Surprised by Laughter: The Comic World of C. S. Lewis by Terry Lindvall, Ph.D
Paperback, 496 pages (includes notes, bibliography, etc)
Publisher: Thomas Nelson
From the back cover: For C. S. Lewis, merriment was serious business, and like no book before it, Surprised by Laughter explains why. Author Terry Lindvall takes readers on a highly amusing and deeply meaningful journey through the life and letters of one of the most beloved Christian thinkers and writers. As Lindvall shows, the unique magic of Lewis’s approach was his belief that explosive and infectious joy dwells deep in the heart of Christian faith. Readers can never fully understand Lewis, his life, or his legacy until they learn to laugh with him.
Personally, reading that description did not prepare me for this book. The scope of the book is somewhat touched on when it says “a highly amusing and deeply meaningful journey” but perhaps the sentence should have been in bold, italicized and perhaps in a larger font for emphasis. Lindvall mentions at the start that he hopes
“that in placing Lewis on the operating table we will not merely handle the organs, tissues, and entrails of the subject of laughter, but we will also see the risible body itself awaken and laugh and cause us to laugh with the surprise of encountering something so unexpectedly and wonderfully alive.”
The quote on the back, however, does capture quite well C. S. Lewis’s attitude toward laughter-
“[A] little comic relief in a discussion does no harm, however serious the topic may be.” –C. S. Lewis
This book was quite over my head in many places. I had to have a dictionary by my side while reading; I’m not used to that. The book is split into sections: 1) The Idea and the Legacy, 2) Joy, 3) Fun, 4) The Joke Proper, 5) Satire and Flippancy, and the 6) Conclusion: The Laughter of Love. In each of these sections Lindvall has fairly dissected the works of Lewis (and those that inspired him) and placed them into these categories. I cannot even begin to try to describe what is put into those chapters. It is something that I would suggest you read for yourself. My favorite chapter is #20 titled The Fun of Reading but I rather enjoyed the entire book (even somewhat the parts over my head).
Lindvall gives the readers a bit of Chesterton, Milton, Tolkien, Macdonald, More and many other authors, to help the reader understand the use of ‘laughter’ more in Lewis’s work and life, because all of these were influential to Lewis. Lewis commented on all of these and they can be seen in his own works. One thing that stood out to me above all else in this book is the understanding that Lewis knew that laughter “should function to reaffirm and establish what is good, right, and moral (page 311).” This is repeated in many places, albeit in different wording each time. (Such as on page 301, “One cannot keep human lungs from laughter. Yet one can seek to fill those lungs with clean, fresh comedy rather than polluted and poisonous air.”)
Like I said before, this book was way more than I expected but I’m glad I’ve read it. There were some chapters that I did not enjoy reading as much as the rest of the book; the following chapters: 22- Wit and Wordplay, 23- The Word Made Joke, 24- Comic Techniques and Topics, 28- Falling from Frauendienst, 29- Sex and Marriage, and 30-32, dealing with satire and flippancy (mostly because there were bits I just could not wrap my mind around).
I really think that someone with a literature background and possibly English could really appreciate this book. Reading it simply because it talks about C. S. Lewis may leave some readers scratching their heads, or worse, not interested to continue with the reading. It is deep; not a book for light reading. I do not usually write in my books, not even a little tick mark, but this book now has notes in the margin and arrows throughout. It makes me want to read more of Lewis’s works as well as the other authors that he held in high esteem; especially Chesterton.
And it makes me want to see the joy and laughter in life. It also helped me to see why some people may find me amusing (when I don’t see myself as ‘amusing’ at all!) and I should think that anyone who reads this can find themselves in the cross-hairs of Lewis’s humor as well. And that isn’t a bad thing.
What I did not care for in this book is the scholarly tone (if that is the right description). Lindvall has a Ph.D and he writes like it! The inclusion of so much of Lewis’s own words helped me tremendously to understand some concepts that I would otherwise be completely lost if left to Lindvall’s words.
I end this review with words of Lewis:
“For he will read “in the same spirit that the author writ.” What is meant lightly he will take lightly; what is meant gravely, gravely. He will “laugh and shake in Rabelais’s” easy chair while he reads Chaucer’s faiblaux and respond with exquisite frivolity to The Rape of the Lock. He will enjoy a kickshaw as a kickshaw and a tragedy as a tragedy. He will never commit the error of trying to munch whipped cream as if it were venison (page 198)” –C. S. Lewis, Experiment in Criticism, pg 11
Or as Lindvall says it: “The right way to enjoy reading is not to approach it with preconceptions –particularly not solemn ones –but to see the author’s intention.” And I think Lindvall’s intentions were quite good in trying to help us see the humor, laughter, joy, and comedy of C. S. Lewis’s writings –and his life.
*I received this book free in exchange for an honest review- no compensation was given.*