C.S. Lewis’ writings are endlessly fascinating because the man himself was endlessly fascinating—to himself as well as to others. He saw life as a sort of drama and art, one in which the will shapes what Providence has so generously provided.
One can readily and happily delve into C.S. Lewis’s autobiography of 1955, Surprised by Joy, at any point of life or for any duration of time. One can just as profitably read a page or two as well as read all 320 of its pages. Its surprising depths reward the reader time and time again with new revelations and new wonders; new questions and new insights.
Yet, to call this an autobiography is somewhat misleading. First of all, it’s a series of reflections on various aspects of Lewis’s life that lead to his conversion to Christianity. In this sense, it has far more in common with Cardinal Newman’s Apologia than it does with St. Augustine’s or Rousseau’s Confessions. That is, the story ends when Lewis becomes a Christian, as though he had reached his own personal “end of history.” And, to be sure, Lewis was somewhat trained as a “Hegelian.” He most certainly did see his life as a drama toward Christ. Once he became a Christian, he knew, he had become unimportant as an individual, only important as a citizen of Christendom.
Second, in the way that one really can only do for a few twentieth century writers, one can readily see that every single thing Lewis wrote was, in some sense, autobiographical. Lewis’s writings are endlessly fascinating because the man himself was endlessly fascinating—to himself as well as to others. In this sense, Lewis and Russell Kirk have much in common. Each saw life as a sort of drama and art, one in which the will shapes what Providence has so generously provided.
None of this, however, should suggest that Lewis enjoyed an idyllic life. Far from it. He lost his mother when he was very young, and his greatest memory of her is the disruption her death caused the family. The moment shaped him dramatically, especially in his understanding of private relations. “To my hatred for what I already felt to be all the fuss and flummery of the funeral I may perhaps trace something in me which I now recognize as a defect but which I have never fully overcome,” he admitted, “a distaste for all that is public, all that belongs to the collective; a boorish inaptitude for formality.”
Though he does not make this explicit, the discomfort caused by his mother’s funeral seems to have shaped his view of liturgy and religion as well. “This was high ‘Anglo-Catholic,’” Lewis wrote of his later church experiences. “On the conscious level I reacted strongly against its peculiarities—was I not an Ulster Protestant, and were not these unfamiliar rituals an essential part of the hated English atmosphere? Unconsciously, I suspect, the candles and incense, the vestments and the hymns sung on our knees, may have had a considerable, and opposite, effect on me.”
Additionally, as a result of his mother’s death, Lewis notes, he and his brother (and best friend), Warnie, not only lost their mother, but they also lost their father through the ordeal as well. In some unfathomable way, Lewis’s father seems to have given up any semblance of serious fatherhood with the loss of his wife. At one level, his father saw the boys as a burden. At another, he saw them as potential best friends. Neither role attracted either Lewis boy, and each escaped in his own way; Warnie off to the military; and Jack off to Oxford and World War I. Much of Lewis’s autobiography deals with his own failure to understand his emotional and mercurial father, a somewhat amiable and well-intentioned buffoon.
His father also sent him off to school, a trauma, for the most part, for Lewis. In the all boys schools, he learned first hand about power structures, class structures, and sexual power. Though he never states it directly, he hints repeatedly that older boys almost certainly raped Lewis innumerable times during his school years. When Lewis tried to talk to his father about any of this, his father simply could not comprehend the horridness of the crimes and tuned his son out. Without any support at home, Lewis could do nothing but learn to endure the abuse at school.
Not surprisingly, Lewis made few friends during his years at school, but he immersed himself completely in his studies, discovering endless worlds for exploration. As a young student, he came to love historical fiction, especially the better kind about the ancient world such as Quo Vadis and Ben Hur. Nothing, however, moved Lewis as much as his discovery of all things “northern”: the myths; the verse; the operas.
My eye fell upon a headline and a picture, carelessly, expecting nothing. A moment later, as the poet says, “The sky had turned round.” What I had read was the words Siegfried and the Twilight of the Gods. What I had seen was one of Arthur Rackham’s illustrations to that volume. I had never heard of Wagner, nor of Siegfried. I thought the Twilight of the Gods meant the twilight in which the gods lived. How did I know, at once and beyond question, that this was no Celtic, or silvan, or terrestrial twilight? But so it was. Pure “Northernness” engulfed me: a vision of huge, clear spaces hanging above the Atlantic in the endless twilight of Northern summer, remoteness, severity . . . and almost at the same moment I knew that I had met this before, long, long ago (it hardly seems longer now) in Tegnefs Drapa, that Siegfried (whatever it might be) belonged to the same world as Balder and the sunward-sailing cranes.
For Lewis, his first taste of the Northern brought him, fascinatingly, to the place of his beginning, to his rightful home. His first discovery of the Northern was,
the memory of Joy itself, the knowledge that I had once had what I had now lacked for years, that I was returning at last from exile and desert lands to my own country; and the distance of the Twilight of the Gods and the distance of my own past Joy, both unattainable, flowed together into a single, unendurable sense of desire and loss, which suddenly became one with the loss of the whole experience, which, as I now stared round that dusty schoolroom like a man recovering from unconsciousness, had already vanished, had eluded me at the very moment when I could first say It is. And at once I knew (with fatal knowledge) that to “have it again” was the supreme and only important object of desire.
Other than his arrival at Christianity in the autumn of 1931, nothing affected Lewis more in his scholarly and personal life than his discovery of the northern gods. They would help form the basis of his friendship with J.R.R. Tolkien as well as his own personal imagination, including its boundaries and limitations. Given that Lewis and Ray Bradbury were the two men who most gave respectability to the genre of science fiction in the twentieth century, his encounter with the northern is no small moment. Still, this was only a step toward his acceptance of Christianity, and that would have to wait almost two more decades.
This essay was first published here in February 2019.
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