The Discarded Image: An Introduction to Medieval and Renaissance Literature, by C. S. Lewis

I don’t have much science to talk about; it looks like I may have finally cured myself of writing about the stupidities of the denialists and arguing with idiots. So, instead:

Way back in November last year I went to a talk by Hulme on “In what ways is religious belief relevant for understanding climate change?” in the course of which he made a side-note to The Discarded Image by C S Lewis; and I said it may well have been worth going to the lecture just to have that drawn to my attention. I put it on my Christmas list, and have now read it. I recommend it, if you like such things. Though it is by no means easy; and despite being well written portions are dry. Large portions of it are available on google books. My copy was remaindered from the library of King Edward’s School, Bath. According to the sheet it was only borrowed once, in 1983; which is a sad fate for such a book (mine is a first edition, from 1964. But its been reprinted many times since then; in the google version last in 2002, twice). However I suspect it doesn’t really belong in a school library.

It purports to be an introduction to medieval and renaissance literature; as Lewis says in the intro, its from a lecture series he gave at Oxford offering help in the hard places of the literature, and in particular to those places that may perhaps look deceptively easy. I am, of course, no student of this literature; the closest I come is having done the General Prologue to the Canterbury Tales for O level:

Whan that Aprill, with his shoures soote
The droghte of March hath perced to the roote
And bathed every veyne in swich licour,
Of which vertu engendred is the flour;
Whan Zephirus eek with his sweete breeth
Inspired hath in every holt and heeth
The tendre croppes, and the yonge sonne
Hath in the Ram his halfe cours yronne,
And smale foweles maken melodye,
That slepen al the nyght with open eye-
(So priketh hem Nature in hir corages);
Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages
And palmeres for to seken straunge strondes
To ferne halwes, kowthe in sondry londes;
And specially from every shires ende
Of Engelond, to Caunterbury they wende,
The hooly blisful martir for to seke
That hem hath holpen, whan that they were seeke.

If you didn’t like that, don’t bother with the book; not that they’re particularly similar.

What the book is actually about is the Medieval Model of the world. I was particularly interested in the astronomical aspects of it, but I think that Lewis isn’t, particularly. Certainly there’s far more in there than that. Let me try and fail to give you a flavour:

Chapter 3, “Selected materials: the classical period”; section A, The “Somnium Scipionis”

Plato’s Republic, as everyone knows1, ends with an account of the after-life, put into the mouth of one Er the Armenian who had returned from the dead. When Cicero, somewhere about 50 B.C., wrote his own Republic, not to be outdone, he ended with a similar vision. Scipio Africanus Minor…

tells us about a dream of his (adoptive) grandfather, Scipio Africanus Major, who carries him up to a high point: in fact, the highest celestial sphere. And this is a prototype for Dante, Chaucer (Hous of Fame) and so on. And then proceeds to tell him of the place reserved in heaven for worthy statesmen. This “intractable” (Lewis’s word; its intractable because on these criteria neither pagan nor Christian saints get in) material needed to be, and later was, synthesised into the Model. Side note: Scipio asks his spirit guide why he should not suicide and take up his happy place immeadiately; he is told it is forbidden; he is a solder, in garrison, and may not desert his post. Lewis speculates, but with sources and commentary, that this may be part of the origin of the (Christian) prohibition.

There is much more; I can’t hope to cover it, nor say it any better than Lewis. Lets move on to the end,

The Influence of the Model

Lewis begins the end by noting the vast amount of solid instruction that texts of the period carry; either form Introductions, Digressions, or Catalogues. He discards mere pedantry as a reason; though he notes that Rhetoric encouraged such padding, but it didn’t say what the padding should be (and he points out that the visual arts do the same, which cannot be so explained). His suggestion is that the padding is there because both authors and readers liked it. They liked to be told things they already knew.

Poets and other artists depicted these things because their minds loved to dwell on them. Other ages have not had a Model so universally accepted as theirs, so imaginable, and so satisfying to the imagination… the man of genius found himself in a situation very different from that of his modern successor. Such a man today often, perhaps usually, feel himself confronted with a reality whose significance he cannot know… [it is for him] to discover a meaning… But the Model universe of our ancestors had a built-in significance… explain some characteristics of medieval literature… both its most typical vice and its most typical virtue. The typical vice, as we all know, is dulness: sheer, unabashed, prolonged dulness… The writer feels everything to be so interesting in itself that there is no need for him to make it so.

