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I. Form and Content
Long-time friend and literary executor of the Lewis estate, Owen Barfield has suggested that there
were, in fact, three "C. S. Lewises." That is to say, there were three different vocations that Lewis
fulfilled--and fulfilled successfully--in his lifetime. There was, first, Lewis the distinguished Oxford
don and literary critic; secondly, Lewis, the highly acclaimed author of science fiction and children's
literature; and thirdly, Lewis, the popular writer and broadcaster of Christian apologetics. The amazing
thing, Barfield notes, is that those who may have known of Lewis in any single role may not have
known that he performed in the other two. In a varied and comprehensive writing career, Lewis
carved out a sterling reputation as a scholar, a novelist, and a theologian for three very different
audiences. In Surprised by Joy (1956), written seven years before his death, Lewis helps to shed
light on all "three Lewises" in his most personal book.
As such, Surprised by Joy represents one of the few works within the Lewis canon that speaks
directly and unabashedly about his personal life. Given the almost stifling attention that Lewis's private
life has received since his death in 1963, Surprised by Joy stands apart as an astonishingly candid yet
self-effacing volume by one widely-regarded as the premier Christian apologist of the twentieth
century. Lewis proceeds in Surprised by Joy as one reluctant to reveal specific details of his life but
who relents, as he suggests in the preface, in order both to answer "requests that I would tell how I
passed from Atheism to Christianity" and "to correct one or two false notions that seem to have got
about." Lewis's reluctance involves not just the conventional modesty of the autobiographer who
wishes to downplay the importance of his life, but stems as well from his conviction that no writer's
work is especially illuminated by psychological inquiry into his or her life. As a renowned literary critic
and literary historian, he had witnessed too many works passed off as "literary criticism" that were
instead imagined reconstructions of the author's composing process or thought life--poor substitutes
for thoughtful attention to an author's text itself.
Lewis referred to this twentieth-century critical preoccupation as "the personal heresy": the tendency
to identify authors with their creations, assuming that each work is somehow and essentially a
rehearsal of a writer's own life. Lewis believed this artistic heresy robbed works of their power and
meaning by reducing all literary criticism to biographical skullduggery. He thus rejected out of hand
the notion that an artist was obligated to lay bare the private life--either for the sake of celebrity or for
its putative insights into his or her literary works. Thus, to accomplish the task he set for himself,
Lewis was forced to overcome his "distaste for all that is public, all that belongs to the collective." The
record of his life, to the extent that it contributed to his defense of Christianity, would be temporarily
opened to the world at large--but only under his conditions. It would not be submitted for approval to
those pundits or self-styled critics of his career who were merely searching evidence to undermine his
arguments for Christian faith. Nothing is recalled that is not directly related to this purpose.
Nevertheless, Lewis was clearly uncomfortable with the genre of autobiography and warns the
reader in his preface:
The story is, I fear, suffocatingly subjective; the kind of thing I have never before and shall
probably never write again. 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
The subtitle of the book, "the Shape of my Early Life," succinctly captures the scope of Lewis's
autobiography; it deals almost exclusively with his adolescent search for "joy" and those events
leading up to and just subsequent to his conversion at age thirty-one. It comprises what Lewis himself
would refer to as "spiritual autobiography," but not in the genre of "Confessions" like those of St.
Augustine or Rousseau. Lewis views himself in Surprised by Joy as no more or less a sinner than
anyone else, but it is chiefly his intellectual journey that needs charting; his is not a grand repentance
from fleshly indulgence but a recovery of a child-like wonderment at the world and its mysteries. To
further this specific goal, the volume contains only those people and events, ideas and contexts that
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Inklings, C. S. Lewis, The Personal Heresy, Surprised by Joy, The Chronicles of Narnia, Owen Barfield, Leona Lewis, C. S. Lewis bibliography
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