Surprised by C. S. Lewis Fifty Years After His Death

C. S. Lewis died fifty years ago, on November 22, 1963. Not surprisingly there are several tributes planned marking the occasion, including the unveiling of a memorial stone honouring Lewis in the famous Poets' Corner of London's Westminster Abbey. There are also conferences examining his life and work, as well as important new books advancing Lewis studies. Among these new contributions are theologian Alister McGrath's detailed biography and the follow-up volume The Intellectual World of C. S. Lewis. Another recent highlight on the bookshelves is The Lion's World: A Journey into the Heart of Narnia by the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams.

Most years I teach a course called Religious Themes in Literature at Providence University College in Manitoba, Canada, and since this anniversary occurs part way through the semester, it seemed fitting to focus on Lewis this time around. I did not grow up reading about the Pevensies' adventures in Narnia or Dr. Ransom's on Malacandra and Perelandra like many of the students in my class. As memory serves, the first bit of Lewis I read was a piece on Thomas More's Utopia ("A Jolly Invention") that was part of an assignment for a Renaissance literature course in my undergraduate days at Lakehead University. Not long after, however, it was the relatively late work Surprised by Joy (1955) that got me hooked. Here Lewis tells the story of how the atheist became a theist and eventually a Christian. Quite apart from the religious content of the book, Surprised by Joy is a delight and while rereading it these past few weeks along with my Lewis students, three themes caught my attention.

Mingling Fact and Fiction. First, the very fact that we have an autobiographical work by Lewis is curious given his views on the relationship of artists to their art. He suggests elsewhere that "The poet is not a man who asks me to look at him; he is a man who says 'look at that' and points; the more I follow the pointing of his finger the less I can possibly see of him" (with E. M. W. Tillyard, The Personal Heresy: A Controversy, 1939). Also strange is a curious imbalance in the book. He gives a great deal of attention to some topics while ignoring others readers of an autobiography might reasonably expect. Very little is said, for instance, of his wartime experiences and yet we learn rather more about certain episodes during his boyhood school days. There is also, as McGrath demonstrates in the books noted above, confusion about details associated with the story's climactic episode, namely Lewis' conversion to Christianity. Even the dating of that life-changing event seems muddled. In many respects Surprised by Joy reminds me of other 'autobiographies' that are as much works of art and exercises of the imagination as they are revelations of personal details. Bob Dylan's Chronicles: Volume One (2004) comes to mind. He writes of real people but also others we suspect are pure fictions (e.g., Sun Pie, who runs the roadside King Tut's Museum). Dylan even rides in a 1957 Chevrolet Impala, a car that did not exist until 1958. The point is that self-disclosure and a rehearsal of facts is not the point for Lewis any more than it is for Dylan. The latter is a storyteller who entertains us and likely takes some pleasure in confounding those who scrutinize every aspect of his life (to his great annoyance). Arguably Lewis is less concerned with the particularities of his own journey to faith as he is in raising the possibility that readers might experience something comparable if only they recognize the signs.

Nature. A second theme in Surprised by Joy that caught my attention is the importance of the natural world as a stimulus for theological contemplation. Lewis takes the book's title from William Wordsworth who found in nature an occasional stimulus for meditation, as in "Intimations of Immortality":

"There was a time when meadow, grove, and stream, / The earth, and every common sight, / To me did seem / Apparelled in celestial light."

Surprised by Joy opens and closes with visions of nature, from the childhood memories of the Castlereagh Hills that inspired his love of the Blue Flower to his final conversion which he sets in a zoo, complete with references to a "sunny morning," "Wallaby Wood," "birds singing overhead," "bluebells underfoot," and "Wallabies hopping all around one." The book also begins and ends with references to gardens, with his brother's "toy garden or a toy forest" and the "real garden" at the start, and his conversion experience at Whipsnade Zoo, "almost Eden come again," at the close. He also reports the significance for his conversion of a stroll along Addison's Walk near the River Cherwell with friends J. R. R. Tolkien and Hugh Dyson. This suggests an association of nature and new discovery. If we move past an approach to Surprised by Joy that focuses on raw 'facts' to one that allows that gardens, zoos, and walks surrounded by trees and flowers offer more than insignificant background details, we begin to suspect in Lewis a high view of creation that recognizes in his surroundings a revelation of the creator. This is consistent not only with Lewis' love of animals so evident in his children's books, attention to animal pain (note a chapter on the subject in Problem of Pain, 1940), and his opposition to vivisection at Oxford but also with biblical literature. The heavens declare the glory of God, as the psalmist puts it, the skies proclaim the works of God's hands.

Art. Third and finally, Lewis refers early in the book to a "toy garden" made by his older brother Warnie as "the first beauty I ever knew." It is interesting to observe how this imitation of reality accomplishes something an actual garden does not for Lewis the child. It speaks to the importance of art for Lewis, not least as an influence on his journey to faith. For him, the literature he celebrates all through Surprised by Joy provides clues regarding religious meaning. To this day, many who read Lewis' own works of imagination experience the same thing and if the students in my class are any indication, he continues to be relevant fifty years after his death for a new generation of readers.