collect and explain Lewis’ thoughts throughout this selection of key texts.  The predominance of formative thinking on religious and philosophical matters are covered in the opening section, laying the ground for the later critiques and establishing the context for Lewis’ opinions, including the occasional private dichotomy.

This kind of study is essential for a modern reader looking to explore Lewis’ work.  Our experience of his writing is often limited or coloured by our experience of Narnia. Kort’s collection of explanations are a strong primer and guide towards what to seek out and expect when delving beyond Narnia, to Screwtape or the Cosmics, or the philosophical and theological writings.  Whereas other guides have perhaps needed to front load the populist analysis so as to justify the others, there is no need of that here.  Kort’s writing is accessible and clear, with a mixture of historical context, interpretation and discussion of views.

Whilst another Lewis scholar might suggest other texts to be covered or offer some contradictory views, there is no shrinking of conclusions from Kort.  His writing offers plain and informed analysis, building on clear themes from Lewis and delivering concise explanations of the points that are being made.  In some senses these contradict with the modern interpretations of the subjects Lewis tries to cover, particularly when making scholastic conclusions on matters such as joy and pain, looking to examine and define these terms in a context applied to religion.  In a way, Kort’s analysis becomes a guide and framework for a literary traveller, looking to explore more of Lewis’ work, providing explanations where the original sources might not be as clear in their intention.

When we move into the fiction texts, the critiques become much more applied and the reader needs to be familiar with the works specified. That said, this is less of an issue as there is a clear appeal and applicability to each, identified by Kort and reinforced through the commentary.  This is particularly true of his 'Cosmic Trilogy', which occupies a strange middle ground in its method of address compared to what we would define today as primarily science fiction or fantasy.  Lewis’ message, utopianism and science are all somewhat dated now, but draw from the Burroughs tradition and mix in the kind of world creation that attracted readers to Narnia.

The Screwtape Letters should also be mentioned here. As a text, this is arguably Lewis’ best, with a multitude of messages intertwined within his ideas and stands the test of time a little better that others might.  Kort’s analysis of this is detailed, but specifically theological, whereas a contemporary secular approach might find more of interest.

The volume concludes with a study of Narnia, specifically looking at beginnings and endings (The Magician’s Nephew and the Last Battle).  A modern reader is more likely to have read these in chronological order, but Kort makes the point that the timeline was of less importance to Lewis than establishing the Genesis and Armageddon of his allegory.  There is significant insight here that reveals much about the stories, but Kort does not reserve enough time to explore his two identified ‘problems’, the treatment of Susan and the depiction of the Calamorenes. Kort highlights these issues and their complexity, but refrains from adopting a standpoint, beyond acknowledging how both undermine much of the moral message Lewis has attempted to convey in his work.  Rather than leave these to the last pages of one commentary, they would have been best addressed at the beginning of a critique and tackled head on as they form a troubling frame around Lewis’ legacy when viewed from the 21st century.

These comparatively minor caveats aside, Reading C. S. Lewis is an excellent primer for those looking to learn more about the author’s writing and find insight in the stories they have read.

Allen Stroud

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