December will see the release of The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, the third big-budget film adaptation of C.S. Lewis’ extraordinarily successful fantasy book series The Chronicles of Narnia. Clearly the childlike wonder evoked by Lewis’ visionary novels — first published more than half a century ago — has found a wide, multigenerational audience. But what of the man himself? How did he manage to write books of such power that they would enter almost immediately into the canon of children’s literature and be translated so easily into blockbuster films?
One explanation may lie in the fact that childhood itself remained important to Lewis throughout his life. He had a very clear memory of the days of his own youth, and often looked back fondly on the joy and wonder he associated with that period of his life. These memories were to exercise a powerful influence on him throughout his adulthood: They served as the psychological paradigm for his later experiences of joy. He would write eloquently in his nonfiction work about this experience of joy, which was to play a pivotal role in his conversion to Christ.
Of Lewis’ major biographers, it was A.N. Wilson who first highlighted the importance of childhood to Lewis’ literary life. In 2002’s C.S. Lewis: A Biography, he points out that Lewis continued to enjoy children’s books throughout his life. Indeed, Lewis believed that “a book worth reading only in childhood is not worth reading even then.” And surely his lifelong love of children’s literature owed in part to its power to remind him of happy days long past. But Wilson dismisses his affection for the category as a marker of affectation and sentimentality.
He is wrong. To dismiss Lewis’ reading of these books as regressive escapism is to misunderstand his motives as well as to ignore what he himself wrote on the subject. As Lewis observed, a concern with being “grown up” is itself a salient mark of childhood and adolescence and, hence, in adulthood, a mark of puerility. Lewis did not love children’s books in general but rather the particular form of children’s literature to which he himself would make such a powerful contribution: fantasy. Lewis considered that this genre has traditionally appealed to the whole human race. The connection of fantasy with childhood, he wrote, is “local and accidental.”
He also considered the modern West to be peculiar in its rejection of myth and fantasy. In fact, he took a dismal view of the whole modernist literary revolution of the last century, a movement he saw as “preoccupied with technical novelties and with ‘ideas,’ by which it means not literary, but social or psychological ideas.” In this milieu, ideology takes precedence over story and plot and, at the extreme end of the spectrum, as demonstrated in the works of authors such as James Joyce, form becomes more important than content.
Traditionally, story is concerned with meaning and purpose. In the modernist maelstrom, these attributes became secondary and subservient to style and form. As for fantasy, Lewis noted that “the adventurous and marvelous,” archetypal components of the story, have traditionally appealed to a sizable portion of our ancestors, perhaps most of them. This is undoubtedly because our ancestors were, in spirit, much more childlike than their counterparts in the modern world.
This childlikeness reached its apotheosis with the rise of Christianity and the construction of the medieval worldview. Indeed “adventurous and marvelous” are two adjectives that could well sum up the intellectual and cultural atmosphere of the Middle Ages.
Lewis’ academic work The Discarded Image paints an enthralling picture of the wondrous beauty and coherence of the medieval worldview. As Catholic philosopher Peter Kreeft observes, the reason writers such as Lewis continue to fascinate is because they still inhabit the medieval world. And the medieval worldview fascinates because of its childlike qualities. In this worldview, the universe is seen to be a multifarious but intricately ordered and internally self-consistent whole. It is purposeful, drenched with meaning, full of symbolism and significance. Faith wends around the world like a celestial web. The medieval mind grasps and won’t let go of elaborate and embellished ideals such as courtly love — which fascinated Lewis — and the system of vassalage.
Like the child, the medieval sees the world as highly dramatic, the divine stage for the interplay between the city of God and the city of men, between angels and demons, light and darkness, good and evil. In other words, the medieval mind accurately apprehends reality as it is: joyful, dramatic, momentous, wondrous, perilous, of infinite gravity. Like the child’s mind, protected by its lack of sophistication, the medieval mind, though in intellectual circles very sophisticated, is untainted by the influence of life-sucking ideologies, philosophies of deformation and social conditioning — all of which merge to form the dark, joyless atmosphere of Western high culture.
Today’s spiritual malaise is largely a product of some aspects of the Enlightenment. This movement, with its inevitable consequences — most particularly the totalitarian forces of reductionism, involving the application of a scientific technique to every facet of human existence — ultimately triumphed as the molder of the modern word. According to the German philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), the Enlightenment was “man’s emergence from his nonage.” This metaphor, typical of those employed by the Enlightenment’s philosophes, is illustrative of their mindset, which equated maturity with rationalism, empiricism and technical (as well as worldly) sophistication, and with the concomitant rejection of the supernatural, the miraculous and the speculative.
Movements such as Romanticism emerged in reaction, but it was the Church above all that led the charge against such, in the words of Pope Benedict XVI, “misuse of reason.”
“The world of reason and the world of faith — the world of secular rationality and the world of religious belief — need one another,” the Holy Father said during his September visit to the United Kingdom, “and should not be afraid to enter into a profound and ongoing dialogue, for the good of our civilization.”
So it was natural that, decades earlier, while theologians pointed out the philosophical and theological errors underpinning modernism, it was left to writers inspired by a Catholic vision of reality, such as J.R.R. Tolkien and Lewis, to “baptize the imagination,” as Lewis put it.
These great writers realized that it is a normative human response to respond in a deeply enigmatic way to the mythological and fantastic. And these literary forms appeal to us because, at a very deep level, we intuitively know that life is marvelous, miraculous, multifarious, full of light and color.
The fairy story graphically illustrates life’s dramatic quality. As children we have no trouble understanding this. As we grow up, the world conspires to drown out this natural human response (hence Lewis’ recognition of the need for the purifying of the collective imagination). But whatever the reasons for the response, Lewis’ understanding of the principle, along with his formidable literary talents, enabled him to make his own major and lasting contributions to the genre of children’s fantasy — contributions that each new generation of children discover for themselves. See you at the multiplex in December.
Michael O’Driscoll is director of the John Paul II Society in Cork, Ireland.