Reflecting Eternal Light: Eyes to See in Pilgrim’s Regress

By Carl Nellis, Editor

9781619706651Marsha Daigle-Williamson’s Reflecting the Eternal: Dante’s Divine Comedy in the Novels of C.S. Lewis, now available, traces the relationship between C.S. Lewis and Dante’s Divine Comedy.

This is the third post in our series of excerpts from Dr. Daigle-Williamson’s book that show Lewis imitating and adapting Dante’s images and metaphors of light. These passages explore the numerous ways that Lewis turned to his medieval master as a source of illumination.

In our second post from Reflecting the Eternal, we saw that “Dante makes geographical features equivalent to spiritual realities,” using relation to the Sun and its light as a metaphor for the relationship that his many characters have to God. In this excerpt from chapter three, Dr. Daigle-Williamson explores the passage in which John, the protagonist of Lewis’s first novel, Pilgrim’s Regress, realizes that he has to retrace his steps, to “regress,” in order to arrive at what he truly desires.

The chapter in Lewis’s novel in which John learns he must retrace his steps is titled “Nella Sua Voluntade”—a phrase from the famous passage in the Paradiso in which a redeemed soul says, “In His will is our peace” (Par. 3.85, italics added). [1] In paraphrasing part of Dante’s verse for his chapter title, Lewis intends to convey John’s disposition of overcoming his initial disappointment and peacefully acquiescing to retrace his steps.

Like Dante’s pilgrim, Lewis’s pilgrim is given a guide noted for powers of vision for this new phase of the journey. In the Commedia, Beatrice replaces Virgil, endowed with “perfect vision” (see Par. 5.5). For the rest of the journey she helps the pilgrim understand what he sees. In Pilgrim’s Regress, John is led by the angel Slikisteinsauga (whetstone eyes) whose “sight was so sharp that the sight of any other who travelled with him would be sharpened by his company” (Book IX, 6).

The pilgrims also receive special vision themselves to equip them for this next phase of the journey. Although Dante’s pilgrim has seen the spiritual realities of the afterlife from the very beginning, after his reunion with Beatrice his vision is transformed and expanded. Gazing at her, he is changed within (see Par. 1.67-69) and is able to withstand successive increases of light from sphere to sphere until he has the capacity for visions of God.

John’s knowledge of the truth has transformed his sight; now he sees the terrain differently because he himself is different. [2] John had journeyed west a natural man and had seen the current inhabitants of the country as men and women; now he journeys east a spiritual man and sees the spiritual beings that perennially inhabit the land. He had originally seen cities and normal countryside; now he sees that the region south of the Main Road consists of “swamps and jungle sinking almost at once into black cloud” while the region north of the Main Road is a land of “crags rising within a few paces of the road into ice and mist and, beyond that, black cloud” (Book X, 1).

Although there are distinctions between the errors of the south and north, as reflected in the different types of terrains, both areas lead to “black cloud,” mental darkness and confusion. In Pilgrim’s Regress, those who depart from the Main Road, whether to the south or the north, end up, like all of Dante’s souls in hell, as those “who have lost the good of the intellect” (Inf. 3.18). [3]

If God is light in Dante’s universe, vision becomes the metaphor for knowing God, with renewed vision revealing the error’s darkness and God’s light to the eyes of the pilgrim. Lewis taking up Dante’s carefully wrought pattern of relationships between pilgrim, guide, and their world as he made his first foray into writing fiction. Lewis’s reliance on Dante’s spiritual geography shines out of the way that Lewis shapes his character’s journey. Our next post will follow Dr. Daigle-Williamson into the cosmos Lewis constructed for Out of the Silent Planet, a world brimming with spiritual light.


Reflecting the Eternal: Dante’s Divine Comedy in the Novels of C.S. Lewis is now available!

It is for Lewis fans, teachers of Lewis and their students, Lewis critics and scholars, Dante lovers, and general readers. Readers will learn more about the ideas, structural patterns, and narrative details in Lewis’s novels that have links to Dante’s poem, how a modern writer successfully turned medieval poems into modern stories, and how Lewis and Dante both expressed theological and spiritual principles in literature of the highest order.


Marsha Daigle-Williamson (PhD, University of Michigan) is Professor Emerita at Spring Arbor University where she taught English for over twenty-five years and won numerous teaching awards. She serves as translator for the Preacher to the Papal Household, and has translated sixteen books from the Italian as well as publishing over forty articles, profiles, and reviews. Dr. Daigle-Williamson has presented at the International Congress on Medieval Studies eight times in the past ten years and has been a member of The Dante Society of America for over fifteen years.


[1] Par. 3.85: “E ’n la sua volontade è nostra pace.” Lewis references the idea in this verse but not its exact wording, and he spells “volontade” as “voluntade.”

[2] The theme of someone seeing the same thing differently after an inner change is a recurring one for Lewis. It is perhaps best articulated in one of the Narnia Chronicles when the narrator says, “what you see and hear depends a good deal on where you are standing: it also depends on what sort of person you are.” The Magician’s Nephew (New York: Macmillan, 1955), 125.

