C.S. Lewis on Writing for Children and Writing In General: Fear of Childishness is Childish; Images Always Come First

As a reader, I’ve never been a fan of fantasy.

I tried to read Lewis’ Narnia books as a child. I tried to read L’Engle’s A Wrinkle In Time.  I found them tedious and boring.  The suspension of belief was too great.  The affectation too heavy and too heavy-handed.  Why does Tolkien insist on that awful dwarf saga so close to the beginning of The Hobbit?  I didn’t open that book again for close to 15 years.

With that said, I do think Lewis is a great writer, an important writer, a brilliant writer.  My ambivalence about Narnia notwithstanding, his essay “On Three Ways of Writing for Children” is very good.  You can download it here.

I especially like this paragraph:

“Critics who treat adult as a term of approval, instead of as a merely descriptive term, cannot be adult themselves. To be concerned about being grown up, to admire the grown up because it is grown up, to blush at the suspicion of being childish; these things are the marks of childhood and adolescence. And in childhood and adolescence they are, in moderation, healthy symptoms. Young things ought to want to grow. But the on into middle life or even into early manhood this concern about being adult is a mark of really arrested development: When I was ten I read fairy tales in secret and would have been ashamed if I had been found doing so. Now that I am fifty I read them openly. When I became a man I put away childish things, including the fear of childishness and the desire to be very grown up.”

I have nothing against giants and dwarves.  I have nothing against Hobbits or Elves or whatever else.  But as a reader, I have little patience for world-building.  I find it very hard to care about a place that I know does not exist.  I don’t care about its physics or its metaphysics or any other contrivance.  I am conversant with the Harry Potter series largely because it at least pretends to take place in a world that actually matters.  And because I’m confounded by so many of the proclamations made by its adult fandom.  You guys know that Dumbledore is the actual worst, right?

I agree with Lewis that “the fear of childishness and the desire to be very grown” up are, themselves, hallmarks of childhood.  I love the mythos of DC Comics. I love the mythos of 80’s and 90’s professional wrestling.  I love metanarratives about Goodness and justice.  But the Pevensies (and Lewis’ mid-century British) ask too much of me literarily.

With that said, I love the Narnia and Tolkien movies.  They don’t ask or expect me to spend time investing in literary and readerly affectations.  Neither does Star Trek.   As for Star Wars, the best of the series is Rogue One.  Precisely because it could take place in our universe, and has.

Perhaps I’m simply averse to cute writing, and so much of the work of world-building in fantasy seems cute and finally pointless to me.  All those pretend names and languages.  I know neither Gondor nor Gotham exist, but I also know that in another way, Gotham exists in a way Gondor never could.

When I say I don’t have time for world-building or cuteness, that’s not meant to suggest the kind of “serious adult”  vs. “childish” critique cited above.  It’s my preference and personality and predisposition.  Given the choice between My Side of the Mountain and Johnny Tremain or A Wrinkle In Time and The Fellowship of the Ring, I chose the former and read them cover-to-cover.  But I think Bruce Wayne, Clark Kent, and Roddy Piper are just as important to the story of the stories we tell or read or love and why.

Lewis says: “According to Tolkien, the appeal of the fairy story lies in the fact that man there most fully exercises his function as a ‘subcreator’; not, as they love to say now, making a ‘comment upon life’ but making, so far as possible, a subordinate world of his own. Since, in Tolkien’s view, this is one of man’s proper functions, delight naturally arises whenever it is successfully performed. For Jung, fairy tale liberates Archetypes which dwell in the collective unconscious, and when we read a good fairy tale we are obeying the old precept ‘Know thyself’.”

Clearly, I’m with Jung.

“I would venture to add to this my own theory,” Lewis says, “not indeed of the Kind as a whole, but of one feature in it: I mean, the presence of beings other than human which yet behave, in varying degrees, humanly: the giants and dwarfs and talking beasts. I believe these to be at least (for they may have many other sources of power and beauty) an admirable hieroglyphic which conveys psychology, types of character, more briefly than novelistic presentation and to readers whom novelistic presentation could not yet reach. Consider Mr Badger in The Wind in the Willows—that extraordinary amalgam of high rank, coarse manners, gruffness, shyness, and goodness. The child who has once met Mr Badger has ever afterwards, in its bones, a knowledge of humanity and of English social history which it could not get in any other way.”

I actually agree.  But while Lewis’ hieroglyphics are fantastic literary beasts serving as typological shorthand, mine are more immediate still.  The bridge of the Enterprise in primary colors, an S-shaped crest, the silhouette of caped crusader watching over a world not so different from mine.  Lewis himself describes his creative process as a sort of necessary affection:

“I have never exactly ‘made’ a story. With me the process is much more like bird-watching than like either talking or building. I see pictures. Some of these pictures have a common flavour, almost a common smell, which groups them together. Keep quiet and watch and they will begin joining themselves up. If you were very lucky (I have never been as lucky as all that) a whole set might join themselves so consistently that there you had a complete story: without doing anything yourself. But more often (in my experience always) there are gaps. Then at last you have to do some deliberate inventing, have to contrive reasons why these characters should be in these various places doing these various things. I have no idea whether this is the usual way or writing stories, still less whether it is the best. It is the only one I know: images always come first.”



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