Surprised by Joy: The Shape of My Early Life

by C. S. Lewis

Paperback, 2017



Call number



HarperOne (2017), Edition: Reissue, 304 pages


Biography & Autobiography. Religion & Spirituality. Nonfiction. HTML: A repackaged edition of the revered author's spiritual memoir, in which he recounts the story of his divine journey and eventual conversion to Christianity. C. S. Lewis�the great British writer, scholar, lay theologian, broadcaster, Christian apologist, and bestselling author of Mere Christianity, The Screwtape Letters, The Great Divorce, The Chronicles of Narnia, and many other beloved classics�takes readers on a spiritual journey through his early life and eventual embrace of the Christian faith. Lewis begins with his childhood in Belfast, surveys his boarding school years and his youthful atheism in England, reflects on his experience in World War I, and ends at Oxford, where he became "the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England." As he recounts his lifelong search for joy, Lewis demonstrates its role in guiding him to find God..… (more)

User reviews

LibraryThing member atimco
C. S. Lewis's Surprised By Joy is subtitled "The Shape of My Early Life," and is mainly about his childhood and young adulthood. In this spiritual autobiography Lewis traces the slow hand of God moving in the events and influences of his young life, through his atheism and finally into his
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spiritual surrender when he finally, reluctantly admitted that "God was God" (228).

Some things shocked me (I can't take the rampant pederasty of British public schools with quite Lewis's aplomb); other things merely surprised me. I learned a lot of things I didn't know about Lewis, such as his difficult relationship with his brilliant but eccentric father, his various boarding-school experiences, and his interest in the occult.

He traces his atheism and general pessimism about life as far back as the chronic, unusually marked clumsiness he possessed even as a child. He believes that because of this clumsiness, he soon grew to expect that everything he touched would go wrong somehow, that things going well was the exception and not the rule. His mother's death of cancer when he was ten years old also had a profound effect on his worldview.

Lewis also explores his early creative and rational influences. His friend Arthur had a strong part in helping Lewis appreciate what Arthur termed "Homeliness," a type of cozy beauty in sharp contrast to Lewis's passion for Wagner and Norse mythology and what he called "Northernness." This passion Arthur also shared, but rounded it with a love of simple, wholesome sights and ideas. Lewis also talks about his friend Jenkins who taught him to savor the taste of everything, even ugly things, to enjoy them fully for what they are. The influence of Lewis's strictly rationalist tutor, William Kirkpatrick, is also acknowledged as a deep debt.

All of this is written in Lewis's characteristically excellent prose. I loved this passage about his final thrashings before accepting the reality of God:

The fox had been dislodged from Hegelian Wood and was now running in the open, "with all the wo in the world," bedraggled and weary, hounds barely a field behind. And nearly everyone was now (in one way or another) in the pack; Plato, Dante, MacDonald, Herbert, Barfield, Tolkien, Dyson, Joy itself. Everyone and everything had joined the other side. (225)

I am finding that the more I learn about Lewis, the more divided I become. I agree with him more; I agree with him less. It is hard to really articulate where we are different (well, besides his obvious and all-permeating Arminian leanings which conflict sharply with my Calvinist tenets). I think one of the issues may be Lewis's reliance on and almost religious respect for literature besides the Bible. Of course he is detailing a period in which he was first reading the world's great literature as a student and lover of beauty, so naturally he will have a lot to say about its influence on his thinking and development.

And I have to remember too that Lewis is a Christian thinker, not a pastor charged with preaching the full counsel of God and illuminating Scripture to his flock. I do think, however, that at bottom I have a much deeper reverence for Scripture than Lewis has displayed in the books of his that I've read so far. This both simplifies and complicates my thoughts about him and his work.

