Literature You Should Know: Lewis’ On Stories and Other Essays

People who think of C. S. Lewis only as the author of The Chronicles of Narnia or as a Christian apologist forget—if they ever knew—that he was a professor of English literature, first at Oxford, then at Cambridge.  As such, he published a sizable number of critical essays and reviews and gave talks and interviews on the 127231b0648bab4aac8c5aacdcdf2741subject.  Twenty of these appear in On Stories and Other Essays on Literature.  Apart from specific reviews of and tributes to authors like J. R. R. Tolkien, H. Rider Haggard, and Dorothy L. Sayers, the collection examines what story is and what makes it work.  It thus contains useful advice for any writer, regardless of religious or political persuasion, especially those who want to write works with any kind of message.

“On Stories” focuses on one of the most overlooked aspects of storytelling:  why one would choose to tell (or read) one particular story and not another.  Among his many examples, Lewis cites the 1937 adaptation of King Solomon’s Mines, in which he felt the screenwriter had ruined the story by replacing the original ending, involving the quiet horror of being trapped in a crypt, with an action-packed volcanic eruption and earthquake.  He concedes that this ending might be more cinematic but argues, “There must be a pleasure in such stories distinct from mere excitement or I should not feel that I had been cheated in being given the earthquake instead of Haggard’s actual scene….  Different kinds of danger strike different chords from the imagination.”  (Paging Peter Jackson!)  By contrast, David Lindsey’s Voyage to Arcturus, which Lewis admits is lacking in style, nevertheless captures a spiritual element that most pulp “scientifiction” of the ’30s and ’40s missed.  “On Science Fiction” similarly criticizes stories that are sci-fi only because they’re set in the future or in space but would otherwise fall into conventional genres like romance or thriller.  Rather, Lewis argues, the futuristic setting “is a legitimate ‘machine’ if it enables the author to develop a story of real value which could not have been told (or not so economically) in any other way.”

CS Lewis
CS Lewis

The danger, as Lewis sees it in “On Stories,” is that the plot of any given story is a sequential series of events that has to serve as a net in which to catch some wholly non-sequential idea, and it’s very easy for the author to miss the target.  Yet sometimes a given plot or genre is the only net that can catch a given idea.  Lewis explores this point in more detail in “On Three Ways of Writing for Children” and “Sometimes Fairy Stories May Say Best What’s to Be Said,” both of which cite Tolkien’s “On Fairy-Stories.”  In “Sometimes,” drawing on Tasso, Lewis posits a distinction between two writing impulses, one arising from the author as author and one from the author as human or citizen.  The Author cares only about the story material, which carries with it implications about form.  The Man, however, is concerned about everything else, including the story’s message.  Only when the two work together can a good story result.  Here Lewis cites his experience in writing the Narnia books, which began with pictures that coalesced into a story that needed the form of a fairy tale.  Only after the Author had gotten that far did the Man assert himself by looking at the potential for fantasy to present a moral message in ways the audience would accept.  Had he tried to reverse the process and start with the moral, he would have failed.

“On Three Ways” contrasts this method, in which a fantasy for children was the only form the story could take, with an approach that views children as a generic target audience who all like the same juvenile things.  Not only is the latter method condescending, its proponents are usually wrong about what kids like, and “a children’s story which is enjoyed only by children is a bad children’s story.”  Finally, to the argument that fairy tales are too scary, Lewis answers, “Since it is so likely that [children] will meet cruel enemies, let them at least have heard of brave knights and heroic courage….  Let there be wicked kings and beheadings, battles and dungeons, giants and dragons, and let the villains be soundly killed at the end of the book”—sound advice even when writing for adults!

Elisabeth G. Wolfe

Elisabeth G. Wolfe, from Llano, Texas, is an alumna of the 2012 Taliesin Nexus Filmmakers Workshop. She is also a freelance translator and editor, indie historical fiction novelist, and adjunct professor of English at the Baptist College of Florida.