Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 913:
C.S. LEWIS AND TOLKIEN

by John H. Lienhard

Click here for audio of Episode 913.

Today, an Oxford don gives us a powerful lesson in good teaching. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

Two great medievalists taught at Oxford in the '30s and '40s -- their work defined our view of the Middle Ages. Their friendship was strong but flawed by competitive combat. Both wrote science fiction and fantasy on the side and used it to express strongly-held Christian beliefs. They were Ronald Tolkien and C.S. Lewis. Norman Cantor tells us that Tolkien and Lewis were

good for each other. They emboldened, criticized, and reinforced each other. They [legitimized] each other's careers in which, while conscientiously teaching, they took time from their scholarly work to transmute medieval learning into [mythical and poetic] fiction for a mass audience.
The shy Tolkien withdrew more and more into writing his masterwork, The Lord of the Rings. Future readers may well decide that he made the greater literary contribution.

But the writings of the affable, outgoing Lewis -- his Chronicles of Narnia and Screwtape Letters -- touched a generation of postwar readers. We forget Lewis's greatness in interpreting medieval history against his legacy as a popular writer.

In a world demoralized by the horrors of WW-II, Lewis summoned up the three cultural forces that'd energized Medieval Europe. He offered us those forces as transforming agents in our own lives. They were the Romantic idea of courtly love, the force of ordered and systematic learning, and combat -- but combat restrained by the other two forces.

The Medieval mind liked to be specific. In Cantor's words, It liked the close-up shot, the humanizing details of life. The Medieval imagination liked to move toward outcomes. It led, not to science, but to the invention of real things -- cathedrals, eyeglasses, clocks, and the printing press. It also led to the creation of systems -- law, commerce, theology.

C.S. Lewis used his knowledge of the Medieval world to tell us we can fullfil ourselves when we tap into those three forces: systematic learning, mental fight, and finally the transforming power of courtly love -- love leavened by restraint.

Both Tolkien and Lewis insulated themselves from the specific world around them. Of the two, it was Lewis who finally learned to hear his own words. At 57 he'd touched the world more powerfully than he'd let the world touch him. Then he let his theoretical belief in courtly love become specific. He married his Lady Dulcinea, the feisty and combative Joy Davidman. When she died of cancer, he put that love to the care of her two sons.

Any good teaching needs a dimension of good theatre. C.S. Lewis was a superb teacher because, in the end, he found ways to dramatize his immense knowledge. He let his learning come down off the mountain -- and he let it touch life at every point.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)


Cantor, N.F., Inventing the Middle Ages. New York: Quill, William Morrow, 1991, Chapter Six, The Oxford Fantasists.

I have made no references to the play Shadowlands or to either of two motion pictures based upon it. It gives a pretty accurate account of C.S. "Jack" Lewis's later life and his marriage to Joy Davidman. At the same time it says little about his distinguished work in Medieval history.


The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H. Lienhard.

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