C. S. L. on novelty and myth

C. S. Lewis’s Preface to Paradise Lost is not much read nowadays, as indeed Paradise Lost itself is not much read; and both we and our art are the poorer for it. Milton’s great epic contains much beauty and grandeur and not a little good sense. Lewis’s lectures on Milton (from which the Preface was constructed) are wanting in the beauty and the grandeur, which were not to his purpose anyway, but compensate for this by overflowing with a fount of good sense that is directed with deadly precision at the characteristic follies and errors of ‘literary’ people in our own age. Lewis was a survivor from the previous age (he once likened himself to a living dinosaur), and saw with painful clarity what necessary human qualities were being cast off with the old learning that he had acquired and his successors had not. We are still living recognizably in the age of those successors.

One of the follies of this age, which has only grown worse with time, is the tendency to ‘ironize’ or undercut anything archetypal or mythical, to make the gods and heroes ‘just folks’, to deflate, to take the heroism out of heroes and the importance out of villains, and make all the characters talk and act like bored and unreflective teenagers. The ideal of modern drama is the situation comedy, reduced to a troupe of stock characters making stock wisecracks at each other’s expense. The ideal of modern literature is either an impenetrable and meaningless jungle of very pretty words (for the Snobs), or a perfectly stylized and predictable melodrama that makes no demand whatever upon the imagination (for the Proles).

The idea that there are other kinds of people besides Snobs and Proles does not occur to the Snobs; they have not even thought of asking the Proles what they like or want. And as the Snobs have captured the citadel, the rest of us are supposed to be content with whatever books and drama they see fit to shove down our throats. The dire sales figures of recent fiction from the major publishers, and the collapse of one major film-franchise after another, shows what happens when the Snobs are put in charge of popular entertainment. They are neither entertaining nor popular.

One form that this takes (you see it in most of the Dreamworks animated films, and the formula is imitated to dire effect in cartoon franchises like Hotel Transylvania) is to turn all the creatures of fantasy, from elves and dragons to vampires and talking beasts, into sitcom parodies with exactly the same motivations and neuroses as stereotypical suburbanites in Los Angeles. (Sometimes, as in the Madagascar series, they have the neuroses of stereotypical Manhattanites instead. This is no great improvement.)

By this everything essential is lost, and only a twee appearance remains. A dragon without greed is no dragon at all, but only a giant cartoon lizard; there is not even any particular reason why it should be a lizard. A vampire that does not steal souls is only a morbid sex-symbol to tickle the fancy of the ‘goth’ crowd. In Zootopia we have seen the nadir of this approach: a city full of talking animals that all behave exactly like modern city-dwelling Americans, to the point where any realistic animal behaviour is considered a freak and an abomination. Half the plot of the film turns on the horror (oh, the horror!) of carnivorous animals actually reverting to type and eating meat. The idea that one species of animal is any different from another is represented as the most benighted racial bigotry.

Lewis, if anybody had troubled to heed him, warned us very early on against this kind of thematic degeneration. The whole point of using creatures different from men in a story is that they are indeed different; they are not Just Folks; they are brought in because they are not Just Folks, but at worst hypostasized qualities, or at best, thinking and feeling creatures that are nevertheless not human. Everyone in a modern story is alienated. The humans are alienated from their own human nature, and the aliens are alienated from being alien. One of the functions of fantasy, before it became morbid, was to recover the sense of the alien and of the human; to remind us what we were alienated from, as well as what was alien to us. We might not have lost that function so quickly or so thoroughly if we had troubled to listen to this passage:

There is, furthermore, a special reason why mythical poetry ought not to attempt novelty in respect of its ingredients. What it does with the ingredients may be as novel as you please. But giants, dragons, paradises, gods, and the like are themselves the expression of certain basic elements in man’s spiritual experience. In that sense they are more like words – the words of a language which speaks the else unspeakable – than they are like the people and places of a novel. To give them radically new characters is not so much original as ungrammatical. 

That strange blend of genius and vulgarity, the film of Snow-White, will illustrate the point. There was good unoriginality in the drawing of the queen. She was the very archetype of all beautiful, cruel queens: the thing one expected to see, save that it was truer to type than one had dared to hope for. There was bad originality in the bloated, drunken, low comedy faces of the dwarfs. Neither the wisdom, the avarice, nor the earthiness of true dwarfs were there, but an imbecility of arbitrary invention.