The thread that ties everything together in this story is the central idea of Joy, which Lewis describes as the "unsatisfied desire which is itself more desirable than any other satisfaction" (17–18). These flashes of beauty, themselves insufficient, point to something else, something outside the person experiencing this longing. Ultimately Lewis connects Joy with the desire to know the source of all Joy, God. Those flashes of beauty and the unfulfilled longings are divinely given. And yet they are not the goal. Lewis writes,

But what, in conclusion, of Joy? for that, after all, is what the story has been mainly about. To tell you the truth, the subject has lost nearly all interest for me since I became a Christian... I believe (if the thing were at all worth recording) that the old stab, the old bittersweet, has come to me as often and as sharply since my conversion as at any time of my life whatever. But I now know that the experience, considered as a state of my own mind, had never had the kind of importance I once gave it. It was valuable only as a pointer to something other and outer. While that other was in doubt, the pointer naturally loomed large in my thoughts. When we are lost in the woods the sight of a signpost is a great matter... But when we have found the road and are passing signposts every few miles, we shall not stop and stare. They will encourage us and we will be grateful to the authority that set them up. But we shall not stop and stare, or not much; not on this road, though their pillars are of silver and their lettering of gold. "We would be at Jerusalem." (238)

This was a fascinating read on so many levels. Recommended.
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LibraryThing member GTWise
It's been quite a few years since I read this book, and I now have a far different worldview than I did when I read it, but this book continues to interest me as I continue to be interested in the possibility of and nature of religious experiences. It is no longer fresh in my mind what he wrote
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and, considering I read it back in High School, there was much that he discussed that probably meant nothing to me then that would mean something to me now. But that's why I'm writing this review with it as a distant memory, I want to talk about what was in the book that stuck with me.

There exists a feeling that comes upon people at some times. I do not know if it comes to all people – though I have no reason for supposing that it is available to some men and not others, barring the possibility that it has to be prompted by certain environmental factors that some people may not be exposed to – what is important is that the feeling exists. In my opinion, the discussion of this feeling, which Lewis calls “joy” is the greatest contribution this book makes. If you are a Christian, this book is valuable as a discussion of some part of human nature that cries out for another world. If you are an atheist, this book is valuable as an example of some peculiarity of human psychology that leads people to search for God.

“If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world. If none of my earthly pleasures satisfy it, that does not prove that the universe is a fraud. Probably earthly pleasures were never meant to satisfy it, but only to arouse it, to suggest the real thing.” (A quote from Mere Christianity, which I imagine was a reference to the desire that Lewis came to call “joy”)

You will get plenty of discussion about the rampant homosexuality in the school Lewis was sent to (which was largely a result of Lewis's own overly-sexual and overly-suspicious view of his peers. His older brother was baffled by his portrayal of their school), you will get information about Lewis's time with Kirkpatrick where he began to put on intellectual muscle from a very logical, literal, and precise teacher, you will read about him enduring time as a soldier in World War I, him attaining a prestigious teaching post, and plenty about his love for mythology – especially Norse mythology. You won't find many logical proofs about what led him to Christianity. You won't get a list of facts that Lewis took into account to determine that Christianity was more likely than otherwise. The book would be worse if he included them, as they would detract from the main contribution the book makes: the personal and subjective account of what led a reasonable and intelligent man to place his faith in Christ, and his account of an experience of longing and desire called Joy.

If you put aside the pretenses of commitment to facts and evidence that both sides posture with, you will get an glimpse of what can really move an intelligent man to faith – whether or not you consider a move to faith to be an improvement. Or, perhaps just as likely, you yourself may have felt what Lewis called Joy: a bittersweet longing and desire, in which case this book will give you an opportunity to read how he reacted to that experience. Or maybe you think Lewis is just a ridiculous man, well, he certainly won't change your mind here, but you might find some opportunities to laugh at him if that's how you get your kicks. If religious experiences and conversion stories interest you, or if you are interested in Lewis in general, I highly recommend the book. If your main interest is apologetics, I advise skipping this one.

[As a general caution, I would recommend reading this book as events that happened in C. S. Lewis's life – as Jack would want you to believe them. This book was nicknamed “Suppressed by Jack” among those intimate with the details of Lewis's life. That's not to say it is not valuable, merely that it should not be taken as true, at least as far as it concerns Lewis's account of his external circumstances. If you want his biography, you can look up George Sayer's book Jack. This book is more valuable for insight into Lewis's internal development.]
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LibraryThing member Porius
Surprised by joy--impatient as the wind. Lewis tells of his early life. His father came from Welshmen, true Welshmen who were sentimental, passionate, and rhetorical, easily moved to anger and to tenderness; men who laughed and cried a great deal and who had not much of the talent for happiness.
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The Hamilton's (his mother's people) were a cooler race. Their minds were critical and ironic and they had the talent for happiness in a high degree--went straight to it as experienced travelers go for the best seat in the train.
You must have a heart of stone not to read on.
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LibraryThing member ctpress
“In reading Chesterton, as in reading MacDonald, I did not know what I was letting myself in for. 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
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stratagems." God is, if I may say it, very unscrupulous.”

