Thursday, February 10, 2005

They Don't Know That They Don't Know

Nearly all critics are prone to imagine that they know a great many facts relevant to a book which in reality they don't know. The author inevitably perceives their ignorance because he (often he alone) knows the real facts. This critical vice may take many different forms.

1) Nearly all reviewers assume that your books were written in the same order in which they were published and all shortly before publication. There was a very good instance of this lately in the reviews of Tolkien's Lord of the Rings. Most critics assumed (this illustrates a very different vice) that it must be a political allegory and a good many thought that the master Ring must 'be' the atomic bomb. Anyone who knew the real history of the composition knew that this was not only erroneous, but impossible; chronologically impossible. Others assumed that the mythology of his romance had grown out of his children's story The Hobbit. This, again, he and his friends knew to be mainly false. Now of course nobody blames the critics for not knowing these things: how should they? The trouble is that they don't know they don't know. A guess leaps into their minds and they write it down without even noticing that it is a guess.
Where he seems to me most often to go wrong is in the hasty assumption of an allegorical sense; and as reviewers make this mistake about contemporary works, so, in my opinion, scholars now often make it about old ones. I would recommend to both, and I would try to observe in my own critical practice, these principles. First, that no story can be devised by the wit of man which cannot be interpreted allegorically by the wit of some other man. The Stoic interpretations of primitive mythology, the Christian interpretations of the Old Testament, the medieval interpretations of the classics, all prove this. Therefore (2) the mere fact that you can allegorize the work before you is of itself no proof that it is an allegory. Of course you can allegorize it. You can allegorize anything, whether in art or real life. I think we should here take a hint from the lawyers. A man is not tried at the assizes until there has been shown to be a prima-facie case against him. We ought not to proceed to allegorize any work until we have plainly set out the reasons for regarding it as an allegory at all.
~C.S. Lewis, Of Other Worlds, "On Criticism" (1965)

On this day:

1945 Lewis reads "Membership" to the Society of St. Alban and St. Sergius, Oxford.

2 Comment(s):

At Thu Feb 10, 06:15:00 AM EST, Blogger Arevanye said...

A couple of comments: My apologies to be quoting so much this week from Of Other Worlds. I just got this book and I keep discovering all these little gems in the essay section.

Also, today's illustration has nothing to do with the text (unless you can find a correlation). It was one of those instances of surfing Google images and being unable to resist sharing a beautiful painting.

At Thu Feb 10, 07:38:00 PM EST, Blogger Sandicomm said...

Of Other Worlds rocks my world. Wait. Uh. You know what I mean. ;)

LOL, yesterday I was reading a book that references a book written by Proffessor Haldane. I couldn't stop smiling because all I could do was remember that essay that Lewis wrote to him. Poor Haldane. Didn't have a chance against him...


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