The virtue, in case you were wondering, is lack of strain; limpid clarity; complete confidence in the material. Unlike, say, Keats, where the effort is obvious. He also pulls out the attitude to originality: most of it isn’t, its touching-up of earlier works (Chaucer; Malory). When originality is present, it is hidden.

I doubt if they would have understood our demand for originality… If you had asked Lazamon or Chaucer “Why do you not make up a brand-new story of your own?” I think they might have replied (in effect) “Surely we are not yet reduced to that?” Spin something of one’s own head when the world teems with so many noble deeds, wholesome examples, pitiful tragedies, strange adventures, and merry jests which have never yet been set forth quite so wewll as they deserve?

An attitude that could worthily be applied to the vast outpourings of modern rubbish.

In the epilogue he notes that the Model had a serious defect: it was not true. However, he says this in somewhat the way that denialists say “of course I accept climate change; climate has always been changing” – see, I never really leave topic. In his case, he rapidly switches to the idea that modern science regards its view of the world as a model; and we don’t and perhaps never will have a fundamental description of the world (or so we assume; QM and GR aren’t compatible and everyone expects a fusion, somehow, of the two to emerge. But its possible that one or the other is essentially true within its own domain; my vote is for GR). However, I don’t think this is a particularly helpful way to end the book; its distracting and defensive.

My wife, who just read this, says it doesn’t give much of a feel for the book. That’s true. The book is trying to give you a feel for something quite foreign to the modern mind, and so the book itself is similarly hard to grasp. The best I can do, perhaps, it to compare it to Lebesgue Integration: a topic I used to be able to hold in my head, but only for a few weeks at a time, after which it would slip out again. A curious feeling, if I recall correctly; of course since university it hasn’t been in my head at the required level of detail at all.


1. I suspect this is being a joke. Certainly, by the time I got to the end of the Republic I’d pretty well given up on finding material of interest and was skipping sections. Whether Lewis is referring to people;s habit of doing so, or is serious, or is simply joking that few have actually read the Republic2, I don’t know.

2. The first time I read a reference to the Republic was in the work of that noted philosopher, R. A. Heinlein: Starship Troopers. Where it is referred to as proposing “ant-like communism“. This is one of the few instances where RAH’s right-wing philosophy is, if not literally correct, nonetheless spot on. For my own benefit: me, from 2004 (grep “Popper”) and 2012.

8 thoughts on “The Discarded Image: An Introduction to Medieval and Renaissance Literature, by C. S. Lewis”

  1. I have a paperback edition on my shelf (next to “ABC of Reading”). It led me to borrow his Master’s thesis (title not in active memory) from the Houston public library.


  2. I’ve wondeed about medieval cosmology myself – did they really believe in the literal locations of heaven and hell adopted by Dante? Somebody once told me that was all metaphorical but I’ve never been quite sure…

    [I think that depends on exactly who you’re talking about, the peasant on the street or the philosopher in the tower. If you believe Lewis (and remember he’s speaking more of literature than of astronomy) then yes, they “believed” much of it. There’s a quote in there: “it is said that Dante was pointed out in the street, not as the man who wrote the comedy, but as the man who had been to Hell” -W]


  3. Robert Heinlein a philosopher? Surely you jest. Don’t get me wrong I think Heinlein was an excellent writer. But after reading “A Stranger in a Strange Land” and “Starship Troopers” I decided Heinlein was have a quiet joke on us all.

    PS Frank Herbert, now there’s a “philosopher” for you 🙂

    [“Philosopher” was certainly in jest. But RAH wasn’t, I think: he took his right-wingery very seriously -W]


  4. On Heinlein – he probably took things he said seriously, but he also didn’t settle into just one political philosophy – David Brin had a nice discussion just last month:

    [Hmm. Not quite sure what to make of that. RAH’s politics always seemed quite coherent to me, though I haven’t read any of his stuff for years, and I can’t recall ever reading his BTH -W]


  5. “Stranger in a Strange Land” was considered a hippy-book by some. And then there was also Heinlein’s gender-bending – a hard author to pin down. And he was a keen cat lover!


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