Narnia, Perelandra—places of wonder and longing. The White Witch, Screwtape—personifications of evil. Aslan—a portrait of the divine. Like Turkish Delight, some of C.S. Lewis’s writing surprises and whets our appetite for more. But some of his works bite and nip at our heels. What enabled C.S. Lewis to create such vivid characters and compelling plots? Perhaps it was simply that C.S. Lewis had an unsurpassed imagination. Or perhaps he had a knack for finding the right metaphor or analogy that awakened readers’ imaginations in new ways. But whatever his gifts, no one can deny that C.S. Lewis had a remarkable career, producing many books in eighteen different literary genres, including: apologetics, autobiography, educational philosophy, fairy stories, science fiction, and literary criticism. And while he had and still has critics, Lewis' works continue to find devoted readers.
The purpose of this book is to introduce C.S. Lewis through the prism of imagination. For Lewis, imagination is both a means and an end. And because he used his own imagination well and often, he is a practiced guide for those of us who desire to reach beyond our grasp. Each chapter highlights Lewis’s major works and then shows how Lewis uses imagination to captivate readers. While many have read books by C.S. Lewis, not many readers understand his power to give new slants on the things we think we know. More than a genius, Lewis disciplined his imagination, harnessing its creativity in service of helping others believe more deeply.
“Truly fresh, rhetorically astute works about C. S. Lewis are rare, but this provocative new volume by Jerry Root and Mark Neal emerges at just the right time to reinvigorate Lewis scholarship beyond the clichés we continue to repeat to each other. The Surprising Imagination of C. S. Lewis delivers just that salvo, an ingenious, empathetic, lavishly informed elucidation of Lewis’s understanding of the life of the imagination.”
—Bruce L. Edwards, Professor Emeritus of English and Africana Studies, Bowling Green State University, Bowling Green, OH
“Our grasp of ‘imagination’ is such a pale and paltry thing; Neal and Root offer a much-needed corrective by illustrating Lewis’s robust use of the word. The happy result is a more accurate and nuanced reading of Lewis. But there is more: through their careful work, we are graced with a rich, new vocabulary to discern and describe the many uses of creative imagination all around us.”
—Diana Pavlac Glyer, Professor of English at Azusa Pacific University, Azusa, CA, author of The Company They Keep: C .S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien as Writers in Community
“This fabulous book on Lewis’s imagination will delight readers new to Lewis and those who, like the authors, have been reading him for decades. It shimmers with the joy of exploration and discovery. The Surprising Imagination of C. S. Lewis is a reliable and inspiring guide not only to Lewis but to a treasure trove of imaginative books that fired Lewis’s own imagination. In Robert Frost’s delightful phrase, this book is the occasion for a ‘fresh think.’”
—Wayne Martindale, Emeritus Professor of English, Wheaton College, Wheaton, IL
“Jerry Root and Mark Neal make excellent use of Lewis's literary criticism of other authors to show how he employed different varieties of imagination in his own works. The result is a good book about Lewis and an even better one on the capacity of imagination to enrich each of our lives every day.”
—Mark Noll, Francis A. McAnaney Professor of History, University of Notre Dame, Notre Dame, IN
“For nearly four decades I have been reading books and articles in the field of Lewis studies. This volume is one of the most original and fascinating books on Lewis to appear in a long time.”
—Lyle W. Dorsett, Billy Graham Professor of Evangelism, Beeson Divinity School, Samford University, Birmingham, AL
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About the Author
Mark Neal is the VP of digital marketing at a Chicago-based marketing firm and an independent C.S. Lewis scholar. He writes and publishes on Lewis as well as other topics.
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The Surprising Imagination Of C.S. Lewis
By Jerry Root, Mark Neal
Abingdon PressCopyright © 2015 Jerry Root and Mark Neal
All rights reserved.
The Book in the Bookstall
Baptized Imagination in Surprised by Joy
C. S. Lewis read George MacDonald's book Phantastes in 1916. He said that after reading this book his imagination was baptized. He meant that regenerative processes began in him. When this occurred, though he still considered himself an atheist at the time, he started on the long road to faith in Christ. He chronicles this in his autobiography Surprised by Joy.
Lewis and the Choice to Write Autobiography
Lewis wrote autobiography on purpose. That is, he was as intentional about writing Surprised by Joy as he was writing in each of the literary forms he employed. Lewis wrote in at least seventeen literary genres: apologetics, autobiography, educational philosophy, essays, fairy stories, journal, letters, literary criticism, literary history, lyric poetry, narrative poetry, the novel, religious devotion, satire, science fiction, short story, and translation.
