A Preface to Paradise Lost
© 1941 C.S. Lewis
Although I’ve read much of C.S. Lewis, I’ve never encountered him in his chosen role as a master of English literature. I spotted some discussion about this Preface on Classical Carousel and was instantly intrigued, both for Lewis and for the fact that Paradise Lost is on my current Classics Club list. The Preface is a collection of essays given by Lewis, partially on the subject of epic poetry and partially on Paradise Lost itself. The book opens with Lewis’ lectures on the Epic as a genre, and gradually shifts into commentary on the characters and themes of Paradise Lost. I found the second half far more interesting than the first, in part because epic poetry has never ensnared my imagination properly: when reading works like The Aeneid, I’ve ‘cheated’ by encountering the story first in prose form! One particularly interesting part of this first half, though, was the lecture on the human heart in which Lewis asserts that we must abandon this notion of there being a Universal Man who we can find if we strip away all of the contemporary context around a given person. That context is essential to understanding the person: one can’t understand historic or literary figures if one doesn’t appreciate the culture around them. A knight without armor and chivalry is no knight at all. Instead of indulging in the vainglorious enterprise of removing everything about a character, an individual, or an author that makes them different from us — creating some pale imitation of ourselves — we should instead try to enter into their lives, attempt to see the world through their eyes. Lewis discusses the theology of the poem, which varies more from orthodoxy than is generally known, and delves into the character of Satan at length. Lewis’ analysis of Milton’s Satan will be familiar to anyone who’s read The Screwtape Letters or The Great Divorce: Satan is a creature obsessed with himself, and therein lies his doom: such myopia is its own punishment. We author our own hells. Also of interest were Lewis’ comments on Milton’s treatment of Adam, Eve, and the angels.