Recently, I discussed how in The Discarded Image, C.S. Lewis elaborates on how Medieval cosmology exerted a profound creative influence on Medieval and Renaissance literature. Lewis worried that the creative aesthetic spark of this worldview had been lost in a utilitarian modern culture. It should not be a surprise that Lewis would incorporate elements of the Medieval worldview, which was both his academic specialty and passion, into his fantasy novels. Yet as Michael Ward points out in his book Planet Narnia, this aspect of Lewis’s work went unnoticed for decades and is only now beginning to be explored.
In preparation for a class assignment I recently had a chance to revisit The Discarded Image, one of my favorite books by C.S. Lewis. Different in tone and substance from much of his other writings, it is a series of lectures on the Medieval worldview drawn from his lectures on Medieval and Renaissance Literature at Oxford University.
One of my primary interests in the book is the aesthetic beauty of an outmoded view of creation, the “discarded image” of the title. Lewis’s description of the geocentric model is a stunning tour-de-force which invites the reader to truly understand how people viewed the world in a bygone culture. Drawn from classical sources such as Aristotle and Ptolemy, and passed on by early Medievals such as Lucan and particularly Boetheus, the model was appropriated by the Christian church, grafted into Biblical interpretation, and served as a foundational cosmology for nearly a millenium. Most literate adults are most familiar with a version of this model from Dante, but Lewis presents a portait that encompasses a vast swath of literature and poetry. This view of the universe did not only influence the imagination of the past, but has continued to provide influence for composers (such as Orff’s Carmina Burana) and writers such as Tolkein, Lewis’s own Narnia series, and even arguably for more recent fantasy writers such as Rowling. It is a universe filled with light, intelligence, and love. It is one of the most detailed, rational, and internally coherent cosmologies ever constructed.
And of course, it was wrong.