Since moving to Oxford two years ago, I have been aware of two looming inevitabilities. The first is that I must become a cyclist since, as the road signs around me brag relentlessly, ‘Oxford is a cycling city.’ And the second is that I really must read C.S. Lewis.
I put both off until this month, and then combined the two by purchasing a bike and reading Lewis’ essay Talking About Bicycles. This proved to be a good pairing, not least because I also bought a new bike for my daughter’s birthday, and the difference between our two feelings nicely illustrated Lewis’ four ages.
The Four Ages
In his essay, Lewis uses the example of cycling to highlight four universal phases of life, which he then goes on to apply to themes such as love and war. He writes of:
- The Unenchanted Age when a bicycle is just a meaningless grown-up gadget, of no interest to you.
- The Enchanted Age when one learns to ride, and enjoys the freedom it gives, feeling like you’ve entered Paradise!
- The Disenchanted Age when one sees only the prose of cycling; it is a means to an end.
- The Re-enchanted Age when one recovers the feelings of the second age, recognising that the enchanted age was a mirage, but a mirage that pointed to something very real.
These four ages break down into two pairs; the first and third being negative, and the second and forth being far more positive. But while each pair may, on the surface, look similar, there are important differences between them.
The First Ride
We bought the bike for my daughter’s birthday. She was confused at first to open a small box, containing a pair of stabilisers.
“But why do I need these?” she asked. “I don’t have a…” her eyes widened in dawning realisation.
She was so excited when I opened the door of the shed to reveal her full gift. I showed her that I’d bought myself a bike as well, and we talked about how much fun it would be to cycle together. I took her for her first ride, and all that glee evaporated within moments. We’d been out for precisely three minutes before she announced that she hated it. (She loved the bike, she assured me, but just hated riding it). She couldn’t do it. She didn’t want to do it. She wanted to go home. On foot.
I patiently talked to her about how difficult it is to do anything for the first time; how long it took me to learn; how quickly she would pick it up if she practiced, and how soon she would come to love it.
“But Dad,” she said, “You don’t love cycling do you?”
She wasn’t wrong.
I remember taking ages to learn to ride a bike. I recall being taken to a park with a long straight tree-lined pathway, perfect for a first run without stabilisers. And I remember tumbling right into the trees. But then I also remember the great joy that came when I did get it.
I was never a long-cycle-in-the-countryside kinda kid, but I do have fond memories of riding through the woods near my house, and spending hours with my brother chasing one another on our bikes at the top of our road. Then nothing for 20 years, except for the odd foray on a Santander Cycle (I can’t bring myself to use their more-colloquial name). And now, cycling for me has become a means to an end. Something I’m not especially excited about, but know I need to do, both for exercise, and to navigate this ‘cycling city’ in which I live.
So here I find myself, firmly in the third of Lewis’ four ages, trying to encourage my daughter to press on through her state of unenchantment to discover a joy that I, who am further ahead, don’t currently possess.
The Crucial Difference
On the surface, my daughter and I seem to share similarly negative feelings towards cycling. But there is a great difference between them. As Lewis warns,
‘The great danger we have to guard against in this age is the Unenchanted man, mistaking himself for, and mistaken by others for, the Disenchanted man.’
Whether discussing cycling, or loftier topics such as love, war, and faith, it matters an enormous amount whether you are talking to someone who is unenchanted or disenchanted. The unenchanted speaks negatively of something he doesn’t understand, while the disenchanted speaks from a place of experience. He has wrestled with the subject, and may have something valuable to say.
The same is true of the other two phases. The positivity of the enchanted person may be hopelessly naive, whereas the positivity of the re-enchanted has been forged by pushing through the challenges of disenchantment. The latter may be far more valuable than the former.
The Second Ride
I knew I wasn’t going to get any further by trying to reason at the side of the road. So I carried the bike back home, we sat in the garden, and each calmed down. Maybe it was my fault for starting her off at the wrong place, or not giving her enough pre-instruction, or taking her out when she was hangry. We had a reset, I encouraged her, and then I told her we were going again. She protested, but I told her there was an old adage written for just this occasion. I took her down to an easier stretch of path, and with a pep talk and a push, I got her going.
