April 9th, 2015
C. S. Lewis saw language as a defining characteristic of what it means to be made in the image of God.
We possess the gift of speech from a verbal Creator—the God of the Bible speaks, and his speech is itself an expression of His creative power. Indeed, just as the Biblical God speaks the universe into being, Lewis depicts Aslan, the Creator King in Narnia, as one who sings it into existence.
Possessing the power of speech ourselves, we languaging creatures, made in God’s image, are both sentient and social, we are aware of self and other selves, and thereby capable of extending and maintaining fellowship not only with fellow creatures, but also with a Transcendent, Infinite Being who is yet also a Person. A man or woman is never more like God than when he or she is “doing things with words.”
In his important essay “Christianity and Literature,” (Christian Reflections, pp. 1-11), Lewis offers one of his most endearing tributes to the person of Christ, portraying the Eternal Logos, as depicted in the Gospel of John, as an apprentice to his Father in Heaven. He “who does only what He sees His Father doing,” is a wordsmith as much as a carpenter, crafting words of life and redemption to a fallen world desperate for good news.
Language thematically often plays a key role in defining the plot and refining the characterization in much of Lewis’s fiction. For instance, Ransom, his philologist protagonist in the Space Trilogy, discovers much of what it means to be human—and, by contrast, inhuman—in his exploration of the language and contrasting roles and means of communication among sorns, hrossa, and pfifltriggi on Malacandra.
While on Perelandra, Ransom discovers to his horror the limitations of words and the end of mere reason when he reluctantly obeys the command to kill the Unman with an act of physical courage. Words only sometimes cannot do the work of God; action beyond words is necessary. Finally, in the climactic scene on Earth in That Hideous Strength, Belbury disintegrates into a Babel of violence, as language ceases to “mean,” and cacophonous evil is conquered in a reversal of Pentecost.
In his literary scholarship, Lewis is himself an accomplished philologist and linguist, an astute chronicler of words, ideas, and meanings and their impact on texts and culture over time—something he learned a great deal about from his friend, Own Barifled. Much of his literary history demonstrates his mastery of denotation and more importantly, connotation and cultural context, in understanding poetry and prose.
Scattered over his books and essays are incisive reflections on the nature of language and its role in equipping reason for objective inquiry into the nature of things and fueling the imagination for the apprehension of moral and eternal truth. Studies in Words, published in 1960, represents Lewis’s most sustained treatment of language from a metaphysical point of view, offering elaborated histories of key words and concepts–epoch-making ideas such as “nature,” “free,” “world”—in western civilization.
The truth is, Lewis was always and everywhere pointing his readers to a conception of language that upheld its heuristic and epistemic functions, that is, its utter suitability in enabling mere human beings to observe, discover, and express both mundane and profound truth in tolerably accurate and ultimately reliable ways.
Lewis was a lifelong anti-positivist, opposing the notion that there could be a neutral, “scientific” way of speaking that avoided metaphor or “poetic diction.” Under the influence of his friend and linguistic mentor, Barfield, Lewis saw language as “incurably” metaphorical, inevitably and simultaneously referring hearers/readers to complex but fathomable relationships among items, persons, concepts, and cognition.
“Meaning-making” seem to take place on one basic plane of existence that we tongue-in-check and assuredly advisedly call “literal,” but language is really always pointing us backwards and forwards in time to ever deeper, resonating layers of meaning and significance that lay beyond any single soul, lifetime, or civilization. Our speech betrays our fallenness, yet also provides a bridge to the future that can lead to our redemption.
In particular, as a cultural critic, Lewis was acutely aware of the necessity of defending language as an adedquate tool to allow human beings to see and not just “see through” this world. In The Abolition of Man he takes great pains in to analyze the pseudo-positivism and incipient deconstuctionism of “the Green Book,” an elementary composition textbook that implicitly denied humans could utter predicates of value.
