In his seminal work on literary theory An Experiment in Criticism, Lewis describes what, in his opinion, constitutes good literature. Lewis argues that literature must be enjoyable: “Every book should be entertaining. A good book will be more; it must not be less. Entertainment, in this sense, is like a qualifying examination. If a fiction can’t provide even that, we may be excused from inquiry into its higher qualities” (An Experiment in Criticism 91-92). Thus, “[i]deally, we should like to define a good book as one which ‘permits, invites, or compels’ good reading” (113). Lewis’s definition of a good book consists primarily in the book’s ability to entertain the reader.
Moreover, Lewis argues that a reader can only pass fair judgment on a book by first reading it with an open mind and positive attitude. He states, “We can find a book bad only by reading it as if it might, after all, be very good. We must empty our minds and lay ourselves open. There is no work in which holes can’t be picked; no work that can succeed without a preliminary act of good will on the part of the reader” (An Experiment in Criticism 116). Therefore, to determine whether a book constitutes good literature, readers must often first set aside their presuppositions and grant the book the benefit of the doubt.
In his study on C. S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia as well as Lewis’s views of fantasy literature, Gregory Bassham argues that fantasy “broadens our perspective and enlarges our sense of what is possible” (246), and can “re-enchant the ordinary world” (247), “activate our moral imaginations” (248), and “baptize our imaginations” (254). Regarding the latter benefit of fantasy literature, Bassham points out two ways in which Lewis believed this possible: “First, they can stir and trouble us with a longing for we know not what, ‘a dim sense of something’ beyond our reach that, ‘far from dulling or emptying the actual world, gives it a new dimension of depth’” (254). Second, “Lewis believed that fantasy literature can baptize our imaginations by making us more likely to accept Christian truth and respond to it fittingly” (Bassham 254). This argument reflects his earlier illustration of the potential benefit for “two-edged” values, which included longing. Fantasy literature can, through the nature of the genre, appeal to the imagination in a way that creates spiritual longing for the reader.
In forming his view on fantasy literature, Lewis drew heavily from Tolkien’s essay “On Fairy Stories.” In Lewis’s essay “On Three Ways of Writing for Children,” he states, “I hope everyone has read Tolkien’s essay on Fairy Tales, which is perhaps the most important contribution to the subject that anyone has yet made” (26). One point Lewis makes, crediting Tolkien, is that “in most places and times, the fairy tale has not been specially made for, nor exclusively enjoyed by, children” (26). Further, “[t]he whole association of fairy tale and fantasy with childhood is local and accidental . . . It has gravitated to the nursery when it became unfashionable in literary circles, just as unfashionable furniture gravitated to the nursery in Victorian houses” (“On Three Ways of Writing for Children” 26). Thus, Lewis points out that fantasy literature ought not to be associated merely with children, for it can also impact adult audiences.
One of the arguments most often used against fantasy literature is that it is escapist; in other words, it allows one to escape from reality by entering a world in which one can forget about real problems and instead journey into an unreal world. Thus, “many realist critics charge that fans of fantasy literature are (often) escapists in this pejorative sense” (Bassham 260). However, Lewis responds that the truth of such a claim depends on “whether fantasy fans are escaping ‘into the wrong things’” and “on one’s metaphysical and theological worldview” (Bassham 260). In her analysis of Lewis’s argument on escapism, critic Margaret L. Carter observes Lewis’s reasoning: “Though literature is still mimetic—words, since they carry meaning, inevitably direct our attention to things beyond themselves” (“Sub-Creation and Lewis’s Theory of Literature” 134). Understanding that fantasy literature can capture certain aspects of reality and relate it to the reader in a manner that is both meaningful and comprehensible, Lewis believes that a healthy form of escape is quite beneficial to the reader.
Lewis offers a counter-argument against the claim that fantasy literature is escapist by first acknowledging that fantasy literature does indeed offer escape. However, he proposes the ways in which fantasy may offer a beneficial form of escape: “[It] can help to re-enchant the ordinary world, evoke stabs of ‘joy’ that point us heavenward, restore ‘potency’ to spiritual truths and, as Tolkien suggests, fulfill deep-seated desires to participate in the properly human function of ‘subcreation.’” (Bassham 260). Finally, “for Lewis, there could be no real conflict among imagination, intellect and spirit, any more than among truth, goodness and beauty” (Bassham 260). Thus, by using fantasy, Lewis appeals not only to the intellect but also to the imagination to direct the focus of his readers toward the spiritual realm.