Guest Post: Always a King or Queen: C. S. Lewis on Childhood (Part 2)

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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.]

Read Part 1 here.

In studying Lewis’s life one finds that it is no secret that he was not very popular within the corner of academia that he occupied and The Chronicles of Narnia certainly did not help his case. Even J. R. R. Tolkien, his Oxford colleague who had written a children’s book himself, was not fond of the series. Yet a large portion of the world was very fond of them, especially children. Lewis did not worry over this fact because he knew that a good book for children is simply a good book, period. He once wrote in an essay,

When I was ten, I read fairy tales in secret and would have been ashamed if I had been found doing so. Now that I am fifty I read them openly. When I became a man I put away childish things, including the fear of childishness and the desire to be very grown up.[7]

Perhaps some think Lewis’s chronicles are in the category of books you should eventually feel ashamed of, but it seems that many more do not. Indeed their endurance in popular culture is at least some testament to this. Many adults must consider these books still worth reading since they continue to pass them on to students and even to their own children.

Perhaps one of the things that children find most appealing about these stories is that the protagonists are always similar in age. Moreover, the Narnian tales may be particularly engaging for children because they not only tell stories centered around young boys and girls but the narratives themselves place great importance on what they do, how they act or react to certain situations, and the choices they make. In Narnia, any boy can become a brave warrior and any girl is capable of becoming a wise leader. In their ordinary lives children may see themselves as ancillary to the primary story of the world, to its hard choices and the difficult decisions of adults, but in the world of Narnia they have the weight of responsibility thrust upon them.

Lewis’s fiction helps boys and girls of all ages to recognize that their choices matter. There is no excuse for making a bad decision, not even youthful ignorance. Indeed Lewis shows us that Lucy, though she is the youngest of the four Pevensie children, makes many of the best choices. Not only is she afforded the special honor of entering Narnia before the other children and of seeing Aslan first, she also naturally exudes a special kindness and grace. Edmund, on the other hand, is older than Lucy yet makes several bad (and costly) decisions. He even tries to disparage Lucy’s age when lying about his own trip to Narnia so as not to appear childish in front of his older siblings. When Lucy storms out of the room because she is upset with his refusal to tell the truth, Edmund plays it off by saying, “That’s the worst of young kids.”[8]

Children commenting on how grown up they are, or how childish another person is, seems to be a recurring theme throughout the Narnia books. In The Magician’s Nephew, Digory and Polly get into an argument, and one of the jabs he throws at her is, “I should never dream of calling a kid like you a woman.”[9] The idea that adulthood is a goal to reach and then to revel in seems to be the downfall of Susan Pevensie. Phillip Pullman, a famous author and a Lewis detractor, has asserted that Lewis condemned Susan to Hell for becoming interested in boys.[10] However, that is a gross misreading of a passage in The Last Battle. It is true that Susan does not join her brothers and sisters on the journey to Aslan’s Country. However, the reason she is not in Narnia is not that she has been condemned to Hell. Her interest in boys, which is never explicitly mentioned but only suggested, is only a small part of her problem. Susan is reported to mock Narnia and her adventures there as only a bit of fun that she and her siblings made up as children. Her real interest is in being grown-up, which is not portrayed as an interest in being responsible or self-reliant but primarily as a putting on of airs and feigning superiority. Polly complains,

She wasted all her school time wanting to be the age she is now, and she’ll waste all the rest of her life trying to stay that age. Her whole idea is to race on to the silliest time of one’s life as quick as she can and then stop there as long as she can.[11]

Lewis’ indictment of Susan feels apt for our own culture, which seems to idolize the idea of being young and independent forever without the responsibility that comes with independence or the sense of wonder that comes with being young. Indeed, one could argue that the characteristics in both childhood and adulthood that Lewis values are in direct conflict with current cultural values.

Susan is not the only one of the Pevensies to make this critical error; Edmund also put more stock in being grown-up than in acting like an adult. Though he touts his maturity, he also commits one of the most childish acts in all of the books: betraying his siblings for sweets. Edmund’s first encounter with the White Witch and subsequent selling-out of his kin may in some small part be attributed to her magical powers, but it is made abundantly clear that Edmund still makes his own decision, and moreover that he makes the wrong one. Edmund betrays his family to the White Witch because he is enticed by her offer of rooms full of endless Turkish Delight. Granted, there is an element of trickery to his tempter’s scheme, but Lewis makes it clear that Edmund is still to blame for his actions. After all, he hides his meeting with the evil queen from the others and even ignores Lucy’s warnings about her. Yet it is not only the Witch’s promise of treats that entices Edmund but also the idea of his importance. He seems to desire respect without earning it, and wants to sit enthroned above his brother and sisters. The Witch says that he can be the King when she dies and until then he will be a prince who “would wear a gold crown and eat Turkish Delight all day long.”[12] Since the White Witch is immortal (or at least lives much longer than human beings), one can deduce that Edmund would actually be a perpetual prince, stuffing his face with dessert and never donning the true crown. Edmund’s temptation and Susan’s failure are similar: to be considered adults without accepting responsibility and to reign forever as a prince or princess without ever feeling the crown’s weight.

