It has been some time since I last wrote about “Surprised by Joy,” but perhaps that is okay. I have been thinking about the book as well as my original aim of writing these little articles, so hopefully my thoughts will be a bit more focused and coherent because of it.
My original purpose was to discover what it was that made C. S. Lewis a writer whose works are still relevant for today. We have seen that his imagination was very active from his earliest age when he created and wrote about a fantastical world called Animal-land. I also find it interesting that he sustained interest in his creation for a number of years. He started writing about Animal-land at least at the age of six — short stories, histories of the land, map making followed. As I wrote in the previous article, he states that through all the writing of the histories and the maps about Animal-land, he was actually training himself to be a novelist.
His interest in fantasy was shaped by the books he read at this tender age of six or seven. Here are a few that he cites:
- Sir Nigel by Conan Doyle — This introduced Lewis to knights in armor, but he never had a desire to re-read it;
- A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court by Mark Twain — He “blissfully” read this for the romantic elements. It was his only source of the Arthurian legend at the time, but he was quite sure he wouldn’t take the time to re-read it.
- The E. Nesbit trilogy: Five Children and It; The Phoenix and the Wishing Carpet; and The Amulet — These he deemed to be much better than either of the Doyle or Twain books. The Amulet was one that truly had an effect on him. It was the first book to show him, as he says, “the dark backward and abysm of time.” It introduced him to antiquity.
- He loved Gulliver and found beauty in Beatrix Potter’s books.
A major factor that I see here, or perhaps I should say: don’t see here is a reference to television. I haven’t read about any reverences to radio, either. He was forced to entertain himself by reading books and magazines (he read his father’s Punch magazines) and creating activities for himself that interested him.
He formed thoughts and ideas and attitudes from what he read and then expanded on those thoughts. Television, which became wide spread when I was a kid, is perhaps the biggest contributor to the cultivation of the lack of imagination in young people. It is a great invention, I admit that, but everything is thought-out and laid before the watcher. The scenes move, one to the other, at such a rate that it gives no time for the watcher to consider and form thoughts or opinions about what they have just seen. It has to be done that way in order to keep the interest of the watcher. It’s a marketing thing to keep the ratings high.
Back to C. S. Lewis — I nearly went off on a rant, didn’t I?
The final event of his early childhood, and probably the one with the greatest impact on his life was the death of his mother. She died of cancer. The result of her death was that he was truly alone. Lewis suggests that he and his brother never had a very close relationship with their father and this eroded the situation even more. By Lewis’ account, his father had never had the “steadiest” nerves and
“…his emotions had always been uncontrolled. Under the pressure of anxiety his temper became incalculable; he spoke wildly and acted unjustly.”
He was losing his sons as well as his wife and Lewis states that his father never really recovered from the loss of his wife.
There is one interesting observation that Lewis has about sorrow. There is a saying: “shared sorrow draws people together.” His experience is that this does not occur if those who share it are of widely differing ages. He explains that when a child is confronted with adult misery and adult terror the effect on the child is to paralyze him and cause alienation. This is a good lesson to remember. If tragedy, sorrow, or crisis occurs in the presence of young children, don’t let them know you’re terrified – keeping calm and in control will draw them closer so they can be better cared for at a time when they need it.
When he and his brother were told that his mother’s case was hopeless, he remembered what he had been taught: prayers offered in faith would be granted. He thought his prayers were the best that could be said and he had mustered firm belief of this through his own will power. He was sure this was what was needed for her successful recovery — God would intervene and she would be healed. After she died, he continued praying that, basically, she would be brought back to life through the sheer power of his prayers; that there would be a miracle. I wonder if this was the beginning of his travels into atheism. He doesn’t say this, but it kind of stands to reason that the seed was planted at this time, doesn’t it?
His approach to God was, he says, without awe and without fear. He didn’t approach God as the Savior or Judge, but as a magician who would fulfill his request and then “simply go away.” He was totally unaware that the contact he had made with God “should have any consequences beyond restoring the status quo.” He had no thought that once a conversation with God had been initiated, he would be expected to continue the relationship.
My own pastor in catechism class said that people often approach God incorrectly – we approach Him like we approach a soda machine. We deposit our quarter, push a button requesting our desires and expect our request to be filled — only to go off on our merry way (whether or not our prayers are answered the way we wish); giving no more thought the machine.
With his mother’s death, happiness, tranquility and anything that was reliable disappeared from his life. There was nothing of that security that only mothers can impart to their children. From this time forward he had only himself and his brother to lean on. For a while, he did spend time with his aunt – his mother’s sister-in-law from Canada – and he enjoyed being around her, but he was soon “packed-off” to school in England so there was little long-term comfort to be found in her.