Tuesday, July 23, 2013

CS Lewis on how to read books from a different time

Ben's English teacher (or, as a French textbook might have it, The English Teacher Of My Son Ben) has encouraged him to read some books from Ye Olde England. Guess I'll be reading along.

My mouth is watering. I finally get to fill in some of the yawning gaps in my education!

When you do science all the way through school, and only come to Arts several years later (after an abortive attempt at Medicine), and then choose to study lots of modern literature (what was I thinking?!) ... well, let's just say that I've got a lot of catching up to do.

On the list are The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and Beowulf (translated from Old English) and Thomas Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur (Middle English). Also Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales, although I'll check the content first.
But how do you read books from such different times to our own? CS Lewis told his friend Arthur Greeves, who was obviously struggling with Beowulf and Malory,
Remember that nearly all your reading is confined to about 150 years of one particular country: this is no disgrace to you, most people's circle is far smaller. But still, compared with the world this one little period of English is very small and tho' you (and I of course) are so accustomed to the particular kinds of art we find inside it, yet we must remember that there are an infinite variety outside it, quite as good in different ways.

And so, if you suddenly go back to an Anglo-Saxon gleeman's lay, you come up against something absolutely different - a different world. If you are to enjoy it, you must forget your previous ideas of what a book should be and try and put yourself back in the position of the people for whom it was first made.

When I was reading it I tried to imagine myself as an old Saxon thane sitting in my hall of a winter’s night, with the wolves & storm outside and the old fellow singing his story. In this way you get the atmosphere of terror that runs through it—the horror of the old barbarous days when the land was all forests and when you though that a demon might come to your house any night & carry you off.

The description of Grendel stalking up from his ‘fen and fastness’ thrilled me. Besides, I loved the simplicity of the old life it represents: it comes as a relief to get away from all complications about characters & ‘problems’ to a time when hunting, fighting, eating, drinking & loving were all a man had to think of it.
(Letters, 143; Nov 1st, 1916).

No comments: