Surprised by Joy: The Shape of My Early Life by CS Lewis

Summary: Memoir of CS Lewis’ early life and how he came to faith.

CS Lewis is an author that you just have to read if you are a Christian.  If you have not read the Chronicles of Narnia, then you will have read Screwtape Letters or Mere Christianity (I never have) or his Science Fiction Trilogy or one of his other books.  But as a person that considers myself fairly well read, I have not read nearly as much CS Lewis as I feel like I should have.

I picked up the Science Fiction trilogy when it was on sale last year but I have not read it yet.  I have tried Mere Christianity a couple times but I have not finished it.  I really like Screwtape Letters and the Great Divorce and enjoyed Till We Have Faces.  One I have enjoyed more than almost any other is his Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer.

What really moved me to read this is the fact that two books I really like were adapted titles.  Carolyn Weber’s Surprised by Oxford was the story of how she came to faith at Oxford and she intentionally modeled the title after Lewis’s book.  And Lyle Dorsett titled his biography of Joy Davidson (CS Lewis’ wife) Surprised by Love (first edition of the book was called And God Came In).

I had always assumed that Surprised by Joy was about his relationship to Joy Davidson, but it was written long before he met and married her.

In the end, I am glad I read Surprised by Joy because it gives more background on Lewis and get a better feel for him as a person.  But I am surprised it is such a popular book.  Lewis is a scholar and although he writes informally, there are long sections where he is referring to Greek, Latin or English literature and assumes that the reader is familiar with the literature.  But it is not much different from someone that specializes in any other highly specialized and technical field referencing obscure points without explaining them.

I can get the basic idea of what he is talking about much of the time, but not the finer points.

The parts I found interesting were the historical details.  Lewis flunked his math entrance exams for Oxford. So he spent a quarter just doing math trying to pass the exam (he was admitted to Oxford but had to pass the exam to actually start studying there.)  But he flunked the exam again.  He spend a second quarter just doing remedial math and again flunked.  By this time he was old enough to be drafted into the Army for World War I and when he returned he was allowed to start at Oxford without the math.  He said that if he had not gone to war and been exempted from the math requirement he probably would have never been able to start at Oxford.

Later in his life he found a letter from his tutor to his father (he spent his high school years living with a private tutor instead of going boarding school or a local prep school).  The tutor told his father that Lewis was unsuited to anything except being a professor or writer and that Lewis’ father needed to get used to that fact.

It is also interesting for a person that is probably best known for his intellectual defense of Christianity, that what he says drew him toward Christianity was story.  Once he started reading Christian fiction authors seriously (first George MacDonald and then others) he started moving toward theism and then later toward Christianity.

I don’t feel I wasted my time reading this book, because parts of it were very interesting.  But I also wouldn’t recommend casual readers pick it up.  Dorsett’s biography of Joy Davidson or Alan Jacob’s biography of Lewis are far better.  And I vastly preferred Letters to Malcolm and Screwtape Letters to Surprised by Joy.

Surprised by Joy Purchase Links: Paperback, Kindle Edition, Audiobook, KindleUnlimited Book

Leave a Comment