In Surprised by Joy C. S. Lewis describes his life from his early childhood up to about 30 years of age when he was converted to Christianity. A journey from atheism, to theism and finally to the Christian faith.

I liked the first part of the book best. His description of home in Ireland, the loss of his mother which marked him for life, the estranged father, the close connection with his brother Warnie. A lot of space is devoted to his very bad experiences in school, the horrible teachers and the cruel fellow students. Also a lot about how his logical thinking is sharpened by his teacher and mentor, The Great Knock, W. T. Kirkpatrick.

Surprised by Joy reminded me of how our faith is shaped by so many things, not only our own pursuits and reasonings, but experiences in childhood and youth, the friends we have, the mentors and peers we learn from.

Lewis kind of lost me in many of his philosophical thinking about the source of “Joy” about nordic and greek myths and the “true myth” of Christianity. His journey to faith in Christianity didn’t resonate with my own - but that is the beauty of it. We all have our own spiritual journey and the “leap of faith” is highly individual.
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LibraryThing member bell7
In his introduction, Lewis makes it clear that he is not writing your normal autobiography, but is writing specifically about the events leading up to his conversion to Christianity. In some ways, I found it to be the autobiography of a mind and heart, from his early days in boarding school, his
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interests in mythology, and his growing dissatisfaction with the philosophies he once adhered to.

I have difficulty conceiving of anyone enjoying the book unless they agreed with either his particular scholar's mind or his belief in the God of Christianity. I happen to be in the latter camp, and confess that at times his mind eluded me. Whole passages referring either to the books that most moved him or schools of modern thought of his times completely eluded my grasp, and I can only conclude that my mind must work very differently from his or that I must have a longer time on this earth before I can fully grasp his reflections on childhood, boyhood, and young adulthood. Yet then a sentence, a thought, would break through and give me pause or move me to tears. This is a book that I would reread not so much because of any initial enjoyment but because my appreciation would increase, perhaps once I read another biography or some of the classics which molded his thought.
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LibraryThing member JudyCroome
I might not have been surprised by joy as I read this book - it was far to factually autobiographical for me, and not what I expected - but I was surprised by how much I enjoyed parts of it. Both Lewis's description of his childhood education (and the hotbed of homo-eroticism that private boys-only
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schools were) was brilliant and non-judgemental and his glossed-over, but no less harrowing, account of his experience in WW1, provided an intriguing glimpse into a byone era.

Perhaps this was my biggest problem with the book - I expected a deeply inspiring, imaginative and very personal account of his spiritual awakening. Instead, this book is mainly autbiographical with a few paragraphs here and there covering his spiritual journey. Emotion was thin on the ground - intellectual scholarship was densely packed into each sentence.

Thanks to my long ago classical studies I could wade through the allusions without getting too lost, but still ... I wanted to be inspired, to feel what Lewis felt as he journeyed back to his God.

Instead, it took me nearly two weeks to struggle through it because as a rule, I don't read autobiographies. Ultimately, this was more biographical than it was spiritual and thus SURPRISED BY JOY didn't meet my expectations as a reader.
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LibraryThing member lukeasrodgers
Despite having one of the worst covers I've seen in a while, this short account of C.S. Lewis' religious life, culminating in his conversion to Christianity, was worthwhile and enjoyable, though perhaps not as edifying on the topic of religious conversion as I had hoped.

Too much of the book is
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focused on unrelated descriptions and stories which, though the story might be anemic without them, tend to draw away rather than complement the book's central concern. A more serious criticism of the book is that "Joy", which figures so prominently in the book's title, is underanalyzed and underdeveloped so that for Lewis to end on a note about Joy lacks the impact it might have otherwise had. Furthermore, I found that in general the episodes explicitly related to Lewis' religious conversion which punctuated the story were likewise too underdeveloped, the details too sketchy, the experiences too understated. Perhaps that is an inevitable fact when discussing the "mystery" of how such conversion takes place. Perhaps if, as Lewis says, he had been contemplating and reflecting enough to give more specific accounts of such experiences, the experiences themselves would have been thwarted and dulled precisely by such introspection.

