A web annotation of C. S. Lewis’s Surprised by Joy

Many readers come to C. S. Lewis’s autobiography from The Chronicles of Narnia series or Mere Christianity, eager to learn about the literary and theological titan’s upbringing. But Surprised by Joy is not an easy read for modern audiences. Although the book was published in 1955, each page is scattered with obscure Edwardian lingo, literary quotations and “public school” slang. While Lewis aims at–and usually achieves–clear prose, he assumes that his readers are familiar with English boarding school structure and slang. He also assumes that readers are encouraged, not put off, by a great wealth of literary allusions and quotes. This literary name-dropping extends through Greek, Roman and Norse prose and poetry; as well as literature in English, German, French and Russian. Even the most zealous Lewis enthusiast may falter.

This annotation aims to clear the cobwebs of history for all readers. I am an amateur Lewis enthusiast and fan of the Inklings, and I hope that these notes might be used for individual study and as well as for groups. I have assumed a command of modern English, although I have annotated particularly obscure and antiquated words. Most author names, works and quotes are annotated. Lewis’s life experiences that appear in his fictional novels in one form or another have been noted. Maps, images and art have been inserted whenever available.

Overall, the notes aim to be a springboard to understanding the factors that shaped and enraptured C. S. Lewis.

These notes are based on the Harcourt paperback edition of Surprised by Joy.

(The ideal format for these notes would be an e-book with mouse-over notes. However, unless Harcourt invites me to be the official editor of the text–or the text goes out of copyright–these notes will have to be independent from the text.)

Published in: on October 18, 2008 at 12:00 am  Leave a Comment  

Ch. 1, pg. 8: the verbal beauty of the…Prayer Book

The Prayer Book that Lewis means is the Anglican Book of Common Prayer, the standard liturgical manual for Anglican services, similar to the Roman Catholic Missal. Developed to provide a standard for worship after the English church’s break from the Roman Catholic Church under Henry VIII, the service as laid out by the Book of Common Prayer contains similarities to the Roman Catholic mass. The words of the Book of Common Prayer were chosen carefully, at a time when political revolution could hinge upon being excessively Catholic or excessively Protestant. Classic phrases from the Common Prayer Book are familiar even to non-Christians the world over, such as:

  • “Speak now or forever hold your peace”
  • “Till death us do part”
  • “Earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust”

[source: Wikipedia: Book of Common Prayer]

Published in: on June 7, 2009 at 10:04 pm  Leave a Comment  

Ch. 1, Pg. 7: by nineteenth century and Church of Ireland standards, rather “high”

High church. Simplistically speaking, “high church” is an Anglican term that refers to those who adhere to practices coming from the Roman Catholic Mass. Here, Lewis says that the opposite of “high church” Puritanism, which tends to eschew anything associated with Catholicism. The difference between “high church” and Puritanism is a complicated subject that is arguably responsible for hundreds of years of bloody history in the U.K. See Wikipedia: High church.

Published in: on June 7, 2009 at 9:54 pm  Leave a Comment  

Ch. 1, pg. 7: a votary of the Blue Flower

The blue flower was a symbol for the German Romantic movement. It originated in the works of the German author Novalis, and eventually came to represent bittersweet longing, the Sehnsucht that Lewis spoke of.

“The ‘blue flower’ is unattainable and is to remain unattainable. Romantics expressed a longing for home and a longing for what is far off; Schiller called the romantics ‘exiles pining for a homeland’,” write Finnish authors Petri Liukkonen and Ari Pesonen on their page on Novalis.


The blue flower, or "Blaue Blume," of Sehnsucht

The blue flower, or "Blaue Blume," of Sehnsucht

"Klingsors Zaubergarten (The Magic Garden of Klingsor)" by Gemälde von Angerer dem Älteren. Note the blue flower gleaming in the center.

"Klingsors Zaubergarten (The Magic Garden of Klingsor)" by Gemälde von Angerer dem Älteren. Note the blue flower gleaming in the center.

(I read no German, so if I got any of the above wrong, I would appreciate knowing about it.)
Published in: on January 26, 2009 at 1:37 am  Comments (1)  
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Ch. 1, pg. 7: Sehnsucht

Sehnsucht is a central concept to understanding Surprised by Joy. The word is German, and there is no direct English equivalent, but it can be understood as a combination of longing and wonder. When Lewis “listens for the horns of elfland,” he is experiencing Sehnsucht for another world. In The Last Battle (spoiler warning), after the world has ended and the characters are in a new world, Lord Digory explains: 

“When Aslan said you could never go back to Narnia, he meant the Narnia you were thinking of. But that is not the real Narnia. That had a beginning and an end. It was only a shadow or a copy of the real Narnia, which has always been here and always will be here: just as our own world, England and all, is only a shadow or a copy of something in Aslan’s real world. You need not mourn over Narnia, Lucy. All of the old Narnia that mattered, all the dear creatures, have been drawn into the real Narnia through the door. And of course it is different, as different as a real thing is from a shadow or waking life is from a dream.”

