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This paper was written by Dr. Don W. King.

Included with the gracious permission of "Dr. Zeus", creator of "Into the Wardrobe", a popular website devoted to C.S. Lewis. The original online copy of this paper can be found here.

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Articles > The C.S. Lewis Archive > The Childlike in George MacDonald and C. S. Lewis

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The Childlike in George MacDonald and C. S. Lewis

Dr. Don W. King
Department of English
Montreat College

1986 Don W. King
A version of this essay first appeared in Mythlore 12 (Summer 1986): 17-22, 26.
Reprinted with permission of the author

It is a curious fact that two writers who are frequently identified with children's literature, George MacDonald and C. S. Lewis, go out of their ways to claim that they did not write their stories primarily for children. Lewis, reviewing some of the books he read in his childhood, says that "I never met The Wind in the Willows or the Bastable books till I was in my late twenties, and I do not think I have enjoyed them any the less on that account. I am almost inclined to set it up as a canon that a children's story which is enjoyed only by children is a bad children's story. The good ones last" (Of Other Worlds, p. 24). He also notes that "it certainly is my opinion that a book worth reading only in childhood is not worth reading even then" (38). MacDonald, commenting on those who try to find specific meanings in fairy-tales, claims that "children are not likely to trouble you about meaning. They find what they are capable of finding, and more would be too much. For my part, I do not write for children, but for the childlike, whether of five, or fifty, or seventy-five" (The Gifts of the Child Christ, p. 25). In effect, both Lewis and MacDonald argue that it is the childlike attitude, not age, that marks his readers; at the same time, however, neither ever clearly states what childlike means. The focus of this study, then, is two-fold. First, I want to describe what I believe are the childlike attitudes of their readers. Second, I will attempt to explore the relationship between childlike readers and the fictional characters, especially the children, within each writer's stories.

In order to discover the attributes of the childlike audience, we must begin by answering the following: "What does each writer mean by childlike?" For MacDonald, the answer to this question was a life-long quest. That is, although he intuitively understood what childlike meant to him, he never successfully described this condition. Even in his most direct assaults on this question, he remains imprecise. For example, he often deals with the idea of the childlike in his sermons; yet even there his explanations are less than definitive. A case in point is his commentary on Mark 9:33-37 and Matthew 18:1-5, passages that recount an argument Jesus' disciples have over who will be the greatest in the kingdom of God. Christ resolves their argument by calling a child to Himself and saying: "If anyone wants to be first, he shall be last of all, and servant of all" (Mark 9:35), and "Truly I say to you, unless you are converted and become like children, you shall not enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever then humbles himself as this child, he is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven" (Matthew 18:3-4). The Lord's paradoxical answer is not lost on MacDonald: "[Jesus told his disciples] they could not enter into thekingdom save by becoming little children--by humbling themselves. For the idea of ruling was excluded where childlikeness was the one essential quality" (Creation in Christ, p. 30).

However, beyond this clear linking of humility with childlikeness, MacDonald's other attempts to define the childlike are puzzling. He claims that "the childlike is the divine" (30), and that "to receive a child in the name of Jesus is to receive Jesus; to receive Jesus is to receive God; therefore, to receive the child is to receive God Himself" (32). Later MacDonald attempts to explain the relationship between childlikeness and God: "To receive a child in the name of God is to receive God Himself. How to receive Him? As alone He can be received--by knowing Him as He is. To know Him is to have Him in us" (32). To understand what the childlike means, he tells us to look within. Thoughtful readers find it difficult to accept such circular reasoning. Even though we may intuitively understand what he means when he says that "to exist . . . is to be a child of God; and to know it, to feel it, is to rejoice evermore" (The Gifts of the Child Christ, p. 19), we want to know more precisely what childlike means.

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