Guest Post: Always a King or Queen: C. S. Lewis on Childhood (Part 1)

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[This week’s guest post (in two parts) is by Matthew Aughtry, whom you may recall created this short film, and this “What is Hutchmoot” short. Check out Matthew’s Vimeo channel to see his beard and his other work.]

This past summer I took a class at Fuller Theological Seminary on the theology of C. S. Lewis. In many ways I can trace my journey to seminary back to Lewis’s influence on me even from childhood, so it was a wonderful opportunity to re-read some of my favorite writings from him and read other books I’d been meaning to read for years (as a result I read Till We Have Faces for the first time and it quickly became my favorite of his writings). As part of the class we had to write a research paper on a topic of our choice, assuming the professor approved. I had several ideas but finally landed on an exploration of Lewis’s view of childhood. Since the class covered Lewis’s life as well as his writings, I thought it would be interesting to see what could be gleaned about this subject from both spheres. No doubt the fact that I was due to become a father in September affected my choice.

Let’s start with a snapshot of our culture’s view of childhood. Four years ago two separate surveys reported that most children and adolescents in Britain wanted to be famous for a living. When asked what their ideal career was, half of the sixteen year-olds answered, “Celebrity.”[1] The other report revealed, “the top three career aspirations for five- to eleven-year-olds in Britain were sports star, pop star, and actor, compared with teacher, banker, and doctor twenty-five years ago.”[2] Why has attaining fame has become so desirable in the last quarter century, particularly to young people? If one is willing to entertain the idea that the primary stories that our culture propagates to children help to shape their identities and what they desire, then it is not too much of a stretch to suggest that imaginary worlds primarily populated with princes and princesses who live happily ever after in a large castle are ideal primers for the adoration of the rich and the famous. But what would an alternative children’s narrative look like? Perhaps it would look like Narnia. Reading Lewis, it becomes clear that his vision of childhood is opposed to the prevailing culture’s view that children should desire to become princes and princesses by instead envisaging a world where they are destined to be kings and queens, insisting that responsibility is not something to be avoided, yet maintaining that a certain childlikeness is necessary if one is truly to grow up.

Lewis himself grew up in Ireland amidst rolling hills and, perhaps more importantly, his father’s library. A great deal of Lewis’s young life was spent reading a large number of books while also making up stories of his own. As a child, he and his brother created their own magical world and populated it not only with talking animals but also with seemingly endless stories that took place within its boundaries. Unfortunately, the story of Lewis’s childhood is incomplete without mentioning the death of his mother. This tragedy meant that from an early age Lewis had to learn what it meant to be self-reliant. Shipping him off to school, Lewis’s father was little help in his time of grief; whether he was ever much help at all is unsure. This informs Lewis’s own understanding that growing up partially involves learning not to rely on one’s caretakers.

Yet Lewis was not wholly without aid after the death of his mother. He still had his brother with whom he remained close for the rest of his life. He had his love of books, which helped give shape to his own imagination and offered some solace. Finally, he had his studies. After some awful experiences at school, Lewis found himself under the roof and tutelage William Kirkpatrick. It is evident from Lewis’s writings and work that he put great value in being challenged and in challenging others, and Kirkpatrick was the one who taught Lewis the benefits of this intellectual rigor. Because he valued challenges so much, I can only imagine what Lewis would think of the practice of giving each child a trophy regardless of his or her performance. In one of his correspondences in the wonderful book Letters to Children, Lewis is appalled to hear that a school in Florida, which one of his pen pals attends, bases grades on attendance rather than comprehension of the subject.[3] We cannot know what would have happened to Lewis if he had been left in one of the schools he deplored and never met his great tutor, but we do know that the boy that entered Kirkpatrick’s care grew into a man who embraced a variety of difficult challenges, intellectual and otherwise, and eventually became one of the most respected thinkers of the 20th Century. Certainly his teacher guided him, but mostly he challenged him. Lewis carried at least some form of this expectation of students with him in his own teaching career, and it extended, it seems, even to children.

