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on 21 July 2001
I have already read most of C.S.Lewis' works, but I'd intentionally put-off reading 'Surprised by Joy'. I'd felt it more interesting to learn Christian Wisdom from what he wrote after his conversion, than to concern myself with how he became converted. However, I finally gave in; and it is a thoroughly good read, unusually humorous in some places: his memories of his eccentric father and also of a wartime troop-train had me laughing out- loud. Another C.S.Lewis triumph.
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on 13 October 2000
I have loved this book for the better part of thirty years - - and not simply because it is the autobiography of one of my favorite authors. I would revere this book if it was the only work by C. S. Lewis that had ever been published.
Lewis himself said that the best part of many long novels, such as Dickens's, is the beginning - - the childhood years. As an autobiographer Lewis excels here, too, with his account of his imaginative formation in a big old Belfast house and as a junior member of a family that included some eccentrics indeed. We read on to an account of his school-days miseries that rivals George Orwell's notorious essay "'Such, Such Were the Joys'." (One of Lewis's masters was institutionalized as insane within a year or so of Lewis's leaving the school.) Later, we read of his wartime experiences. (He did not have to serve in World War I, by the way, as Irish-born.)
Are you a Tolkien fan? You'll enjoy Lewis's account of his wary meeting with a "Papist" philologist.
The account of his conversion is, of course, a classic, one that people may, I believe, be reading for decades, even centuries, to come; many people have found it useful in understanding their own spiritual experiences.
The book is generous, poetic, and fresh.
Dale Nelson English Department Mayville State University, USA
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on 26 January 2001
Before I saw this book on a shelf in a library, I knew that C.S. Lewis married a woman named Joy. When I saw the title, I thought the book must have been about how he and Joy met each other and that since he was an older man when he married, he was "surprised by Joy." Funny thought, but not the case. This is C.S. Lewis' spiritual autobiography. He describes his early years, his internal yearnings, his hunger for he-knew-not-what. A more honest book, you would be hard pressed to find. I give it the highest rating possible and recommend it to all. Also recommended: Castle of Wisdom by Rhett Ellis-- a Christian book that is... well, different.
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on 10 August 2009
I read this book before any of Lewis' other non-fiction works (with the execption of 'Screwtape letters') to find out something about the man.
It was interesting, to say the least, but is not an 'autobiography' in the sense that some may understand.

Surprised by Joy is more a chronicle of Lewis' life journey, the influnences of his parents and events in childhood, and his schooling on his personality and perspective. Lewis is deep, philosophical and analytical throughout, because of this the book can be rather tedious and difficult. If you are not familiar with Classical Mythology, or Dialetic much of it will go over your head, as it did for me.

Despite that, it is worth a read, to discover something about Lewis' character, if nothing else, and provide a background to some of this other works.
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on 9 February 2008
I was informed, by reviews of the book, that this would chart his conversion from atheism to Christianity. I was, instead, surprised to read a good autobiography about him, with a great deal of reference to what Lewis calls 'stabs of Joy'. The the last few pages chronicled in lightning speed how he went from atheism, to theism, and then to believing that Christ was the son of God. I'd have liked to read more about his philosophical musings on why Christianity is a valid, and true religion. But nevertheless, it was an entertaining read, and provided a good sight into Lewis' character.
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on 19 December 2009
This is a delightful book typical of the man. I think it takes a while to get used to his way of writing but once this is mastered a store of wealth is awaiting.
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on 5 February 2016
"Joy" is a theme you'll find popping up in a few places in C.S.Lewis' writings. In The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, it's when the children first hear about Aslan from the beaver family, it's what the name "Aslan" suddenly inspires in their mind. He doesn't call it "joy" there, but in Surprised by Joy: The Shape of My Early Life, you will recognise it by that name.

It first happened when he was very young, and his older brother showed him a model farm he had made, using green moss for some of the landscape and trees. Seeing it, momentarily opened a window into another world. Later, he caught it again from one line of Tegner's Drapa that popped out at him, "I heard a voice that cried, Balder the beautiful Is dead, is dead——". You can sort of imagine that as a voice echoing from some strange wonderful world, can't you?

