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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 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 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 Gutenberg.org 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 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 29 May 2013
I like reading but I choose my books to read on their individual merits. There has never been an author whose work I will read indiscriminately, and in turn I rarely read several works by the same author. But C. S. Lewis is the exception. He is the first and only author so far that I deliberately go out of my way to collect the books he has written, and that there is an urge to read them all! Among his books that I have read so far, "Till we have faces" was the one which impressed upon me most. It is a book that you won't ever forget, so deep that you feel you have not quite grasped all its meaning in the first read, and so gripping is Lewis' writing that it is itself an experience just to read through the book and learn what captivation really means.

It is the first time that my admiration for some literary work has aroused my interest in the author himself. This was why I picked up Surprised by Joy.

This is by no means an easy book to read because Lewis was a scholar and an intellect. His path to Christianity took on the route of rationality, dialectics and philosophy. He came to become a Theist because he realised that Atheism was unattainable. He saw how atheism broke down in a close scrutiny. Hence he became a Theist first and then met Christ.

As such, I would say I understand and follow about 60 per cent of the book because if you have not read any of the books (in the realm of classical mythology and dialectics) which Lewis had read in vast quantity in his early life, books and authors that were important in shaping his beliefs and thinking, you can be rather lost in this intellectual maze. But I would say this is my own shortcoming.

Yet God does not only meet us at our intellectual level but also in our personal life. Lewis therefore spent a lot of time on his family life, school life and important friends in his life. He was a boy with such a vivid imagination, fed by his voracious reading appetite, that he admitted to face a dilemma in writing the book as there were two worlds, equally important and real, that were going on in his life: the "outer" life and his imaginary world. He gave accounts of both.

His mother died when Lewis was quite young. His dad was out of the house from nine to six during the week. I suppose the long absence could not be helped, but it did seem to contribute to the gulf between the children (Lewis had an older brother) and the father, who later on was seen as an intruder into their life in his own home. His father forged hard for a relationship with his two sons. But the human tragedy in a family is often that we try our very best to love, but only to drive our loved ones further and further away, without us having the slightest clue as to why! As Lewis quoted, "sensations are sensations." I can fully relate to Lewis on that, our helplessness in the breakdown of relationships, which should have been the closest to us!

His account of his public school life is shocking to me. Lewis was very honest and critical of the whole system. He exposed things, and the real life at public schools only visible to those who were insiders, things that you surely won't pick up from an open day of the school, for example. It was a real eye-opener to me. I suppose cruelty in whatever form was something intended to be committed in secret rather than in public knowledge. Lewis' account was blatant about how boarding school life could seriously adversely affect a child's psychology!

Lewis spent a lot of time in his childhood in solitude. I guess this is common for any precocious child. Therefore in his world, he experienced, what I coin as, "emotional flatline", a state when one is neither happy nor unhappy. This is why Lewis searched for the state of Joy, which seemed so elusive. Hence you can imagine how "surprised" he was to find someone who were interested in similar things and with similar abilities in his later life, and eventually find God.

He spent years as he was growing up convincing himself not to believe. When he was an atheist, he did not believe that God existed, but then he was angry that God did not exist! These were contradictions that were exposed once he decided to be honest with himself.

Yes, he wrestled with God! He clearly saw God making His move on him in his exposition, cunningly surrounding him with Christian friends who were dear to him, and step by step, closing in on him and leading to Checkmate as this final outcome. I am moved by Lewis's own words on his conversion: "In the Trinity Term of 1929 I gave in, and admitted that God was God, and knelt and prayed: perhaps, that night, the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England. I did not then see what is now the most shining and obvious thing; the Divine humility which will accept a convert even on such terms. The Prodigal Son at least walked home on his own feet. But who can duly adore that Love which will open the high gates to a prodigal who is brought in kicking, struggling, resentful, and darting his eyes in every direction for a chance of escape? The words compelle intrare, compel them to come in, have been so abused by wicked men that we shudder at them; but, properly understood, they plumb the depth of the Divine mercy. The hardness of God is kinder than the softness of men, and His compulsion is our liberation." (p.266) These are beautiful words of God's election and love for us, which has so often been misunderstood.

Finally, Lewis had the real gift of exposition - concepts and ideas can become so crystal clear through his words that you can react in no other way than clapping your hands and exclaim, "It's so true" or "That's it!" Here is one example of God's sovereignty. "... He had taught me how a thing can be revered not for what it can do to us but for what it is in itself. That is why, though it was a terror, it was no surprise to learn that God is to be obeyed because of what He is in Himself. If you ask why we should obey God, in the last resort the answer is, "I am." To know God is to know that our obedience is due to Him. In his nature His sovereignty de jure is revealed." (p.269)

P.S. Today is 26 August 2015. I would like to add to my review this link to John Piper's biography on C.S. Lewis. This has helped me understand the key theme of this book, which is Lewis's discovery of Joy, which he defines technically. http://www.desiringgod.org/messages/lessons-from-an-inconsolable-soul
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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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on 21 January 2014
C S Lewis is for me one of the best writers in the modern era, his simplicity and depth are amaizing, he has a particular way to engage with the reader that no many are able to. The story of his conversion it is simply awesome!!!
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on 2 December 2015
I am a big fan of many of CS Lewis' apologetic and non-fiction work, but I found this book a little tiring. To give him credit he did warn near the beginning of the book that much of the book would be about his childhood. Whilst I found it a bit interesting, I found it also rather dull and long winded. I was more interested to hear his story on how his religious views evolved, and whilst he does go over this, it is very infrequent and most of the book is seemingly unrelated stories. He didn't give enough detail on his religious views in my opinion and how and why they changed, probably less than 20% of the book mentioned it, and that was what I was really interested in.
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on 14 January 2014
This is deserved of a erudite and considered critique rather than the one liner I have time for. However this book is potentially life changing, or at the very least mind changing. As with other titles from Lewis it is difficult to remain unaffected, because he speaks so plainly and honestly about his weaknesses and foibles. The purely humanist is interwoven with the spiritual so adeptly that it leaves one susceptible to the immense notion he is expounding. I suspect the subject matter is uncomfortable to the christian and the atheist alike. It is rare that religion is dealt with this intelligently and without the usual sentimentalism and guff.
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