Old Enough to Read Fairy Tales
“Have you heard? Can you remember?”
I can remember the rusty climbing-frame on the parched grass that one summer. How it so easily became a castle for us to climb. Or was it a mountain? I can remember all those rock-pools on that beach in France, or was it Spain? How each one was like a glimpse into another world; both beautiful and a little scary. I can remember the trees on the school field, so easily transformed into a HQ, base, hideout or just expanded into a mysterious and foreboding forest, full of adventures. Can you remember?
“The castle of Cair Paravel on its little hill towered up above them; before them were the sands, with rocks and little pools of salt water, and seaweed, and the smell of the sea and long miles of bluish-green waves breaking for ever and ever on the beach. And oh, the cry of the sea-gulls! Have you heard it? Can you remember?” (The Hunting of the White Stag, p 167)
One of the things I find most delightful about Narnia is how you never know when you’ll end up there. In fact, if you start looking for a way in, you won’t find it. When you least expect it, you will be swept into this other world, full of adventure and magic, free from the cares of the real world. Free from meddling housekeepers and air-raids, away from rainy days and bickering cousins, free from a very English vision of a bored summer holiday. Despite living some fifty years later, despite having never fled a nosy Mrs Macreedy or indeed an air-raid, I find it a vision I can relate to. Or maybe a vision I want to relate to. Maybe I am thinking of a rose-tinted view of my childhood, in a time before the internet or smartphones, or maybe it really was like that. Maybe I really did take these wondrous flights of fancy with my sister and my friends back in those faded and scorching summers in the nineties, or perhaps they weren’t flights of fancy after all.
‘“But do you really mean, sir,” said Peter, “that there could be other worlds – all over the place, just round the corner – like that?”
“Nothing is more probable,” said the Professor, taking off his spectacles and beginning to polish them, while he muttered to himself, “I wonder what they do teach them at these schools.”’ (Back on this Side of the Door, p 51)
C. S. Lewis seems to be saying to his audience of children (both old and young), as he narrates ‘The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe,’ that those imaginings you’ve had, are having, may indeed be more than imaginary. That there is a truth and power to childhood games and dreams that it more potent than many stuffy grown-ups want you to understand. That only children can see the truth and simplicity of things, that when Lucy discovers a snowy forest in a musty wardrobe she is unashamedly delighted, and that later only she can see that they simply have to stay to save poor Mr Tumnus from the White Witch’s clutches.
On re-reading this wonderful book for the umpteenth time recently, I noticed for the first time, at least consciously, that C. S. Lewis is narrating a story, as if to children. Narrating it as fact, as if it happened to people he knew, or even to himself. He serves as an all-knowing, kindly narrator of the story of the Pevensie children, even dispensing advice about how one should enter a wardrobe (I’m sure we can all agree on the foolishness of closing the door when entering a mysterious wardrobe.) He makes clear the trustworthiness and goodness of Lucy, as well as the spitefulness and foolishness of Edmund. He casts these two children as a model of childish wonder and innocence and as a lesson in mean-tempered pride. Much has been made of the Christian symbolism in the stories of Narnia, and for me, the fact that Edmund is most relatable to a sinful and proud man like me makes his eventual redemption all the more affecting. More amazing still is the fact that he doesn’t even learn what terrible torture Aslan goes through to secure his freedom. In the context of the story, the result of Edmund’s redemption is that he is able to return to a more pure and innocent childlike state. Lucy sees him back to ‘his old self’ at the book’s conclusion, once he has proven himself in battle, destroying the witch’s wand. C. S. Lewis gives us just a hint of what happened to Edmund to ‘turn him bad,’ that his attending a new and horrid school corrupted him somehow.
It is this return to a childlike and innocent state that Lewis holds up as most important. Indeed, it is clear that Lucy is the one who most exemplifies this. She has no problem believing in the mythical beasts and magical conflicts in the world within the wardrobe. The other three children are, in a sense, drawn back to this state of pure childhood by their experiences in Narnia. Just as Edmund eventually comes to reject his stubborn and mean-tempered attitude, Peter and Susan shed their ‘what would mum and dad do?’ self-importance by the story’s end. Indeed, in the final chapter when we see the four children as adult kings and queens of Narnia, they are all shown to have retained much of this child-like purity, as much as they are now bearded and wide-chested. They seem to have become, almost literally, the fairy tale princes and princesses we have all read and watched, who exist in a sort-of sterile and pure adolescence forever.
The battle in the book almost literally becomes the battle for childhood, with the great lion Aslan and the children fighting to restore an innocent and joyful past to the land of Narnia, as Mr Tumnus reminisces about when he first meets Lucy.
“He had wonderful tales to tell of life in the forest. he told about the midnight dances and how the Nymphs that lived in the wells and the Dryads who lived in the trees came out to dance with the Fauns; about long hunting parties after the milk-white stag who could give you wishes if you caught him…” (What Lucy Found There, p20-21)
The White Witch’s magical and harsh winter is defeated by the glorious spring brought forth by the children and Aslan. Indeed, the ice and snow gives way to the lush green and rushing waters of spring in a remarkably short time. Spring, that most childlike and joyful of seasons, defeats the cold seriousness of winter, just as the children themselves defeat in battle the witch and her armies.
For me, ‘The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe’ represents a victory of imagination over uniformity (for what is more uniform and dull than snow?), innocence over duplicity, and childhood over seriousness. It invites the reader, whether child or just child-at-heart, to imagine that those wonderful places they can remember from their childhood, or those places they still visit, might just hold real-life wardrobes, that the adventures and imaginings that happen or happened there were or are just as real as the adventures of Lucy, Edmund, Peter and Susan. The book, and it’s sequels, not only fuel imaginations, but call us to fight against that ‘seriousness’ that can so affect our adult-selves, as it later affected even Susan and Peter in the world of Narnia. For if we forget to imagine, then we lose forever the access we once had to our own Narnias, those portals into our childhood selves which have proven to me to be so precious.
So, as Lewis says in his dedication of the book, to his goddaughter Lucy:
“My Dear Lucy,
I wrote this story for you, but when I begun it I had not realised that girls grow quicker than books. As a result, you are already too old for fairy tales, and by the the time it is printed and bound you will be older still. But some day you will be old enough to start reading fairy tales again. You can then take it down from some upper shelf, dust it, and tell me what you think of it. I shall probably be too deaf to hear, and too old to understand a word you say, but I shall still be your affectionate godfather,
C. S. Lewis.”