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From the October 1966 issue of The Horn Book Magazine

 

 

A Letter from C. S. Lewis

by James E. Higgins

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.

Yours sincerely,
             C. S. Lewis

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, Lewis states:

. . . 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 at all!

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 mind.”

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 of childhood.

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 children’s story.

“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.

James 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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