Surprised By Jack

Reading Time: 3 mins

C.S. Lewis muses on joy in his spiriutal autobiography

As a child, I knew Peter, Edmund, Susan, and Lucy. I knew Reepicheep, Puddleglum, and Mr. Beaver. Even more importantly, I knew Aslan, the Lion King of Narnia. But I still didn’t know Jack. It wasn’t until college when I stumbled upon a book in the library entitled, Surprised By Joy. That’s when I really got to know the creator of all of these characters, C. S. Lewis.

I knew Aslan, the Lion King of Narnia. But I still didn’t know Jack.

“Surprised By Joy” is known as Lewis’ spiritual autobiography, with the subtitle being, The Shape of My Early Life. He wrote it toward the end of his life in 1955, after most of his other books had been written. The title comes from a line by Wordsworth, “Surprised by joy - impatient as the wind.” It spoke to the desire and longing in Jack’s heart for something more in life, a sense of “joy.”

Jack spent his early years living with his family in Belfast, Ireland. He had a happy and carefree childhood with his brother Warnie, until his mother died of cancer when he was nine years old. It was a traumatic loss and was compounded by his father’s own despair and melancholy. Unable to function after his wife’s death, Mr. Lewis sent the boys off to boarding school. 

Those were difficult years for the Lewis boys. After boarding school came college, and soon after, they were sent off to fight in World War One. The harshness of life and horrors of war led them away from God and the church. Jack later wrote that he was “very angry with God for not existing” (p.115).

Thankfully, “the harshness of God is kinder than the softness of men.” (p.229) During this time, Jack was introduced to the writings of George MacDonald and G.K. Chesterton, whose Christian worldviews influenced him without even knowing it. “A young man who wishes to remain atheist cannot be too careful of his reading” (p. 191).

Back at Oxford after the war, one of the most important friendships of the century began when C.S. Lewis met J.R.R. Tolkien. Jack and Tollers (Tolkien’s nickname), as it turned out, had a lot in common. They were both English professors who shared a love of Norse mythology. They both had lost their mothers at an early age. They were both veterans who had fought and lost friends in the War. These experiences brought them together and strengthened their bonds of friendship and fellowship. They would go on to establish the writers group known as “The Inklings,” which met each week at a local pub to read and discuss their literary work.

After several years and many conversations with Tolkien and fellow Inklings, Jack became convinced in the existence of God and the claims of Christianity, and eventually returned to the joy of his childhood faith. The moment was far less emotional than he had expected. “It was more like when a man after a long sleep, still lying motionless in bed, becomes aware that he is now awake” (p.237).

In Mere Christianity, Lewis talks about the deep desire he always had for something more, which nothing in this world could ever satisfy. He finally realized that it was because he was made for another world, the heavenly place where true joy could be found:

But what, in conclusion, of joy? For that, after all, is what the story has mainly been about. To tell you the truth, the subject has lost nearly all interest for me since I became a Christian. I cannot complain, like Wordsworth, that the visionary gleam has passed away. I believe the old bittersweet stab has come to me as often and as sharply since my conversion as at any time of my life. 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. 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 need not stop and stare. We would be at Jerusalem (p. 238).This has been my experience as well, and why getting to know Jack by reading “Surprised By Joy” has meant so much to me.

(Interestingly, Jack was surprised by joy in more ways than one. A year after publishing his autobiography, the self-proclaimed bachelor was married to an American writer. Her name? Joy)