C.S. Lewis’ Accidental Autobiography: An Update

CS Lewis pilgrims regress Downing Annotated EdC.S. Lewis tried a number of times to write his spiritual autobiography. When in 1930 he had come to a philosophical belief in God, but was not yet a Christian, he gave a start to the story. It has finally been published, incomplete as it is, by Andrew Lazo in the 2013 volume of VII.

Three years later Lewis is a Christian and is enjoying some vacation time at a friend’s house. Knowing the story is still rattling around inside of him, he finds a little corner and begins to map out his conversion narrative like John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress. Two weeks later he had a complete book, The Pilgrim’s Regress (1933) Lewis never thought this obscure little book quite did what he wanted his conversion story to do. It is an odd, rich, difficult little book, so it never does reach a popular audience. I would encourage you to check out David C. Downing‘s Wade Annotated Edition, just out for the first time this year.

CS Lewis and his Father Albert LewisIn his introduction to The Problem of Pain (1940), Lewis’ little book on spiritual theology and popular apologetics, Lewis tells a bit of his conversion story. Perhaps this was for Lewis a tug back to a still untold story. But his increasing fame and success in WWII swept him away from his own story to other stories, and his spiritual autobiography remained unwritten.

We do have, however, an accidental autobiography. Alan Jacobs tells the story well in his book The Narnian: The Life and Imagination of C.S. Lewis (2005). Asked by his American publisher for a brief sketch of his life for one of his book jackets, Lewis quickly jotted something down. They printed it largely as it was. I have never known what book cover it was printed in, but recently Dan Hamilton wrote me to tell me it is in the 1st American Edition of Perelandra. Dan worked with Dr. Edwin Brown in the essential resource, In Pursuit of C.S. Lewis. Here is what Lewis sent in a letter as transcribed by Jacobs (left) with a picture of the Perelandra flap from Dan Hamilton (right):

I was a younger son, and we lost my mother when I was a child. That meant very long days alone when my father was at work and my brother at boarding school. Alone in a big house full of books. I suppose that fixed a literary bent. I drew a lot, but soon began to write more. My first stories were mostly about mice (influence of Beatrix Potter), but mice usually in armor killing gigantic cats (influence of fairy stories). That is, I wrote the books I should have liked to read if only I could have got them. That’s always been my reason for writing. People won’t write the books I want, so I have to do it for myself: no rot about “self-expression.” I loathed school. Being an infantry soldier in the last war would have been nicer if one had known one was going to survive. I was wounded—by an English shell. (Hence the greetings of an aunt who said, with obvious relief, “Oh, so that’s why you were wounded in the back!”) I gave up Christianity at about fourteen. Came back to it when getting on for thirty. An almost purely philosophical conversion. I didn’t want to. I’m not the religious type. I want to be let alone, to feel I’m my own master: but since the facts seemed to be the opposite I had to give in. My happiest hours are spent with three or four old friends in old clothes tramping together and putting up in small pubs—or else sitting up till the small hours in someone’s college rooms talking nonsense, poetry, theology, metaphysics over beer, tea, and pipes. There’s no sound I like better than adult male laughter (The Narnian xvi-xvii).

alan jacobs narnianIt is an unusually terse outline. Jacobs is probably right when he said:

The sentence fragments, colloquialisms, and general bluntness of tone—all uncharacteristic of Lewis’s public writings—suggest that he dashed this off without editing it, perhaps without even thinking about it too seriously. Lewis undoubtedly expected the people at Macmillan to recognize this as a rough pile of facts from which they were at liberty to construct a more formal narrative (The Narnian xvii).

That may have been what Lewis expected, but it is not what happened. Whether because of the authority of Lewis’ signature, or lack of care in the office, or because of the faint humour in the stark sketch, MacMillan published it!

Still, Lewis’ accidental autobiography does not lack much in outline form. A decade later Lewis wrote Surprised by Joy: The Shape of My Early Life (1954), finally filling this narrative gap, even if the subtitle leaves open possibilities for the future. Not only does the letter to MacMillan show the contours of the later memoir, Jacobs notes that it has in it “the basic narrative shape of his experience” (xvii).

Sometimes the story even tells itself when we are not paying attention.

