Surprised by Joy by C. S. Lewis: A Critical Summary and Overview

I. Form and Content

Long-time friend and literary executor of the Lewis estate, Owen Barfield has suggested that there were, in fact, three "C. S. Lewises." That is to say, there were three different vocations that Lewis fulfilled--and fulfilled successfully--in his lifetime. There was, first, Lewis the distinguished Oxford don and literary critic; secondly, Lewis, the highly acclaimed author of science fiction and children's literature; and thirdly, Lewis, the popular writer and broadcaster of Christian apologetics. The amazing thing, Barfield notes, is that those who may have known of Lewis in any single role may not have known that he performed in the other two. In a varied and comprehensive writing career, Lewis carved out a sterling reputation as a scholar, a novelist, and a theologian for three very different audiences. In Surprised by Joy (1956), written seven years before his death, Lewis helps to shed light on all "three Lewises" in his most personal book.

As such, Surprised by Joy represents one of the few works within the Lewis canon that speaks directly and unabashedly about his personal life. Given the almost stifling attention that Lewis's private life has received since his death in 1963, Surprised by Joy stands apart as an astonishingly candid yet self-effacing volume by one widely-regarded as the premier Christian apologist of the twentieth century. Lewis proceeds in Surprised by Joy as one reluctant to reveal specific details of his life but who relents, as he suggests in the preface, in order both to answer "requests that I would tell how I passed from Atheism to Christianity" and "to correct one or two false notions that seem to have got about." Lewis's reluctance involves not just the conventional modesty of the autobiographer who wishes to downplay the importance of his life, but stems as well from his conviction that no writer's work is especially illuminated by psychological inquiry into his or her life. As a renowned literary critic and literary historian, he had witnessed too many works passed off as "literary criticism" that were instead imagined reconstructions of the author's composing process or thought life--poor substitutes for thoughtful attention to an author's text itself.

Lewis referred to this twentieth-century critical preoccupation as "the personal heresy": the tendency to identify authors with their creations, assuming that each work is somehow and essentially a rehearsal of a writer's own life. Lewis believed this artistic heresy robbed works of their power and meaning by reducing all literary criticism to biographical skullduggery. He thus rejected out of hand the notion that an artist was obligated to lay bare the private life--either for the sake of celebrity or for its putative insights into his or her literary works. Thus, to accomplish the task he set for himself, Lewis was forced to overcome his "distaste for all that is public, all that belongs to the collective." The record of his life, to the extent that it contributed to his defense of Christianity, would be temporarily opened to the world at large--but only under his conditions. It would not be submitted for approval to those pundits or self-styled critics of his career who were merely searching evidence to undermine his arguments for Christian faith. Nothing is recalled that is not directly related to this purpose. Nevertheless, Lewis was clearly uncomfortable with the genre of autobiography and warns the reader in his preface:

The story is, I fear, suffocatingly subjective; the kind of thing I have never before and shall probably never write again. I have tried so to write the first chapter that those who can't bear such a story will see at once what they are in for and close the book with the least waste of time.

The subtitle of the book, "the Shape of my Early Life," succinctly captures the scope of Lewis's autobiography; it deals almost exclusively with his adolescent search for "joy" and those events leading up to and just subsequent to his conversion at age thirty-one. It comprises what Lewis himself would refer to as "spiritual autobiography," but not in the genre of "Confessions" like those of St. Augustine or Rousseau. Lewis views himself in Surprised by Joy as no more or less a sinner than anyone else, but it is chiefly his intellectual journey that needs charting; his is not a grand repentance from fleshly indulgence but a recovery of a child-like wonderment at the world and its mysteries. To further this specific goal, the volume contains only those people and events, ideas and contexts that help Lewis explain his conversion--first to himself, and then secondarily to his readers. Never one to be accused of hyperbole, Lewis's grand climax to his journey of faith is announced in matter-of-fact, demure terms: "Every step I had taken, from the Absolute to "Spirit" and from "Spirit" to "God," had been a step toward the more concrete, the more imminent. . . . To accept the Incarnation was a further step in the same direction."

