The Allegory of Love

The Allegory of Love, by C. S. Lewis

I first read this, Lewis' first book of literary criticism, at least 10 years ago.  Last year after reading that book about the Inklings I thought I'd like to read it again, but when I took my copy (really my mother's, which I stole) down from the shelf, it seemed practically unreadable; it had tiny type in a 60s era paperback.  So I splurged a little and bought a new copy.  Then when Cleo mentioned it in connection with the Faerie Queene, I realized I really ought to read it before the readalong, not after, so I got going.  It was really nice to revisit, especially since I have now actually read the Romance of the Rose and understand a lot more of what he's talking about.

Lewis starts off by explaining that allegory was how early medieval people first started to express psychological ideas, especially conflict.  Much as a cartoon might show an inner moral conflict by means of an angel and a devil on each shoulder, they would express it with an argument between, say, Anger and Duty, or Mercy and Vengeance.  Western literature was getting into psychology for the first time, and allegory is how it was expressed.

The first examples were familiar to me, because I read them in college.  Prudentius wrote this massive story called the Psychomachia, rendered in my English reader as the Fight for Mansoul, in which the Virtues and the Vices have a battle.  Then we have Fulgentius and Bernardus Silvestris writing further.  It was at about this point that it occurred to me to wonder why on earth my medieval literature professor assigned these pieces to us.  They are weird and tricky and really, now that I know something more about medieval lit than I did at age 20, I'm wondering what she was thinking.  We were upperclassmen and literature majors, but we'd only done maybe Beowulf and Chaucer.  This material strikes me as more suitable to a grad student seminar.  Maybe my standards are just low?  Maybe it's because it was her first year teaching and she'd just arrived from Oxford?  I don't know, but I sure would like to know whether she is still assigning Bernardus Silvestris to college juniors and what she would say now.

Well, onward.  Lewis continues to trace the development of allegory into stories of romance, especially the Romance of the Rose.  He thinks the first part, by Guillame Lorris, is delicate and perfect, and a total mess in the second part by Jean de Meun ("this huge, dishevelled, violent poem of 1800 lines").  My buddy Chretien de Troyes makes an appearance.  Onward through Gower and Usk, whom I have never read and ought to, until we get to the place where allegory is the default literary mode and therefore frequently done badly and getting pretty worn out.

But the final chapter is all on the Faerie Queene, and the perfection thereof.  Lewis shows how Spenser is replacing courtly love--which is always adulterous and within a context of marriage as financial arrangement--with an ideal of married love, which is chaste, fertile, and on the side of Life.  All of Spenser's arrangements show sin as sterile, fake, and dead, while righteousness is full of life, joy, love, and fertility all around.

Not an easy read, but very fun for those interested in medieval literature.  I'm following up with Lewis' book of lectures that are entirely about the Faerie Queene.  I figure I have to be prepared or I'll never survive!

NB One note about this edition: it's pretty much a reprint of the book, with nothing added.  This is a real problem, because back in the 1930s, when Lewis wrote it, he threw in lots of Latin and Greek and French quotations, expecting that his classically-educated fellow academics could read it all.  That was just fine then, but this is now and hardly anyone will be able to read those passages.  Cambridge UP, however, utterly failed to do anything about this.  At every turn, you come to footnotes that say things like "See this very important marginal gloss:" and then a bunch of Latin.  It reaches its final absurdity in the first appendix, which consists entirely of Greek and Latin passages interspersed with Lewis saying that this should clear up the point nicely.  Cambridge UP, I expect better of you.


  1. An excellent review and very helpful as I just finished reading (and posting my review of) Spenser's Images of Life. At least I got out of it what you mentioned at the end of your review, so I have at least a basic understanding. Some of it certainly went over my head, but, knowing Lewis' works, I was prepared for that. :-) I think I should read some more medieval works before I attempt Allegory of Love so I'll get more out of it. By reading The Faerie Queene I seem to be starting at the end and working backwards, but that's okay. I wouldn't want to miss out reading with the rest of you. I'm looking forward to it!


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