Allow me to start by pointing out that C.S. Lewis is, by far, my favorite author. That being said, I am a little biased when it comes to reviewing his books. Most people know him for The Chronicles of Narnia or his space trilogy. Even those who are more familiar with his work think of The Great Divorce, Screwtape Letters, and Mere Christianity. However, Lewis was a fellow of the Medieval and Renaissance Literature program at Magdalen College at Oxford University, so his expertise allowed him to critique this era of writing. The Discarded Image is just such a critique.
While a much higher reading level than his more popular books, The Discarded Image provides an in-depth examination of how modern readers perceive medieval literature versus what it accomplished for the readers of the day. I admit this book is only of interest to those of us who study literature, but it is absolutely necessary for whoever picks up Milton or Chaucer for a rainy day read. For those who prefer a more recent work, this book could only help the way you critique literature. If, however, you fall into neither of these categories, you may want to pass this book by.
Lewis delves into several characteristics of medieval writing in an attempt to put the twentieth century reader in the shoes of a reader from the sixteenth. By commenting on the lifestyle and thinking of the day as it relates to the authors, Lewis opens the door to understanding what we may see as difficult to understand. One example is Lewis’ examination of the way people see the world. He puts forth the argument that those in the middle ages were not as ignorant as we may perceive. Lewis proposes that more people thought the world was round than we give them credit. Using this argument, he presents his reader with the idea that the medieval reader would be able to comprehend the earth and heavens in a more scientifically advanced manner while looking to literature of the day to feed their imaginations.
Much like modern literature, Lewis highlights that medieval literature not only builds on, but takes from, literature of previous eras. Therefore, as Dickens builds on Chaucer, Chaucer builds on Homer. In the way that a reader would get more out of Tennessee Williams by reading Shakespeare, the same reader could receive a fuller experience from Shakespeare by reading Sophocles. This idea confirms the argument that, when it comes to literature, context is king. Without context, the reader is unable to squeeze all the marrow out of a work. Context also enables the reader to make connections to other works and see a deeper meaning in all works involved. Lewis brings this idea to the forefront throughout The Discarded Image.
The middle ages have long been known as The Dark Ages, but Lewis presents the argument that both reader and author alike were people of creativity and intelligence. Through examination of the physical and cultural context of the texts, Lewis offers his reader a peek into what the time period might have been like as well as the significance of literature to the masses. This work challenges you to look at literature from the medieval time period as significant, not only to the initial readers, but also to those reading it four centuries later.