[3] Inf. 3.18: “c’hanno perduto il ben dell’intelletto.”

Reflecting Eternal Light: Dante’s Spiritual Geography

By Carl Nellis, Editor

Marsha Daigle-Williamson’s Reflecting the Eternal: Dante’s Divine Comedy in the Novels of C.S. Lewis, now available, traces the relationship between C.S. Lewis and Dante’s Divine Comedy.

This is the second post in our series of excerpts from Dr. Daigle-Williamson’s book that show Lewis imitating and adapting Dante’s images and metaphors of light. These passages explore the numerous ways that Lewis turned to his medieval master as a source of illumination, demonstrating that the idea of reflection was a metaphor central to Lewis’s conception of creativity, and of the religious life.

In our first post from Reflecting the Eternal, we saw Lewis describe the role of an author as “becoming clean mirrors” that embody “some reflection of eternal Beauty and Wisdom.” [1] Here, Dr. Daigle-Williamson describes the way that Dante uses the light of the sun as a metaphor for God’s presence and his grace.

In The Divine Comedy, Dante makes geographical features equivalent to spiritual realities through the use of an overarching metaphor.

The Sun represents God (as well as grace, truth, light, love) and serves as the reference point for the layout of his universe. [2] Every area is spiritually defined by its geographical relationship to the Sun. Hell, in its traditional setting under the earth, is the region farthest from the Sun and is cut off from its light, thus representing separation from God. Mount Purgatory reaches up toward the Sun, so its ascent represents movement toward God. The heavens are the location of the Sun where increasing light represents increasing union with God.

With the Sun as his key metaphor, Dante constructs the subdivisions in his three realms as elaborations of this fundamental pattern. The circles of hell are located at a greater and greater distance from the Sun, indicating increasing levels of the gravity of a given sin. The ascending ledges of Mount Purgatory are progressively closer to the Sun, indicating increasing levels of acquired virtue and decreasing gravity of the capital sins being purged. In the heavens, the spheres are filled with successive increases in light, indicating increasing levels of blessedness. The spiritual condition of any soul in Dante’s universe can be deduced merely by its location in this scheme because the very geography of this universe is itself a tacit message.

Beatrice is the character who is shaped to reenact Christ in the poem. [3] Like Christ, she can descend into hell to effect salvation for a lost soul (see Inf. 2.53-74; Par. 31.80-81). Like Christ who will judge each soul, she can judge the pilgrim for his sin (see Purg. 31.34-36). She can quote Jesus’ words at the Last Supper (Jn. 16:16) about soon not seeing her any longer and apply it to herself (see Purg. 33.10-12).

Like Christ, in whose face shines “the light of the knowledge of the glory of God” (2 Cor. 4:6), her face shines and dispenses that same knowledge to Dante’s pilgrim throughout the Paradiso.

In The Divine Comedy, then, Beatrice is the kind of figure that Lewis would call “a clean mirror filled with the image of a face that is not ours.” Our next post will open Reflecting the Eternal to chapter two, where Dr. Daigle-Williamson explains the way that Lewis used The Divine Comedy as a model for his first novel, The Pilgrim’s Regress, in which Lewis’s use of light and darkness reflects Dantean spiritual geography.


Reflecting the Eternal: Dante’s Divine Comedy in the Novels of C.S. Lewis is now available!

It is for Lewis fans, teachers of Lewis and their students, Lewis critics and scholars, Dante lovers, and general readers. Readers will learn more about the ideas, structural patterns, and narrative details in Lewis’s novels that have links to Dante’s poem, how a modern writer successfully turned medieval poems into modern stories, and how Lewis and Dante both expressed theological and spiritual principles in literature of the highest order.


Marsha Daigle-Williamson (PhD, University of Michigan) is Professor Emerita at Spring Arbor University where she taught English for over twenty-five years and won numerous teaching awards. She serves as translator for the Preacher to the Papal Household, and has translated sixteen books from the Italian as well as publishing over forty articles, profiles, and reviews. Dr. Daigle-Williamson has presented at the International Congress on Medieval Studies eight times in the past ten years and has been a member of The Dante Society of America for over fifteen years.


[1] C. S. Lewis, “Christianity and Literature,” in Christian Reflections, ed. Walter Hooper (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1967), 7.

[2] See Psalm 84:11: “The Lord God is a sun . . . .”

[3] Dante’s pilgrim also “reenacts Christ” in the timeline of the poem through his descent into hell on Good Friday, his emergence from under the earth on Easter, and his subsequent ascension into Paradise. However, this reenactment is only in the details that parallel Christ’s death, resurrection, and ascension. As a sinful human being, the pilgrim cannot reenact the essence of Christ’s actions that redeem the world. This reenactment belongs to the secondary category of typology that follows the details but not the substance of a biblical event.

