Terry Lindvall’s Heavy Treatment of a Light Topic: A Review of Surprised by Laughter

Surprised by Laughter Revised & Updated: The Comic World of C.S. LewisSurprised by Laughter Revised & Updated: The Comic World of C.S. Lewis by Terry Lindvall
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The word “levity” has two main definitions that we walk around with: a kind of frivolity and something that lacks weight. In an irony that would make the author of The Light Princess proud (George MacDonald), Terry Lindvall’s book on C.S. Lewis and humour is one of the weightiest on my bookshelf. My edition has 455 pages, not including notes and indices. Surprised by Laughter: The Comic World of C.S. Lewis may be about levity, and it is written in a light, joyous, but not frivolous manner, but it is a book with significant gravity.

Quite frankly, it is one of the most serious books on comedy that I have ever read. Lindvall categorically works through literally (and literarily) hundreds of humour references in Lewis‘ catalogue. Called “Heavy Lewis” in his early years in Oxford, Lewis makes a deft conversation partner with some heft on issues of hilarity. Not only is he a mirthful writer, dashing his poetry, academic writing, Christian apologetics, and fantasy with generous helpings of wit and hilarity, but Lewis composed formal satire, wrote satirically in various places, evaluated humour in his literary criticism, included something like a theory of humour in his work, and shaped his entire spiritual life around the concept of Joy. Lewis is precisely the right figure for a study on levity of this density.

Beyond those reasons though, there are two deeper ones that Lindvall draws out and one that I would like to add.

First, Lewis’ literary mentors were George MacDonald and G.K. Chesterton. While both were funny writers, Chesterton was a genius of wit, irony, and repartee. Along with some contemporary theory of humour, Chesterton structures Lindvall’s assessment of Lewis’ comedic vision. Lindvall not only emphasized for me the deeply ironical, satirical, and evaluative nature of Chesterton’s prose, but showed how Lewis takes that voice and transforms it into his own. More attention is needed, I think, to Chesterton’s shaping of Lewis’ mind at the deepest levels.

Second, Lewis said of himself that “There’s no sound I like better than adult male laughter.” Lindvall anchors his substantial study of Lewisian buoyancy in Lewis’ life–his life of light and darkness growing up, the self-deprecating nature of his humour, Lewis’ life in love and friendship, Lewis’ profile as a public figure, and his peculiar theory of Joy. Lindvall models how a study can integrate life and letters in productive ways.

To these two points I would add a third–something that is not drawn out by Lindvall but that I think is there, lurking in the text. All of Lewis’ spiritual perspective, I would argue, is shaped in comedic form. Comedy follows a U shape: the descent of downward luck or fortune or adventure and the sudden turn to goodness or light or hope. Lewis’ conversion is one of these turns, of course, but Lewis’ entire perspective is patterned after the great U-shaped comedy of all history: the Christ event, where God takes the form of humanity, even that of a slave, and dies upon the cross so that the entire wheel of history turns in Christ’s resurrection and return to heaven. That is Lewis’ pattern, and thus we see in almost everything Lewis ever wrote an ironical, comedic, eucatastrophic, U-shaped perspective that is able to hold together light and darkness, levity and gravity, a real look at the world and a wild abandon to hope.

Professor Terry Lindvall, Virginia Wesleyan University

Critically-speaking I loved the prose in this book, but it is a bit much overall. I think the text could be shorter, though we now have a dense tome of “data” and “analysis” as we do our further work. I took two years to read this book because, frankly, I could only read so much at a time. It is a long book, and though the chapter divisions are generally good, I needed more guidance within the chapters as the text can seem to roll from idea to idea without a linking logic. I also don’t really understand the outline of the text as a whole, but that may be my weakness as a reader. Finally, I know little of theories of humour and felt that this aspect was light in the text–though I think Lindvall is right that Lewis’ humour is typically that of incongruity.

Overall, however, this book is an adipose study on lightness that looks ponderously into the grave subject of levity. It carries its own literary avoirdupois because of the buoyant tone and festive delight in the subject matter. Dr. Terry Lindvall’s Surprised by Laughter is worth reading and available in a cheap Kindle edition for fans and researchers.