He chose a literary form that matched what he wanted to say. Lewis was always seeking how to properly adorn his words, ideas, and imaginative expressions. He said, "It is easy to forget that the man who writes a good love sonnet needs not only to be enamoured of a woman, but also enamoured of the Sonnet." Similarly, Lewis said, "I wrote fairy tales because the Fairy Tale seemed the ideal Form for the stuff I had to say." He wrote his science fiction novels because they enabled him to say what he wanted to say about the longing for another world.
Lewis's point was clear: an author should select his or her literary genre as carefully as he or she selects the content. He or she should take the same care as a sculptor who selects her marble or a painter selects his material. He wrote in the literary form that helped him best set forth a certain body of ideas.
Some critics make large assumptions as to why Lewis wrote his autobiography. Some have suggested that Surprised by Joy is a bad autobiography because he leaves so much out. Others infer that Lewis used autobiography as a therapeutic exercise to cleanse his conscience before taking on his Narnian project. In other words, the autobiography was, at the end of the day, merely an exercise in confessional psychology.
Another critic claims that Lewis fails to disclose his shortcomings and hides realities behind pretense, suggesting that the work should have been called Suppressed by Jack(Jack was Lewis's nickname) rather than Surprised by Joy. Others say that the autobiography is similar in style to Augustine's Confessions.
Lewis probably chose autobiography so he could shape his rhetoric along the lines of a testimonial apologetic for the Christian faith. Lewis says that his goal in writing the book was to tell the story of how he moved from atheism to Christianity. And, relative to its matter, the purpose of the book determines the details he chose to both include and to leave out. This specific purpose also determined that the narrative should end at the point of his conversion at the age of thirty-three.
True, Lewis lived another thirty years after the events recounted in Surprised by Joy. During those years he became a noted public figure. His picture was published on the cover of Time magazine in 1947. He was a popular writer of science fiction and children's books. Lewis was also a recognized academic in medieval and Renaissance literature. Norman Cantor claims Lewis was the greatest scholar of medieval literature of his age. Lewis was even a popular radio presenter on the BBC and a noted lecturer.
None of these points, however, are mentioned in his autobiography. His intent was clear: to tell of his pilgrimage to faith, noting those events important in that process. He does not include details unnecessary to the story he wanted his readers to know. The details he left out did not advance this narrative.
One author faults Lewis for giving mounds of information about his school experiences but hardly anything about his war years. To be sure, Lewis did not have a positive experience in the schools he attended. As the autobiography makes explicit, he was awkward and bookish. He was an easy target for bullying and hazing by the older students. Lewis devotes many pages to these formative yet difficult days.
This same critic even charges that Lewis "seems bent on securing revenge on those he believed to have tormented him as a schoolboy by ridiculing them." This accusation seems unfair. Certainly other, more probable interpretations could be given. Lewis's preconversion days were marked by loneliness and estrangements. His mother died when he was only nine years old. His father sent him off to a boarding school in London across the Irish Sea, far from his Belfast home. The headmaster at the school eventually was institutionalized. In that school Lewis was underfed, beaten, and made to sleep in a room where the boys were not kept warm in winter.
Later, when he attended other schools, he constantly highlights his feelings of isolation and estrangement. These feelings exacerbated the deep longings for some object that seemed remote, distant, and ever elusive. As Lewis writes about his school years, he makes a strong case for the human story of isolation. Lewis's childhood is merely a particular example. Virtually everybody can describe their own feelings of abandonment and loneliness. And Lewis, telling his story, bonds with his readers. The apologetic possible in autobiography connects with some readers more deeply than would be possible through discursive argument. The number of pages given to his school years is appropriate, since this time made up the bulk of Lewis's early years. On the other hand, he says far less of his experiences as a soldier in France during World War I. The war years were certainly traumatic and undoubtedly left some scars. Nevertheless, whatever memories they may have embedded into the psyche of the soldier Lewis, they do not represent a very long period of his life. Nor did they figure deeply in his pilgrimage to faith. He made no battlefield promises to God in exchange for safekeeping. But Lewis did discover the writings of G. K. Chesterton during those days, and they goaded him in the direction of faith — something he notes in his narrative.
Lewis also came to have high regard for the common person and the unsung heroes he met in the trenches. These experiences shaped his understanding about real life. He found himself constantly in the presence of inclusion and good will, things that were noteworthy and relevant to his overall theme. Two years in the service contrasted by many years in school seems to justify the brevity of the military narrative and validate the length of the school story. The events he selects were deliberately chosen to support his story of a man on a quest that eventually led him to faith. Autobiography was the literary form that worked best for this purpose.