Thankfully, Edmund’s choice does not seal his fate (and that gives us reason to hope that Susan’s will not either). The Pevensie children do eventually become the Kings and Queens of Narnia. The description of their reign makes it clear that they are not simply throwing balls and lavish dances. Lewis writes, “These two kings and two queens governed Narnia well, and long and happy was their reign . . . And they made good laws . . . And they entered into friendship and alliance with countries beyond the sea and paid them visits of state.”[13] Lawmaking and trade deals with other countries don’t come up in most children’s books, and their inclusion makes it clear that the children actually took on the task of governing the land. The crowns may be beautiful, but they also carry their full gravity of power and responsibility.

Of course, it is not as if these children immediately become the most courageous queens or wisest kings but rather they grow into these roles. In Mere Christianity Lewis wrote:

The only way to get a quality in reality is to start behaving as if you had it already. That is why children’s games are so important. They are always pretending to be grown-up . . . But all the time, they are hardening their muscles and sharpening their wits, so that the pretense of being grown-up helps them grow up in earnest.[14]

Following this argument it becomes clear that even if the world of Narnia was only imaginary, its effects on the children were no less real. Perhaps the stories we tell our children and the ones they consume on their own have similar ramifications.

I think becoming a parent has actually given me a keener eye for story than I had before. Not in terms of structure, character arcs, or plot twists, but regarding what stories are saying, or trying to say. I think about stories I want to shield my son from as long as possible—and I don’t just mean ones with profanity or pornographic violence, I also mean the news shows that insist that yelling the loudest proves you’re right and that the best way to defeat your opponents is to dehumanize them. But avoiding isn’t enough, I also want to introduce stories that will feed his imagination and teach him to desire that which is good and true and beautiful. I hope they help him long for the crown but to also accept the responsibility that comes with. Thankfully I don’t think the works of Lewis are going out of print anytime soon.

Finally, I hope that the stories he reads and watches and listens to inspire him to tell his own stories. Of course, I don’t care if he grows up to be a writer or filmmaker—but everyone tells at least one story, one that builds with every moment and every day before turning into months and years and, in the end, a life. I hope his life tells the story of holding to the truth, seeking wisdom, protecting honor, loving enemies, forgiving trespasses, and accepting grace for all the times he fails to do these things. I can’t wait to tell my son the great stories, but in the end I know that the most important story I will tell him is also the one I live out in front of him every day. I must show him what it means to be grown-up, but I think I’ve found through Lewis’ writings that sometimes the best guide to adulthood is actually found in the simplest children’s tales. Someone once said that a little differently, “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 18:3). Only the children get into the kingdom but once there they don’t stay children, they grow up into something quite wonderful.

And that is the best story of all.

 

_________________

[7] C. S. Lewis, “On Three Ways of Writing for Children.” In Of Other Worlds: Essays and Stories, edited by Walter Hooper (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1967), 25.

[8] C. S. Lewis and Pauline Baynes. The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (New York: Harper Trophy, 2000), 45.

[9] C. S. Lewis and Pauline Baynes. The Magician’s Nephew (New York: HarperTrophy, 2000), 55.

[10] John Ezard. “Narnia Books Attacked as Racist and Sexist.” The Guardian. June 3, 2002. Accessed August 26, 2014. http://www.theguardian.com/uk/2002/jun/03/gender.hayfestival2002.

[11] C. S. Lewis and Pauline Baynes. The Last Battle (New York: HarperTrophy, 2000), 154-5.

[12] C. S. Lewis and Pauline Baynes. The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (New York: Harper Trophy, 2000), 39.

[13] Lewis and Baynes, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, 183.

[14] C. S. Lewis, “Mere Christianity.” In The Complete C.S. Lewis Signature Classics (New York, NY: HarperOne, 2007), 161.


6 Comments

  1. Joanna B. Jones

    “Only the children get into the kingdom but once there they don’t stay children, they grow up into something quite wonderful.” Yes, Matt, something quite wonderful!
    (Hope you don’t mind if I share this.)

  2. Aden S

    Both Parts were thought provoking and encouraging. A wonderful reminder that Child-like faith doesn’t require Childish behaviour!

    Thanks for writing this post!

  3. Lisa

    Thank you, Matthew, for these essays. The whole of idea of being Prince and princesses forever, having all the fun and none of the responsibility, is a worrying theme in our messages to children. And too often even as Christian parents we buy into this. Once again, Lewis shows us a better way!

  4. B. Tyler Lowe

    This is fantastic. I believe it was in Mere Christianity that Lewis said that we are to “have the mind of an adult with the heart of a child”.
    Thanks for writing!

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