A Letter from C.
C. S. LEWIS CONSIDERED himself to be something
less than an expert in the field of children’s books. In a
letter to me dated July 31, 1962, he wrote: “. . . my
knowledge of children’s literature is really very limited. . . .
My own range is about exhausted by Macdonald, Tolkien, E. Nesbit,
and Kenneth Grahame.” Yet it was this lack of expertness,
as he wished to call it, which allowed Lewis to bring a new breath
of freshness to the field. Not since Paul Hazard’s Books,
Children and Men (Horn Book, Inc.) had so distinguished a man
of letters left such an indelible mark upon the pages of the history
and criticism of children’s books. For the children of today
and tomorrow, Lewis has left The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe
and his other books of Narnia (all Macmillan), while for the adults
who in any way influence the reading habits of children, he has
left not only these books but also critical comment that is rich
with imagination, wisdom, and integrity.
I believe that a second letter I received from
Professor Lewis, in which he answered questions I put to him concerning
writing for children, is a valuable contribution to this legacy,
for although a few of his answers can be found elsewhere, there
are comments, particularly those concerning his habits of composition
while writing “juveniles,” which, to my knowledge, he
writes down here for the first time.
It is for this reason that I would like first to
share this letter, and then to comment on his answers.
Magdalene College, Cambridge
2 December 1962
Dear Mr. Higgins:
1. Surely I never questioned the “legitimacy”
of mythopoeia — only the propriety of classifying the art
which it belonged to as “Literature.”
2. The Narnian books are not as much allegory
as supposal. “Suppose there were a Narnian world and it, like
ours, needed redemption. What kind of incarnation and Passion might
Christ be supposed to undergo there?”
3. Only after Aslan came into the story —
on His own; I never called Him — did I remember the scriptural
“Lion of Judah.”
4. No. I never met Chesterton. I suppose the same
affinity which made me like him made us both like Macdonald.
5. I turned to fairy tales because that seemed
the form which certain ideas and images in my mind seemed to demand;
as a man might turn to fugues because the musical phrases in his
head seemed to be “good fugue subjects.”
6. When I wrote The Lion I had no notion
of writing the others.
7. Writing “juveniles” certainly modified
my habits of composition. Thus (a) it imposed a strict
limit on vocabulary (b) excluded erotic love (c)
cut down reflective and analytical passages (d) led me
to produce chapters of nearly equal length, for convenience in reading
aloud. All these restrictions did me great good — like writing
in a strict metre.
Yes. I get wonderful letters from children in
U. S. A. and elsewhere.
The first comment is a further clarification of
a statement made by Lewis in the preface to George Macdonald:
An Anthology. He raises the problem that confronts the literary
critic as he deals with myth. In describing Macdonald’s work,
. . . the texture of his writing
as a whole is undistinguished, at times fumbling. . . .
What he does best is fantasy — fantasy that hovers between
the allegorical and the mythopoeic. And this . . .
he does better than any man. The critical problem with which we
are confronted is whether this art — the art of myth-making
— is a species of the literary art. The objection to so classifying
it is that the Myth does not essentially exist in words
Openly acknowledging the problem that Macdonald’s
prose presents to the literary critic, Lewis, nevertheless, implies
that the impact of the genuine literary experience is not to be
measured only by the author’s facility with language or by
the reader’s ability to appreciate style. He holds that the
stuff of the story is equally important in this regard
and that it is well to remember that the author of integrity must
continually root this stuff out from deep within himself. It is
George Macdonald, the man who is the author, whom Lewis
acknowledges as his master.
It is also in this connection that I was led to
ask Lewis if he had ever met G. K. Chesterton, because both of these
modern sophisticates, whose lives and works bear striking resemblances,
were deeply affected by one or more of Macdonald’s works;
Lewis especially by Phantastes and Chesterton by The
Princess and the Goblin. As men of letters, Chesterton and
Lewis far surpassed Macdonald in literary skill and artistry, but
their indebtedness to him goes much deeper than craftsmanship. They
found a power and a depth in the fairyland of George Macdonald that
enabled each of them to advance from the shadows of doubt to the
peace that is found with religious conviction.
Even as a boy, Lewis had read fanciful tales created
by writers who had much more sophistication than Macdonald, but
in the works of Macdonald, he found a quality which he did not find
in the others. Lewis sometimes calls this quality goodness and at
other times holiness. He also identifies this as the art of myth-making
— the art of partially lifting the veil from one of the mysteries
of life through the medium of story.