Further, the events Lewis records are best interpreted without psychological projection by the critic. Certainly everyone in this broken world carries the baggage of past hurts, pains, misunderstandings, and nurtured bitterness. That is, everyone has an interesting psychology. Charging that someone is freighted with these things is easy enough. But these traumas are not necessarily what a book such as Surprised by Joy is about. Such criticisms may miss completely the literary motives or intentions of the author.
Lewis warns against these feeble attempts to psychoanalyze an author, especially when the author is not present. This kind of analysis often takes the reader further from the text itself, and likely leads into a fiction or fantasy of the reader's own imagination. When psychoanalytic projections onto the text do occur, there is seldom any way to prove the analysis correct. But thoughtful critics who keep an actual text before them have a better chance of keeping their interpretations on track by simply returning to the text for clarification.
Big Themes in Surprised by Joy
Surprised by Joy: The Shape of My Early Life is the full title Lewis chose for his autobiography. As has been mentioned, he sought to fashion his story by choosing those elements, such as his baptized imagination, that would best explain his conversion to Christ. The process was as much an imaginative endeavor as it was a rational one. And the story is a good place to begin any study of Lewis's life and work, for in his autobiography his readers receive a structural unity for most of his other writing. In his book on medieval literature, The Discarded Image (discussed later in this book), Lewis remarks that any attempt to understand a literary work should seek to "save the appearances." What does he mean? Any literary interpretation is less likely to go awry if it can account for all the facts while making the fewest number of assumptions. Assumptions often say more about the critic than the text and are often freighted with the interpreter's projections onto the text. We should expect that a critic's own values are revealed in any judgments he or she makes. Nevertheless, literary critic Terry Eagleton rightly notes, "The subjective is a matter of value, while the world is a matter of fact."
A reader of Lewis's autobiography would do well to keep his or her judgments tethered to the text. Saving the appearances suggests that interpretations that account for the greatest number of textual facts while making the fewest assumptions have the best chance of success. Lewis keeps the reader on course by making many explicit comments throughout his autobiography.
Lewis gives his readers an account of his pilgrimage from atheism to Christianity and is explicit in marking the importance his imagination played in this process. He clearly experienced a moment where his imagination was baptized. His eventual coming to faith was to some degree an outcome of that experience.
All growth in understanding will require some use of the imagination. Even scientists begin their method of exploration with a hypothesis. A hypothesis is an imaginative exercise. After experimentation, the discoveries are explained through the use of models. Models are imaginative depictions. Similarly, Lewis records that from his earliest days, he had imaginative experiences. These were linked with an awakening sense of longing or desire that he called longing joy. As he recounts, much of his youth was occupied with a quest to find the object of this longing. Lewis also sought to make sense of these heartfelt, imaginative experiences rationally. And while he sought to understand the meaning of these experiences rationally, these imaginative experiences seemed to be matters of the heart. How could Lewis unite his reason and his longing heart?
The challenge of uniting head and heart in a holistic way was a lifelong interest for Lewis. His friend and fellow Inkling, Charles Williams, wrote a cycle of poems recounting the Arthurian legend through the eyes of Taliesin, the court poet of Camelot. The poems are flush with profound theological wisdom and insight, but they do not easily reveal their treasures to a first-time reader. After Williams died, Lewis honored his friend by writing a literary critique of the poems, making them more accessible. Lewis's work is called The Arthurian Torso. He notes an image in Williams, borrowed from The Prelude, a poem by William Wordsworth. The image is of a Bedouin shepherd carrying a stone and a shell. As he walks, he is trying to fit the stone into the shell. Lewis notes that the stone is an image for the life of the mind, while the shell is an image for the longings of the heart. Then Lewis observes that the first problem in life is trying to fit the stone in the shell.
This is the process Lewis is describing in Surprised by Joy. In fact, Lewis titled the first book he wrote after his conversion The Pilgrim's Regress: An Allegorical Apology for Christianity, Reason and Romanticism, again emphasizing the significance for him of uniting the head and the heart in a holistic way. Lewis believed his newly discovered faith was the thing that could link reason and longing. He used an allegory (the only allegory he ever wrote) as a literary form to make the point. This allegory was employed with apologetic ends in mind. Similarly, Lewis uses his autobiography to do the work of an apologist. This further underscores Lewis's intention for Surprised by Joy.
If God exists and created the universe, then nothing in life can be separated from the supernatural. Lewis certainly thought so, and writes, "We may ignore, but we can nowhere evade, the presence of God. The world is crowded with Him. He walks everywhere incognito. And the incognito is not always hard to penetrate. The real labour is to remember, to attend. In fact, to come awake. Still more, to remain awake."