Seeking for those moments of "joy" inspired a few of his quests in his early life. Lewis tells a captivating story of his growing up in Belfast, his early education, a rather horrible boarding school he was sent to that resembled Creakle's Salem School out of Charles Dickens, the college where he developed a distaste for traditional boarding school culture and decided to become an atheist, his time with his tutor Mr. Kirkpatrick where he learned to think logically and reinforced his atheistic beliefs, his time on the battlefield during the Great War, and university, both as a student, and then as he began his career as a professor. As time went, moments of "joy" became more scarse, only to suddenly surprise him one day as he finally opened his heart and mind, not just to Theism, but to God as a person.

The purpose of the book is to relate his spiritual and intellectual journey, therefore it's not a complete biography of his early life. There is a lot about what he read, what authors influenced him, what affect various of his friends and mentors had on him. I was inspired to download a few old books from with the intention of reading them sometime, and perhaps listen to a bit more of Wagner (where he also got moments of "joy").

Along with his other book, Miracles, this is also a good resource for understanding the journey from atheism to being a believer. This one is more narrative, whereas Miracles is more of a study. I should add that not all atheists will be bowled over backwards by his arguments, simply because not all atheists think alike. Some won't be convinced by any argument at all. And certainly, those ideas many of us were taught by teachers who had, themselves, never met an atheist, such as the argument "First Cause", and the intricacy of the universe, won't go very far either. However, Lewis' accounts of his own journey is valuable, because they do document the experiences, thought processes and arguments that were enough to convince him. And there's a lot more there than just the subject of atheism and theism.
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on 2 December 2012
"Surprised By Joy: The Shape of My Early Life" stands much more as a purging of the soul than a true autobiography. A third of the book is spent on the hideous perceptions and experiences Lewis endured at school. To him, schools encouraged on to be foppish and caddish, and encourage the search of that damnable inner ring which Lewis so detested. Many of the young boys, if they were not into sports, were cruelly left out of the Bloods, the name he gave the inner ring at school. There is only one book that shows Lewis more intimately than this, and that is "A Grief Observed", the emotionally naked and extremely painful short book that he wrote after the death of his wife, Joy Davidman.

These school experiences would come to shape so much of how Lewis thought and what he wrote. The Inner Ring, which he so highly detested, was a key theme in his novel "That Hideous Strength" as well as "The Abolition of Man". He frequently used school in a negative context in "The Chronicles of Narnia", especially the end book, "The Last Battle", where he talks about how school has ended and break has come at last.

Lewis said in "A Preface to Paradise Lost" that to judge an item you first know what that item was built for. For those coming to this book as an autobiography, they will be sorely disappointed. Lewis wrote this book more to escape and finally be freed of his past, coming to terms with his traumas in terms of writing. As it is wildly unbalanced as an autobiography - nothing is said of Mrs. Moore - the book must be taken on its own terms. Mrs. Moore was the mother of a friend of Lewis's who got killed in World War I, and who Lewis took care of until she died in 1953. There have been rumours that in the early stages of their relationships they were lovers. Although unknown if that is true or not, it is known that Mrs. Moore ultimately became a mother to him. In regards to "Surprised By Joy", this is a way for Lewis to expunge his past, and by going through this psychological process he would be able to let his mind be much more fresh and much more spirited, for he gained the shedding of the past by writing this book. It was after writing this book that he wrote "Till We Have Faces", his best fiction.

Many have suggested that he paints a wildly inaccurate picture of his school, for others have said their experience was not so bad. Who is right we cannot know, but we do know from Lewis's account that school, whether his descriptions and perceptions were distorted or not, did a great amount of harm to him, and his hatred of school politics and much of what goes on in a school finds expression in many of his works. In this manner, SBJ is much more for Lewis himself than any serious students of his, but this book still stands as one of his best sellers.


