In the dedication of The Lion, The Witch, And The Wardrobe to his goddaughter Lucy, C.S. Lewis said: “I wrote this story for you, but when I began it I had not realized that girls grow quicker than books. As a result you are already too old for fairy tales, and by 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…”
I have thought about that often; the idea that you can grow old enough for fairy tales. Lewis did not think very highly of adults who looked down on children, and even less of adults who thought that stories for children could be enjoyed only by children. In his 1952 essay “On Three Ways of Writing For Children”, he opined:
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…But to carry on into middle life or even into early manhood this concern about being grown up 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 like to think that I never had this problem. After all, I read the Harry Potter books in high school—but then, so did everyone else and I didn’t risk being teased. I have never teased anyone who was an adult for reading a children’s or young adults book—but then, I realize, I don’t read many myself. In fact, none. Even Harry Potter has not left my shelf in a long time.
Now has come the time for a humble confession: I did grow too old for fairy tales. Somewhere in the years between high school and grad school I grew snobbish towards children’s stories. When I was willing to listen to them, it was with a feeling of nostalgia, an attempt to ‘recapture’ childhood instead of enjoying them as stories in the present. I was not conscious of it, and if anyone had explained to me my fault I would have scoffed at them, insisting that I really did like children’s stories.
But now I have, once again, deliberately picked up fairy tales. Fairy tales that were once among my favourite. And not out of some misguided sense of wanting to recapture a past that cannot be recaptured; it was because it was time, in my journey through C.S. Lewis’ works, to read The Chronicles of Narnia. I put it off, to tell the truth, and I realize now that it was because I had grown too old for fairy tales. I had grown annoyed, too, with endlessly and thoughtlessly quoting them as sermon illustrations (to be honest, this remains a valid annoyance; the books are quoted endlessly and thoughtlessly, just part of the preaching lingo, when they are worth so much more). People, it seemed, were obsessed with Narnia when I wished they would read more of his “mature” work—a sure sign of my own childishness, on an authority no less than Lewis himself above.
Then I picked them up and started reading. And this is when I discovered two truths simultaneously. One was that I had grown too old for fairy tales, the confession I have already made. But the second was more delightful: I had grown old enough for fairy tales again. It was in the light of the second that I was able to recognize the first; that is, when I found myself enjoying Narnia as Narnia and not as Nostalgia, I saw how different and how much better an experience it was. I saw also what I had never really seen before, and if you have not seen it yet you probably won’t believe me. It’s this:
The Chronicles of Narnia are not children’s stories. They are fairy tales—but that is precisely why they are not children’s stories. If you can’t understand, you haven’t been listening. Go back and read the quote from Lewis’ essay again. Children are not the only audience for fairy tales.
Perhaps it was also that, this time, I am better informed about Lewis’ writing and thought, and could recognize some of those threads in these books that I’d never realized were threads. I could recognize as well moments of violence—heads being cut off, people getting stabbed or shot with arrows—that had somewhat flown past me as a child, particularly in the later books. And having gone through a theological education, I can see now much more clearly aspects of Lewis’ deeper theology; which, like Deeper Magic, sometimes escapes notice. In particular I now know that Lewis was a Neoplatonist, some of what that means, and how that informs Narnia; the end of the world as depicted in The Last Battle is more a surreal experience than it ever was when I first read it, with advanced metaphysical ideas that don’t seem quite simplified for a child’s perspective.
But in the midst of such a new feeling and tone to the series, one thing returned that was familiar: the numinous affection for the character of Aslan.
As a child, I never had to arrive at belief in Jesus, or convert into the Church; I was raised in a Christian family and have never yet questioned my faith. But in many ways Jesus wasn’t real to me until He was Aslan. This ought to be blasphemous. Jesus is real as Jesus, not as a fictional character. Paul Ford, though, in his Companion To Narnia explains it this way: “The apex of C.S. Lewis’ literary, mythopoeic, and apologetic gifts is the character of Aslan, because this Lion comes straight from the heart of Lewis’ contemplation and enjoyment of God and of the world God made.” Lewis poured his love for Jesus into the character of Aslan, not simply what he knew theologically.
Aslan comes and goes as he pleases. He is not a tame lion, nor is he “safe”, but he plays and dances with Bacchus as easily as with children. His presence is felt and known even when he isn’t seen, and the mention of his name conjures up the feeling of remembered beauty even for those who have never heard of him before. Aslan is the one character each of the books shares; Narnia is entirely his world. The rest of us are only visitors.
It’s important to see that the Narnia books are not systematic theology, but a playground decorated with various colourful pieces of Christian (and pagan!) imagery. Among these is the name “Lion of Judah” which the Bible attaches to Jesus. Aslan is not a second Incarnation of Jesus, nor even a perfect analogue for Jesus (as far as we can discern in the books, he’s not a spiritual being made flesh, and there’s almost no hint of the Trinity), but he’s nevertheless recognized as an imaginative character by which we can see some aspect of Jesus’ character. At the end of The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, Lucy and Edmund and Eustace, having travelled to the farthest East, meet a Lamb who turns out to be Aslan in another shape. He tells them it is time to return to their own world where “I have another name. You must learn to know me by that name. This was the very reason why you were brought to Narnia, that by knowing me here for a little, you may know me better there.”
We all grow older; it’s the way of all flesh. We grow too old for fairy tales. But this is also the road—if we’re wise enough to take it—to growing old enough for fairy tales again. It’s not a smooth road. It’s not a safe road. But it is still the road that leads us home.