But in the scene where Snow-White wakes in the woods both the right originality and the right unoriginality were used together. The good unoriginality lay in the use of small, delicate animals as comforters, in the true märchen style. The good originality lay in letting us at first mistake their eyes for the eyes of monsters. The whole art consists not in evoking the unexpected, but in evoking with a perfection and accuracy beyond expectation the very image that has haunted us all our lives.

A Preface to Paradise Lost, ch. 8


  1. Mary Catelli says


    I see it so often when retellings of fairy tales jam in the tropes any which way as if they would work without the proper structure.

  2. Wendy S. Delmater says

    Thank you for making y day, Tom, I really enjoyed reading this and passed it on to another editor at a small press for her to enjoy.

  3. Always a pleasure to hear from Lewis. As to your larger point, I partly agree and partly disagree.

    We concur in the debasement of vampires, culminating in the sparkles.

    We partly concur with regard to dragons. While I doubt any modern writers had it consciously in mind, it would be possible to interpret the “dragonrider” trope as the passions properly tamed and brought into the service of the intellect. The older dragon would be the uncontrolled passions that enslave and destroy. Perhaps some authors are writing better than they know, and can be read as a partial allegory. George R. R. Martin could be taken as surprisingly good here, as perhaps (I am familiar with them only in passing) the ‘How To Tame Your Dragon’ stories. MacCaffrey’s oeuvre, rather less so.

    We mostly disagree with regard to beast fables. I’d argue that they have pretty much always been the merest veneer for people of their age, with the different species being stand-ins for, at best, different virtues and vices.

    If anything, the novelty of Zootopia was the attempt to take species differences occasionally actually seriously.

    And the problem with the carnivores isn’t that they eat meat. It’s that they eat the meat of rational beings. While not quite cannibalism, perhaps, the same principle is there.

    You might enjoy the comic strip Kevin and Kell, which restrains carnivorous impulses… rather less often. Be warned that the author has the usual array of “liberal” crotchets, though they are curiously neutered by being translated into animal terms. ie, homosexuality is replaced with domestication, with Pride marches and the whole nine yards. But since domestication *isn’t* unnatural nor a vice, it’s weirdly inoffensive.

    • Forgot one little point. Also, the carnivores have to murder rational beings to get the said meat.

      • Even _The Wind in the Willows_, a truly delightful tale, often forgets that its heroes aren’t human. At one point, Toad even combs his hair, as Lewis points out somewhere. But at other places it remembers what they are, and have Badger and Mole discuss the benefits of subterranean architecture. Maybe this constant shifting is related to the impossibility of pinning older authors down regarding scale. It’s just that Grahame postdated the development of, say, the metric system; but was still very much in the old beast fable style.

        A weird thing about that book is that while Toad’s adventures are the glue that make the story ‘go’, those chapters are FAR less interesting than the intercalary ones. What’s Toad’s wild train ride compared to meeting Pan? It’s the interludes that always stick in my memory.

        • A weird thing about that book is that while Toad’s adventures are the glue that make the story ‘go’, those chapters are FAR less interesting than the intercalary ones. What’s Toad’s wild train ride compared to meeting Pan? It’s the interludes that always stick in my memory.

          Yes! “The Piper at the Gates of Dawn” will always be one of my favorite passages within the worlds of fiction.

    • Tom in AZ says

      Also there are no talking birds in Zootopia—nor reptiles, amphibians, or fish. It’s all mammals. So the carnivores became “civilized” by subsisting on poultry, snake meat, frog-legs, and fish, instead of other mammals.

  4. Tom in Az says

    In Disney’s defense, four of the seven are named Óinn (“the shy”, i.e. Bashful), Óri (“ill-tempered or violent”, i.e. Grumpy), and Dvalinn (“the sleepy or entranced”, i.e. both Sleepy and Dopey). I expect Happy might have a direct origin in the Dvergatál too; not sure about Doc (probably not Sneezy).

    Also Disney making the dwarfs into the American prospector-archetype is no more egregious than Tolkien making dwarves Semitic and the elves unfallen Romans (in both senses of “unfallen”). Possibly the “ole 49er”, easily itself bordering on faerie (in Tolkien’s sense) for an American audience, was not familiar to Lewis’s (Northern) Irish background.

