Did C. S. Lewis Get It Wrong?

Lewis desk cigaretteA Newly-Transcribed Manuscript Corrects the Chronology of C. S. Lewis’s Theistic Conversion

For me it all began, not with a picture, but with an overheard conversation. Last summer, while at the delightful Marion E. Wade Center doing research for a book project on Till We Have Faces, I eavesdropped a discussion concerning an unpublished manuscript by C. S. Lewis that had been labeled as an early version of Surprised by Joy. Thoroughly intrigued, I looked over the manuscript. I soon discovered that, while it indeed contained passages closely resembling those in Surprised by Joy, published in the fifties, it also contained very obvious similarities to The Pilgrim’s Regress, written some twenty years before. I pushed aside the research I was doing on Till We Have Faces and set myself to transcribe the MS, which Walter Hooper calls “Early Prose Joy.” The results of that transcription, to be published this month in VII: An Anglo-American Literary Review, astounded me for three reasons.

First of all, I discovered that the manuscript contains an account of Lewis’s conversion as an “Empirical Theist.” In discussing my transcription, Dr. Christopher Mitchell pointed out that this phrase appears nowhere else in Lewis’s writing. Indeed, the sixty-two page manuscript apparently forms a clear, two-part account of Lewis’s pre-Christian conversion, and does so in a much more straightforward manner than any of his later attempts at autobiography. This manuscript, once published, will prove a treasure to apologists and philosophers interested in the specific philosophical path Lewis took toward conversion. Names such as Berkeley, Bradley, Hume, Kant, and Plato, alongside Lewis’s grapplings with Consciousness, the Self, Idealism, Realism, Solipsism, and the Absolute inhabit the pages, and they do so in a stately and deliberate order. This manuscript shows Lewis straightforwardly dissecting and describing his developing Theistic philosophy in manner he does nowhere else. This alone makes the discovery of the manuscript a treasure.

It also astounded me to discover in the “Early Prose Joy” manuscript dozens of phrases, concepts, and structures that later made their way into Lewis’s published autobiographies. This of course calls to mind Lewis’s advice to one writer: “When you give up a bit of work don’t (unless it is hopelessly bad) throw it away. Put it in a drawer. It may come in useful later. Much of my best work, or what I think my best, is the rewriting of things begun and abandoned years earlier.” It soon became quite apparent to me that this manuscript served as a sort of Q document for Lewis’s later books. It also seems very clear to me that Lewis had the manuscript before him and copied phrases and structures from it directly into The Pilgrim’s Regress and Surprised by Joy. I realized that I was transcribing a treasure.

But most of all, as I neared the end of my transcription, I found a phrase that made it perfectly clear that Lewis’s Theistic conversion did not occur, as he so famously stated in Surprised by Joy, in the “Trinity Term of 1929,” but actually took place in June of 1930. A key passage in the manuscript, carefully read alongside Lewis’s letters, pinpoints the actual date to a three-week period in that month and year. Lewis got that crucial date wrong, and every scholar has followed his lead since then. This comes as no great surprise when you consider Lewis’s rather flexible relationship with dates and numbers. Nevertheless, you can now safely take a pen and cross out “1929,” replacing it with “1930” in your copy of Surprised by Joy.

A number of scholars have asked similar question about the dating of the Theistic conversion, including, most recently, Alister McGrath in his new biography. In very recent correspondence, Professor McGrath agrees that I have pinpointed the date more accurately than he; we both both look forward to seeing what the scholarly world makes of the matter. Dr. Michael Ward calls the article “Jolly good work!” and also agrees that I have proven the point. Professor Diana Pavlac Glyer calls the research in the article “meticulous” and finds herself “totally convinced” about the 1930 date that I assert, saying that I have “demonstrated it with substance and grace.” Walter Hooper provided invaluable manuscript assistance with his customary graciousness. These kind words and key helps aside, the correction based on the manuscript calls, I believe, for two things.

First, more primary research needs doing. Those who have visited the marvelously rich storehouse of the Wade Center can attest to its treasures. As recent published discoveries by Professor Charlie Starr and Professor Steven A. Beebe have proven, careful archival research may well yield more startling and important results.

Secondly, as I note in my article, many pieces of Lewis’s chronology and, far more importantly, the development of his thought, remain unexamined or hastily, sometimes erroneously recorded. Many texts remain to be studied, published, reissued and indexed, and fully explored. As the generation of those who knew Lewis passes into glory, we who remain must take firm hold of Lewis’s legacy and do excellent work, especially on his own writing.

This discovery, which all began with an overheard conversation, calls for more such work in kind. It also calls those of us deeply affected by his writings to shed more light on C. S. Lewis as a key figure in own his age, and to explore how this light still shines so helpfully in ours.

(Many thanks to cslewis.com, where this blog was originally published in slightly different form.)

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