C.S. Lewis is best known for his children’s series The Chronicles of Narnia, and in Christian circles for his books of Christian apologetics. However, he was also a scholar of medieval literature and it is into this category that The Discarded Image falls. The title refers not to the modern discarding of Man’s creation in the image of God, but to the now-discarded medieval conception of the organization of the universe.

The medieval conception of the universe is largely that of the Greeks, primarily Aristotle, and some of the Roman authors as well. The medieval age was a time where hierarchy was important and this thinking is evident to some extent in view of knowledge: knowledges come from reputable sources. So early thinking of the universe was based on Greek and Roman thought, and later medieval thinking was based on the early medieval thinkers. The goal of authors and scholars was not primarily to create something new, as it is in our age, but to tell about that which is. That-which-is was already well documented, so the medieval thinkers largely inherited the Aristotelian and Ptolemaic view of the universe, modified slightly to fit a world created by a Christian God.

The medieval universe was composed of concentric spheres. The (spherical) earth is the lowest sphere, following by the air, the moon (which was the boundary between mortal and immortal material), the planets (Mercury, Venus, the Sun, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn), then at very very great distance from the earth1, the Stellatum, the sphere of the stars. The planets and stars are fixed to their respective spheres, which slowly rotate. The rotations are not simple rotations (except for the stars) in order to account for the motion of the planets, which sometimes move backwards in the sky. Beyond the Stellatum is the First Movable (Primum Mobile), which does not have a luminous body like the others. Beyond the Primum Mobile is God: pure intellectual love. Each sphere has an Intelligence; in the early Middle Ages this Intelligence was “in” the sphere, but later thought classified them as intelligent, but not as a soul. God loves his universe, which is reciprocated by the spheres, causing them to rotate (it rotates because it wants to be like the unchanging God; the only way that it can move towards God in love and yet be unchanging is rotation). Since the movement must be started by an unmoving Mover, and since God is unchanging, He cannot rotate the spheres himself.

The spheres are transparent and the universe is lit by the sun. The universe is, in fact, quite bright (just like the day is), except for the shadow of the (extremely small) earth cast by the sun (which extends to the sphere of Venus).

It is important to note that the Moon is a significant boundary. Mortal, imperfect things are below the Moon; immortal and perfect things are above it. Thus, when writers like Gower in Confessio write

We that dwelle under the Mone
Stand in this world upon a weer

they mean that we mortals suffer doubt (weer); if we lived in a sphere above the world, we would not have that problem. This is an important boundary and occurs frequently in poetry like Donne and Drayton.

Each sphere contained a certain type of being or material. The five elements, earth, water, air, fire, and aether, were distributed by weight: earth the lowest, then water on top of it, air above that, the lighter fire above that (just below the moon), and then above the moon, aether. Every material wants to get back to its sphere—illustrated poetically by Chaucer in Hous of Fame:

Every kindly thing that is
Hath a kindly stede ther he
May best in hit conserved by;
Unto which place every thing
Through his kindly enclyning
Moveth for to come to.

Thus, a rock from the sphere of Earth thrown in to the sphere of Air, will fall back to the earth by “enclyning” back to its kind. Likewise, Men’s souls return to Heaven (assuming they are baptised) because the Soul “enclynes” back to Heaven from whence it came.

The Intelligence of each sphere also has Influence on the things in our sphere. These are summarized below:

Influence on people
Influence on history
Influence on earth
Disastrous events
Produces lead
Kingliness, serenity, festive, magnanimous
Produces tin2
Martial temperament
Produces iron
The Sun 
Fortunate events
Produces gold
Beauty, amourousness
Fortunate events
Produces copper
Mercurial (quick, skilled, slippery)

Produces quicksilver (mercury)
Makes travellers ill (both physically and mentally)

Produces silver

Thus, when Mars dominates the sky, it produces wars. Or if hore (unformed metal) is taken above-ground, the sun turns it to gold.

Each sphere also contains beings besides the main Intelligences. The spheres above the moon are inhabited by immortal beings—angels, of which there is a hierarchy of nine different kinds. Angels are messengers between God and Man, because there must be intermediaries between higher and lower beings on the hierarchy; God cannot talk directly to Man (actual teachings of Jesus notwithstanding). Similarly, in the spheres of air and fire live daemons, which are like the aetherial beings in that they are immortal, but like us in that they have (extremely translucent) bodies.

