Dr Jonathan Kirkpatrick
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Reading list: C.S. Lewis and the Classics
When C.S. Lewis arrived in Oxford in 1917, he came to study Classics: the literature, history, and thought of ancient Greece and Rome. He was an atheist, and was fascinated by the pagan mythology of the classical world, and this was a fascination that never left him. In fact, it was through this love of mythology that he finally became a Christian, and he drew on this rich classical heritage throughout his career and a teacher and writer.
Lewis was a star student, and earned a prestigious ‘double first’ degree before moving on to a career in English literature. (Tolkien, by contrast, also studied Classics at Oxford, but earned mediocre grades and dropped out of the course.) Lewis’s classical education formed him: one cannot read far in his books without coming across a reference to an ancient Greek story, or a Latin quotation, and in this course we will be examining the enormous influence that Classics had on Lewis’s life and thought.
The only classical god to appear in Narnia is Bacchus, the god of wine and license (in Prince Caspian); why did Lewis let him in? This is one of many intriguing questions we’ll be addressing. In fact, Bacchus (or Dionysus) was deeply interesting to Lewis, and closely connected to his views of Christ; and there are many other classical elements in the Narnia books, such as fauns and centaurs, that we’ll investigate. We will consider the role mythology played in Lewis’s understanding of the world, and, particularly, in his conversion to Christianity. We will look at one of Lewis’s favourite poems, Virgil’s epic Aeneid, and consider how its picture of wanderings in search of a home related to Lewis’s ideas of the Christian experience. We will examine Lewis’s final novel, Till We Have Faces, in which he retold the myth of Cupid and Psyche, a task which he had been trying to do for most of his life.
Lewis’s love of the Classics pervaded his thought, and in this course we will be looking at its influence in his fiction, his literary criticism, his poetry, his letters, and his Christian apologetics. Equally exciting is the chance to examine the Classical world through Lewis’s eyes. There is a great deal of pleasure to be derived both from reading Lewis and from investigating the classical world, and in addition to this students will gain a much deeper understanding of Lewis as a writer and as a Christian.