In any case, the quality of Lewis' prose is practically beyond compare, and whatever the subject matter or disagreements I may have with him, his writing is always a pleasure to read.

A key quotation: "What I learned from the Idealists (and still most strongly hold) is this maxim: it is more important that Heaven should exist than that any of us should ever reach it."
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LibraryThing member SherryThompson
With respect and apologies to Lewis:
I love this book--it was one of the first Lewis that I read after the Narnia books and Mere Christianity. Only years later did it occur to me that--in my most humble opinion--Lewis had chosen the wrong word for that illusive feeling so close to the sorrow of
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loss, which eventually led him to faith.
In my opinion--and based as much on my own experiences as the pages of this book--Lewis felt a longing for he knew not what, only knowing that without it he was not whole. I know or knew this feeling. To put this in the words of Tolkien, if one is blessed to discover the reality behind or beyond the longing, -then- the person experiences the eucatastrophe of Joy.
Complete joy does not come first as Lewis' words in this book imply repeatedly. Yes, perhaps an ephemeral glimpse or taste of it, but it is blended almost on the instant with its loss. Real joy comes when what is behind the glimpses abides.
I probably shouldn't have written this. As someone said, "Words are hard". Or perhaps stubborn. Never more so than when trying to describe something so ephemeral.
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LibraryThing member ElTomaso
Subtitled: The shape of my early life. I compromised on the rating of this book, because I find the authors style distracting; however the message is worth a score of "five."
LibraryThing member The_Hibernator
In this short memoir, C. S. Lewis describes his spiritual journey from youthful atheist to firm and faithful believer. This isn't so much a memoir of Lewis' life, although it does contain some interesting anecdotes about his school years, he only focuses on incidents in his life that impacted his
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spiritual development. I have read many spiritual development memoirs, and this one is like the others...only it stands out because it is a classic--It was written when these types of journeys were not as commonly shared in memoirs. (In fact, I suspect that this book inspired so many of the spiritual-journey memoirs that we see today.) One thing I found interesting about this book is it explained to me why so many people retro-diagnose Lewis with Asperger's syndrome. He talked about his difficulties dealing with other students...not knowing how to respond in social situations...being told to "take that look off {his} face" when he was trying very hard to keep an appropriate facial expression. I think it is important to recognize that we can't accurately retro-diagnose people with today's syndromes, but it IS interesting to see how such personality traits were present in Lewis' day, and how he excused them with stories about how childhood events affected his social interactions. It was definitely an interesting read...and anyone who likes to hear about others' spiritual journeys really should start with C. S. Lewis.
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LibraryThing member Mikalina
Philosophy is not a subject, it is a way of living. For the brave! Lewis conversion to christianity is a a modern retelling of the story of Jacob´s fight with the Angel. With his head very much sleeping on a stone the fight was long and hard. But Lewis was not able to run from the questions raised
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and debated through the inborn dialectics that is our common human heritage since we took the fruit of knowledge. He explores fantasy in all its possible meanings; aknowledges all the roads fantasy can bring us on, including the sexual, occult and magical fantasies. He find that they all leaves him unfulfilled, they do not bring joy like the joy he knows through glimpses (most of us experiences), the unexpected bliss, that neither sex nor the occult or magical can replace.
God was not the obvious solution for Lewis. A seasoned dialectician, the fight is long and hard. Lewis fights teism and Christianity until he is caught up in "an undebateable reality." We know the outcome of the conclusion he reached; To Lewis philosophy was not a subject, but a way of living, he continued to fight, bending fantasy to becoming the most unlikely soldier for the ultimate human(e) reality.
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LibraryThing member benfulton
The discussion of his early life is interesting, but I didn't find Lewis's reasoning all that compelling. I can see how he moved from a belief in the Absolute into Theism, but it almost seemed that he became a Christian only since it was the latest thing, an argument that (1) applies better to
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Islam, and (2) is a sort of a sin that he argues against in at least two other books.
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LibraryThing member sweetiegherkin
This autobiography by C.S. Lewis provides some insights into his early life, his mind, and his conversion to and belief in the Christian God. A bit rambling at times (as if you need to be in his head to fully understand) and, of course, heavily biased with religious overtones, it is nonetheless an
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interesting look at the famous author of The Chronicles of Narnia and other works.
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LibraryThing member allenkeith
This book is great for anyone, but most especially for those who wonder if Christianity is substantive. It is also beneficial for those who want to strengthen their ability to articulate the substantial nature of Christianity. It merits reading because it is about a man who became a prolific writer
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and one of the greatest apologists for Christianity in the 20th century.