This leads to a consideration of the second comment
made by Lewis in his letter. When I first read The Lion, the
Witch and the Wardrobe it troubled me, for I constantly made
allegorical comparisons which were inappropriate for a good reading
of the story. I read into the story an evangelism that was not there;
I made out-of-the-story comparisons that were invalid. It disappointed
Lewis that so many adults supposed that he had written the Narnia
books because he felt they were the best means of reducing his Christian
apologetics to a form fit for child consumption; in fact, the stories
only appear this way to adults because they do indeed spring from,
as Lewis put it, “the habitual furniture of the author’s
After reading The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe
to several different groups of children and noting their response,
I was less convinced that Lewis had intended an allegorical design.
I came to think of it as more myth than allegory, and this is how
I worded my second question to him.
It is interesting to note that, in his answer,
Lewis avoids both terms and uses the word supposal. Note too that
he underlines the word there to stress that he never expects
his readers to be constantly making allegorical comparisons between
Earth and Narnia. That the readers will have to make comparisons
between their own world and the imaginative world of the book is
obvious, but the stories of Narnia, in this sense, are more like
science fiction than allegory.
The theme of the Narnia books is redemption. It
is a religious theme, but, at the same time, a theme stripped bare
of the familiar religious symbols which anchor it to Earth. Lewis
reasons that Earth may be only one of the places in God’s
vast universe that is in need of redemption. Suppose there
are other places. Other worlds. His is a story of Narnians, but
told in descriptive terms that Earthlings might understand.
Lewis does not ask his readers to search for meaning,
and there is no promised deepening of appreciation for those who
do. The reader is merely asked to open the eyes of his heart so
that he can truly respond to the sufferings and joys of Aslan the
Lion. And this the child can do perhaps far better than the adult.
And this is the reason why The Chronicles of Narnia are children’s
books, no matter who may read them.
Consider too what Lewis says of Aslan in his letter:
“I never called Him.” The image of a magnificent Lion
pushed its way into the imagination of the author without ever having
been beckoned, just as God had so rudely come back into the life
of young Clive Lewis without invitation. The Lion of Narnia is not
meant to overstep the boundaries of the story so that he may stand
in comparison with the Lion of Judah. Lewis realized that a story
works best within its own confines, having, as it does, its own
unique mode of instruction. He knew from experience that a reader
could be joyously surprised by God within a work of fiction. Had
it not happened to him?
The sixth comment simply explains how Narnia came
into existence. In The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe,
Narnia is the setting for the story, but it is not yet a world with
a beginning and a history, because Lewis had not yet thought of
it as a world with a beginning and an end, but only as a story with
a beginning and an end of its own. When he says that he had no notion
of writing the others, Lewis is referring to the six books that
would follow. At this point in his writing, he faced the same situation
that his friend Tolkien had faced while writing The Hobbit.
Lewis, like Tolkien, suddenly found himself immersed in a mythological
world of his own making, but strangely enough a world of which he
knew very little concerning its origin. His own curiosity prodded
him to discover imaginatively the beginnings of Narnia and then
to trace its history to the time of Armageddon, for without his
permission the story of Narnia had swept over the confining margins
of a single book.
Lewis concludes the letter by listing four ways
in which he modified his habits of composition.
“It imposed a strict limit on vocabulary.”
In children’s books that are worthy of consideration
as literature, the words are the instruments of the story. They
may be little words or big words, difficult words or easy words,
monosyllabic words or polysyllabic words, words with silent e’s
or hard c’s. Their existence is justified when they are words
that make a positive contribution to the artistic telling of a story
appropriate for children.
The choice of words is always in the hand of the
writer, and his decisions concerning the choice of words are artistic
considerations. The telling of a story is always of prime importance.
Words are selected for whatever they may lend to the narration.
Such selection is very different from the choices of a writer who
works within the confines of a publisher’s controlled vocabulary
list based upon “scientific” analysis.
The writer of fiction for children must be constantly
working to create vivid images, for imagery carries the story off
the flat surface of the printed page and onto the dimensional screen
of the reader’s inner eye. Some writers, in reaching for the
easy word, find only the general word, which, at its best, only
explains a thing or an action but never brings it to life. Lewis
is aware of his young readers’ limited acquaintance with words,
and he consciously limits his vocabulary, but he never passes up
the concrete or specific merely for the sake of familiarity. For
instance, the Narnian ship Dawn Treader is one with a fore
and an aft, not a front and a back. It has a forecastle and a galley,
a port and a starboard, a poop deck and a tiller. It is not Lewis’
intention to instruct children on the subject of ships (though they
may learn about them); he wants them to take an exciting voyage
aboard one. There is a world of difference between the two.
“Excluded erotic love.”
