C. S. Lewis on Children’s Stories
I have been waiting (impatiently!) to write something from my reading of On Stories: And Other Essays on Literature , by C. S. Lewis. I recommend this book strongly to people in all sorts of arenas of life. For parents who want to read well to their children and want to choose books well, this is a great book. Various topics are taken up but one recurrent theme is a defense of ‘fairy tales’ and ‘fantastic stories’ for both adults and children. Lewis says repeatedly that any story worth reading as a child is worth reading as an adult and conversely any story not worth reading as an adult is not worth reading as a child!
For the moment I will simply take up Lewis’ comments on the criticism that some imaginative stories might scare children. He writes:
“Those who say that children must not be frightened may mean two things. They may mean (1) that we must not do anything likely to give the child those haunting, disabling, pathological fears against which ordinary courage is helpless: in fact, phobias. His mind must, if possible, be kept clear of things he can’t bear to think of. Or they may mean (2) that we must try to keep out of his mind the knowledge that he is born into a world of death, violence, wounds, adventure, heroism and cowardice, good and evil. If they mean the first I agree with them: but not if they mean the second. The second would indeed be to give children a false impression and feed them on escapism in the bad sense. There is something ludicrous in the idea of so educating a generation which is born to the Ogpu [State Police in the USSR] and the atomic bomb. Since it is so likely that they will meet cruel enemies, let them at least have heard of brave knights and heroic courage. Otherwise you are making their destiny not brighter but darker. Nor do most of us find that violence and bloodshed, in a story, produce any haunting dread in the minds of children. As far as that goes, I side impenitently with the human race against the modern reformer. Let there be wicked kings and beheadings, battles and dungeons, giants and dragons, and let villains be soundly killed at the end of the book. Nothing will persuade me that this causes an ordinary child any kind or degree of fear beyond what it wants, and needs, to feel. For, of course, it wants to be a little frightened.”Yea and Amen! This counters well the overly sanitized view of life so often pushed on us. These stories do not encourage improper escapism but by stepping aside from our reality provide us with good categories for responding to the scary side of real life by encouraging nobility, courage, etc. in a compelling way. Of course in our day there are those stories written for children which focus on the morbid and wicked in a way that simply glorifies evil. That is a totally different category. Lewis is campaigning for the traditional fairy tale and the sort of book he wrote in the Chronicles of Narnia.
Lastly, I think Lewis would be bothered with our children’s Bible stories which delete the reference to David cutting off Goliath’s head!