C.S. Lewis's Mixed Bag of Tangents and Asides

C.S. Lewis’s Surprised by Joy is one of the great spiritual autobiographies of the 20th century. Lewis wrote it to satisfy those who questioned “how [he] passed from Atheism to Christianity.” Yet, many who picked up the narrative were frustrated at how little attention Lewis paid to argument. Readers assume that the author of Mere Christianity would focus on the apology for his conversion and give reasons for his faith. However, of the 238 pages of my version of the text, 197 of them focus on Lewis’s early life, specifically the life of his imagination. One scholar calls the book a “mixed bag” of “tangents and asides,” never perceiving the guiding thread that Lewis intended. The climax of the conversion itself is rather dull. Lewis observes near the final page of the book: “When we [he and his brother Warnie] set out I did not believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, and when we reached the zoo I did.”

Neither the arguments that compelled his intellect nor the dramatic change of his will become the center of Lewis’s conversion story. Instead, Lewis traces backwards where seeds were planted in his imagination as a child, cultivated by imaginative works in adolescence, and then how his imagination was baptized by George MacDonald. In a letter that Lewis wrote to the Milton Society of America, penned the same year that Lewis was writing Surprised by Joy, Lewis claims, “The imaginative man in me is older, more continuously operative.” This self-reflection seems to be a product of a time spent telling his own story.

For Lewis, the scholar of the Middle Ages, only an accounting of his imaginative life can invite the reader to understand how his will came to be converted. The Medievals envisioned the human personality as three concentric circles, in which the outer circle is the imagination, followed by the intellect, and finally the will at the core. In a chapter appropriately titled “Lewis’s Reading of His Early Life,” scholar David Downing describes the structure of Surprised by Joy as “symphonic.” Lewis “shapes his memories of his early years in order to explore the roots of his imaginative and intellectual life” (Planets in Peril: A Critical Study of C.S. Lewis’s Ransom Trilogy, 11). Lewis dedicates his attention to glimpses of joy caught by his imagination as the guiding threads tying his story together.

As the title alludes, “Joy” comes from outside of Lewis and acts upon him—“surprising” him. Lewis himself notes that the desire or longing, the thrill that arises, is for “something other and outer,” and only at the end of the book will he properly name the Joy. He distinguishes “Joy” from Happiness and from Pleasure, insisting that Joy is “never in our power.” The first three glimpses occur when Lewis is a very young boy. Encountering a homemade boxed-garden, Lewis recalls: “It is difficult to find words strong enough for the sensation which came over me; Milton’s ‘enormous bliss’ of Eden . . . comes somewhere near it. It was a sensation . . . of desire; but desire for what?” He did not want the moss and toy trees, but something beyond the garden itself. Lewis dwells on the brevity of this desire and its ironically long-lasting effect: “It had taken only a moment of time; and in a certain sense everything else that had ever happened to me was insignificant in comparison.” If we wanted a story with all the details about what Lewis ate for breakfast as a child and where he vacationed with his family, these opening pages dispel our illusions for what is significant. Joy becomes the signpost.

Lewis records a second glimpse when he read Squirrel Nutkin. While Lewis loved all the Beatrix Potter books as a child, “the rest of them were merely entertaining.” He differentiates imaginative works from “entertainment.” This particular story shocked him with the idea of Autumn. Lewis’s experience reading Squirrel Nutkin stands apart because of how it troubles him. In An Experiment in Criticism Lewis reflects on how such imaginative works transform from entertainment to prods at the human soul: “Only when your whole attention and desire are fixed on something else.” To be entertained by a story is to use it for pleasure. Yet, reading this book—and Lewis will experience similar glimpses in other literature—he becomes absorbed by an “intense desire” for “another dimension.” What has happened is that Lewis has involuntarily practiced total surrender to the imaginative reality of the children’s story. A contemporary of Lewis, Simone Weil, ties this level of attention to prayer. “The soul empties itself of all its own contents in order to receive into itself the being it is looking at, just as he is, in all his truth.” Later in An Experiment on Criticism Lewis will advocate this behavior before books: “We must empty our minds and lay ourselves open.” This self-emptying movement will be necessary for his later conversion of will.

The third glimpse of desire from his childhood, Lewis will describe as “Northernness,” and this passion will take on elements of religion for him. As a child, Lewis read these lines:

I heard a voice that cried,

Balder the beautiful

Is dead, is dead---

Any reader who loves Narnia hears an echo of “Aslan is on the move.” Just as the children do not yet know Aslan, Lewis “knew nothing about Balder” but the poetry instantly uplifts Lewis “into huge regions of northern sky.” This “Northernness” returns to him when he, as an adolescent, reads Siegfried and the Twilight of the Gods:

I had met this before, long, long ago . . . And with that plunge back into my own past, there arose at once, almost like heartbreak, the memory of Joy itself, the knowledge that I had once had what I had now lacked for years, that I was returning at last from exile and desert lands to my own country; and the distance of the Twilight of the Gods and the distance of my own past Joy, both unattainable, flowed together into a single, unendurable sense of desire and loss, which suddenly became one with the whole experience.

As Lewis has aged, the pain of this Joy has sharpened: hear the words “heartbreak,” “plunge,” and “unendurable.” The longing is a wanting, a lack.

