Surprised by Joy – Book Review

In, Surprised by Joy: The shape of my early life, C.S. Lewis attempts to tell the story of his conversion from atheism to Christianity. I wanted to read this book because I was interested in understanding Lewis’s reasons for accepting Christianity.

You can read the book online for free, or listen at archive.org for free if you’d rather.

I couldn’t make sense of Surprised by Joy. So, I immediately read it again.

Lewis warns the reader of this in the first chapter. He tells about a longing, a type of desire unlike any other that he sought to experience. He says that if the reader cannot understand this type of poetic longing, he need not go on, for he will waste his time and will not understand the rest of the book.

He writes:

I have tried so to write the first chapter that those who can’t bear such a story will see at once what they are in for and close the book with the least waste of time… The reader who finds these three episodes of no interest need read this book no further, for in a sense the central story of my life is about nothing else.

One of the profound experiences he mentions was his reading of Squirrel Nutkin as a child. I loved this book as well. I wondered if the story of Squirrel Nutkin functioned as a sort of warning sign for Lewis.

Lewis tells how he was overly intellectual and always philosophizing. Perhaps he saw how Squirrel Nutkin thought himself so clever, always telling riddles, never conforming to social norms, and ended up losing his tail because of it.

About Squirrel Nutkin, Lewis writes:

The second glimpse came through Squirrel Nutkin; through it only, though I loved all the Beatrix Potter books. But the rest of them were merely entertaining; it administered the shock, it was a trouble… And in this experience also there was the same surprise and the same sense of incalculable importance. It was something quite different from ordinary life and even from ordinary pleasure; something, as they would now say, “in another dimension”.

Nutkin lost his tail. Squirrels use their tails for balance and to signal to other squirrels.

It seems that Lewis wanted to avoid missing out on something important in life.

Lewis, despite all his study in philosophy, felt he was missing something. He did not want to go through life without the important balance that religion provides.

Later in the book Lewis writes:

I was to be allowed to play at philosophy no longer… My Adversary waived the point.

Lewis says he was not allowed to “play” at philosophy. Just as Squirrel Nutkin was no longer allowed to play with his riddles, lest he get skinned by Old Brown Owl.

I kept waiting for a final dramatic conversion experience when Lewis would accept Christianity, but it never came. In the last chapter he writes about the humdrum experience:

I was driven to Whipsnade one sunny morning. When we set out I did not believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, and when we reached the zoo I did. Yet I had not exactly spent the journey in thought. Nor in great emotion. “Emotional” is perhaps the last word we can apply to some of the most important events. It was more like when a man, after long sleep, still lying motionless in bed, becomes aware that he is now awake.

In the final chapter, Lewis seems to come back to the metaphor of Squirrel Nutkin.

When we are lost in the woods the sight of a signpost is a great matter. He who first sees it cries, “Look!” The whole party gathers round and stare”…

The story of Squirrel Nutkin also takes place in the woods. Big Brown Owl, sick of hearing Nutkin’s philosophical riddles, grabs him and the whole party of squirrels gathers round to see what will happen to Nutkin. Nutkin pulls away so hard that his tail snaps off.

Lewis, it seems did not want to test his fate. He wanted to remain intact. Religion helped balance his life, lest he end up like Nutkin, living without the ballast of his tail.

I think, Surprised by Nutkin, would make a better title.

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