View all my reviews

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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44 Responses to Terry Lindvall’s Heavy Treatment of a Light Topic: A Review of Surprised by Laughter

  1. hannahdemiranda3 says:

    Thanks for this review, with so much of interest on laughter and comedy in Lewis’s life and writing!
    It did made me wonder if he ever wrote anything about the fool. Oss Guiness did a lecture in l’Abri a long time ago, which might be appropriate – here a link to a version of it on line with some quotes: https://www.bethinking.org/apologetics/fools-for-christ. It goes back to Renaissance views on the nature of comedy and the fool …

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hannah says:

      .. e.g. the role of folly/the fool in Erasmus’s “The Praise of Folly”.
      Shakespeare’s fools surely are also showing up the folly of their “wise superiors”, being so much wiser in their folly?

      Like

      • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

        Yes, there’s a lot to think about, there – ‘licensed fools’ allowed to put things sharply, sarcastically, ‘fools for Christ’ like St. Basil (after whom the wonderful Red Square cathedral is named) – I suppose Lewis is playing with some of this with the Green Lady calling Ransom ‘Piebald’…

        Liked by 1 person

        • Hannah says:

          Did Terry Lindvall write anything about why he is wearing that fools cap on the photo? It did start my wondering about fools and if Lewis wrote anything about that …

          Like

    • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

      Speaking of ‘fools for Christ’, I’ve just stumbled upon a delightful 1987 film version of Graham Greene’s 1982 novel, Monsignor Quixote – where the priestly descendant of Don Quixote is also interesting to compare more with Father Brown or Archdeacon Davenant (and, somewhat like the latter, seems a sort of Galahad figure), than with Don Camillo – though with some 20 minutes still to watch, I’m not quite sure how simply innocent he is and how sharply perceptive…

      Liked by 2 people

      • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

        Wow! Finished it, but I’m not more sure of the answer to that – but he seems even more Galahad-y by the end…

        It was very well worth watching, in any case – and now I want to read the original, too!

        (And a comparison – including contrasts – with War in Heaven might be interesting…)

        Liked by 2 people

      • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

        I just encountered an explicit cinematic ‘Holy Fool’ reference, in this post by K.V. Turley about Tarkovsky’s Stalker – with the observation that one feature of it is “reminiscent of C.S. Lewis’s use of colours and monochromes in The Great Divorce”!:

        https://theimaginativeconservative.org/2019/02/stalker-andrei-tarkovsky-kevin-turley.html

        The detail of “a room” in this context makes me think of The Last Battle as well, and leaves me wanting to think about those two books together – and to read and further compare one not mentioned here, Roadside Picnic, with its Wikipedia saying, “The film Stalker, directed by Andrei Tarkovsky, is loosely based on the novel, with a screenplay written by the Strugatsky brothers”!

        Liked by 2 people

        • The Imaginative Conservative folk like Lewis, so an allusion would go over well.

          Like

          • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

            Part of Lewis’s ‘mere’/ecumenical success, in this case (though I don’t know enough about Kevin Turley – except that I pretty consistently learn things from, and find food for thought in, his posts).

            Liked by 1 person

        • hannahdemiranda3 says:

          from that Turley post: “Among these is an icon taken from an altar, upon it, the image of the Saviour. It is a ‘clue’ given as to the Stalker’s identity and role: he is called a Holy Fool. He is placed, therefore, within the Eastern tradition – of those who are seemingly foolish being graced with a greater wisdom and insight than ‘the wise’.”
          -> the same kind of Fool as in Shakespeare’s plays?

          Like

          • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

            A very good thing to try to think about in detail – Shakespeare’s imaginations of truth-loving ‘fools’ (my first general impression, anyway) – and its wider ‘western’ context and background, compared with the in some respects (I think) distinctly ‘eastern’ (Orthodox) traditions!

            Liked by 2 people

  2. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    I’ll second Hannah’s thanks for bringing this book to my attention, and your way of doing it – with your Chestertonian, life and works, and comedic-eucatastrophic accents! Does the author bring in Lewis contemporaries, Inkling and otherwise, and compare their humour and attention to the eucatastrophic-comedic, not only Tolkien, Williams, Dyson (at least conversationally), Barfield (including the Cretaceous Perambulator and Mark vs. Tristram collaborations), but, e.g., variously, Dorothy L. Sayers, Rose Macaulay, and Joy Davidman?

    Liked by 3 people

    • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

      Should have added Ruth Pitter, whom Dale finally got me reading, and who is also “able to hold together light and darkness, levity and gravity, a real look at the world and a wild abandon to hope”!

      Like

  3. Yewtree says:

    Sounds like an interesting book. I wanted to write on religion and humour for my MA but was advised that external examiners were likely to take a dim view. Perhaps the author of this tome felt the need to introduce gravitas at every turn because academia tends to look askance at such things?