[Throughout the years, I have written a number of reviews that have never been published online on Amazon. These writings comprise two types of reviews: unfinished reviews, abandoned during various stages of composition, and completed reviews that for life reasons were never posted. Of the later type, back in September 2001 I wrote a cache of work, a full sixteen reviews of several different C. S. Lewis books which have never been released. I am publishing these reviews now for the first time, over a decade after they were initially written. Mike London 10-3-2012]

*(These reviews covered all seven books of "The Chronicles of Narnia", the three novels of "The Space Trilogy", "The Abolition of Man", "The Four Loves", "A Preface to Paradise Lost", a revised version of my 2000 review of "Till We Have Faces", "Surprised By Joy", and "The Screwtape Letters".)
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on 19 February 2011
Surprised by Joy is a sort of autobiography of the famous writer C S Lewis, the author of the famous Narnia childrens books. A Latin and Greek scholar, he volunteered for service as an Officer in the trenches of the Great War. Although he had a Christian upbringing, as a school boy he lost his faith and became an Athiest. A number of events in his life however, brought him to believe that the Universe was created by an intelligence beyond human understanding. He still had trouble with the Christian concept that Jesus of Nazareth was both man, and at the same time as Christ God also. By 1929, his own research had convinced him that Christ was both man and God and Lewis became a Christian. Anyone who is not convinced that God exists, but at the same time knows the impossibility of proving the non-existance of God, or indeed anything, will find the story of how this highly intelligent man moved from Athiest to believer very interesting. Lewis became one of the most influential Christian writers of the 20th Century.
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on 10 March 2012
"Surprised by Joy" is one of C.S. Lewis' most well-known books. In it, he tells the story of his conversion to Christianity. I found the book both interesting, confusing and somewhat disturbing.

Lewis' mother died young, his father seems to have been quite insane, and his school years at "Wyvern" were marked by extreme pennalism. He describes both the hazing and the institutionalized pederasty with a remarkable restraint - something I frankly find somewhat objectionable.

Lewis' Christianity, despite his claims to strict orthodoxy, always had certain original features. One was the idea that paganism had foreshadowed Christianity, just as much as the Old Testament. Virgil, Plato and Aeschylus were a kind of "pagan Old Testament". It comes as no surprise to learn that Lewis was enamoured of both these and other pagan writings already before converting. Thus, he went through a Wagnerian-Norse period as a child and teenager. Despite his participation in World War I, Lewis comes across as very much an "ivory tower intellectual". Romantic longing, ancient and early modern poetry, classical music and philosophical speculation - these were his main preoccupations, rather than politics or science. (Lewis claim to have been interested in science, as well. If he did, it certainly doesn't show!) Lewis also reveals that he had periodically been interested in Theosophy and the occult. He was seriously shocked when two of his best friends, including Owen Barfield, became Anthroposophists. However, Lewis never broke with Barfield, and even included Charles Williams (a Christian "ex"-occultist) in his circle of friends. I wonder why? Did he nevertheless feel some kind of unwanted fascination with occult teachings? Barfield mentions that Lewis was unable to objectively discuss Anthroposophy, perhaps due to some kind of psychological conflict.

The point of "Surprised by Joy" is to explain why the author converted to Christianity. Ironically, I found those parts of the book somewhat confusing. Lewis talks much about a peculiar longing he calls Joy. At one point he realized that Joy must have an object. Thus, Joy points to God. The book's title makes Joy central. Yet, I also got the impression that his conversion to theism-in-general and later to Christianity wasn't connected to Joy, but rather to intellectual speculations. Lewis even writes that Joy became less important after his conversion. It's almost as if Christianity gave him an intellectual satisfaction so great, that he no longer needed the coveted feeling of Joy. This presumably rather essential turn of events emerges suddenly out of nowhere at the very end of the book, and Lewis never reflects on it at length.

Another interesting aspect is that Lewis was very introverted as a person, yet somehow wanted to become an extrovert. This may also have been connected to his conversion. Barfield once said that Lewis needed to believe in the existence of an objective outside world. Both occultism and Idealism presumably tended to feed Lewis' introverted tendencies. When he reluctantly recognized the existence of a living God "out there", he also became more extroverted. This intriguing psychological conflict makes the conversion more believable than the idea that he simply realized that Idealism is philosophically untenable, and the poetry of the metaphysical poets great. (I still wonder about his exact relationship to Joy, though.)

"Surprised by Joy" feels somewhat disjointed, but it's nevertheless an interesting (and surprising?) look into the mind of C.S. Lewis, one of the greatest Christian apologists of the 20th century.
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