A Different Counrty

I just finished reading C. S. Lewis’ collected essays/lectures entitled The Discarded Image. He writes about how medieval and ancient writers described and viewed the world, and one of the recurring themes is that the mental world of “back then” is very, very different from our Weltanschaung. The past was a foreign country, and they thought things differently there, to misquote the saying about history.

One of the challenges with the Merchant series has been trying to get into the heads of characters who have a very, very different take on how their world works. Now, this is also true of writing any mind not one’s own, but the medieval world was both smaller and larger. Since I’m not dealing with a Christian cosmology, in some ways it’s touch easier, but not simpler. I’m not a merchant, who has a large mental geography, or a traveling stone cutter. The salt-worker . . . is harder yet, because he knows the world is out there, but he’s not really interested in seeing it, and has lived his entire life within 20 miles of one city. He’s aware of the larger world and of events, but they are not important. His is a small world, and he’s not curious about the larger one.

One of the parts of Lewis’ book that really had me blinking, since I am a professional teller of stories—some of which have documentation and footnotes—, is the lack of interest medieval and classical writers had for new stories. When you read Chaucer you find older writers. When you read Dante and Boccaccio, the same. Likewise Mallory, Tristian de Cretian, the Roman de la Rose, and others going back to Plutarch and Herodotus and Homer. Each one takes the older stories, adds a little detail, expands a bit here and there, places them in his own time, and produced works that remained popular for, well, in some cases still today. Shakespeare did the same with some of his work, borrowing from Chaucer and others. This was seen at the time as the best way, because those were the important stories, and the ones people liked and wanted. New stories did not appeal to the literate people, or at least nothing truly 100% new has survived that we know of. [NOTE: I’m talking literature, not popular tales, folklore, vernacular stories, and some saints’ lives, although even there if you dig hard enough, you start finding older patterns and stories.]

We moderns boggle a little. Who wants to read Romeo and Juliet over and over, just with different trimmings and in different styles? Or “The Masque of the Red Death,” or Dragonflight? We want news stories with some of the same elements, perhaps the same broad plot . . . pattern . . . Oops. Formula romances? Pulp westerns? Man against the wilderness tales? Um, perhaps Prof. Lewis wrote too soon. Or perhaps not, because we are looking at a difference in kind and taste, and not at what the elite, super-educated are reading and writing. (Or maybe we are, but they won’t admit it in public.)

That’s just one of the things Lewis picks up on to show how our mental worlds and views of the universe are very, very different from the “discarded image” of the medieval and classical periods.

The other thing with Lewis is that he assumes you are familiar with classical writers and writers of Late Antiquity as well as the Middle Ages, that you read Greek and some Latin, and that you are capable of following a long argument with a few digressions. I’d love to take his class, but I could feel my GPA dying as I read. I got about 50-60% of the references, and I’m very unusually well read in those areas of literature. Normal people don’t read Chaucer, Boccaccio, Dante, and Aristotle for fun, not anymore. Lewis also uses words we generally don’t, like describing Tarquin’s conscience as “maculate” after Tarquin raped Lucrecia.* Immaculate we use, but not maculate. This is not the C. S. Lewis of the Chronicles of Narnia. This is Professor Lewis, who assumed you had done your homework and passed the prerequesites, otherwise your body would not be occupying space in his classroom.

It was a good reminder of how different mental worlds can be, and how little I really know of the foundational works of Western Civilization.


*Tarquin the Proud/Haughty (Tarquinius Superbus) was the last Etruscan king–and last king period—to rule over the Romans. After he raped the matron Lucretia, she told her family what had happened, then committed suicide out of shame. The Romans rose up and kicked out the Etruscans.

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