Besides the beings that fit nicely into the spheres, there are fairies, which do not fit into the model very well. Fairies, which can include elves, nymphs, gnomes, dwarfs, giants, hags, etc. were generally dangerous; in a visit to an Irish building haunted by ghosts and fairies, C.S. Lewis observed that the neighbors were only worried about the fairies. Under no circumstances were they cute, diminuative, winged, female, Tinkerbell-creatures. They lived somewhere between the earth and sky. Fairies generally had no interaction with humans, and when there was an interaction, it was usually initiated by the fairy and usually with amorous intent (i.e. Milton’s dancing fairies). There were also High Fairies, who lived in a world of splendor. This is not just the result of wealth, but also incorporates the ideals of nobility: beauty, grace, and courtesy. Tolkien’s Elves, while not from medieval literature, represent this sort of Fairy. The origin of fairies was unclear, but eventually the thought that they were fallen angels took hold (leading to Renaissance witch hunts).

Each being has one of three types of souls. The first is the Vegetable Soul, which performs bodily functions that we do not usually exercise concious control over. Plants have this type of soul. Animals have the Sensitive Soul, which includes the properties of Vegetable Soul, but adds to it the five senses and five wits (memory, instinct, invention, and thinking). Humans (and the higher beings) have the highest type of soul, Rational Soul. This type of soul is a superset of both Vegetable and Sensitive Soul, and in addition provides Reason. Reason was not just intelligence, but is also had a moral component. Unlike our age, where morality is separate, the medieval view was that morality was self-evident from Reason—Souls were, until the latter part of the Middle Ages, pre-existant; they were not created, the body was, and they did not die, the body did. However, in all time periods, the soul turns to God because it “kindly enclynes” to Him.

There are two principles that are important for populating the universe. First, it is not possible for two things to communicate directly; there must be a third intermediary. Thus, the immaterial soul acts upon the physical body through intermediate Spirits. So if one of those spirits is not working, the body would not be healthy. (If someone is insane, it is not because Rational Soul is no longer completely rational, but because the intermediate spirit is not working.)  Second, “if, between aether and Earth, there is a belt of air, then, it seems to Apuleius, [reason] demands that it should be inhabited. The universe must be fully exploited. Nothing must go to waste.” (p. 44)  Thus we see the daemons inhabiting the otherwise empty air.

Having spent almost all of the book explaining the medieval model of the world, Lewis makes some useful observations on the influence of the model on medieval literature. First, medieval literature was not about creating something new, like ours is, but about telling important already-known stories because they are important. Second, medieval literature conforms to the Greek ideas of rhetoric (one of which is digression). Thus medieval literature makes no attempt to be original. It also often makes no attempt to engage the reader, because an important story will tell itself (unfortunately, for their readers, story-telling is an art). Likewise, medieval art is not about presenting a realistic image, so the sizes of things are proportional to their importance. However, while the story itself is unoriginal, the details are very vivid, and unrivaled throughout much of literature. Chaucer, for instance, observes details about the dog that one of his Canterbury pilgrims travels with.

The Discarded Image is excellent background for understanding medieval literature. Lewis cogently describes the medieval model of the world and illustrates it from a variety of sources. He also shows how particular components of the model evolved from their original Greek sources. Most importantly, however, Lewis understands the medieval worldview. He appears capable of thinking in that worldview (indeed, his The Magician’s Nephew incorporates the idea of “kindly enclyning” in the rings that want to get into and out of the Wood between the Worlds). Since he is also adept at explaining what he understands, the reader comes away with a thorough understanding of the medieval worldview and is likely to understand Chaucer, Donne, and Dante (and other works that the non-scholar is less likely to read). Anyone with an interest in medieval thought will benefit from reading this scholarly book.
Review: 9.0
Very well written. The organization is excellent and flows very well. Examples are copious, well-chosen, and adroitly used. The content is clearly explained by someone who obviously knows the subject very thoroughly. Anyone short of a medieval scholar (and probably many of them) is likely to benefit from the insights that Lewis has collected. This book would be a 10 except for its limited audience. It is definitely a scholarly book and while many people, including anyone, author or critic of literature, would benefit from reading it, the content is of limited use outside of literature. For scholastic books this is definitely a 10, but I am dropping a point because I doubt that anyone without an intellectual bent will be able to finish it; sadly, in 100 years I doubt that very many people will be reading this very excellent and worthy book.

1  The distances of the spheres were only vaguely known; the most quantitative is from the South English Legendary, which says that if you travelled 40 miles per day, you would not reach the stars in 8000 years (at least 116 million miles)
2  Tin used to be much more highly regarded (shiny and doesn’t tarnish)