For Lewis, “Northernness” became the groundwork for an imaginative knowledge of God. He calls this an “imaginative Renaissance.” After a long cold winter—again, how can we not think of Narnia—Lewis feels the chill begin to thaw. The familiar stab of joy from his childhood returns, and he throw himself into it as though born again. Lewis confesses,

I came far nearer to feeling [adoration] about the Norse gods whom I disbelieved in than I had ever done about the true God while I believed. Sometimes I can almost think that I was sent back to the false gods there to acquire some capacity for worship against the day when the true God should recall me to Himself.

By sparking desire through his imagination, God may have been developing within Lewis a “capacity for worship.”

Lewis defends his dependence on the imagination as a way of knowing God. He tries to explain to his skeptical reader:

I do not think the resemblance between Christian and the merely imaginative experience is accidental. I think that all things, in their way, reflect heavenly truth, the imagination not least. “Reflect” is the important word. This lower life of the imagination is not a beginning of, nor a step toward, the higher life of the spirit, merely an image.

In Dante’s Paradiso, as Dante ascends closer to God, reflections of saints who dwell with God condescend to reach him in the Earth’s shadow, where he can see and speak with them. Imagine God’s light stronger in some parts of creation than others. “As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame . . .,” but then, as Gerard Manley Hopkins writes, the immense light that shines forth in human beings who “act in God’s eyes, what in God’s eyes he is—Christ.” Writers for ages have drawn on this idea of the imagination as a way of perceiving these images and reflections.

In some ways, Lewis is speaking to himself as a young man as much as to his skeptical reader. Whereas he begins his story in childhood, where Lewis was “living almost entirely in [his] imagination,” in the fantasy worlds he created, by his adolescence, he had created a false divide between his “imaginative life” and his “Intellect.” He laments, “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. Nearly all that I loved I believed to be imaginary; nearly all that I believed to be real I thought grim and meaningless.” Literature versus science, poetry versus facts, or, as he puts it, “gods and heroes [versus] atoms and evolution and military service.” 

The disjunction between these ways of knowing collides while riding a train. Lewis creates the moment vividly with all his senses—the red glow of a train engine, sky green with frost, ears tingled cold, and the porter calling village names in a voice “Saxon and sweet as a nut.” The details emphasize the significance of the moment. Reading George MacDonald’s “dirty jacket[ed]” Phantastes, Lewis has his imagination “baptized.” Whereas the world of the Norse gods offered him an escape from the nihilistic, drab material reality, this book plunged him deeper into the real world.

Before he did not enjoy closing a book and returning to our world, after Phantastes, he writes, “I saw the bright shadow coming out of the book into the real world and resting there, transforming all common things and yet itself unchanged.” As in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, Aslan explains that he has brought the children to Narnia “that by knowing me here for a little, you may know me better there.” So, too, the young Lewis experienced some truth in Phantastes that he could bring forth as a new lens by which to view our familiar landscape.

The last steps towards Lewis’s conversion were intellectual. Books begin to conspire against him; the number of stories and poems and essays written by Christians overwhelms him. He writes, “A young man who wishes to remain a sound Atheist cannot be too careful of his reading. There are traps everywhere—‘Bibles laid open, millions of surprises,’ as Herbert says, ‘fine nets and stratagems.’ God is, if I may say it, very unscrupulous.” The myths that he once loved turn against him as they become the shadow for the myth that became fact, the story that became history.

Too many people commit the same fallacy as young Lewis—dividing imagination from intellect. On the one hand, we consider imagination as fancy or fantasy, disconnected from truth. However, Lewis clarifies the connection between the two in his book The Discarded Image. For the medieval, “imagination” meant literally “having in mind” or “thinking about.” Broadly speaking, it was how you imagined the world that you were in, the story that you are in. Our imagination includes more than cognition; to imagine means to know in our affections, memories, habits, desires, attitudes. We participate in our world based on how we see ourselves situated within it, what it is, how it functions, how it began, to what end we have been called, and so forth. In other words, we imagine ourselves within a story in a certain way that affects our disposition, loves, and behaviors. As Alasdair MacIntyre famously puts it in After Virtue, one cannot answer the question of “What ought I to do?” before knowing “Of which story am I a part?”

Lewis’s story about his own imagination becomes compelling for understanding how to read our own lives, apart from dominant cultural narratives. Lewis advises people to read an old book for every new book they read, to keep a healthy pulse on how much their culture is influencing their knowledge of themselves. Surprised by Joy is now a 64-year-old book that qualifies as stepping us outside of our culture’s stories. The book itself imitates the medieval narratives by caring more for the truth to which it points than the genius of its author. By immersing us in the story of his imaginative life, Lewis shows us how to be cathedral builders as well, how to see our story as one within others, interacting throughout time and place, ready to be passed down to the next, for their benefit.

EDITORIAL NOTE: Lewis fans will want to watch and bookmark the McGrath Institute Chronicles of Narnia: A Spiritual Journey through Narnia from Lent to Easter video series.

Featured Image: General Press Kit 'Atelier Ted Noten' from Utrecht, Netherlands based press studio Organisation in Design, PD.


Jessica Hooten Wilson

Jessica Hooten Wilson is transitioning to a one-year Scholar in Residence appointment at the University of Dallas where she will teach in the Humanities and Classical Education program. She is most recently the author of Reading Walker Percy’s Novels and can be reached through her website for book, article, lecture, interview, and podcast requests.

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