Critical acclaim and popular interest has always accompanied the works of C.S. Lewis and his good friend, J.R.R. Tolkien, even from their first publications in the 1930’s and 1940’s. During the latter half of the century, interest ebbed and flowed, but the current flow, which has been roughly the past twenty years, has been a period of unprecedented interest resulting in an exponential jump in the publication of commentaries, guides and scholarly studies on the works of these men, particularly The Chronicles of Narnia and The Lord of the Rings. The film industry has even jumped on the bandwagon. The motives of those who have benefitted from this renewed interest in Lewis and Tolkien (including myself) are, undoubtedly, mixed. Clearly, those with the purest motives will write from a position of sympathy with the views, concerns and values of Lewis and Tolkien themselves, will demonstrate both a thorough understanding of their works, and show genuine excitement about the beauty and timeless relevance of those works. There can be little doubt that Louis Markos is just such a writer.
In the Preface to Restoring Beauty, Professor Markos (who teaches English at Houston Baptist University) explains his reasons for focusing attention on the aesthetic and ethical dimensions of Lewis’s works: “More and more in our modern and postmodern culture these two concepts (beauty and truth) have been separated both from each other and from their individual connection to a divine source of Beauty and Truth: a separation that is perhaps most evident in the twin realms of education and the arts.” (p. 1) Markos makes a strong case for the direness of this cultural pass we have come to, and this book is his attempt to “construct a countervision to the prevailing mood of ugliness and relativism that has so gripped our culture.” (p. 2) This countervision, however, is not drawn primarily from his own mind, but from the rich mind of C.S. Lewis. Although Markos uses the term “culture” here as a sociologist might, in reference to “modern and postmodern” thought, he clearly thinks of it as a decline from a more humane and a more reasonable philosophy of life—a philosophy that is rooted in the Christian scriptures, as well as the writings of Plato, and reflected in the greatest works of literature and drama. In that sense, modern and postmodern “culture” is not a culture, for it has lost (or is in the process of losing) its moral and aesthetic bearings. Thus, as Markos ably and consistently reminds us, at the center of Lewis’s critique of modernity—and Markos’s correlative critique of postmodernity—is the undermining and gradual erosion of our belief in transcendent, universal, objectively certain standards (or ideals) of goodness, truth, and beauty. It is not easy to pinpoint the beginnings of this gradually progressing erosion, but Markos, following Lewis’s lead, argues that the origins of the decline are found (ironically enough) in the Enlightenment period, when humanism became secularized: when the faith of many, starting with the philosophers of the time, was subtly shifted from a transcendent God (or gods) to the immanent powers of Man’s Reason. From this initial shift, as subtle and seemingly justified as it was, modern culture has steadily been sliding down the slippery slope of relativism with respect to ethical and aesthetic values. Ultimately, ethical and aesthetic relativism reduces to nihilism.
The onus of Markos’s book, however, is not to reiterate this critique, but to point us toward the way back to Culture: the restoration of our love for the ideals beauty, goodness and truth. In this task he wisely looks to Lewis as a guide and an exemplar. Accordingly, Markos divides his book into two main sections, with each of these sections further subdivided into two, making a total of four sections. In the first two sections Markos looks primarily to Lewis’s fictional works as a touchstone for restoring our appreciation of beauty, since that is (or at least ought to be) one of the functions of art. The second half of the book aims for a restoration of our felt need for truth (in the moral realm), and here Markos looks primarily at Lewis’s non-fictional works—The Abolition of Man being the main source for the discussion in Part III of the book (“Men Without Chests”), and Lewis’s works on literary criticism being the primary sources for the discussion in Part IV (“Aslan in the Academy”).
Reading through the first part of the book, it becomes clear that Markos has a particular love for The Chronicles of Narnia, and he is at his best when he applies his skills as a literary critic to these books, showing the dramatic structures, archetypes and images that the Narnian stories follow and share with Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, Dante’s Divine Comedy, Plato’s Republic, Milton’s Paradise Lost, Orwell’s 1984 and, of course, the Bible. Part II of the book (“Good Guys and Bad Guys,” which focuses mainly on the Chronicles) is especially helpful in this regard, perhaps because Markos writes this section of the book more specifically directed towards parents who wish to intentionally draw lessons for their children from the Narnia stories. Markos also gives an excellent rationale for reading the Chronicles in their original published order (the order in which Lewis wrote them) rather than the chronological order (of Narnian history) that recent publishers have followed (pp. 73-74). The bulk of Part I of the book (“Restoring Beauty”) is also focused on the Chronicles, but Markos here brings in themes from Lewis’s other fictional works—the space trilogy and Till We Have Faces—that evoke in his readers a love and longing for the beauties of Hierarchy (Out of the Silent Planet and Perelandra), the Normal (That Hideous Strength) and Beauty itself (Till We Have Faces). Because these novels are more subtle and complex—both in plot an in terms of their characters—Markos’s treatment of them seems a bit thin compared to his discussion of the Narnian stories. One could wish, for example, for a separate chapter discussing the more specific aspect of beauty shown to us in Perelandra—the beauty of obedience, perhaps; or of purity.
