Surprised by Joy: The Shape of My Early Life Analysis
by C. S. Lewis

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Surprised by Joy: The Shape of My Early Life Analysis

(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

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Surprised by Joy is essentially an account of those factors that brought Lewis to a mature, adult Christian faith. The reader learns as much about what Lewis read as a child, an adolescent, and an undergraduate as he or she does about Lewis’ friendships, military experiences, or love life—the staples of much midcentury biography. Lewis begins his work with an overview of the Lewis family and his early schooling. The Lewis household emerges as a particularly bookish home; the reality he found on the pages of his parents’ extensive library seemed as tangible and meaningful to him as anything that transpired outside their doors. Lewis depicts himself and his brother, Warren, as comrades in arms, absolute confidants who shared their deepest longings and secrets without sibling rivalry—all in the happiness of the secure shelter of their parents’ Belfast home. The tranquillity of the Lewis home was 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 taken for 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 fleeting glimpse of the eternal that is occasionally mediated by earthly loves and beauties. Lewis believes that a full experience of joy will be possible only in heavenly glory at the consummation of the age, a joy to be found in the Creator who invented both world and word, person and personality. It is He alone who redeems His fallen creation and provides them with 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 turned 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’ magical land of children’s adventures that retell the story of the Creation, Fall, and Redemption of humankind. Later, Lewis embraced what he referred to as “northernness,” 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 early twentieth century Great Britain and its intellectual climate—especially the school system and the trials and tribulations of a nonathletic young boy whose aesthetic sensibilities were out of place among the concerns of his peers. The book’s remaining chapters chronicle the steady ascension of Lewis’ mind and heart—both his reason and his imagination—toward the reacceptance of the faith he had once shared with his brother and parents and had denounced as a young poet and philosopher. 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’ last real tutor before he entered the University of Oxford. “Kirk,” as Lewis called him, taught Lewis the value of dialectic, that argumentative give-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’ 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....

(The entire section is 1,037 words.)