People often describe reading great literature as inherently beneficial—but reading books you can't understand is pointless. The tools for interpretation are no secret, but actually acquiring them can be difficult, and most students need some help. So do their parents, for that matter, which is why literature guides have become so popular among homeschool families.
Unfortunately, many companies who publish literature guides just end up copying each other, everyone covering the same reading material in largely the same way. So when Classical Academic Press issued a series of guides based on the writings of the Inklings, we took notice. Not that there aren't some Tolkien and Lewis based guides out there, but a whole series?
The name Walking to Wisdom: Inklings Collection is a bit of a misnomer (Dorothy Sayers wasn't an Inkling, and where on earth is the great Charles Williams?), but there are four works by C. S. Lewis, three by J. R. R. Tolkien, and one by Dorothy Sayers here, as well as a variety of supplemental essays and excerpts by each to support specific themes and ideas.
How Do These Work?
For each title studied there is a student book and a teacher's edition. Student books are consumable, and largely student-directed, though parent interaction is welcomed throughout and necessary at times, particularly when students are asked to narrate back the substance of the day's reading assignment.
Each guide has two study schedules, one for finishing the book and guide quickly, and another for taking more time. After reading some introductory material (including an introduction to the book, a brief description of the Inklings, and a summary of the guide's elements), students go on to reading supplementary essays and the book itself, answering questions along the way.
Students are encouraged to make notes in their book and use a separate journal or notebook if they need more space to write answers to questions in the guide. They'll also summarize chapters, write their own discussion questions, and answer a variety of comprehension and thought questions based on the text.
One distinctive feature of these guides is the "Tracing the Great Ideas" element. Important themes are identified in each book, and these ideas form the basis for collections of related quotations students make, essays they write, and notes they take both in the guide and in the books themselves.
For instance, one of the "Great Ideas" identified in The Screwtape Letters is "real pleasure." Throughout the guide, students are called on to grapple with the nature of pleasure as described by the world and as described in the Bible. One of the "Great Ideas" of The Last Battle is stories and history, etc.
After reading the assigned chapters, making notes, and "Tracing the Great Ideas," students repeat aloud their own summary of the reading assignment to the parent. Finally, there's a journaling assignment in which students reflect on what they've read and apply it to their own lives. This assignment should be written in a separate journal or notebook.
The student books contain everything needed for the student to do the assignments and complete the written work. Essays are assigned and guidelines are provided, but your kids will need some knowledge of composition beforehand. The teacher's editions include answers to all questions and written work, sample essays, and some expanded background material and discussion ideas.
Once the book and guide are completed, students have the option to complete a number of enrichment activities designed to cement the book and its contents in their memories (and presumably to provide a bit of fun). These range from going to see The Screwtape Letters performed to performing a radio version of The Last Battle in the living room.
It's unclear what ages these guides are intended for, but there is a scope and sequence to the entire series beginning with The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe and ending with The Return of the King. All four C. S. Lewis guides are available and should be completed first, followed by The Man Born to Be King by Dorothy Sayers, and Tolkien's Lord of the Rings trilogy.
Given the nature of each book, and the increasingly difficult and in-depth nature of the analysis, we'd probably recommend starting the series at the end of middle school or the beginning of high school and just doing each guide till they're done. The first guide can be completed in as little as 10 days;Till We Have Faces will take up to 56 days, though the authors stress that the schedules are flexible.
Our Honest Opinion
The ability to read great literature, to understand it, and to reiterate and discuss the ideas found in books is essential to a good education. These guides aren't a complete literary analysis course, but they do ably demonstrate how to apply the tools of analysis to some of the best Christian literature of the last century.
Plenty of literature guides cover Lewis's beloved Chronicles of Narnia and some cover Tolkien's magnificent Lord of the Rings, but few cover The Screwtape Letters or Till We Have Faces, and none that we know of cover anything by Sayers. These selections are welcome, but even more valuable is the approach with which each is examined, looking for ideas and motifs, not just facts about the story. (But seriously, where is Charles Williams? He was an Inkling, truly brilliant, and an amazing writer.)
Since the emphasis is on application of literary analysis tools and not specifically on their introduction or development, these guides are best used following a literary analysis course. We'd recommend James Stobaugh's Skills for Literary Analysis as a good introduction. There are a lot of literature guides available, and new ones are always a bit suspect, but the Walking to Wisdom: Inklings Collection is very good and highly recommended.
Review by C. Hollis Crossman
C. Hollis Crossman used to be a child. Now he's a husband and father who loves church, good food, and weird stuff. He might be a mythical creature, but he's definitely not a centaur. Read more of his reviews here
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