The aforementioned book, Letters to Children, offers many examples of Lewis’s ideas regarding challenges and expectation. Some of the children who wrote letters to him also included original work, such as bits of poetry and passages of prose. Lewis, ever the literary critic, does not let them off easy due to their age. In a letter to a young girl named Joan, he criticizes her stories about talking animals by insisting that they either need to occupy a more realistic world or one that is completely imaginary before ending the letter by writing that the poem she sent has good content “but the verse ‘creaks’ a bit!”[4] In another letter to the same girl, he mentions an essay she sent him, and he criticizes not only her execution but also for the content writing, “I think you are exaggerating a bit at the end. Everything I need is in my soul? The Heck it is!”[5] From today’s standards some may view Lewis as a rather dreadful person when reading these letters. However, one must also keep in mind that he was under no compulsion to write these letters at all. The very act of putting pen to paper in response to a fan letter is in itself a great kindness that very few authors employ as regularly as Lewis did. Additionally, one notices that most of the children who receive criticism from him also write back. More than that, they write back with new pieces of work for him to critique. Lewis could simply have written that their work was good without ever actually reading a bit of it, but his specific notes and suggestions make it clear that he not only read the material but also took the time to offer insight on how to improve it. He believed that challenge and honest criticism is better than faint praise, even for children.

Not only does he give tough notes, he also refuses to give easy answers. When a girl named Hila writes to ask him what name Aslan is called by in our world, something he alludes to in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, Lewis gives her clues instead of simply telling her the answer, and by doing so he encourages her to utilize her own critical thinking. Additionally, when a boy named Jonathan writes to him to inquire what the possibility of Lewis writing more Narnia books is he responds, “I’m afraid there will be no more of these stories. But why don’t you try writing some Narnian tales? I began to write when I was about your age and it was the greatest fun. Do try!”[6] It seems that as highly as Lewis values reading, he discourages children becoming consumers only.

Lewis himself consumed massive quantities of books as a child but that consumption was also an impetus for him to tell his own tales. There are a wide variety of entertainment options for children today, and while it is fair to say that some are better than others, it also seems fair to assert that Lewis would encourage us to see that no matter what children consume it is imperative that they also create. The stories they love may fuel their imagination, of course, but their imaginations should be utilized productively. Jonathan isn’t the only writer encouraged to explore the world of Narnia with new stories, and he is certainly not the only letter writer to beg Lewis to write more books in the series. Their popularity is undeniable, and it is within these tales that we find the fullest vision regarding what childhood is and should be for Lewis.

[Read Part 2 here.]

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[1] Alison Kershaw, “Fame the Career Choice for Half of 16-year-olds.” The Independent. February 17, 2010. Accessed August 26, 2014. http://www.independent.co.uk/news/education/education-news/fame-the-career-choice-for-half-of-16yearolds-1902338.html

[2] Emma Brockes, “I Want to Be Famous.” The Guardian. April 16, 2010. Accessed August 26, 2014. http://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2010/apr/17/i-want-to-be-famous.

[3] C. S. Lewis and Lyle W. Dorsett, Letters to Children (New York: Macmillan, 1985), 88.

[4] Lewis and Dorsett, Letters to Children, 80.

[5] Lewis and Dorsett, Letters to Children, 87.

[6] Lewis and Dorsett, Letters to Children, 89.


2 Comments

  1. Chinwe

    That class sounds wonderful! Reading the excerpts from Lewis’ letters to children reminded me of a conference session I attended a couple of years ago, given by Lyle Dorsett (I see that you’ve referenced his work here). His talk was about Lewis’ care of souls as reflected in his letter-writing “ministry.” I was struck by Dorsett’s revelation that even though Lewis found it often burdensome and overwhelming, he resolved to keep at it, and respond to as many letters as he could. Thank God he did, as we are still being blessed by his obedience.

    Here is the session: http://www.desiringgod.org/conference-messages/c-s-lewis-and-the-care-of-souls

    And the rest of the (excellent) conference media: http://www.desiringgod.org/blog/posts/all-lewis-conference-media-now-available

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