About Brenton Dickieson

“A Pilgrim in Narnia” is a blog project in reading and talking about the work of C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and the worlds they touched. As a "Faith, Fantasy, and Fiction" blog, we cover topics like children’s literature, apologetics and philosophy, myths and mythology, fantasy, theology, cultural critique, art and writing. This blog includes my thoughts as I read through Lewis and Tolkien and reflect on my own life and culture. In this sense, I am a Pilgrim in Narnia--or Middle Earth, or Fairyland. I am often peeking inside of wardrobes, looking for magic bricks in urban alleys, or rooting through yard sale boxes for old rings. If something here captures your imagination, leave a comment, “like” a post, share with your friends, or sign up to receive Narnian Pilgrim posts in your email box. Brenton Dickieson is a father, husband, friend, university lecturer, and freelance writer from Prince Edward Island, Canada. You can follow him on Twitter, @BrentonDana.
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38 Responses to C.S. Lewis’ Accidental Autobiography: An Update

  1. traildustfotm says:

    Thanks Brenton, being an artist and fresh out of art college, I really enjoyed Lewis’ characterization of the art world in A Pilgrim’s Regress. As you said, it is a difficult book, but I think partly because it challenges the reader on so many assumptions about ourselves and our society.

    PS: I love your blog.


    • Oh, great to have your perspective! I am not a visual artist, so I don’t always get the same nuances. That’s why reading out loud–reading together across digital and real life divides–is a great exercise.


  2. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    I don’t know what Pilgrim’s Regress would have been like without new preface and the page-top aids – it’ll be interesting to see all I’ve been missing, when I catch up with the annotated ed.

    Meanwhile, thanks for this – not least to Dan Hamilton, the founder of this little feast! (I have very happy memories of talking to Dan and to Ed Brown in Oxford.)


  3. L. Palmer says:

    That’s a really interesting piece, especially to see C.S. Lewis’ more casual voice. His description of mice sound a lot like Brian Jacques’ Redwall series.


  4. Thanks for sharing this. I find it really interesting that his blurb was so dashed off – maybe because the story was more important that ‘his’ story.


  5. wanderwolf says:

    This is a great post… as they always are. I love your blog.
    I’ve chosen you to receive the Blogger Recognition Award. If you would like to accept this award, the rules are: 1. Tell how your blog got started. 2. Give some advice to new bloggers 3. Choose blogs that you would like to pass the award on to and let them know. You can read the award post on my blog.


  6. Lauren Craig says:

    My mom just got this secretary desk for a room we are trying to use more in our house and she said that she wants old editions of C.S. Lewis for Christmas to put in there. Do you have any suggestions on where to start looking?

    Liked by 1 person

    • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

      If you’ll excuse my butting in… Hardbacks? In the U.S.? Probably only stating the obvious, but… Offline it’s probably always worthwhile checking any neighborhood charity or second-hand shops as well as old-fashioned second-hand bookshops, not to mention (public) library shops or sales (if you have the time!) – it’s surprising what turns up, sometimes, especially where, say, its turns out that a school, seminary, college, or church was weeding its collection, merging, having to close.

      Online, what do you think are reasonable prices? Have a look at Toby English, for example, and compare with, say, new paperback editions, and second-hand hardback editions, at Amazon.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Lauren Craig says:

        Thank you for butting in. In the U.S. yes. Harbacks, not specificied. I was wondering more specifically. Obviously I would check those places.


        • Hi Lauren, welcome to the blog!
          I didn’t know about Toby English. Older editions of Lewis are very pricey. The guide for first editions is Dr. Brown & Dan Hamilton’s “In Pursuit of C.S. Lewis”–any collector needs that. I talk about it here: https://apilgriminnarnia.com/2014/04/07/adventures-in-lewisiana/
          I have early print runs (6th-10th) of the non-Narnia Lewis stuff in WWII and a handful of early American editions. I got it almost all on Abebooks, which I have quite liked.
          Otherwise, diving in bins and pulling books back form the shelf to see what’s behind the bookstore shelves is the best bet.
          Anyone else?


          • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

            It looks like Antiqbook (with which the Toby English bookshop works) gives access to a variety of prices, some of them comparatively low (though I know nothing about attendant costs for shipping, etc., or, indeed, just how it works).


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