The Enigma of Autobiography: McGrath’s Critical Reflections on ‘Surprised by Joy’

In a book of essays investigating the intellectual world of C.S. Lewis, Alister McGrath makes a special mention of Lewis’s 1955 autobiography, Surprised by Joy. McGrath rightly says that “no study of Lewis can fail to engage with (and, at certain critical points, depend upon) Lewis’s personal narrative of conversion.”

Surprised by Joy has been a favourite of C.S. Lewis fans for decades now, especially Christians, who read in it the author’s own memories of his conversion from enthusiastic atheist to Christian. However, to describe Surprised by Joy as simply an autobiography and leave it at that is, as Alister McGrath aptly shows, something of a misnomer.  McGrath’s first essay in The Intellectual World of C.S. Lewis, entitled “The Enigma of Autobiography: Critical Reflections on Surprised by Joy”, deals with how we are best to understand this enigmatic look into the conversion of one of Christianity’s greats.


For McGrath, Surprised by Joy represents “something of an enigma among Lewis’s works, not least because at first sight it seems to subvert Lewis’s own views on the significance of texts.” Specifically, McGrath argues that “Lewis made his reputation by insisting that … Writers were not themselves a spectacle; their texts were rather a set of spectacles through which the world might be viewed.” What then should be made of a book that is, in all respects, a look into the author who wrote the book?

Thus begins the journey to discern exactly why Surprised by Joy exists, and the impact that it had upon Lewis.

McGrath begins by investigating the influences that might have contributed to the style and method in which Lewis wrote Surprised by Joy. Specifically, first G.K. Chesterton’s Orthodoxy: The Romance of Faith, and secondly, Confessions by Augustine – this last, in spite of Lewis’s own objections to the contrary. As McGrath shows, however, there is more than a passing similarity between Surprised by Joy and Confessions. Many parallels exist between the two books, “Yet perhaps the most important parallel between the two autobiographies is the manner of their depiction of God.” Specifically, “God is not represented or understood as a passive object, a concept hidden in the interstices of the cosmos, awaiting discovery by the active, questing agent – whether Augustine or Lewis.” We see this most patently in the way that Lewis, in writing to one of “his closest friends at the time,” Owen Barfield:

“Terrible things are happening to me. The ‘Spirit’ or ‘Real I’ is showing an alarming tendency to become much more personal and is taking the offensive, and behaving just like God. You’d better come on Monday at the latest or I may have entered a monastery.” (Letter to Owen Barfield, February 3, 1930; Letters, Vol 1, 882-3)

As McGrath notes, “in Surprised by Joy  Lewis speaks of God closing in on him, taking the initiative, and ultimately overwhelming him.” McGrath adds that, for Lewis, “the human experiences of longing and desire which lead to the apprehension of God, are to be seen as ‘arrows of Joy’ (Lewis), originating from God, with the objective of leading the soul back to God.”

C.S. Lewis, in writing Surprised by Joy, may also have been making use of the medieval concept of ars memorativa – the ‘art of memory’ – in which one could “find continuity, integrity, and purpose in life” through the recollection of memory. This “medieval concern with memory was not, however, limited to the retrieval, interpretation, and colligation of memories; it also engaged the question of how certain memories might be forgotten or suppressed, purged from the individual’s recollection of the past.” In this way Lewis may have been attempting to modify, or exorcise, certain memories from his youth – the devastating impact World War I would have had on him, or other memories from his childhood and early adulthood. McGrath concludes that, “By the time he moved to Cambridge in January 1955, Lewis seems to have come to terms with his past, and purged himself of both the pain and guilt of such memories.”

This brings to mind “The Historical Reliability of Lewis’s Autobiography”, which takes up the lion’s share of McGrath’s essay. Numerous C.S. Lewis experts, biographers, and fans have noticed various discrepancies in his own recollection of events, times, and places, due primarily to the fact that, as Lewis himself once confessed, he could “never remember dates.” (Letter to Lawrence Krieg, April 21, 1957; Letters, vol. 3, 848)

This inability of Lewis to remember dates “becomes acutely difficult in relation to what is perhaps the central event described in Lewis’s autobiography – his conversion,” in which Lewis seemingly appears to mis-remember the year in which he came to Christ. This is not a flippant confusion, either, as letters and other written material from those years penned by Lewis himself are the basis for this contention – a matter McGrath deals with thoroughly.

McGrath briefly tackles the concept of just to whom Lewis was writing. Surprised by Joy represents an unusual departure in what is historically seen as Lewis’s preternatural ability to write flawlessly for either scholarly readers or the general public. Surprised by Joy, however, unlike an autobiography written for general consumption, is written in a manner that requires the reader to be significantly well read and educated. However, instead of assuming negligence on Lewis’s part, McGrath concludes this style represents “allowed access to Lewis’s private world” so that he can “speak to us on his own terms – and in his own words.”

“In the end, Surprised by Joy remains something of an enigma,” McGrath concludes, allowing us to return to words he used in opening this essay:

“The rhetoric of self-deprecation with which the work opens is not to be seen as a false humility on Lewis’s part. It is something rather more interesting – a belief that this kind of work is, in the first place not of importance as history; and in the second, is not something he feels sits easily with his views on literature. It is possible that this helps to make sense of its otherwise puzzling tendencies to mis-remember things in their proper context.”