God is always breaking into God's world and making the divine self known. Such was the case for Lewis when his imagination was baptized. And, often, it is by means of the imagination that God is first apprehended. Why? The word definition literally means "of the finite." We define things by virtue of their limitations. To be defined, anything must be small enough to wrap words around it and distinguish it from other things. The question arises, how do you define God? If God is infinite, then God breaks common categories of definition. The medieval scholastic doctors of the church understood the difficulty and wrote about God using what they called the Way of Analogy. To talk about the One who is infinite requires such imaginative depictions.
Perhaps this is why Jesus used the imagination while discussing spiritual matters. He said, "The Kingdom of Heaven is like ..." and taught using similes, figures of speech, metaphors, and parables. Lewis observed that reason is the organ of truth but imagination is the organ of meaning. And he chronicles in his autobiography his own search for meaning. This required him to have significant respect for the uses of the imagination if he was to make progress in a pilgrimage to God.
Surprised by Joy and the Imaginative Impulse
In Surprised by Joy Lewis marks the places where imaginative experiences goaded him onward in his pilgrimage to God. Very early in Lewis's childhood, his brother, Warren, brought into their nursery a toy garden that he created on the lid of a biscuit tin. Lewis noted that what all other gardens failed to do for him, that garden did: it awakened in him a sense of longing for something more than a toy garden. A few years later, standing beside a flowering currant bush, he remembered that toy garden — and, with it, an almost sickening desire for some object, but the nature of that object was not clear to him.
A similar experience occurred when he read Beatrix Potter's Squirrel Nutkin. Lewis recounts that he was moved by the quality of autumn, and desire was once again rekindled. This happened again when he began reading Norse mythology. He was lifted up in desire for huge regions of northern skies and longed for somewhere remote and distant. Lewis then remarks that those who do not identify, at some level, with these imaginative experiences that set his heart to longing might as well put down the book, for they will never grasp its central message. He writes of this longing, triggered by these imaginative experiences, "In a sense the central story of my life is about nothing else."
Lewis came to be haunted by a longing awakened through creative depictions of life and places beyond his own: "Such then was the state of my imaginative life; over against it stood the life of my intellect. The two hemispheres of my mind were in the sharpest contrast. On the one side a many-islanded sea of poetry and myth; on the other a glib and shallow 'rationalism.' Nearly all I loved I believed to be imaginary; nearly all I believed to be real I thought grim and meaningless."
Lewis recounts those details that prodded him to faith. He observes that his reading began to close in on him. He found himself gravitating toward those authors who wrote of "roughness and density of life." They did not reduce life to neat formulas and systems. They were imaginative. Their portrayals reinforced this deep-seated longing. Most of these authors Lewis found were Christian. They did not write about neatly packaged approaches to life but of life's complexity. One author who spoke to him most deeply was George MacDonald. The account of MacDonald's influence on Lewis is central to the story Lewis tells in Surprised by Joy.
Excerpted from The Surprising Imagination Of C.S. Lewis by Jerry Root, Mark Neal. Copyright © 2015 Jerry Root and Mark Neal. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
"Foreword" by Steven A. Beebe,
"Introduction": Cultivating the Life of the Imagination,
"Part 1": Imagination and the Literature of the Mind,
"Chapter 1". The Book in the Bookstall: Baptized Imagination in Surprised by Joy,
"Chapter 2". Hunting the Woolly Mammoth: Shared magination in Mere Christianity,
"Chapter 3". The Smell of Deity: Satisfied Imagination in Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer,
"Chapter 4". Breaking Out of the Dungeon: Awakened Imagination in An Experiment in Criticism,
"Chapter 5". On the Shoulders of Giants: Realizing Imagination in The Discarded Image,
"Part 2": Imagination and the Literature of the Heart,
"Chapter 6". Narnia and the North: Penetrating Imagination in The Horse and His Boy,
"Chapter 7". A Passionate Sanity: Material Imagination in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader,
"Chapter 8". Discovering New Worlds: Primary Imagination in Out of the Silent Planet,
"Chapter 9". The Magician's Bargain: Generous Imagination in That Hideous Strength,
"Chapter 10". The Hellish Nature of Projection: Transforming Imagination in The Great Divorce,
"Chapter 11". The Grey Town: Controlled Imagination in The Screwtape Letters,
"Chapter 12". Searching for the Hidden Country: Absorbing Imagination in Poems and Spirits in Bondage,
"Conclusion": Illuminating the Path Ahead,
"Appendix": Additional Uses of the Imagination as Identified by C. S. Lewis,