Book Review: Surprised by Joy by C. S. Lewis

Year of First Publication: 1955

Year of Publication for This Edition: 2012

Number of Pages: 238

Publisher: Mariner Books

Genre: Nonfiction

Sub-Genres: Autobiography, spiritual memoir

Find it on the Book Depository here. (Disclosure: I’m an affiliate.)


First,

this book is not about how C. S. Lewis met his wife. A lot of people, it seems, make that mistake, including a college professor whom I once heard lecture on Lewis. The confusion probably comes about A) because Lewis’s wife was named Joy, and B) because she was involved in writing this book.1 (This was before she and Lewis were married, FYI.) But regardless of what you’ve heard, the “Joy” in the title does not refer to Joy Davidman.

Rather, it refers to Lewis’s own idea of Joy, his word for a feeling of intense longing that he had experienced since childhood.

Joy is sort of difficult to describe: some have even argued that Lewis spent most of his career as an author trying to explain it. Probably the best description of it comes from Lewis’s essay “The Weight of Glory”:

In speaking of this desire for our own far off country, which we find in ourselves even now, I feel a certain shyness. I am almost committing an indecency. I am trying to rip open the inconsolable secret in each one of you, . . . the secret we cannot hide and cannot tell, though we desire to do both. We cannot tell it because it is a desire for something that has never actually appeared in our experience. We cannot hide it because our experience is constantly suggesting it, and we betray ourselves like lovers at the mention of a name. Our commonest expedient is to call it beauty and behave as if that had settled the matter. Wordsworth’s expedient was to identify it with certain moments in his own past. But all this is a cheat. If Wordsworth had gone back to those moments in the past, he would not have found the thing itself, but only the reminder of it; what he remembered would turn out to be itself a remembering. The books or the music in which we thought the beauty was located will betray us if we trust to them; it was not in them, it only came through them, and what came through them was longing. These things—the beauty, the memory of our own past—are good images of what we really desire; but if they are mistaken for the thing itself they turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of their worshipers. For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never visited.2

And that, in a largish nutshell, is the Joy referred to in the title. Eventually, Lewis would come to recognize this feeling as a longing for the truth, the completeness, and the holiness that could only be found through God. Surprised by Joy, then, is the story of how the experience of Joy eventually led Lewis from atheism to faith.

This means that the book isn’t a strict autobiography: it deals mostly with the events leading up to and surrounding Lewis’s conversion, and then, only about as far as Joy had to do with it. So you won’t find a catalog of Lewis’s career from birth to age 57, nor will you hear about, for example, the origins of the illustrious Inklings. Rather, this book takes a more personal turn, providing a record of Lewis’s soul.

Being a book about faith, it offers some very interesting perspectives on the nature of faith. For instance, does faith in God mean that you have followed the proper train of reasoning and ended at a certain destination? Or does it mean that your mind and your heart have at once grasped the same truth as precious? Over and over, Lewis credits music and poetry with giving him a “stab of Joy,” saying that these things helped to prepare him to receive the Gospel: if this is so, is art still, in the grand scheme of things, just a luxury? Or is it far more important to God than many of us believe? These are all questions that I think Christians ought to come to terms with, especially in this day and age, so I was glad to see Lewis handle them with his usual grace and wit.

This is on top of the fact that the story of Lewis’s conversion is pretty fascinating by itself. I’ve always liked biographies, but by far, the best are the ones where the author paints his subjects as vividly as a novelist paints his characters. Being a novelist himself, I’m sure that wasn’t hard for Lewis. After a point, I was so wrapped up in the story of Lewis’s chasing after Joy that I was reading it for its sake alone, not just as a way of understanding faith and/or the life of one of my favorite authors.

Little Lea in Northern Ireland
Little Lea, the house in Northern Ireland where Lewis grew up. Image by Joel Heck.

Despite the main focus being on Lewis’s internal life, there are a good many details about Lewis’s external life as well, enough to be able to pick out some of the influences that made him the kind of writer and the kind of person he was. Early on, for example, we read about Boxen, the imaginary country somewhere around India that Lewis and his brother Warren made up when they were boys. With its large population of “dressed animals,” as young Lewis called them, and its marvelously detailed geography, Boxen sounds very much like an early incarnation of Narnia. Later, when Lewis moves on to discuss his time as a student, we see even more influences on his writing and worldview cropping up. Naturally, this book is a necessity for Lewis fans and for anyone else who wants to know a bit more about how Lewis’s brilliant writer mind worked.

Surprised by Joy was one of those books that had been tottering near the top of my to-be-read pile for some time, and I’m glad I finally got a chance to read it. Geek that I am, a straight autobiography would have been enough to make me happy, but this book offers so much more than that. Poignant, challenging, a little heartbreaking at times, but definitely worth a read.


1 Abigail Santamaria, Joy: Poet, Seeker, and the Woman Who Captivated C. S. Lewis. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2015. Pg. 274.

2 C. S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory. New York: Harper Collins, 2001. Pg. 29-31.

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7 thoughts on “Book Review: Surprised by Joy by C. S. Lewis

  1. This is such a great review, I’ve come back to re-read it several times. I love your thoughts about the arts not being a luxury. Yes, beauty awakens that otherworldly longing in the human soul. Others have also written about this homesickness, including A.W. Tozer and Phillip Yancey. It is a fascinating subject.
    Thanks for the lovely review!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Well doesn’t that just make my day. 🙂

      I’m glad you liked the review! I think the spiritual side of the arts is fascinating too, and so far, Lewis has been my main teacher on that subject. I haven’t read much by Tozer or Yancey yet, but I’ll look into it!

      Like

  2. Over and over, Lewis credits music and poetry with giving him a “stab of Joy,” saying that these things helped to prepare him to receive the Gospel: if this is so, is art still, in the grand scheme of things, just a luxury? Or is it far more important to God than many of us believe? These are all questions that I think Christians ought to come to terms with, especially in this day and age, so I was glad to see Lewis handle them with his usual grace and wit.

    I find this idea most interesting! Thanks for sharing this. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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