Here, as elsewhere, Lewis thus understood “rhetoric” in its traditional classical and medieval sense—a compendium of verbal tools that assisted and equipped an artist or essayist with strategies to communicate truth more memorably, to express difficult ideas more accessibly, and, ultimately, especially for the would-be apologist, to make the claims of Christ unavoidable.
Our continued affection for and the extended appeal of C. S. Lewis more than 52 years after his death, now half past the second decade of the supposedly post-postmodern 21st Century, suggests to me two things about him and his work that may seem patently obvious. Except for the fact that so few people have […]
John 11:11-16 Dr. Bruce L. Edwards Sunday, March 29, 2015 Puddleglum on Palm Sunday It’s Palm Sunday, and we want to be respectful of the church calendar and its momentum towards Easter, so our meditation today tries to locate us pretty close to that Palm-sheathed path for His triumphal entry into Jerusalem. If it doesn’t […]
A book few readers of C. S. Lewis will ever voluntarily pick up has the unwieldy, even forbidding title, An Experiment in Criticism. The title conceals more than it reveals. An experiment in what? And criticism of whom? The title doesn’t tell. It’s the classic book that you need to know what it’s about before […]
by Dr. Bruce L. Edwards If C. S. Lewis were present today, where I live in Willow, AK, he would be celebrating his 116th birthday, and probably would be up for a brisk walk on this Arctic tundra that is home to many of his readers and admirers, even in this village of less than 2000—as long as it […]
I am pleased to announce four new seminars are available for scheduling in 2015-16: Reading the Bible With C. S. Lewis Four Lively Friday-Saturday sessions cover these topics: The Authority of Scripture and the Ancient Tradition How Lewis Makes the Word Flesh and Fresh How Lewis Counseled with Scripture How Scripture Informs Lewis’s Work and […]
By Megan Robinson, CSLewis Review, Associate Editor “It was when I was happiest that I longed most. It was on happy days when we were up there on the hills, the three of us, with the wind and the sunshine…where you couldn’t see Glome or the palace. Do you remember? The colour and the smell, […]
The Center for the Study of C. S. Lewis and Friends Announces The 9th Francis White Ewbank Colloquium May 29 – June 1, 2014 Taylor University Upland, Indiana REGISTRATION DETAILS HERE. Frances White Ewbank Colloquium May 29-June 1, 2014 KEYNOTE SPEAKERS Thursday, May 29 7:30-8:30 KEYNOTE ADDRESS: Michael Ward: “Silent Witness: The Horse and His […]
Rebecca Au Rebecca Au is a twenty-year-old studying Media, Culture, and the Arts at The King’s College in New York City. She is a question-asker, letter-writer, and joy-seeker who straightens crooked punctuation in her spare time. rebeccasau.tumblr.com “Those forms in which everything is there for the sake of the story have been given little serious […]
by Dr. Bruce L. Edwards Professor Emeritus, English and Africana Studies Bowling Green State University Note: this was first published when the movie debuted more than 22 years ago. My views here recorded have not mellowed over time. Shadowlands, a movie (very) loosely based on the life of C. S. Lewis and his marriage to […]
By Bruce Edwards Today we celebrate the life of Clive Staples Lewis on the 50th anniversary of his death on November 22, 1963. His induction today into Westminster Abbey’s Poets’ Corner provides Professor Lewis with greater honor and attention than he could have ever imagined in his lifetime. How did he get here? How did […]
On November 17th and 19th, Alaska residents will have the opportunity to hear Dr. Bruce L. Edwards, an internationally known C. S. Lewis scholar and presenter, speak on the commemoration of the 50th anniversary of C. S. Lewis’s passing. In two lectures planned for two different venues, Edwards will deliver two slightly different presentations but […]
Hear a discussion of Narnia scholars about their hopes and concerns about the recent announcement that the fourth Narnian movie would be made, based upon The Silver Chair. Here’s host and producer, William O’Flaherty, click here: The Silver Chair discussion, Part 1.