Book Review of Surprised by Laughter: the Comic World of C.S. Lewis by Terry Lindvall, PH.D.
Every thing about this book cover and title appealed to me: “Surprised”, “Laughter”—I love surprises and love to laugh; “Comic”—right up there with laughter; “C.S. Lewis”—one of my favorite authors ever; and the cover, showing the juvenile markings of kooky glasses, a spiralling moustache and a goatee on the photograph of C.S. Lewis. I imagined a book filled with humorous stories about Lewis and funny passages from his books and letters. I planned to laugh heartily and smile often.
However, my first surprise came with the arrival of the book. It was heavy. When Thomas Nelson announced the availability of this book, I was so excited to get a copy that I didn’t look at any of the details. When I opened it, I found that it was 454 pages, not including the notes, bibliography and index.
The next surprise was realizing that this was something of an academic book. Was the author really going to dissect the meaning, purpose and various forms of humor? For 454 pages? What was my commitment to Thomas Nelson—did I have to read this? Nevertheless, the introduction encouraged me to keep turning the pages, as the author clarified his purpose in writing the book, and delighted me with his language.
Surprised by Laughter, he said, aims to put the signposts of Lewis’s travels across the landscape of laughter into a map of mirth, left as happy directions for weary travelers. It is not the purpose of the book to argue that Lewis was a comedian, but that this jovial man possessed an angelic mirth that constantly bubbled over out of his jolly reservoir. It is an encyclopedia of the various sources of laughter and wit that irradiated his writings, sources which include his father, Albert Lewis, Geoffrey Chaucer, G.K. Chesterton, Aesop, Beatrix Potter, Disney, Frederick Buechner and Madeleine L’Engle. Who could resist such a cast of characters in the background?
This book is a smile-inducing series of anecdotes, and not only is Lewis full of humor, the author himself writes with infectious joy. I did trip over the vocabulary now and then, as in one place where the author describes one of Lewis’s friends. “His pedantic posturing brought on an attack of malapropism. Trying to impress the ladies present, he… [mixed] the terms salubrious and salacious.” I had to look up many of those words.
It didn’t take long before I discovered another surprise. I found myself understanding life, and the Christian life, better as I read. I won’t list everything on my four hand-written pages of notes, quotes and page references, but here I share some of my own signposts and laughs on this reading journey.
Lewis was profoundly influenced by G.K. Chesterton, whom the author calls “a cheerleader of truth, goodness and the humorous ways of God.” According to Lindvall, “Fun, the joke proper, and flippancy can be planned and produced by any person. But joy can be received only from the One whose presence is absolute joy.”
Chesterton contrasted the simple people who tend to sing at their tasks with the most sophisticated who do not. “There were songs for reapers reaping and songs for sailors hauling ropes….Why should not auditors sing while auditing and bankers while banking?” So, he wrote “a thundering chorus in praise of simple addition”:
“Up my lads, and lift the ledgers,
sleep and ease are o’er.
Here the stars of Morning shouting:
‘Two and Two are Four’.”
Throughout the book, there are plenty of references to C.S. Lewis’s fiction, especially The Chronicles of Narnia, which reveal Lewis’s huge heart of joy, which believed in a God with a huge heart. As I read, I appreciated the reminders of what actually makes for a happy life. Lewis believed that one finds joy when one finds one’s own place in the hierarchy of the universe and obediently fulfills it.
“Any patch of sunlight in a dark and deep wood,” the author says, “could well be described as a ‘patch of Godlight’.” He says that when God surprises us with laughter, we do well to remember that the gift is to remind us of the Giver of joy.
On the subject of heaven, Terry Lindvall says, “Earthly joys were never meant to satisfy our deepest needs.” Lewis says, “…heaven is [not] a club of good people singing hymns and taking offerings. (That kind of gathering would not appeal to many of us.)…Though Christianity seems at first to be all about morality, all about duties and rules and guilt and virtue, yet it leads you on, out of all that, into something beyond. One has a glimpse of a country where they do not talk of such things, except perhaps as a joke.”
On the quiddity of life, the author believes that “To surrender to the quiddity of life—which means, to surrender to whatever life sends you—can be an adventure of unexpected and neglected delight.” He includes Lewis’s anecdote, when, on a run in the sleet with his schoolmaster, he first “discovered how bad weather is to be treated—as a rough joke, a romp”. Lewis added that our “happiest moments are those when we forget our precious selves and [receive] anything else (God, our fellow humans, animals, the garden and the sky) instead.” Lindvall refers to the sin of wanting to be like God, controlling what comes to us.
Inconveniences may be embraced as upside-down opportunities for fun, the author says, and G.K. Chesterton jokingly predicted that the sport of the future would be hat-chasing. Chesterton wrote, “…these men would be inflicting pleasure, rich, almost riotous pleasure, upon the people who were looking on. When I last saw an old gentleman chasing his hat in Hyde Park, I told him that a heart so benevolent as his ought to be filled with peace and thanks at the thought of how much unaffected pleasure [he was] at that moment giving to the crowd.”
I think the basis for my thorough enjoyment of this book is that I feel a camaraderie with joy-lovers C.S. Lewis, G.K. Chesterton and the author. I was pleasantly surprised to be trained in the godly habit of joy and fun, and encouraged to continue in my tendency to take childlike delight in life.
[Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher through the BookSneeze®.com book review bloggers program. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.]