C.S. Lewis. 1955. Surprised by Joy: The Shape of My Early Life. New York: Harcourt Book.
Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra
Memoirs often challenge reviewers because they are not easily summarized. An analytical book often argues a single idea by breaking it down into supporting ideas while a synthesis builds up related ideas to form a conclusion. While a good memoir is more the latter, oftentimes the path through life can be serendipitous in its living and can read more like a mystery in its telling. Thus, even a deep read may not reveal the structure in the author’s mind, leaving the reviewer in a pickle as to what pieces to highlight.
In his memoir, Surprised by Joy, C.S. Lewis writes: “The book aims at telling the story of my conversion and is not a general autobiography, still less ‘Confessions’ like those of Saint Augustine or Rouseau.” (vvii) This description pegs Lewis’ work as a memoir which differs from an autobiography primarily in having a theme (“my conversion”). The conversion of C.S. Lewis to the Christian faith interests many because Lewis ranks among the most persuasive of Christian apologists of the twentieth century owing to his skill as a fiction writer and vast knowledge of modern and classical languages, and philosophy. While others might resort to penning a memoir out of vanity or desire for reflection, Lewis writes at the urging of his readers (vii).
The Question of Joy
When I purchased Lewis’ book back in 2013 during seminary, I was attracted by the title, Surprise by Joy, and paid no attention at all to the subtitle: The Shape of My Early Life. I hoped for a study of joy, perhaps as a biblical theme, but did not initially identify the book as a memoir. When I began reading in earnest this fall having just completed a memoir of my own, Lewis’ memoir posed an immediate interest. Lewis does not study joy extensively perhaps because his early life displayed so little of it.
Influence of Lewis’ Parents
Lewis begins his journey of faith describing his parents:
“I was born in the winter of 1898 at Belfast, the son of solicitor and of a clergyman’s daughter…The two families from which I spring were as different in temperament as in origin. My father’s people were true Welshmen, sentimental, passionate, and rhetorical, easily moved both to anger and to tenderness; men who laughed and cried a great deal and who had not much of the talent for happiness. The Hamiltons were a cooler race. Their minds were critical and ironic and they had a talent for happiness in a high degree—went straight for it as experienced travelers go for the best seat in a train.” (3)
One might expect a memoir to start with one’s birthday, not a season of birth—winter, especially in the first sentence. For a man of letters such as Lewis, this is unlikely to have been an accidental turn of phrase. If you think that I am reading too much into this one word, Lewis describes the Lewis family as having “not much talent for happiness”, while his mother’s family posed a “talent for happiness.” Again, this is unlikely to have been an accidental turn of phrase. This is true especially because we soon learn that Lewis’ mother died while he was yet quite young and just before he announces this fact to us he takes great pains to define joy (18).
Lewis’ Experience of Joy
Before defining joy, Lewis takes pains to outline his imaginary life as a child and cites a number of books that aided this interior life. He is especially attracted to “dressed animals” and “knights in armor” that live presumably in “Animal-Land” (13). After discussing three such books, he cautions readers not interested will find nothing further of interest in his memoir because books such as these are his joy (17). He then writes:
“I call it [a desire more desirable than any other satisfaction] Joy, which is here a technical term and must be sharply distinguished both from Happiness and from Pleasure. Joy (in my sense) has indeed one characteristic, and one only, in common with them; the fact that anyone who has experienced it will want it again.” (18)
Lewis accordingly finds joy in reading and in his interior life, perhaps, because he experienced such deep grief on the loss of his mother (18-19) and found joy nowhere else in his exterior life. He concludes: “with my mother’s death all settled happiness, all that was tranquil and reliable, disappeared from my life.” (21)
With the death of his mother, Lewis’ father became his chief influence and his father sent both Lewis and his brother off to boarding school, which Lewis describes as a concentration camp. Much of his memoir, with the exception of about fifteen pages devoted to his experience as a young British officer in World War One (WWI), focuses on his experiences in a variety of schools. While fascinating to read, in the context of the story of Lewis’ coming to faith, his education functions as a lengthy prelude to his conversion experience—there I was; here I am.
Returning to Faith
After WWI Lewis returned to school at Oxford and began to reassess his worldview as a college atheist. In conversations with a friend, he notes have been persuaded to give up his:
“chronological snobbery, the uncritical acceptance of the intellectual climate common to our own age and the assumption that whatever has gone out of date is on that account discredited.” (207)
In my own experience, this “chronological snobbery” forms a cornerstone of atheism in our own time because it is hard to accept the divine inspiration the Bible when anything written before the Internet (Millennials) or before the 1960s sexual revolution (Boomers) is considered obsolete. Lewis clearly anticipated this larger problem having named and confronted it already in the 1940s.
Hounds of Heaven
Lewis writes using different metaphors about God’s pursuit of his soul. For example, he writes:
“But, of course, what mattered most of all was my deep-seated hatred of authority, my monstrous individualism, my lawlessness. No word in my vocabulary expressed deeper hatred than the word Interference. But Christianity placed at the center what then seem to me a transcendental Interferer…’This is my business and mine only.’” (172)
“And so the great Angler played His fish and I never dreamed that the hook was in my tongue.” (211)
But for Lewis the metaphor that he highlights most obviously is that of a divine Chess master in two separate chapter titles: check and checkmate (165, 212). What metaphor would appeal to a scholar and intellectual? Lewis writes of returning to faith in 1929, when he was 31 years old (228).
And what does Lewis make of joy? Once having rediscovered his faith, he lost interest and described it merely as a signpost which, having provided direction, posed little further utility (238)
C.S. Lewis’ memoir, Surprised by Joy, is a gem that describes his early childhood, falling away from and return to Christian faith. This is a book of special interest to Lewis fans and those interested in Christian memoir.
C.S. Lewis’ Faith Journey
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