II. Critical Analysis

Surprised by Joy is essentially an account of those factors that brought Lewis to a mature, adult Christian faith. As such the reader learns as much about what Lewis read as a child, an adolescent, and an undergraduate as he or she does about Lewis's friendships, military experiences, or love life--the staples of much mid-century biography. Lewis begins his work with an overview of the Lewis household and his early schooling. The Lewis household emerges as a particularly bookish home, one in which the reality he found on the pages of his parents' extensive library seems as tangible and meaningful to him as anything that transpires outside their doors. Lewis depicts himself and bother, William, as comrades in arms, absolute confidants who share their deepest longings and secrets without sibling rivalry--all in the happiness of the secure shelter of their parents' Belfast home. The tranquillity and sanctity of the Lewis home is shattered beyond repair, however, by the death of his mother; the rest of his saga becomes the melancholy search for the security and settledness he had took granted during the peace and grace of childhood.

It is this theme, the longing for a restoration of the joy he experienced as a boy, that permeates the entire volume. By "joy," Lewis meant not mere pleasure but the sublime experience of the transcendent, the glimpse of the eternal that is only fleetingly available in earthly loves and aesthetics. It is, for Lewis, only finally received in heavenly glory at the consummation of the age, a joy to be found in the Creator who himself invented both world and word, person and personality. It is He alone who redeems his fallen creation and provide them joy. From his earliest intimations of this joy, Lewis depicts himself in Surprised by Joy as precociously oriented toward the metaphysical and ultimate questions. Lewis turns first to the written word as an outlet for this ongoing search, creating at age eight the land of Boxen, a world populated by dressed, talking animals, the precursor of what would someday be refashioned as the land of Narnia--Lewis's magical land of children's adventures that retell the story of the creation, fall, and redemption of humankind. Later Lewis embraces what he referred to as "northernness," or the Norse mythology that represented for him the embodiment of otherness and an escape from the mundane realities of boarding school. Before his eventual return to orthodox Christianity, however, Lewis would experiment with adolescent atheism, various Eastern beliefs, and the "Absolute" of Aristotelian ethics on his way to the trinitarian God proclaimed by Christianity.

In describing this progression, Lewis paints fascinating pictures of turn-of-the-century Britain and its intellectual climate--especially the British school system and the trials and tribulations of a non-athletic young boy whose aesthetic sensibilities seem out of place and out of step with his peers. From here the book's remaining chapters chronicle the steady ascension of Lewis's mind and heart--both his reason and imagination--toward the re-acceptance of the faith he had once shared with his brother and parents, denounced as a young poet and philosopher, and ultimately recovered as an erudite Oxford don. Most important here are two individuals and two authors whom Lewis cites as critical influences animating these gradual changes.

The first of these persons is the "Great Knock," William Kirkpatrick, Lewis's last real tutor before entering Oxford. "Kirk," as Lewis called him, taught Lgive-and-take that seeks truth through the relentless probing of an opponent's position, a fierce and, in Kirk's hands, exaggerated version of Socratic dialogue. As an atheist, Kirk lent no direct support to Lewis's metaphysical yearnings, but taught him that while reason alone could never bring the inquirer to central truth, it was the foundation for all credible, defensible belief. Lewis's considerable debating skills can thus be seen as emanating from his beloved tutor. No less important to Lewis was his encounter and subsequent friendship with Owen Barfield, whom he met at Oxford in 1916. Barfield, a keen dialectician himself and a lawyer by trade, helped sharpen Lewis's understanding of both reason and faith. In their "Great War," a vibrant correspondence between the two covering many years, Lewis and Barfield debated the meaning of the supernatural and the identity of God. Barfield's chief contribution to Lewis's journey of faith, however, was his demolishing of Lewis's "chronological snobbery," the "uncritical acceptance of the intellectual climate common to our age and the assumption that whatever has gone out of date is on that count discredited." Freed from the notion that the past was invariably wrong and that the present always the barometer of truth, Lewis was able to confront the possibility that Christian message could have validity even in the twentieth century. By his own account, two authors also emerge as particularly influential and crucial to his agonizing grope toward faith. The first these was George MacDonald, the nineteenth-century Scot Presbyterian minister and novelist, whose works in his own time were more popular than Charles Dickens'. After reading two of MacDonald's fantasy works, Lewis reflected that they had "baptized" his imagination, preparing him for a world beyond the material one he had grown so tired of. The other author was G. K. Chesterton, popular and prolific London journalist, and a talented Christian apologist in his own right. Chesterton's work, The Everlasting Man, a portrait of Christ and of his impact on culture, presented Lewis with a more global, comprehensive picture of Christianity and its place in human history. Lewis could thus say:

In reading Chesterton, as in reading MacDonald, I did not know what I was letting myself in for. A young man who wishes to remain a sound Atheist cannot be too careful of his reading. . . . God is, if I may say it, very unscrupulous.

From Lewis's perspective, the "joy" he had so long sought had been discovered in the least likely place within the least likely circumstances. Few Oxford professors of medieval and renaissance literature become ardent, vocal, internationally-known promoters of religious faith. Lewis's personal account of this highly unusual occurrence thus makes Surprised by Joy compelling reading for both the believer and nonbeliever alike.

III. Literary Context

Lewis's life and work have been the focus of countless books since his death in 1963. Ironically, he may eventually suffer the same fate as other authors he himself championed and "rehabilitated" during his scholarly career. Surrounded, even surfeited by volume after volume of analysis, paraphrase, and critique, Lewis's own canon may be dwarfed by secondary sources, an attitude he opposed all of his life in reading others. We don't need the critics to enjoy Chaucer, he once said, but Chaucer to enjoy the critics. As it stands, both his fiction and theological writings have been endlessly anthologized and hyper-critically explored, creating a trail of footnotes and asides long enough to camouflage the essential viewpoints and facts about his life--thus discouraging even the most diligent student of Lewis. It must be said however that Lewis's own works remain the most reliable source and insightful interpreter of his thought and personality. Surprised by Joy, while, as noted, emerging as the most personal of Lewis's books, still retains the characteristic stylistic and thematic modes found elsewhere in his oeuvre.

It is in Surprised by Joy, for example, that one learns the extent to which Lewis is indebted to a romantic view of both life and culture, that is, a mindset in which reason and imagination are held in tension at all times and neither is allowed to dominate or cancel out the other. Haunted in his search for joy, Lewis turns first in his youth to the strange and preternatural--the darker myths of the North. His youthful trek into the vagaries of philosophy land him within various camps of pantheism and theism, and, finally, to the Christian theism wherein reason and imagination are married in the Eternal Logos, the "Myth Become Fact," which he discovered in Jesus of Nazareth. Despite his judgment that the text seemed "suffocatingly subjective," the deliberate, methodical way in which Lewis narrates his life parallels the meticulous arguments with which he constructed scholarly treatise and theological brief alike. Here, as elsewhere, Lewis steadfastly refuses to include any details of his life to titillate the amateur psychologist or self-styled debunker.

Therefore, even when he is revealing innermost thoughts and private incidents, Lewis still maintains a distance from both the reader and his subject matter--as if he were creating a persona, a fictional "Lewis" (as he indeed did in the first volume of his space trilogy, Out of the Silent Planet [1938]), whose life and personality he must discern through the same careful historical research and fundamental objectivity that accompanied such scholarly works as The Allegory of Love (1936) or A Preface to Paradise Lost (1942). Even though Lewis's circle of friends included a veritable who's who of popular fiction, among them J. R. R. Tolkien, Charles Williams, and Dorothy L. Sayers, only those who had a direct influence on his coming to faith receive specific citation or focus. In a word, Surprised by Joy represents the kind of scholarship about his own life that Lewis practiced in his own literary criticism and theological works and remains an admirable model of autobiographical restraint and insight.