    • The elves aren’t Roman – the Numenoreans are. Quenya and Sindarin are (mostly) derived from Finnish and Welsh, respectively. The Silmarillion also feels somewhat like the Finnish Kalevala, among other things.

      And while Khuzdul (the dwarven language) in indeed based on triliteral roots, same as Semitic languages, I don’t know in what other respects they’re Semitic.

      • Tolkien did find a parallel between the situations of the Dwarves and the Jews: they were both scattered peoples who had long since been driven out of their homelands, using the languages of their neighbours, and even taking names in those languages along with their own Khuzdul names. But these are pretty superficial resemblances; you could say as much for the overseas Chinese, the Gypsies, or a number of other long-established minorities.

        • Tom in AZ says

          Also both Dwarves and Jews are fond of fine work and beautiful craftsmanship, and a bit jumpy about getting driven out of their homes and losing all their stuff (again), which combination outsiders uncharitably interpret as greed.

      • Tom in AZ says

        Elves aren’t much like Romans, I admit, but Elvish is the Middle-Earth equivalent of Latin. Tolkien literally referred to Quenya as “Elf-Latin”. Also Sindarin has a sound deliberately evocative of Spanish or Italian (well, with some Celtic-style initial mutations and stem-changes).

        • Sindarin looks and feels more like Welsh than anything else (I think Tolkien said so explicitly). There are place-names around Cardiff that sound very elvish. As a specific example, Sindarin ‘nan’ for ‘valley’ is almost identical to Welsh ‘nant’.

          • Actually I think you’re right, it seems like Quenya may be the one with a more Romance inspiration. E.g. the word for “tale” is quenta, which is just respelling Spanish cuenta. (Which may suggest Eldarin Elvish is the Italic branch of “Elf Italo-Celtic”, and Sindarin the Celtic one.)

    • The Forty-Niner may have been an American archetype, but it really had nothing to do with the Germanic tales about Dwarfs, the tradition that originally gave rise to ‘Snow-White’. And even that American archetype deserved better than to be turned into Grumpy, Sneezy, and a lot of other adjectives hypostasized into one-note characters.

      • Tom in AZ says

        True, it didn’t have anything to do with Dwarfs. That would probably be why I didn’t say it did? I said the prospector was “bordering on faerie” in Tolkien’s sense—the realm, not the creatures. The romance of the Gold Rush(es), and of the rest of the Frontier—figures like Paul Bunyan or Pecos Bill—was very near to the romance of Arthur and Roland, anyway, and both the Matter of France and especially the Matter of Britain contain a plethora of stories that are essentially fairy-stories, even the ones with no fairies in them.

  5. “One of the functions of fantasy, before it became morbid, was to recover the sense of the alien and of the human; to remind us what we were alienated from, as well as what was alien to us. ”

    Science fiction, at its best, does look at what makes us human and what is, in all senses, alien. At it’s worst it follows the path you described for fantasy.

  6. Late to the party, but I found this piece relevant to the analysis of the Seven Dwarfs. It’s short but good. http://decentfilms.com/blog/tolkien-lewis-snow-white

    • Is it good? There’s nothing to it. The writer even points out that Lewis was willing to give credit where it was due, so why am I to believe that Chesterton would have disagreed with his very specific criticisms about Snow White? How was Lewis’s opinion to change if Chesterton got to him first? I don’t know.

      • It might not have, but I was thinking of Chesterton’s viewpoint on it, not Lewis’s, when I posted the link. I think he may have had a healthier attitude. And as the article says, we the viewers don’t need to pick just one depiction and stick with it for all time. Undoubtedly the dwarves are totally different, but the depiction from LOTR would probably not have worked in the story at all. (For one thing, Snow White as imagined by Disney is a comedy with elements of the dramatic, while Lord of the Rings is much more of a drama with occasional comic elements.)

        As regards Lewis, if he had been in conversation with someone who fundamentally appreciated it rather than disliked it, it could have left him with a more favorable impression. In my experience, if I’m on the fence and immediately hear grumbles, they stick. But if I’m on the fence and hear praise, then that sticks. One’s first impression is very important (probably excessively so) for setting one’s opinion for years to come.

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