Be Careful What You Read… C.S. Lewis’ Literary Encounter with George MacDonald

by Brenton Dickieson

Perhaps one of C.S. Lewis’ more famous—or infamous—quotations is this:

“A young man who wishes to remain a sound Atheist cannot be too careful of his reading” (Surprised by Joy, 182).

Hidden in this 20th century tweet is the idea that serious study will bring an intelligent and engaged thinker to a belief in God. The pre-Christian Lewis, however, was besieged not just by the philosophical proofs for the existence of God, but by the spiritually infused worldviews of the writers he most admired.

“All the books were beginning to turn against me. Indeed, I must have been as blind as a bat not to have seen, long before, the ludicrous contradiction between my theory of life and my actual experiences as a reader. George MacDonald had done more to me than any other writer; of course it was a pity he had that bee in his bonnet about Christianity. He was good in spite of it. Chesterton had more sense than all the other moderns put together; bating, of course, his Christianity. Johnson was one of the few authors whom I felt I could trust utterly; curiously enough, he had the same kink. Spenser and Milton by a strange coincidence had it too. Even among ancient authors the same paradox was to be found. The most religious (Plato, Aeschylus, Virgil) were clearly those on whom I could really feed.” (Surprised by Joy, 201-202).

The chief offender was George MacDonald, the 19th century preacher and writer of faerie tales. In Surprised by Joy (1955), Lewis shares the moment of his first encounter with MacDonald, when he was 18, just before WWI:

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“Turning to the bookstall, I picked out an Everyman in a dirty jacket, Phantastes, a Faerie Romance, George MacDonald. Then the train came in. I can still remember the voice of the porter calling out the village names Saxon and sweet as a nut—‘Bookham, Effingham, Horsley train.’ That evening I began to read my new book.

“The woodland journeyings in that story, the ghostly enemies, the ladies both good and evil, were close enough to my habitual imagery to lure me on without the perception of a change. It is as if I were carried sleeping across the frontier, or as if I had died in the old country and could never remember how I came alive in the new” (170-171).

I’ve posted the March 7, 1916 letter to his boyhood friend, Arthur Greeves, Lewis’ teenage version of the same moment. He tells much the same story of discovering “another author to add to our circle” in a “rather tired Everyman copy”:

“Have you read it? I suppose not, for if you had, you could not have helped telling me about it. At any rate, whatever the book you are reading now, you simply MUST get this at once.”

Lewis stayed with MacDonald through his 20s. On January 11, 1923, he writes in his diary…


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