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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.

cslewis.drzeus.net

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

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As a part of the childlike reader's sense of awe, Lewis includes the enthusiastic delight in surprise. In the essay mentioned above, he notes that no story can be fully enjoyed on an initial reading. Instead, we have to get past our curiosities about plot, theme, and character until "we are at leisure to savour the real beauties." Children, he goes on, "understand this well when they ask for the same story over and over again, and in the same words. They want to have again the 'surprise' of discovering that what seemed Little-Red-Riding Hood's grandmother is really the wolf" (18). The pleasure of the unexpected draws the childlike reader back time and again to a well-worn story because in such a story not everything is predictable and mundane. Could we really enter another world through the back of a wardrobe, fly on the back of a giant eagle, or converse with a talking raven? As we encounter such unlooked for experiences, our surprise and awe intensify even more.

In another essay, "On Three Ways of Writing for Children," Lewis suggests another aspect of the childlike reader's awe: limitless imagination. In defending his own love of fantasy, Lewis takes issue with how "the modern critical world uses 'adult' as a term of approval. It is hostile to what it calls 'nostalgia' and contemptuous of what it calls 'Peter Pantheism.' Hence a man who admits that dwarfs and giants and talking beasts and witches are still dear to him in his fifty-third year is now less likely to be praised for his perennial youth than scorned and pitied for arrested development" (25). The childlike reader is not offended by the seeming impossible; indeed, as I have already suggested, the childlike reader is delighted instead. Even Tolkien's description of the fairy-tale makes this point: "The magic of Faerie is not an end in itself, its virtue is in its operations: among these are the satisfaction of certain primordial human desires. One of these desires is to survey the depths of space and time. Another is . . . to hold communion with other living things" (Tolkein, p. 13). The childlike reader's imagination can soar as far as the story can take it, and in some cases even beyond or back into the physical world somehow redeemed.

The sense of awe is also intimately linked to the third characteristic of the childlike reader: a romantic yearning for something more. Corbin Scott Carnell, in his book Bright Shadow of Reality: C. S. Lewis and the Feeling Intellect, concentrates exclusively on this notion as it runs through Lewis' work. Carnell uses the German word Sehnsucht to denote "an underlying sense of displacement or alienation from what is desired" (15). Clearly the childlike reader is attracted to MacDonald and Lewis because of his own longing for a deeper, more meaningful experience than is available in the daily march of time. Yet this longing is not to be viewed as morbid. Lewis makes this clear when he writes that a schoolboy who reads about enchanted woods does not then become depressed about his own world: "He does not despise real woods because he has read of enchanted woods: the reading makes all real woods a little enchanted. This is a special kind of longing . . . The boy reading the fairy-tale desires and is happy in the very fact of desiring" (Of Other Worlds, pp. 29-30). He argues elsewhere that a sense of longing is the central strength of MacDonald's myth-making: "[MacDonald's myths arouse] in us sensations we have never had before, never anticipated having, as though we had broken out of our normal mode of consciousness and 'possessed joys not promised to our birth.' It gets under our skin, hits us at a level deeper than our thoughts or even our passions, troubles oldest certainties till all questions are re-opened, and in general shocks us more fully awake than we are for most of our lives" (An Anthology, pp. 16-17).

Innocence, awe, and longing--all are basic elements of the childlike reader that are tapped by Lewis and MacDonald. These three attributes of the childlike reader are not all inclusive--good arguments can be made for justice, honesty, faith, earnestness, loyalty, discretion and so on--but I believe these three comprise the core of reader appeal. What also should be clear is the overlap and intrinsic relationship that each attribute has with the others; none exists in isolation, but combines with others and heightens our pleasure as readers. The next focus of our study, therefore, concerns the relationship between the childlike reader and the youthful characters who appear in the stories of Lewis and MacDonald. At the risk of appearing simplistic, it seems to me that the childlike reader generally encounters two basic kinds of youthful characters in the stories of Lewis and MacDonald. The first is the childish one who is characterized primarily by egocentricity. The childish character is overly concerned with himself and only relates to his surroundings in terms of self-aggrandizement. Others are important only because of what the childish character can get from them. Edmund Pevensie and Eustace Clarence Scrubb from Lewis' The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and The Voyage of the Dawn Treader are memorable examples of childish characters. Both view the world as revolving about themselves, as Edmund's lust for power and traitorous behavior and Eustace's whining megalomania and greed illustrate. In Lilith MacDonald adds an ironic twist to the notion of the childish character, for at one point we encounter young, relatively uncorrupted children who become more childish as they grow older. As one character says: "If a Little One doesn't care, he grows greedy, and then lazy, and then big, and then stupid and then bad" (Phantastes and Lilith, p. 244).

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