Recently, I was lucky to attend a talk on the purpose and power of children’s literature given by Daniel McInerny. I loved his conception of children’s literature as an adventure into the golden world of Dante’s terrestrial paradise, a yearning for a world where innocence is fought for and, hopefully, won in the end.
I also recently finished rereading all seven books of CS Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia, and while there were definitely some highly regrettable issues with Lewis’ portrayal of the Calormenes, it’s very openly a work that yearns to win back the innocence of paradise. I wanted to share some of my favorite moments.
1) From The Magician’s Nephew, when Aslan wakes all of Narnia, p 138:
Narnia, Narnia, Narnia, awake. Love. Think. Speak. Be walking trees. Be talking beasts. Be divine waters.
There’s something about the context and delivery of this line that makes me feel like I’m in the woods as the trees come alive, and it makes me smile to think of it.
2) From The Horse and His Boy, when Bree the Narnian horse is ashamed of his cowardice in the face of danger, and feels he has lost everything dear to him, p 161:
My good Horse, you’ve lost nothing but your self-conceit. No, no, cousin. Don’t put back your ears and shake your mane at me. If you are really so humbled as you sounded a minute ago, you must learn to listen to sense. You’re not quite the great Horse you had come to think, from living among poor dumb horses. Of course you were braver and cleverer than them. You could hardly help being that. It doesn’t follow that you’ll be anyone very special in Narnia. But as long as you know you’re nobody very special, you’ll be a very decent sort of Horse, on the whole, and taking one thing with another.
This is sort of an odd excerpt to highlight, but it’s one I find very comforting. While I’ve never been quite the star that Bree was, I often hold myself to a higher standard than is reasonable, and it helps to remember that I’m just an ordinary person, and that it is ok to sometimes make mistakes and fall short of my goals. Humility can breed contentedness.
3) From The Silver Chair, when the Queen is trying to convince our heroes that there is no world outside of the cave in which they’re trapped and asks them what the sun is, p 186:
“Please it your Grace,” said the Prince, very coldly and politely. “You see that lamp. It is round and yellow and gives light to the whole room; and hangeth moreover from the roof. Now that thing which we call the sun is like the lamp, only far greater and brighter. It giveth light to the whole Overworld and hangeth in the sky”.
“Hangest from what, my lord?” asked the Witch; and then, while they were all still thinking how to answer her, she added, with another of her soft, silver laughs: “You see? When you try to think out clearly what this sun must be, you cannot tell me. You can only tell me it is like the lamp. Your sun is a dream; and there is nothing in that dream that was not copied from the lamp. The lamp is the real thing; the sun in but a tale, a children’s story.”
Of course, there is a sun and the Witch is tricking them. When I recently read this section, I just happened to be teaching the Allegory of the Cave from Plato’s Republic. They go through the same analogical argument for the existence of Aslan from the presence of a cat in the cave, and the Witch comes to the same conclusion on p 188:
The Witch shook her head. “I see,” she said, “that we should do no better with your lion, as you call it, than we did with your sun. You have seen lamps, and so you imagined a bigger and better lamp and called it the sun. You’ve seen cats, and now you want a bigger and better cat, and it’s to be called a lion. Well, ’tis a pretty make-believe, though, to say the truth, it would suit you all better if you were younger. And look how you can put nothing into your make-believe without copying it from the real world, this world of mine, which is the only world. But even you children are too old for such play. As for you, my lord Prince, that are a man full grown, fie upon you! Are you not ashamed of such toys? Come, all of you. Put away these childish tricks. I have work for you all in the real world.”
And of course, she’s wrong about this too.
In moments like these, I feel that yearning to believe in the sun and in Aslan and in happy endings – and also in The Good. I feel that yearning for the golden world, for innocence, and like a child, in these moments I can take comfort that there is something bigger than myself, whatever it might be.
And that’s exactly why I love to write – and why I still read – children’s literature.