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I had the pleasure of addressing the St. Andrew’s Society of Savannah on November 30, 2023, on the occasion of their 286th St. Andrew’s Day Dinner. A friend had suggested me as the speaker because I had written a three-volume biography of C. S. Lewis. Lewis was a lovely man with many fine qualities, but he was not a Scot. Nonetheless, I accepted the invitation and even looked for some way to include Lewis in my remarks.

Lewis actually had two legitimate connections with Scotland. He visited Scotland as a boy on vacation with his father and brother to visit the brother of Mr. Lewis. Young Lewis and his brother, Warnie, found the bed so uncomfortable that they tossed a coin to see who would sleep on the floor. C. S. Lewis lost the toss, so he had to sleep in the bed. While the boys despaired of a comfortable sleep, their father despaired of the food..1 The second visit to Scotland came in 1946 when St. Andrew’s University awarded Lewis an honorary doctoral degree. This time he and his brother luxuriated in the food, because Scotland did not experience the same wartime and post-wartime austerity and food rationing that England did.2

These charming stories brought me no closer to having something to say about my assigned topic, which was a fifteen-minute response to the toast “To the day we celebrate.” At this point, I asked myself the critical question, “Why do grown men in Savannah, Georgia dress in kilts and celebrate the national saint of Scotland every year for 286 years?” Do they do it simply as an excuse to drink large amounts of Scotch whiskey, get decked out in fancy dress, and listen to bagpipes? No. Those behaviors are affects, not causes.

One can understand Americans celebrating the 4th of July or Thanksgiving. These are deeply rooted days that commemorate critical episodes in our national American story. One can even understand why emigrants from Scotland in the 1730s might gather together from time to time in order to remember the land of their birth. After 286 years, however, most of the members of the St. Andrew’s Society had never seen the thistle growing on the mountainside or smelled the heather beside the loch. These bekilted men do not eat the food of Scotland, except for Lorna Doones and haggis, and they cannot eat the haggis until after they have had too much Scotch.

The connection with Scotland is of a different sort, and for most of the members of the St. Andrew’s Society, it began when they were only boys. It began with romance sparked by a grandmother or great-aunt who did not lie to us so much as embellish the world we did not know. It often began when the small boy finally asked the meaning of the coat of arms hanging in the hallway, which they had passed countless times, or the swatch of tartan in the frame next to it. Then the old ladies would have told the story, repeated all across the South for generations after the defeat of Bonnie Prince Charlie by the English: “If we still lived in Scotland, we would live in a castle!” Thus, the romance began.

For some, the romance took hold and led to reading the works (or watching the movies) of Sir Walter Scott and Robert Burns. These tales only reinforced the romance of Scotland. In many ways, romance provides the basis for heritage. Romance will not let the past stay in the past. It will not allow the connection to break. It takes hold and leaves a person dissatisfied with the mundane, and it always refreshes and enlivens when it is renewed. Scott and Burns may not have understood this dynamic, but they certainly practiced it. They left their readers in North America with a yearning and longing for the Scotland they never knew.

While mulling over these matters, it struck me that this experience is exactly what C. S. Lewis talked about in the story of his conversion, Surprised by Joy. He had no romance about Scotland, but he did experience a profound romance about the Vikings and their mythology. He described this romance as a yearning or longing which all things Norse prompted in him. It left him feeling bereft of something he had never had, yet he wanted to have the experience again. It was a feeling rather than a thought. He called the feeling, which was more than any ordinary feeling, “Joy.”3 In his first effort at telling the story of his conversion, however, he had called it “Romanticism.”4

On the surface, at first glance, Lewis’s experience of Joy sounds unique to him. Before he had the experience prompted by seeing Arthur Rackham’s illustrations to Wagner’s Ring operas about Siegfried and the ring of power, a younger Lewis was stimulated by seeing his brother’s miniature garden made of twigs. On another occasion as a small boy, he had the experience when he stood beside a flowering currant bush. He continued to have these experiences throughout his adult life, but the experience with Rackham’s pictures gave Lewis something concrete to associate with the longing, yearning, and desire. He had the memory of the memory, but try as he might, he could not reproduce the feeling. He could not project it. It came upon him when it would.

If we regard the experience as unique to toy gardens, currant bushes, and Norse mythology, then Lewis’s experience seems esoteric and singular. No one else can really relate to it. If we recognize in his experience the notion of romance, however, then his experience becomes quite common and ordinary. Like Lewis, many people have an experience of romance, like the attachment to Scotland or Norse mythology, before they reach adulthood. For some, it came with their first encounter with Star Wars. With others, it came with Narnia or The Lord of the Rings. When I was young, many experienced it with tales of Davy Crockett or Mickey Mantle. It is why people keep vigil at the grave of Elvis Pressley or buy movie magazines. The romance is a symptom of something missing from our lives, an acknowledgment that we are not whole. Lewis said that it was not an end in itself but a pointer to something else beyond itself. It is what Pascal meant when he described the vacuum in the human heart that only God can fill.

The romanticism that Lewis called “Joy” is what William James might call religious experience. It is common to all humanity, but people react to it in different ways. Some people simply settle for the experience, the signpost. Others ignore or suppress the experience until they no longer have it. Still, others worship the experience and make more of it than is actually there. This is what Paul meant in the first chapter of Romans when he talks about people making up their own gods.

At one point in his life, Lewis made too much of the experience and tried in vain to cause it to happen. At another point, he regarded it as simply a psychological projection which he tried to ignore as childish baggage. Eventually, however, he realized it was a real experience of something that could only be called sublime which acted upon him from outside. The association of longing and desire with the thing he liked, in his case Norse mythology, pointed beyond the thing he liked telling him that the very thing he liked could never satisfy his yearning for the real thing. This is how romance works. It never satisfies in and of itself even though it may call us back again and again. In the very yearning it produces, it tells us that what we really desire lies in another world.


  1. W. H. Lewis, “C. S. Lewis: A Biography” (unpublished manuscript, Marion Wade Center, Wheaton College), 26.
  2. Clyde S. Kilby and Marjorie Lamp Mead, eds., Brothers and Friends: The Diaries of Major Warren Hamilton Lewis (New York: Harper & Row, 1982), 190-191.
  3. C. S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy (London: Geoffrey Bles, 1955), 22-24, 74-79.
  4. C. S. Lewis, The Pilgrim’s Regress: An Allegorical Apology for Christianity, Reason, and Romanticism (New York: Sheed & Ward, Inc, 1935).

Harry Lee Poe

Union University
Harry Lee Poe is the Charles Colson Professor of Faith and Culture, Union University.