History professor and Lewis scholar K. Alan Snyder (of PonderingPrinciples.com fame) teamed up with his former student and history-teacher-turned-pastor, Jamin Metcalf, to offer the first book dedicated to C.S. Lewis’s thoughts on history. The book is a scholarly yet accessible apologetic for the study of history as an antidote to many modern ills.

The book’s title, Many Times and Many Places, comes from Lewis’s 1939 talk, “Learning in Wartime”:

Most of all, perhaps, we need intimate knowledge of the past. . . . A man who has lived in many places is not likely to be deceived by the local errors of his native village; the scholar has lived in many times and is therefore in some degree immune from the great cataract of nonsense that pours from the press and the microphone of his own age.[1]

In this talk, Lewis treats history as a liberal art – a study that equips one for freedom. Snyder and Metcalf return to this point often while also exploring Lewis’s credentials as a historian, his approach to the necessary evil of ‘periodization’, his critique of ‘historicism’, and how the proper study of history strengthens one’s imagination. They also include a very long chapter examining every one of Lewis’s fiction works with regard to historical parallels (though not every book seems to warrant this treatment).

How is it that Lewis, the apologist, literature scholar, and fiction writer, comes to be treated as an authority on history? The authors make the case that Lewis’s studies and his professional work more than qualify him to have an opinion on the discipline of history. His history tutor at Oxford, George Stevenson, said he had much promise as a scholar.[2] The history students he tutored spoke of his class as fertile training ground for their studies.[3] Much of Lewis’s own scholarship hinged on reintroducing modern audiences to old ideas. Lewis wrote A Preface to Paradise Lost, English Literature in the Sixteenth Century (part of the Oxford History of the English Language), and The Discarded Image largely to reintroduce students to older philosophy and culture so they might understand their literary heritage.

Lewis’s reintroduction work is necessary because of the vast cultural divide between modern readers and their pre-modern predecessors. Lewis argued that the major historical dividing line comes not between the Medieval and the Renaissance periods, as is sometimes supposed, but sometime shortly after the lives of Jane Austen and Walter Scott (late 18th, early 19th centuries). Quoting from Lewis’s inaugural address upon taking the chair of Medieval and Renaissance Literature at Cambridge, De Descriptione Temporum”:

Roughly speaking we may say that whereas all history was for our ancestors divided into two periods, the pre-Christian and the Christian, and two only, for us it falls into three – the pre-Christian, the Christian, and what may reasonably be called the post-Christian.[4]

These post-Christians, Metcalf and Snider summarize, are inculcated into “a materialistic, naturalistic, and functionalistic understanding” of man and the universe with the result that modern students are alienated from the art and literature of the past.[5] Lewis thought recognizing the shift is an important part of checking its influence.

Lewis blames this shift on Darwinian assumptions of ‘progress’ applied to human social development, reinforced by the observation of rapidly advancing technology over the 19th and 20th centuries. This leads modern man to assume that newer is always superior, an attitude Lewis calls ‘chronological snobbery’. Modern education, which has largely removed older authors from the curriculum and only references them at all second hand, contributes to the assumption that we have nothing to learn from the past, other than perhaps to show how far advanced we are. Not too long ago it was commonly believed “that valuable truth could still be found in an ancient book.”[6] Lewis himself had succumbed to ‘chronological snobbery’, as he called it, from which he had to be rescued by the likes of G.K. Chesterton and Owen Barfield.[7]

The best way to remedy chronological snobbery, Lewis thought, was to read old books. But not just read to dissect them, but to see through the eyes of their authors. Or, to put it another way, one needs to imaginatively enjoy old books rather than ponder them. Snyder and Metcalf explore the theory and offer examples in their delightful chapter on “Historical Imagination.” Reading old books requires humility and modesty, not trying to use the past like some sort of map or prophecy through which we can read the future of mankind (the error of the ‘historicist’), but humbly trying to understand it for what it is, a snapshot of a particular place and time. Such sympathetic reading expands the capacity of one’s imagination, and while Lewis differed from Barfield about whether imagination was a source of truth, he agreed that it is essential for understanding.[8] Metcalf and Snyder leave nary an artifact unexamined in their efforts to compile Lewis’s outlook on history. They comb through his letters, finding his commentary to his brother Warnie on reading Gibbons’ The History and Fall of the Roman Empire, (no good, Lewis thought, as it perpetually judges the actions of historical figures by modern standards) and his delight in reading Herodotus and Tacitus – his ‘light’ reading with his tutor, the Great Knock.[9] They even examine Lewis’s marginalia from the books in his personal library, including various historical texts, archived at the Marian E. Wade Center at Wheaton College. They are up-to-date on very recent scholarship, such as David Baxter’s The Medieval Mind of C.S. Lewis from 2022 and Jeffrey Barbeau’s “C.S. Lewis and the Romantic Heresy” lecture from just last year. Yet they do not neglect classic Lewis scholarship such as Peter Schakel’s Reason and Imagination in C.S. Lewis: A Study in Till We Have Faces from forty years ago.

While rigorous in scholarship, the style and manner are accessible. The book assumes more familiarity with Lewis on the part of its readers than it does the discipline of historical study. There are a few ‘as everyone knows’ sorts of comments regarding Lewis’s more popular works, but the authors are sure to define historical terms, concepts, and examples, and controversies with sufficient context so that readers can understand what’s being talked about. Chapters can largely stand alone, with points and sources being reintroduced each chapter. This produces some redundancies but not enough to be tedious.

Snider and Metcalf have opened wide a new vein for mining treasures out of Lewis studies, but perhaps even more significant have provided an exhortation to teach and engage history imaginatively. Readers would do well to follow up this new book with some Herodotus or the Venerable Bede.

[1] C.S. Lewis, “Learning in Wartime” in The Weight of Glory (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1980),58-59.

[2] Snyder and Metcalf, 26.

[3] An interview with historian A.G. Dickens, “Tutored by Lewis,” is included as an appendix.

[4] Lewis, De Descriptione Temporum, 5, quoted in Metcalf and Snyder, 40.

[5] Metcalf and Snyder, 40.

[6] Lewis, “Modern Man and his Categories of Thought,” Present Concerns, quoted by Metcalf and Snyder on 99.

[7] Snyder and Metcalf reference The Everlasting Man several times throughout the text and include an impressive section on Lewis and Barfield’s ‘Great War’ over the role of imagination in epistemology that is the best basic introduction to this debate that I’ve ever read.

[8] They don’t shy away from the difficult topics, such as Lewis and Barfield’s ‘Great War’ over the epistemological role of the imagination, including references to Stephen Thorson’s The Poetic Imagination.

[9] Snyder and Metcalf, 29, 17.