C.S. Lewis in his pursuit of truth was atheistic but made a 180 degree turn about to embrace Christianity. This largely came about by those authors that he read (and, of course, by being decidedly responsive to God’s grace). He speaks of a thread of occasions in his journey when he experienced inexplicable joy, and he gives insight into his personal experience, of the events and the persons that shaped him, and more primarily the great authors that influenced him.
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LibraryThing member Arctic-Stranger
Those looking for a "Christian testamony" will be somewhat disappointed. But Lewis, as usual, cuts deeper than most people are prepared to go. This is the story of his conversion to theism, and how JOY, an inconsistent and haunting companion, became a part of his life.
LibraryThing member 6boysandme
I love Lewis, in a way only he can he says how I have always felt but never been intelligent enough to put into words. I finished this book in the quiet of an early morning in my little nephews messy room, tears and hugging the book followed. What a treat!
LibraryThing member billmeister16
I am ashamed to say that it took me so long to rinally read this classic. Now, after having read it, I can testify that I was completely captivated by Lewis' journey to Christianity. It is always surprising when we realize that our joy is to be found in God, and that all the "joy" we've experience
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prior to salvation in Christ was not really joy at all, but rather lesser ideas of pleasure and happiness.
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LibraryThing member morningsidefamily
Who would've thought that so much self-talk could be so interesting? But Lewis uses his autobiography to analyze all the shades of intuitive thought that led to his conversion. Particularly relevant are his descriptions of "joy", an aesthetic experience which he eventually identifies as his longing
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for God. Though Lewis later acknowledged the importance of obedience, he was not the sort who would've been converted by it. This is conversion as seen through the eyes of a romantic.

His thoughts on the schools of his boyhood era are also interesting.
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LibraryThing member josborne
You will need to be a literary buff or extremely well versed in literature to appreciate this book, for it has numerous literary references to explain his ideas. It is a description of his non-Christian days before conversion which I did not find interesting.
LibraryThing member publiusdb
I'll get right to the point: I didn't love it. Have you read it? What did you get out of it?
LibraryThing member Bookman1954
An awesome inspirational book that takes us through the life of C.S. Lewis, but could it could be our own story also. From childhood to the teen years Lewis struggles through many of the same life, spiritual conflicts that everyone goes through. The inspiration comes to those who know what he did
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with his life later and the lessons he took from his early life. Narnia is often considered his and his brothers play time adventures. These adventures as young child may have been just play, but the depth of his learning and philosophy formed in his early life formed the basis for all his writing. From his falling away to his return to Christianity, it was his early life experience that brought him to the point of being a true man of God.
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LibraryThing member dannywahlquist
I enjoyed this journey to accept the love of God. Some of my favorite quotes include:
I was now by no means unhappy; but I had very definitely formed the opinion that the universe was, in the main, a rather regrettable institution.
A young man who wishes to remain a sound Atheist cannot be too
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careful of his reading. There are traps everywhere
The hardness of God is kinder than the softness of men, and His compulsion is our liberation.
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LibraryThing member Chris_El
It was interesting to note that much of what he wrote about his own growing up was not new since I have read a couple biographies of him and the info on his early years is very much drawn from this book.

I loved what he said about experience. I don't have the book with me now to quote it but he
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explained that when you stop experiencing and start to analyze it you stop experiencing. He pointed out that he realized he missed out on a lot by analyzing it to death instead of just living in the moment to its fullest. I'm frequently guilty of this myself and didn't realize it until he started talking about it.

Good book and well worth the read.
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LibraryThing member jeanbmac
I loved this book.
LibraryThing member 2wonderY
I certainly identified with Lewis’ evolution in faith. He describes it so spot-on, and provides certain key literature works; some I’d like to explore. He occasionally goes off subject and delights, such as describing the different cast of sunlight in Ireland compared to England. I’ve never
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read a better nonfiction writer for nailing descriptions.
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