The most troubling section of Part I is in the opening chapter where Markos uses the movie Shrek to illustrate what he calls the “Cult of the Ugly.” Towards the middle of the chapter he draws the distinction “between movies and TV shows that portray ugliness as a thing to be transformed, redeemed or endured for the sake of a higher purpose and those that simply offer us ugliness as an end in itself, that hold it up to our noses that we might inhale deeply and accept its universality and triumph.” (pp. 9-10) The latter would be the characteristic of “The Cult of the Ugly,” but it is not at all certain that this is the proper way to understand Shrek. Markos recognizes that the film is a parody of many well known fairy tales, yet he favorably cites Eric Metaxas’ review of the film, asking the rhetorical question, “Are beauty and nobility and innocence such medieval concepts that fairy tales themselves cannot portray them positively? Must not only Shrek remain ugly, but Fiona become forever so?” (p. 8) Clearly, it is a mistake to see Shrek as a fairy tale—it cannot be that and, at the same time, a parody of the same. Furthermore, it is often the function of a parody to refocus our attention on the meaning and true value of the original (that which it is a parody of) by the contrasting absurdities that the parody presents. Moreover, even if one were to take Shrek as a fairy tale, it’s not as bad as Metaxas and Markos suppose it to be, for Shrek and Fiona turn out to be rather more decent than any of the other characters, and they find happiness in the union of their kind. Later in this section Markos realizes that, even in the land of faery, physical beauty is not always a marker for the beauty of a soul—a point illustrated by the White and Emerald witches in the first and fourth books of the Narnia series. (p. 45) The converse must therefore also be possible, even in faery: outward ugliness may not be a marker for inner ugliness. Shrek could justifiably be seen as a case in which ugliness is redeemed. Markos’s choice of illustration is unfortunate, for it clouds what he has in mind by the Cult of the Ugly rather than clarifies it. Surely he could have found a more apt example to illustrate his point.
The second half of the book also provides some interesting and helpful connections between Lewis’s views of education and those of other literary figures. Markos very nicely shows how Dickens’ Hard Times and Aristophanes’ play, Clouds, manifest the dangers of a “value-free” education of the sort Lewis warns against in The Abolition of Man. Indeed, Dickens is of primary importance as a literary prophet with regard to the consequences of a nihilistic philosophy, showing in many of his novels (A Tale of Two Cities; Bleak House; Hard Times and others) the inevitable practical outcome of such a “philosophy.” Once again, Markos is at his best when he draws these specific literary connections. He is a bit less careful when it comes to a more general account of the philosophical underpinnings of many aspects of modernity. For example, after describing the modern view that Lewis is critiquing in The Abolition of Man in this way: “modern education instills in its young charges the belief that all value judgments are finally subjective,” Markos goes on to trace the origin of this view to Edmund Burke and Immanuel Kant: “When Burke and Kant label our response to art as purely subjective, they mean that the experience has nothing to do with the object per se (whether it be a poem, a painting or a song), but exists wholly in the mind of the subject… Still, though Burke and Kant insisted that our response to such things as beauty and sublimity is totally subjective, they firmly believed that our subjective response had universal validity: that everyone should and must feel about it in the same way.” (pp.101-2) This leaves us with more questions than answers. Do Burke and Kant suppose or maintain that a response is the same as a judgment? Could a response be subjective but a judgment objective? Aren’t there different senses in which a judgment can be called “subjective” or “objective”? And should the origin of the modern view be traced to Burke and Kant, or to the careless readers who came after them and misunderstood them? Similar questions arise when Markos says (in Chapter 18: “The Death of Language”) that words “have a meaning that exists apart from us and our cultural and grammatical systems” (p. 139); and “If the word freedom (and all its synonyms and cognates) did not exist, it would be difficult (if not impossible) for us to conceive of the concept of freedom.” (p. 143)
The last section of the book may be the most insightful, especially for those who are unfamiliar with Lewis’s more scholarly work in the areas of his own professional expertise—literary history and criticism. Markos here provides the reader with an excellent summary of Lewis’s arguments for the importance of studying classic works; why “the Rennaissance never happened”; the true purpose and manner of literary criticism; and the duty of a scholar to the public to share the riches that can be gained through genuine literacy and thoughtful reflection. Markos ends the book with an Epilogue, containing a playful updating of Lewis’s “Screwtape Proposes a Toast,” and a bibliographic essay in which he gives a very thorough overview of the secondary literature available on Lewis and his works.
A persistent dilemma for anyone with a genuine admiration of another author’s work is whether or not to write about that author’s work at all. On the one hand, Lewis’s works are admittedly and obviously better than what most (if not all) of us who are his admirers could write about them. We would all like, better than anything, to have more people read Lewis’s books rather than ours. But, on the other hand, it is both difficult and unnatural for an admirer to keep his mouth shut and lay his pen down. Likewise, it is almost an irresistible pleasure for us to re-tell the stories, even though we know they cannot be told any better than their authors have told them. What could be more natural or more joyful or more right than to live and breathe what we have found to be good?
This essay is republished here by the gracious permission of St. Austin Review.