C. S. Lewis on the Enchantment and Disenchantment of Riding a Bicycle

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Image used by permission of the Marion E. Wade Center, Wheaton College, Wheaton, IL

Only C. S. Lewis could take a common experience—the various ways in which we think throughout life about the riding of a bicycle—and use it as an illustration of the four universal phases of life, and how they point above and beyond themselves to something that nothing in this world can satisfy.

In October 1946, in a publication called Resistance, Lewis wrote a short piece called “Talking about Bicycles,” describing a (perhaps fictional) conversation with a friend about the various phases of life as illustrated through his approach to riding a bicycle.

In the excerpt below, I’ve added headings to discuss the time period being described.

[1. Unenchantment]

I can remember a time in early childhood when a bicycle meant nothing to me: it was just part of the huge meaningless background of grown-up gadgets against which life went on.

[2. Enchantment]

Then came a time when to have a bicycle, and to have learned to ride it, and to be at last spinning along on one’s own, early in the morning, under trees, in and out of the shadows, was like entering Paradise. That apparently effortless and frictionless gliding—more like swimming than any other motion, but really most like the discovery of a fifth element—that seemed to have solved the secret of life. Now one would begin to be happy.

[3. Disenchantment]

But, of course, I soon reached the third period. Pedalling to and fro from school (it was one of those journeys that feel up-hill both ways) in all weathers, soon revealed the prose of cycling. The bicycle, itself, became to me what his oar is to a galley slave. . . .

[4. Re-enchantment]

I have had to go back to cycling lately now that there’s no car. And the jobs I use it for are often dull enough. But again and again the mere fact of riding brings back a delicious whiff of memory. I recover the feelings of the second age. What’s more, I see how true they were—how philosophical, even. For it really is a remarkably pleasant motion. To be sure, it is not a recipe for happiness as I then thought. In that sense the second age was a mirage. But a mirage of something. . . . Whether there is, or whether there is not, in this world or in any other, the kind of happiness which one’s first experiences of cycling seemed to promise, still, on any view, it is something to have had the idea of it. The value of the thing promised remains even if that particular promise was false—even if all possible promises of it are false.

Lewis’s “friend” (who sounds a lot like Lewis!) goes on to apply this to several areas of life, including love:

We all remember the Unenchanted Age—there was a time when women meant nothing to us.

Then we fell in love; that, of course, was Enchantment.

Then, in the early or middle years of marriage there came—well, Disenchantment. All the promises had turned out, in a way, false. No woman could be expected—the thing was impossible. . . .

I don’t think I could explain to a bachelor how there comes a time when you look back on that first mirage, perfectly well aware that it was a mirage, and yet, selling all the things that have come out of it, things the boy and girl could never have dreamed of, and feeling also that to remember it is, in a sense, to bring it back in reality, so that under all the other experiences it is still there like a shell lying at the bottom of a clear, deep pool—and that nothing would have happened at all without it—so that even where it was least true it was telling you important truths in the only form you would then understand.

You can find the whole essay in Lewis’s book Present Concerns.

 

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