Reflecting Eternal Light: C.S. Lewis and the Role of the Author

By Carl Nellis, Editor

Marsha Daigle-Williamson’s Reflecting the Eternal: Dante’s Divine Comedy in the Novels of C.S. Lewis, available now, traces the relationship between C.S. Lewis and Dante’s Divine Comedy.

This short excerpt comes from the book’s first chapter, “Lewis, Dante, and Literary Predecessors.” Dr. Daigle-Williamson illuminates the context in which Lewis understood Dante’s work, and how he positioned his own storytelling in relation to the work of the Italian master.

In The Discarded Image Lewis describes the concept of literature held by medievalists and sums up his own position equally well: “Literature exists to teach what is useful, to honour what deserves honour, to appreciate what is delightful,” and if that be the case, then the content of literature should be “useful, honourable, and delightful things.” [1]

Lewis reaffirms this concept in his essay on “Christianity and Literature,” where he writes,

“Our whole destiny seems to lie in . . . acquiring a fragrance that is not our own but borrowed, in becoming clean mirrors filled with the image of a face that is not ours. . . . Applying this principle to literature, . . . we should get as the basis of all critical theory the maxim that an author should never conceive himself as bringing into existence beauty or wisdom which did not exist before, but simply and solely as trying to embody in terms of his own art some reflection of eternal Beauty and Wisdom.” [2]

For Lewis, then, the proper subject matter of literature consists in values or truths that are superior to literature and for whose sake literature exists.

In terms of literary predecessors, this meant that Lewis’s approach to writing was intentional “imitation,” receiving inspiration and ideas from writers of the past and at times purposely echoing them as part of adding layers of meaning to his own work. As Lewis noted in The Personal Heresy, this way of seeing creative work is a centuries-old tradition. When Virgil, for instance, has Aeneas unsuccessfully attempt to embrace the shade of his dead wife Cruesa three times, he is echoing the passage from Homer in which Odysseus tries to greet his dead mother in Hades. Dante’s pilgrim replicates that action with the very same result when he sees his dead friend Casella on the shores of purgatory (see Purg. 2.76–81). This echoing of his predecessors enriches the scene by drawing the stories of Homer and Virgil into The Divine Comedy. In the same way, Lewis’s novels are enriched by the many stories he draws on.

Lewis’s approach to “imitation,” in addition to being a centuries-old tradition in Western literature, is also explicitly based on his reading of the New Testament. In “Christianity and Literature,” Lewis points out that “In the New Testament the art of life itself is an art of imitation: can we, believing this, believe that literature is to aim at being ‘creative,’  ‘original.’ and ‘spontaneous’?” [3] Although Lewis derives his rationale here for “imitation” from Church teaching, this kind of approach to one’s predecessors is the procedure that was generally recommended and adopted by Western writers until the modern period.

Despite the variations that occurred in the interpretation and application of the concept of “imitation” during successive literary ages, there was at least a consensus that predecessors were to be respected, studied, and followed. Literary achievements were models for new authors, deep wells for inspiration, sign posts to assist and guide them along the well-trod path that lay before them.

This passage demonstrates that the idea of reflection was a metaphor central to Lewis’s conception of creativity, and of the religious life. Lewis took this metaphor of the artist as a mirror reflecting eternal light from critical passages in Dante’s Divine Comedy.

Over the next few weeks, we will explore more passages from Dr. Daigle-Williamson’s book that show Lewis imitating and adapting Dante’s images and metaphors of light. These passages explore the numerous ways that Lewis turned to his medieval master as a source of illumination. Our next post will open Reflecting the Eternal ways that Dante used light as a central metaphor The Divine Comedy.


Reflecting the Eternal: Dante’s Divine Comedy in the Novels of C.S. Lewis is available now!

It is for Lewis fans, teachers of Lewis and their students, Lewis critics and scholars, Dante lovers, and general readers. Readers will learn more about the ideas, structural patterns, and narrative details in Lewis’s novels that have links to Dante’s poem, how a modern writer successfully turned medieval poems into modern stories, and how Lewis and Dante both expressed theological and spiritual principles in literature of the highest order.


Marsha Daigle-Williamson (PhD, University of Michigan) is Professor Emerita at Spring Arbor University where she taught English for over twenty-five years and won numerous teaching awards. She serves as translator for the Preacher to the Papal Household, and has translated sixteen books from the Italian as well as publishing over forty articles, profiles, and reviews. Dr. Daigle-Williamson has presented at the International Congress on Medieval Studies eight times in the past ten years and has been a member of The Dante Society of America for over fifteen years.


[1] C. S. Lewis, The Discarded Image: An Introduction to Medieval and Renaissance Literature (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1964), 214. Lewis is echoing Paul’s admonition in Philippians 4:8: “whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is anything worthy of praise, think on these things” (RSV).

[2] C. S. Lewis, “Christianity and Literature,” in Christian Reflections, ed. Walter Hooper (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1967), 7.

[3] Lewis, “Christianity and Literature,” 8.