Tortoise Tuesday: Orienting and C.S. Lewis’ Scholarly Side

Writing is an empathetic act; the good writer must always keep the interests of the reader in mind. I consider orienting one of the most overt empathies in scholarly writing. How much should I, the writer, define, describe, and elucidate? How do I find the middle ground of understanding which fall somewhere between overwhelming the reader and patronizing the reader?

C.S. Lewis is a remarkably empathetic orienter. Although he is better known today for his fictional works (The Chronicles of Narnia, of course!), he was also a prominent medievalist at Oxbridge. His medieval scholarship, like his fiction, is complex yet accessible, formal yet conversational.  I’m thinking especially of his book The Discarded Image, which, as he puts it, provides a “lead in” to an understanding of the medieval worldview for modern students (ix). He observes that scholarship can sometimes overwhelm and distract students to the extent that they lose interest in the object of study altogether. His solution, then, with The Discarded Image, is to provide a map of sorts, a general overview to the medieval worldview so that students can dive into medieval literature and the scholarship on it more confidently. The book as a whole, is a kind of extended orienting.

One of Lewis’ first orienting moves is the dispelling of a longstanding myth about the Middle Ages: that it was a savage, illiterate time. See what he does here:

“Some time between 1160 and 1207 an English priest called Laȝamon wrote a poem called the Brut. In it (ll. 15,775 sq.) he tells us that the air is inhabited by a great many things, some good and some bad, who will live there till the world ends. The content of this belief is not unlike things we might find in savagery. To people Nature, and especially the less accessible parts of her, with spirits both friendly and hostile, is characteristic of the savage response. But Laȝamon is not writing thus because he shares in any communal and spontaneous response made by the social group he lives in. The real history of the passage is quite different. He takes his account of the aerial daemons from the Norman poet Wace (c. 1155). Wace takes it from Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britanniae (before 1139). Geoffrey takes it from the second-century De Deo Socratis of Apuleius. Apuleius is reproducing the pneumatology of Plato. Plato was modifying, in the interests of ethics and monotheism, the mythology he had received from his ancestors. If you go back through the many generations of those ancestors, then at last you may find, or at least conjecture, an age when that mythology was coming into existence in what we suppose to be the savage fashion. But the English poet knew nothing about that. It is further from him than he is from us. He believes in these daemons because he has read about them in a book; just as most of us believe in the Solar System or in the anthropologists’ accounts of early man. Savage beliefs tend to be dissipated by literacy and by contact with other cultures; these are the very things which have created Laȝamon’s belief. (2-3)”

Simply by tracing the origin of this single medieval poem, Lewis provides the reader with a more nuanced way of understanding the Middle Ages more generally. This orienting sets the stage for an argument that Lewis will develop throughout the course of the book: the Middle Ages were characterized by a curious bookishness that tends to get overlooked today. As he notes, “Though literacy was of course far rarer then than now, reading was in one way a more important ingredient of the total culture” (5).

I think in scholarly writing we tend to get impatient with orienting – we just want to get to the argument. What Lewis and the best writers show, however, is that orienting is absolutely essential to the argument. Just like in fiction, where the exposition of setting, atmosphere, and feeling primes us for the characters that occupy most of our attention, in scholarly writing, orienting primes us for the analysis and evidence. Orienting is the all-important appetizer: it teases the appetite for a delectable argument.  

— Myrial Holbrook ’19

Quotations from C.S. Lewis’ The Discarded Image taken from the Cambridge UP edition (2016).