The Visionary Christian
Reviewed by Nancy-Lou Patterson
[This review originally appeared in Mythlore 31.]
Lewis Number Two
Intended as a companion to The Joyful Christian (1977), which was edited by William Griffin and reviewed in Mythlore 6.2 (Spring 1970): 32, The Visionary Christian offers a parallel in structure with 130 quotations from seventeen books, compared with 127 quotations from fifteen books of the previous work. But the effect is remarkably different, as it was intended to be, but also, perhaps, as it was not intended to be. This new book shares only The Screwtape Letters with its predecessor, and draws upon all but one of Lewis’s works of fiction and poetry: the exception is (not surprisingly) The Dark Tower.
This work is no mere supplement; its intention, in Walsh’s words, is to present “the other lobe, Lewis number 2, the dreamer, the fantasizer, the superb creator of imagined worlds’” (xv). It is in fact the third anthology of Lewis: the first was Clyde Kilby’s A Mind Awake (1968). And there is no doubt of the importance––indeed, the primacy––of Lewis’s fiction: such a collection as The Visionary Christian would seem to be well justified.
Before I discuss the actual impression created by plucking fragments entirely from Lewis’s poetry and fantastic prose, I would remind the reader that he was himself an anthologist of his mentor George MacDonald. At the time of publication (1947) very few of MacDonald’s works as quoted by Lewis were in print or even readily available, except for the children’s fantasies: this has since been well remedied by the Harold Shaw Press and others. Lewis’s effort creates a precedent, then, if one were needed, for treating his own works in the same manner, even though almost all of Lewis is easily obtainable today.
But there is a difference in effect, which I in beginning to read it, had not anticipated, between selecting excerpts as in The Joyful Christian from closely argued exposition, and selecting, as in The Visionary Christian, from works of fantastic fiction. Some exceptions can be noted: The poems are intended to function autonomously, and the selections from the long narrative poems stand at least a chance of being read. The Screwtape Letters are in epistolary form and letters or parts of letters can be excised with ease, each fragment a kind of miniature of the whole. Similarly, both A Pilgrim’s Regress and The Great Divorce are episodic, each a series of discreet incidents or examples which work well alone. All these works, however, despite their fictional format, are essentially didactic.
Anyone who has accused Lewis of overwhelming his fantasy with argument, and using the mythopoeic mode merely to disguise Christian teaching, should take note, for the very problem I am about to discuss is a proof against them.
What is the problem? Surely of all Lewis’s editors, Walsh seems most likely to succeed: he is a poet, he knew Lewis personally and over a long period, his two studies of Lewis are indispensable, and he is not only an Anglican priest but a long time University Professor. And the quotations are well chosen, balanced, true to their source. (One misses certain treasures, of course: the descriptions of Bragdon Wood and the garden of St. Anne’s Manor, for instance, or Ransom’s first encounter with an eldil, and Lewis’s best poem, “The Dragon Speaks.”) But many of the loveliest or most powerful passages are present and they offer the reader (in miniature) a range of experience as wide as any in literature.
Yet there is a problem. What is lacking? In fact, the effect is like a Reader’s Digest version of The Divine Comedy. The job cannot be done properly, even by the most sensitive and selective editor (which Walsh surely ought to be). The power, the meaning, the essential element escapes the net! The structuralists are right, it seems. It is the story that matters, the pattern, the form, the order. The most exquisite set pieces, those passages one thought one read the novels for, lose some of their luster when pried from their settings. And Lewis told us so himself. He wrote that real myth can be told in a sentence and not lose its power, for the meaning was in the story itself. By the same token, discreet episodes extracted from myths may retain their beauty or terror but lose their meaning when removed from their positions, their associations, their rhythms, their metaphoric and metonymic dynamisms. Tolkien tried to explain this in On Fairy Stories: the life of Christ, he suggested, is not a mere compendium of discreet quotation. The story of His life is the story of life; in this sense His life is life. And, in their way, as metaphors in story of the story, Lewis’s stories must be told as he told them, and as the White King advised: begin at the beginning, go on till you come to the end, then stop.
Even so, this work is recommended, for it exposes the reader to a very wide and nicely orchestrated sampling of treasures which are, happily, available in full elsewhere, but not all likely to be read by a single reader. Lewis has rejoiced in a number of fine editors; each one’s choice adds luster to his reputation and enhances the value of their various efforts as well.