The Last Dinosaur and the Surprising Modernity of the Middle Ages
MARCH 12, 2022
by Jason Baxter
This third Lewis is the writer who spent so much time studying medieval tales and arguments, ancient grammar and vocabulary, premodern rhetoric and the rhythmic flow of ancient speech that he could barely formulate an argument, write a letter, offer a word of consolation, or weave a fictional story of his own without opening up the dam and letting all the old ideas and emotions, stored up in his memory by long reading, break forth. Medieval literature, ancient languages, and the premodern way of looking at the universe were not just Lewis’s study or day job, but his passion, his love, his life’s work, his spiritual formation, and even his “vocation.” In his intellectual autobiography, Surprised by Joy, he famously describes three moments in his youth in which he was moved to spiritual longing through reading. He comments, “The reader who finds these three episodes of no interest need read this book no further, for in a sense the central story of my life is about nothing else.” The purpose of this book is to explore how this third Lewis is just beneath the surface even in his more appreciated imaginative and devotional writings. We will see that the great medievalist was not a successful modernizer of Christianity and writer of fiction despite the fact that he spent so much time studying old, dusty books, but because of them. And this brings us back to the Christian Century poll.
Among the ten books Lewis cites as helping shape his sense of vocation and his philosophy of life, there are some we would expect and some we wouldn’t. They are George MacDonald’s Phantastes, G. K. Chesterton’s Everlasting Man, Virgil’s Aeneid, George Herbert’s The Temple, William Wordsworth’s Prelude, Rudolf Otto’s The Idea of the Holy, Boethius’s Consolation of Philosophy, Boswell’s Life of Johnson, Charles Williams’s Descent into Hell, and Arthur James Balfour’s Theism and Humanism. Some of these books, even if they have been largely forgotten by us, make sense in light of Lewis’s interest in apologetics. For instance, Arthur James Balfour, a British politician, delivered the Gifford Lectures in 1915, in which he attempted to show, among other things, the limits of a strict naturalist philosophy. In those writings in which Lewis set himself to explaining how materialistic or naturalistic philosophy is incapable of explaining human moral and psychological development, his thought often drifts back to Balfour. George MacDonald’s Phantastes, as readers of Surprised by Joy know, caught the young Lewis by surprise. As a young man, he picked it off a bookstall while waiting for a train, and instantly fell in love with the strange but beautiful imaginary landscape contained within. Lewis’s mind was drawn into a foreign world where he breathed the atmosphere of something he had never known before: holiness. Chesterton (or perhaps Charles Williams) is the writer we would, perhaps, most expect to find on a list of those who influenced his “philosophy of life and sense of vocation,” as Chesterton, too, was a modern, English writer who engaged a secularized public in a lively, vernacular style. Lewis was a little surprised with himself that he, an atheist at the time, liked Chesterton so much, concluding, “I liked him for his goodness.” Lewis adds, “In reading Chesterton, as in reading MacDonald, I did not know what I was letting myself in for. A young man who wishes to remain a sound Atheist cannot be too careful of his reading. . . . God is, if I may say it, very unscrupulous.”
—Taken from the introduction, “The Last Dinosaur and the Surprising Modernity of the Middle Ages”