    Side note: I find GK Chesterton intensely irritating (he was such a man’s man and so intensely superior and know-it-all about everything).

    The late & great Stratford Caldecott introduced me to Chesterton but I didn’t enjoy GKC. I can heartily recommend Stratford’s book “Secret Fire: the spiritual vision of JRR Tolkien” though. Very much up the alley of regular commenters here. And how Stratford would have loved this little corner of the internet.

    Like

    • You are right about Chesterton. But I am a man and it is easier to take for me. Plus, it is very much like the writing of the period by novel greats and poets. Even Virginia Woolf has some tendencies that put me off.
      But of course, I want to submit anyway. Missing Woolf would make for a dim life.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Yewtree says:

        If it hadn’t been for Chesterton, I would never have discovered Goldsworthy Lowes Dickinson, a gay Pagan pioneer who came up with the idea for the League of Nations, forerunner of the United Nations, so reading him want a waste of time.

        I hope you’ll check out Stratford’s work when your PhD is submitted.

        I also enjoyed his mother Moira’s novels (she was a Pagan, he was a Catholic). I met them both at a talk he gave in Bath, UK. He was the inspiration for my efforts to lay the groundwork for contemporary Pagan theologies. They were both wonderful people and writers.

        Yeah Virginia Woolf is

        Liked by 1 person

        • Yewtree says:

          “… wasn’t a waste of time…”

          I see I did not finish my thought about Virginia Woolf…. I just can’t get into her writing.

          Like

          • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

            Before I got around to trying, I was sort of ‘vicariously scared off’ by Dame Helen Gardner saying in a talk how tricky it can be, reading an author’s letters and diaries, with the example of Woolf – how her thorough nastiness in everyday life poisoned her enjoyment of trying to reread the work she published – ! But I just picked up a “Great Classic Library” volume with three-in-one, including Orlando – the sound of which intrigues me, so, who knows…

            Liked by 1 person

            • Yewtree says:

              Interestingly Woolf really liked John Buchan’s “Blanket of the Dark” and used to reread it every year for relaxation. This endears her to me.

              Thank you for the recommendation of “The Company of the Marjolaine” which I really enjoyed.

              Also enjoying the John Garth book very much, so thanks for that one too. And the BB one about the tree, which was great. I think we have very similar literary tastes.

              Like

              • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

                We do seem to – lots of ‘overlap’, anyway!

                Liked by 1 person

              • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

                I wonder if you might like some of the ‘Buchan-y’ Christie – including her second novel published, The Secret Adversary (1922) – and the various other Timmy and Tuppence ones that followed? I’ve just read the last novel Margery Allingham lived to publish, The Mind Readers (1965), which seem rather ‘Buchan-y’ to me (as well as being science fiction!). She has various ones down the years that seem ‘Buchan-y’ – including the first of hers with Albert Campion, The Crime at Black Dudley (also known in the United States as The Black Dudley Murder) (1929). She has lots of humour, too – combined with serious matter.

                Liked by 1 person

              • Yewtree says:

                Sounds interesting!

                Like

              • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

                It’s got me wondering if there’s a whole sort of ‘Buchan-like’ tradition – and if anybody’s written about it….

                Liked by 1 person

        • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

          I really enjoyed Etheldreda, but did not know anything about her and wondered why it was published by what I thought of as an ‘esoteric’ publisher!

          Liked by 1 person

      • Hannah says:

        What about Chesterton’s ‘Father Brown”? I can only see humility there and wisdom, and also lots of humour eg the ways he deals with Hercule Flambeau

        Liked by 1 person

        • Hannah says:

          Nothing like Hercule Poirot, whom even Agatha Christie herself got tired of at times, as David Suchet noted her saying in an interview in The Guardian: “There is no point making that sort of eccentric character likeable. He is an irritating little man, he creeps up on you”

          Liked by 1 person

          • Hannah says:

            She even has her “humorous self-caricature detective novelist Ariadne Oliver” admitting in an episode “not being overly fond of her detective …,Finnish sleuth Sven Hjerson.” (Wikipedia)

            Liked by 1 person

          • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

            Well, I think David Suchet makes him likeable (among other things, including irritating, admirable…)!