And she flew.
She loved it! I could hardly convince her to stop when it was time to go home. During the week I brought the bike to pick her up from school, and she was so excited. And even though her slow and faltering learning added rather than subtracted a good 5 minutes to the journey, her attitude one week on couldn’t be more different.
The Third Age
“But Dad, you don’t love cycling do you?”
It’s a funny thing being in the third age, and trying to encourage someone to move from the first to the second, knowing that one day they may be where you are. Disenchanted.
But in so many areas of my life, I’m firmly in the fourth age. I’ve pushed through the disenchantment and discovered the mature joy of re-enchantment. And that gives me the motivation both to press on in this area, and to encourage others on their journey.
And so I embrace the return to cycling.
And so I also embrace the need to read more C.S. Lewis.
The Final Confession
I’ve kept this confession to the end… I’ve never really got on with C.S. Lewis. (There – I’ve said it!) I have fond childhood memories of The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, mainly from hearing it read in school assemblies, but I didn’t enjoy the rest of the series. And as for his other writings, when I hear him quoted I think “wow, that’s profound!” and then when I try to read him for myself, it seems that all the profundity scuttles away and hides itself amidst rather more dull paragraphs.
To be clear, I am certain the issue is with me, not with Lewis. (For what it’s worth, I know many people who feel the same way about Chesterton, who I enjoy immensely.) And probably, rather like the slowness to take up cycling, it’s a sign of my laziness.
But on the other hand, I’m also fairly certain that far fewer pastors have read Lewis than their quotations suggest, and whenever someone pulls out the “is he safe?” bit in a sermon, I’m tempted to ask if they’ve actually read any more of his work than that single line!
But anyway, I live in ‘a Lewis reading city’, so this is a genuine request for help. For those who are re-enchanted with the work of Lewis, what will help me get to where you are? What is the best way into appreciating Lewis’ work? Is there one must-read that will convert me? Or a book/podcast about his writing that will draw me in?
I’m up for the journey. With or without stabilisers.
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The Narnia Code!
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The autobiography Surprised by Joy is fascinating. There’s a film version called ‘CS Lewis: The Most Reluctant Convert’ which can be rented online.
I’m currently reading the sci-fi trilogy. The first, Out of The Silent Planet, is really a preparatory work for the second, Voyage To Venus. This starts off a little plodding but becomes a page-turner later on and then ends with several paragraphs of, frankly, mystical ecstasy. The third, That Hideous Strength, is a fiction based on his philosophical work The Abolition of Man.
Great! Thanks for the suggestions 🙂
First, start with his fiction. The Chronicles of Narnia, The Screwtape Letters, The Great Divorce, etc. Once you are familiar with his fiction, you will find the ideas in his prose easier to access because you will have a story framework for understanding them.
After you have enjoyed Lewis’s fiction, find the fiction and prose pairings and read them together. For example, The Problem of Pain is Lewis’s rational analysis of pain while A Grief Observed is Lewis’s lived experience of pain. The Great Divorce could also be read with The Problem of Pain or it could go with Mere Christianity since both prose books deal with Heaven and Hell. His autobiography Surprised by Joy works well with his Pilgrim’s Regress which is the allegory of the thought process that he goes through in the autobiography. Til We Have Faces is excellent with The Four Loves.
If none of these suggestions help you, start a mini book club with your local Lewis fanatic who is excited to expound to you, for as much time as you will allow, why Lewis is genius and what each of his books mean. Often the enthusiasm communicated in person is contagious 🙂
Fantastic – that’s really helpful Maggie, thank you! And I think you’re right – reading with others is probably a really good way in 🙂
I would take a listen to the Pints with Jack podcast: https://www.pintswithjack.com/. There are many deep and beautiful reflections on the work of C. S. Lewis.
I would listen to the Pints with Jack podcast: https://www.pintswithjack.com/
There are many deep and beautiful reflections about the life of C. S. Lewis.
Fantastic – thanks for the recommendation, Jess!