“My goodness! But of course!” a reader
is inclined to exclaim. It is significant, however, that Lewis feels
pressed to mention this exclusion; the reason being that the pervading
theme of all his books is love — divine love and the human
love which necessarily springs from the divine. This is not the
spongy emotion which self-indulgent man sometimes invents for his
own pleasure. It is the hard, painful, overwhelming love for which
man has been grasping from the beginning of time. It is the love
which was given life when a voice burst out of the heavens one day
to lay not a request but a commandment upon the head of man: “Thou
shalt love. . . .”
Lewis asserts that divine love is the force which
commits man to the good life. It is the love that, once found, captures
the imagination and reduces the meaning of life to terms so simple
that both child and man can respond in turn. It is the love which
leads a man of such high learning as Lewis back to the simple faith
It is a love that is found everywhere: in the eyes
of an enemy or in the smile of a friend, in the smoke of a city
or in the delicate hand of a statue, in the cry of poverty or in
the sigh of contentment, in the crash of the gale or in the hush
of the zephyr. It is found everywhere, even in the telling of a
“Cut down reflective and analytical passages.”
It is worth noting that Lewis does not use the
word exclude when referring to reflective and analytical passages.
He does, in fact, include much more of this kind of writing than
most writers for children are willing to do. Readers often come
away from the Narnia books, as they do from Saint-Exupéry’s
Little Prince, feeling somehow that there were two stories
unfolding and that they observed one and participated in the other.
Lewis does not, however, pull up the reins of narrative
to make insertions; the reflective passages run beneath the surface
of narration. The tide of story always pulls strongest, and the
undercurrent will only be felt by those readers who have the ability
and the inclination to plunge beneath the surface from time to time,
allowing the undertow to move them in another direction.
There are some child readers today who will find
any reflective passage not to their liking because such a passage
is usually accompanied by the voice of the author. One must remember
that Lewis had strong ties with the past. He was admittedly not
a student of contemporary children’s books. The kind of stories
he created were stories that still would have pleased him as a child
reader. And Lewis’ childhood, one should also remember, was
still in the era of the book, the time when stories were not yet
being told through the rapid sensory media of mass communication.
Too, the stories Lewis tells reach even further back, to the era
before the book, when tales were communicated, for the most part,
through the human voice.
Lewis tells his story to a listening audience.
This is the best way he knows of telling a story, and surely many
readers still find special delight in a story told this way. There
is no denying, however, that for every reader who has a receptive
ear for this technique, there will be at least one, and perhaps
more, for whom it will not strike a pleasing chord, especially among
those whose reading inventory is rather limited. One also suspects,
in this regard, that children in the United States, whose literature
is not quite so strongly linked with the past, find this more often
a problem than do children in Great Britain.
Most children today are virtually ignorant of the
delights of oral narration. Their experience with stories is almost
totally confined to print or the pictorial. It is only natural then
that many of them should expect a story whose author is voiceless.
Whenever these children feel the presence of the author, they look
upon it as an intrusion. They will be less tolerant of the narrative
techniques employed in many of the classics, unless they are first
helped to discover the pleasures of the spoken word.
The problem leads us to Lewis’ final modification:
“Led me to produce chapters of nearly equal length, for convenience
in reading aloud.”
This statement by Lewis illustrates a very important
point to be remembered about literature: children are engaged in
literary experiences long before they can read; and for a lifetime
after they have learned to read, adults may still enjoy some stories
best when they are heard through the human voice. There is a great
deal of magic that accompanies a story well told or read aloud that
a silent reading fails to capture. The distinction between literature
and reading is one which needs further consideration from those
adults actively engaged in bringing children and books together.
Lewis fashions his children’s story in the
tradition of the ancient storyteller. He uses the magic of sound
to spin his web of wonder and fancy. He hears his story just as
poets like Vachel Lindsay and Robert Frost hear their verse. And
then when he transcribes what he hears into print, he discovers
that sound has influenced his choice of words, it has affected his
rhythms and patterns, it has determined his use of punctuation.
Indeed, it has invaded every facet of his style, even down to such
a seemingly insignificant consideration as chapter length.
In examining the work of C. S. Lewis, one would
be hard pressed to find a man who better represents the integrity
which a children’s author ought to bring to his work. He was
not a student of child behavior nor did he ponder for any length
of time the subject of children’s likes and dislikes in books.
Lewis turned to the children’s story, more specifically to
the tale of “supposal,” because it was the art form
that best suited the subject of his story; he then became actively
engaged in overcoming the unique demands of the form itself.
E. Higgins, while writing his doctoral thesis, Five Authors
of Mystical Fancy for Children, corresponded with C. S.
Lewis, one of the authors he discussed in the thesis. He is
now assistant professor of education at the State University
of New York at Stony Brook; previously he was an English teacher
and school librarian.
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