My Favorite Pieces of Writing: Excerpt from Surprised by Joy

Of all the things C.S. Lewis wrote with his fluent pen, my favorite comes from a short interjection about his experience in World War I, an event that is strangely absent in Lewis’ writings. Alan Jacobs, a literary critic and biographer of Lewis, suggests that the following passage is a “rhetorical hand-waving away the horrors of war” and “a critique of the massive literature by his fellow soldiers […]” (The Narnian, p. 74). Indeed, it seemed Lewis was bored by such realism, but that did not mean he could not express it. From Surprised by Joy (p. 196):

But for the rest, the war–the frights, the cold, the smell of H.E. [high-explosive shells], the horribly smashed men still moving like half-crushed beetles, the sitting or standing corpses, the landscape of sheer earth without a blade of grass, the boots worn day and night till they seemed to grow to your feet–all this shows rarely and faintly in memory. It is too cut off from the rest of my experience and seems to have happened to someone else. It is even in a way unimportant.

Jacobs goes on to remark that this is less than fully honest or at least self-knowing as his correspondence with his family shows that he suffered from “nerves” as many a returning soldier did (and still do). What I like about this passage is that Lewis clearly shows he is capable of adding to the great literary history of the War, but would rather not. Other things were more important to him, though what he wrote above has a tantalizing if not terrifying beauty to it.

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