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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