Donald T. Williams, PhD
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Surprised by C. S. Lewis, George MacDonald, and Dante: an Array of Original Discoveries, by Kathryn Lindskoog (Macon, Ga.: Mercer University Press, 2001), 221 pp., n. p. (hardcover).

This review appeared in SEVEN: An Anglo-American Review 19 (2002): 114-16.

"I happen to like coincidences for their own sake," Kathryn Lindskoog confesses early on in her new book (61), and that confession is the key both to the book's strengths and its weaknesses. Her wide reading and her sharp eye combine to produce an impressive list of literary, historical, and intellectual parallels involving the three authors she studies. Many of them probably are "original discoveries," and some of those are truly significant. But at times a more skeptical reader may wish that the evidence for the reality of some potentially meaningful connections were a bit less circumstantial. Possibilities can become probabilities, and probabilities facts, a mite too easily if one indulges one's taste for coincidence with too much enthusiasm.

Surprised by C. S. Lewis, George MacDonald, and Dante is a collection of twenty three short essays ranging from an account of Lewis's childhood in story form for children to a collection of fifty comments on specific passages of Dante's Divine Comedy. The bulk of them are in the largest section, called "Hidden Connections," an accurate description of the kind of "coincidences" Lindskoog finds interesting. Though MacDonald and Dante do make significant appearances, Lewis dominates the book. It is somewhat uneven, as is not uncommon in collections of essays, but it contains plenty of material that will be of interest to fans of Lewis.

One of the stronger chapters is "C. S. Lewis's Anti-Anti-Semitism in The Great Divorce" (33-37). Here a letter to Arthur Greaves expressing Lewis's outrage at Hitler's persecution of the Jews, some key details from The Great Divorce, and a quotation from Lewis's preface to converted Jew Joy Davidman's book Smoke on the Mountain combine to uncover a new level of meaning in the story of Sarah Smith. The specificity of the details in The Great Divorce point to more than just an arbitrarily perceived "coincidence": "Just as Ikey [an anti-Semitic insult] is the only nickname used in The Great Divorce, Golders Green [a Jewish enclave in London] is the only location used" (35). The conclusion that Sarah Smith is "the strongest possible rebuke to anti-Semitism" (36) both points out a level of meaning easily missed and is established beyond a reasonable doubt.

Unfortunately, some of Lindskoog's "original discoveries" would be more accurately presented only as intriguing possibilities, for they lack the corroborating evidence, textual or otherwise, that could make them more. She thinks, for example, that the reference in That Hideous Strength to "the great native Christian mystic . . . the Sura," is a veiled reference to Sadhu Sundar Singh (70). It may well be. But the evidence presented for this hypothesis may not be as conclusive as Lindskoog implies. She asserts, "There can be no question" that Lewis was aware of Singh. The evidence? Singh is referred to in a footnote in the preface to Dorothy L. Sayers' play The Man Born to be King, a preface from which Lewis had quoted. That and the superficial resemblance between the words Sura ["god" in Sanskrit or a chapter of the Koran in Arabic] and Sadhu ["holy man" in Sanskrit], along with Dom Bede Griffiths' opinion (he was "almost certain" that the reference was to Singh), constitutes Lindskoog's case, even though Griffiths also admits that he did not recall Lewis ever mentioning the Sadhu. (Unfortunately, a footnote crediting Christopher Mitchell with finding that Lewis had owned a book by B. H. Streeter and A. J. Appasamy about the Sadhu, which would have strengthenend Lindskoog's case considerably, was inadvertently dropped.) My point is not that Lindskoog is wrong or that her suggestion is not interesting but that the circumstantial nature of the evidence actually in the book does not quite justify claims like "there can be no question."

Surprised by C. S. Lewis, George MacDonald, and Dante is an enjoyable read for fans of C. S. Lewis and of literary sleuthing. All such readers will be intrigued often and convinced sometimes. Scholars will occasionally wish the author would refrain from over reaching. But if her enthusiasm sometimes trumps judgment, it also enhances enjoyment. Kathryn Lindskoog always stimulates useful discussion, and this book is no exception to that.

Updated Jan-25-2005