To Lewis Readers

The Lewis Legacy-Issue 81, Summer 1999 The C.S. Lewis Foundation for Truth in Publishing

Written by Nancy-Lou Patterson for Mythlore

Dante’s Divine Comedy: Paradise, retold, with notes, by Kathryn Lindskoog
Macon, Georgia: Mercer University Press, (1988), 235 pp. ISBN 0-86554-584-7.

AS RECENTLY AS 1991, C. S. Lewis was characterized as one of “the great medievalists” by Norman F. Cantor in Inventing the Middle Ages. He added that among medievalists of the twentieth century, “Lewis … gained incomparably the greatest audience (along with Tolkien) although 99.9 of (his) … readers have never looked at (his) scholarly work.” (Cantor 1991:207) One of the .1 percent who have indeed looked at this scholarly work is Kathryn Lindskoog. Her use of Lewis, based primarily upon three essays, “Dante’s Comedy,” and “Dante’s Statius,” which were published in book form in C. S. Lewis, Studies in Medieval and Renaissance Literature (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1966), in her translations of the Commedia and in her interpretive notes, is appropriate for a Lewis scholar, among whom Lindskoog is significant and hugely successful, and in her final volume, Dante’s Divine Comedy: Paradise, her use of Lewis’s insights reach their fullest heights. The Paradise is, in her capable hands, a breathtakingly potent achievement both of interpretation and of insight.

Why? For, I think, three reasons. First, because she has read and used the understandings of many scholars, among whom Lewis is appropriately present, in composing her excellent and copious notes. Second, because the Paradise is a work which, as the intensity of its vision increases more and more toward its climactic final canto, more and more cries out for poetry — and this is a prose translation. This dilemma is addressed in a remarkable way. Third, because Kay Lindskoog brings not only her industrious and canny scholarship to bear in numerous new insights that genuinely enrich her analysis (she approaches Dorothy L. Sayers’ capacity in this), but shares with Miss Sayers (and Dante himself) one final element of commonality. Dante died almost immediately after he completed his masterpiece. Miss Sayers died before completing her translation of the Paradise, so that the translation was completed (superbly) by Barbara Reynolds; and Kay Lindskoog is in the late stages of multiple sclerosis, a condition which gradually cripples its victims to death, while leaving the mind alive until the last. Through the use of her computer, to which her husband carries her daily, she has carried her version of this most difficult and profound portion of the Comedy to its conclusion, adding, at the end, a poem of her own that ends like this:

On moving day
I have lost both Occam’s razor and Pascal’s wager.
But my bags are full of reason that reason does not know
And when the moving hearse arrives I’ll go,
Moving toward the First Mover.

I have said all this by way of introduction. The Paradise is very difficult to characterize precisely, for it combines science fiction, medieval science, and supernal vision. The story consists of a guided tour of the heavens as the middle ages conceived it; readers should consult C. S. Lewis’s The Discarded Image for detailed descriptions of how the earth, lowest and least of worlds, is in the medieval mind surrounded by glossy orbs each larger than the other, which bear the planets (including, in medieval thought, the Sun and Moon). Dante is escorted from level to level (from the tiny centre to the vast perimeter) by Beatrice, to whom this wondrous universe is home. The experience is for Dante (and for the reader) like a guided tour — of Notre Dame or Canterbury Cathedral, perhaps, or of Carlsbad Cavern, or the Capitol Building of the United States (I hesitate to mention the Parliament Buildings in Ottawa, but since I’ve toured them too; why not?) in which the gorgeously adorned and elegantly employed locations (constructed in this case by the Creator) are explored with the aid of an experienced guide; in this case, Beatrice.

The sights (sites) are amazing, and each is endowed not only with beauty and meaning, but with famous inhabitants, not only angels but the glorious dead. All of Dante’s world is set forth, level by level, layer by layer, or shell by shell, as the great and small of his era and its past are situated in Heaven, at this stage, the Heavens. The curiously didactic tone, passionate in content but cool, precise, elegant, in expression, is clear in Kay Lindskoog’s simple, precise, and translucent prose. Her footnotes are wonderful, full, as I said before, of her own remarkable and convincing insights, frequently based upon Biblical references, which I found delightful as well as perceptive.

Then, perhaps as Dante himself intended, the tone changes. Since I knew what was coming in the narrative, I wondered how prose would fare as we approached and passed the Fixed Stars, the Crystalline Sphere, the Rings of Fire, the Empyrean, and the Celestial Rose, and, in the end, attained, however momentarily, the Vision of God, reaching those heartbreakingly beautiful lines, “Here force failed my lofty fantasy, but my desire and will were being turned, already, like a wheel in perfect balance, by the Love that moves the Sun and the other stars.” (pp. 227-228) I needn’t have worried. The genius of the poet, who combines intellect, wonder, faith, and wisdom gleams out in Lindskoog’s sharpened prose just as it does in Dante’s melodious and luminous poetry.

Finally, Lewis scholars will be challenged to extend Kay Lindskoog’s awareness of the role of Dante in Lewis’s own writings — she points to insights based upon Dante in The Problem of Pain, The Great Divorce, “The Weight of Glory,” and Letters to Malcolm as well as in his scholarly writings. I feel an essay coming on, one of those long ones that choke the pages of long-suffering journals! Thanks, Kay for your lovely gift to us all, for your deep understanding of Lewis, for your wise, elegant, deep, and pure gift of a Paradise, indeed, a Comedy, that is not only potent and precise, but endlessly accessible! With highest recommendations, especially to Lewis readers!