Review Of Surprised By Joy: The Shape Of My Early Life, by C.S. Lewis

Copyright © by Jessica Schneider, 7/6/08


  For those interested delving past the Narnia world, I invite you to read C.S. Lewis’ “spiritual autobiography” where the author discusses the Christianity of his early youth, his later denouncing of such (leading him to atheism), and then to his eventual full circle back to Christianity. Yet, all the while Lewis is discussing his search for “Joy” and what that really means.

  Readers should know that one does not need to subscribe to the beliefs of Christianity, or any religion for that matter, to appreciate this work. Ultimately, this book philosophically examines the idea of Joy and what it is exactly, and for some, like Lewis, this Joy was coupled with his belief in Christianity.

  The book begins literally with his birth, in the chapter “The First Years” where Lewis begins the tale: “I was born in the winter of 1898 at Belfast, the son of a solicitor and of a clergyman’s daughter.” Here Lewis describes God as not a savior nor a judge, but a magician. Much of the joy in his early years dissolved due to his mother’s death, which he addresses right away in the first chapter. He also notes his “boorish inaptitude for formality,” yet one might find it ironic that this same person would later embrace religion, a separate “formality” unto itself.

  When Lewis speaks about his mother’s funeral he states:

“To my hatred for what I already felt to be all the fuss and flummery of the funeral I may perhaps trace something in me which I now recognize as a defect but which I have never fully overcome—a distaste for all that is public, all that belongs to the collective; a boorish inaptitude for formality.”

Later he speaks about his times at boarding school, feeling lonely and how children would “grow up strangers to their next door neighbors,” and one can get a sense why the young C.S. Lewis found comfort in books and stories. Perhaps that love of literature is what also fascinated him with the Bible and all the tales within. And if fans of the Narnia series are looking for little hints into The Lion, Witch and The Wardrobe, perhaps one can go no further than:

“In some ways Mountbracken was like our father’s house. There too we found the attics, the indoor silences, the endless bookshelves.” The idea of the young boy being lost in a maze of bookshelves and imagination certainly can whet one’s interest for future fantasies, and that seems to be just what it did.

  Mostly, this is a philosophical and meditative book that intertwines stories of the author’s youth, his early love of books and literature and just how these factors helped shape his later opinions of his own self as well as his own place, and his examination of his “desire” as an idea, not merely an emotion. He uses this same technique as he examines the Joy in his life, by asking what is Joy and should one come to expect it or is it a surprise? “I sometimes wonder whether all pleasures are not substitutes for Joy,” he writes.

  Lewis also examines the contrasts of his own life and mind. As any artist, he must balance the rational with that of the creative, the life of the imagination against that of the intellect. One has to wonder why those two things need be separate at all, but Lewis addresses this fact:

“The two hemispheres of my mind were in the sharpest contrast. On the one side a many-islanded sea of poetry and myth; on the other a glib and shallow ‘rationalism’.”

  These thoughts are, of course, nothing unusual, for the rational is often referred to as the “glib and shallow” in one creative means or other, by that of the creative mind. As you can see by the brief bits of text I’ve provided, this is a cerebral examination of the mind, body, faith, reason, intellect and the imagination. It is not a New Age weepfest, and one does not need to be religious to appreciate it. I am not religious and don’t care much either way for Jesus Christ, yet I admire the method that Lewis used upon his own self-examination. It is an objective search, a critical search, not a preachy or condescending search. So the important thing is to give it a chance and keep an open mind.

  While some might find the text dry in some parts (primarily those that involve his college party days, yet some might find this intriguing, I personally enjoyed the philosophical ruminations more) this is a very well written and engaging read. It reminded me in some ways of the great Woody Allen film Another Woman, which is a film that involves a woman peering into her own self-examination upon turning fifty. In its own way, Surprised By Joy is as artful and thoughtful as that film, and carries with it a character study that lovers of literature and the imaginative mind would find engaging.


[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the Blogcritics website.]


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