I’m not sure what I expected when I received Surprised by Laughter; the Comic World of C.S. Lewis, written by Terry Lindvall. If looking for a light- hearted encounter with Lewis’ humor sprinkled throughout much of his writings, you may be disappointed. For light would not describe the intellectual style of the book. The author thoroughly examines how Lewis understood humor, what formed his sense of humor and how he wanted to affect his readers through using humor. If you thought of comic relief and laughter as primarily funniness and jokes, you will discover a bigger purpose for comedy in this book. Linovall says that laughter offers the value of changing and even correcting one’s perspective.
As I plowed through the introduction and first couple of chapters I had to readjust my expectations of hoping to enjoy the book with chuckles and gaining a more endearing love for Lewis. Instead I found a study guide on the subject of laughter, as Linovall dissects the humor he extracts from Lewis’ writings. He outlines the book according to four categories of laughter that he pulls from a list in Lewis’ book, The Screwtape Letters. They are Joy, Fun, the Joke Proper and Flippancy.
Lewis was inspired towards humor by finding comic relief in a difficult relationship with his father; such as his father’s fumbling expressions of communication. His father introduced him to humorous authors and modeled enjoyment of laughter.
Lewis was also inspired and influenced by contemporary writers as well as those who preceded him. G. K. Chesterton is quoted almost as often as Lewis in this book and Linovall acknowledges that Chesterton was Lewis’ greatest source of comic inspiration. From this close association comes Lewis’ British humor and an infection of joy and humor.
In the first category of Joy, joy is defined as “a deep yearning or poignant desire for something agonizingly elusive”. Lewis found that joy contained a longing that couldn’t be consoled and there was great satisfaction in this dissatisfaction. It was ultimately joy that drew Lewis from an atheist into the Kingdom of God.
Subsequent chapters focus on how closely joy and suffering are related, how joy is ordered by obedience and rule; more like a dance than a drill, the joy in music, the gift of laughter as thanksgiving and praise, and Lewis’ thoughts on the joy of heaven. When heavenly imagery such as harps and crowns are mocked and taken literally, Lewis wrote, [One] “might as well think that when Christ told us to be like doves, He meant that we were to lay eggs.”
In the category of Fun, Linovall chides us to see it in everything we do, including the mundane. Perhaps God likes monotony and wants us more like children who like repeated stories and things done over in the same way. Highlights in this section include enjoying the simple and not trying to control our experiences, humility is needed to appreciate Fun, there is gravity in levity, (you have to acknowledge the seriousness of life to appreciate hilarity), and how playing games brings laughter and a sense of God’s pleasure. The section ends with a look at Lewis’ fun in enjoying animals, the fun in his love of literature and how he used word play in his writings.
The Joke Proper category examines how Lewis saw incongruities of life as a source for good jokes. It was expressed in the unexpected. In the chapters, Wit and Word Made Play and Comic Techniques and Topics, Linovall highlights Lewis’ love of the pun and how he could make language funny by using words that are not meant to be taken literally.
Some jokes might be considered taboo, as laughing at death. Only from a Christian perspective can there be laughter in the darkest times because of what is known of the good on the other side. Other chapters in this section deal with vulgarity, women as the brunt of jokes, and sex and marriage. Lewis was annoyed with dirty stories. Humor in subjects of women and sex was possible when both were honored and celebrated as what they were meant to be.
In the final section, Linovall explains how Lewis uses Satire and Flippancy. Where satire can be a weapon, Lewis used it for sport and fun, not blood. Satire is a style of writing that pierces while at the same time brings relief or stirs up anger for a good cause. Flippancy is laughter that puts you above others and morality. Lewis was given to flippancy in his youthfulness, but later offers help to others for curing this tendency. To change, takes a taste for better things to laugh at, learning the art of silence, or making a soft argument about what is said for the purpose of inviting productive discussion.
The book concludes with a warning to enjoy laughter along our way of life but not make it our destination. Laughter and love need to bloom together and as with a good garden constant weeding and pruning is needed to keep it from becoming overgrown. Our laughter will increase when it’s in its proper place. Lewis had God as his first love and because our joy and humor is given by him, we are only stewards of laughter, to use for him. To know God’s mirth we must first know him and his love.
I received this book free of charge from the Booksneeze.com program in exchange for my honest review.