Theologically, when we experience the awakening of Sehnsucht, Lewis believes, we are beginning to understand that there is another world, a better world, of which this world is just a shadow. In the passage above, Lord Digory continues, “It’s all in Plato.” This is a reference to Plato’s allegory of the cave and the Platonic ideal.

J. R. R. Tolkien and Lewis were friends, and there are many rich overlaps between their ideas. On J. R. R. Tolkien discussion board The Barrow-Downs, user littlemanpoet explains Sehnsucht:

“Corbin Scott Carnell, in Bright Shadow of Reality: C.S. Lewis and the Feeling Intellect, wrote:


Sennsucht, which literally means “longing” or “yearning,” is both romantic and mystical in our present use of those words. It is, however, a good deal more specific than such terms. … The crucial concept in defining this attitude is best expressed in English by the word “nostalgia”. Even though Sennsucht may be made up of several components or appear in different forms (melancholy, wonder, yearning, etc.), basic to its various manifestations is an underlying sense of displacement or alienation from what is desired.

“In summary, Sennsucht is desire for something wondrous that is no more with us, but once was, and may be again. In different languages it has different names. In Hebrew it is called Eden. In Arthurian legend (Celtic, I suppose) it is called Avalon. In the language of C.S. Lewis’ Space Trilogy, it is perhaps called Perelandra. In Roman Catholic speech it is called Paradise. In other languages it is called Elysium, Nirvana, Valhalla, the Great Hunting Ground, and so forth. Some might call it Atlantis, or Numenor; perhaps Tol Eressea or Valinor (feel free to quibble). The only name that is sufficient for me, is Faerie; as I said, my imagination was baptized by Tolkien.”

Published in: on November 29, 2008 at 10:35 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Ch. 1, Pg. 5: County Down


A view of County Down

A view of County Down

County Down is one of the six counties that make up Northern Ireland.

Published in: on November 29, 2008 at 10:09 pm  Leave a Comment  

Ch. 1, Pg. 5: Tennyson, indeed, my father liked

…But it was the Tennyson of In Memoriam and Locksley Hall. I never heard from him of the Lotus Eaters or the Morte D’Arthur.”

Alfred, Lord Tennyson

Alfred, Lord Tennyson

That is, the more realistic Tennyson rather than the Tennyson of fantasy and myth.

“In Memoriam A. H. H.” is an extended meditation on the death of Tennyson’s friend Arthur Henry Hallam; it addresses the very Victorian themes of conflict within religious faith and omnipresent death and grief. “Locksley Hall” is a bitter lament for a lost love who has chosen a less worthy man than the narrator; it includes casual sexism that hints at its Victorian origins. “Locksley Hall” contains disconnected dream imagery verging on the fantastic, but is far more grounded overall than the “The Lotus Eaters” or the Arthurian poems.

“The Lotus Eaters” is based on Odysseus’s encounter with an island of, unsurprsingly, lotus eaters. The poem resembles Coleridge’s “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” in its fantastic content, maritime themes, eerie tone and its firmly established place in the English canon. 

Lewis might have slightly misspoken with his reference to the “Morte D’Arthur.” Tennyson did write a poem titled “Morte D’Arthur,” but it was part of his larger collection of Arthurian poems titled Idylls of the King, based on Sir Thomas Malory’s Morte D’Arthur. Lewis likely meant to refer to the larger work.

Ch. 1, pg. 4: raconteur

Raconteur is French for storyteller. (Literally, “recounter.”) The word implies great skill in yarn-spinning–certainly a quality that Albert Lewis passed to his son.

Published in: on November 29, 2008 at 9:42 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Ch. 1, Pg. 4: W. W. Jacobs

W. W. Jacobs usually wrote humorous stories about life at sea. Punch magazine wrote that his stories featured “men who go down to the sea in ships of moderate tonnage; stories told with such fresh and unforced fun that their drollery is perfectly irresistible.” The great English humorist P.G. Wodehouse mentions Jacobs with respect in his autobiography, Bring On The Girls.

Strangely enough, Jacobs is most famous today for his eerie stories, including “The Monkey’s Paw” and “The Toll House.”

Published in: on November 23, 2008 at 9:23 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Page 4: in following the career of Phineas Finn

Anthony Trollope’s character Phineas Finn runs for and wins a seat in Parliament. Like Lewis’s father, Finn is Irish. Finn appears in an eponymous novel and its sequel, Phineas Redux.

Full text of Phineas Finn at Project Gutenberg

Full text of Phineas Redux at Project Gutenberg


Published in: on November 23, 2008 at 9:05 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Ch. 1, Pg. 4: Quixotic

Don Quixote and Sancho, by Gustave Dore

Generally, quixotic is an adjective meaning optimistic to the point of foolishness, derived from Miguel de Cervantes’s character Don Quixote. However, Lewis here refers to another aspect of the character of Don Quixote–his overdeveloped sense of chivalry and correspondingly, his Spanish sense of honor.

Full text of Don Quixote (English translation) at Project Gutenberg

Published in: on November 23, 2008 at 8:46 pm  Leave a Comment  
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