            Liked by 1 person

            • Hannah says:

              Of course Poirot is very likeable, the way he fights for justice winning over evil and Suchet’s portrayel is absolutely great! I just wanted to highlight Father Brown’s humility and humor! Anyway, I don’t find anything irritable in Chesterton’s writing, only great insights and wisdom! And great influence on ao Lewis’s writing.

              Liked by 1 person

        • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

          I, too, enjoy the Father Brown stories, and might also especially commend Alec Guiness as Father Brown and Peter Finch as Flambeau in the 1954 movie. (Checking just now if it’s on YouTube – nope! – I encountered a radio play with the late Andrew Sachs as Father Brown!)

          Liked by 1 person

        • Yewtree says:

          I very much enjoyed the recent TV series and tried to read the book but found it dull. Sorry. Don’t like Agatha Christie either. The only murder mystery writing that I have ever enjoyed was Raymond Chandler’s “The Big Sleep” and Richard Zimler’s books, both of which I enjoyed for their setting and writing style rather than the plot.

          Like

          • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

            I’ve really gotten to like Raymond Chandler and have tried to buy every one I encounter – and have read most, so far (also short stories) – but am never good at ‘solving’ any mysteries (or even remembering the solution – which aids rereading enjoyment in some ways): I like that ‘hardboiled’/noir style and atmosphere (from the reader’s safe distance!)… But Zimler does not ring any bells – thanks for the tip! (Lately, we’ve started on audiobooks of the early – and some later – Perry Mason books, which often have something of that atmosphere, to my mind – plus all the fascinating evidential/courtroom side, with my wife reading bunches more while commuting on the train.)

            Liked by 1 person

            • Yewtree says:

              Richard Zimler wrote a whole series of books about a Jewish family — set in Spain, Goa, England, and Nazi Germany. My favourites of the series are “The Last Kabbalist of Lisbon” and”Hunting Midnight”.

              Like

              • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

                And (now visiting Wikipedia while trying to avoid spoilers) as historical detective stories ranging down the centuries – and using Jewish and especially Kabbalistic lore (and knowledge of Portuguese) … quite a combination!

                Liked by 1 person

    • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

      By the way, an interesting post about Frances Alice Chesterton née Blogg by her biographer and editor:

      https://wadecenterblog.wordpress.com/2016/04/15/frances-chesterton/

      Liked by 1 person

      • Yewtree says:

        Very interesting. I didn’t know Chesterton grew up Unitarian. He obviously was t impressed. I suspect Unitarianism was a bit dry prior to the infusion of Transcendentalism and Universalism. (It still can be a bit dry in places, though when it’s not, it’s very interesting.)

        Like

        • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

          I’d like to know what it was like early-on, when Coleridge was still one… Have you tried GKC’s Autobiography? – there’s a lot of interesting ‘period’ stuff, including glimpses of interactions with all sorts of different people.

          Liked by 1 person

          • Yewtree says:

            If I had been around at the time, and that way inclined, I’d have joined the General Baptists, I think (they believed in universal salvation).

            i also discovered this morning that Goldsworthy Lowes Dickinson’s father was a Christian Socialist and friend of FD Maurice and the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. FD Maurice’s father was a Unitarian. FD Maurice converted to Anglicanism and founded Christian Socialism and was among the founders of the first wave of the cooperative movement.

            Like

  4. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    I wonder how much we know of how Christie – and Sayers – and Jessie Rickard and Baroness Orczy, among others, and Chesterton, got along together in the Detection Club? I have the impression (at least from some Sayers I’ve read), quite well! I’ve enjoyed the collaborative broadcast-novels, Behind the Screen (1930) and The Scoop (1931), but have not yet caught up with The Floating Admiral (1931) which had Chesterton as contributor as well.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    Brenton notes, “I know little of theories of humour and felt that this aspect was light in the text” – that’s something I’ve wondered about in general, without ever yet properly trying to follow it up – “theories of humour”. And now that Charles Huttar and Arend Smilde have made me aware of Lewis’s familiarity with Henri Bergson’s L’Évolution créatrice (1907) and how his science fiction seems to interact with it, I’m also wondering if he knew Bergson’s Le Rire: Essai sur la signification du comique (1900 – published in English translation in 1911 as Laughter: An Essay on the Meaning of the Comic), which I’ve long heard of as a ‘classic’ of “theories of humour”… and the English version of which I see is scanned in 1914 reprint in the Internet Archive!

    And, let me once again commend Johan Huizinga’s Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play-Element in Culture (1938: UK 1949, US 1955) to your attention – with a broader scope, but including humour.

    Liked by 2 people

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