Reading The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe with C. S. Lewis

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Good practice #3 is to view the far-flung fantasies of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe as a window to reality and truth. One of my favorite passages in Lewis’ literary criticism is his brief foray into Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows. First, Lewis lists aspects of the story that make it “a specimen of the most scandalous escapism” (“On Stories” 14). And yet, Lewis claims, the story is “full of the simplest and most attainable things—food, sleep, exercise, friendship, the face of nature, even (in a sense) religion” (“On Stories” 14). To clinch the point, Lewis writes that “the whole story, paradoxically enough, strengthens our relish for real life. This excursion into the preposterous sends us back with renewed pleasure to the actual” (“On Stories” 15). I am also reminded of Lewis’ statement that a person “does not despise real woods because he has read of enchanted woods: the reading makes all real woods a little enchanted” (“On Three Ways of Writing for Children” 29-30).

Good practice #4 is to value the artistry and technique of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe as a self-rewarding aesthetic experience. Enjoyment of the text was a very high priority with Lewis. He writes that “every episode, explanation, description, dialogue—ideally every sentence—must be pleasureable [sic] and interesting for its own sake” (An Experiment in Criticism 84). Lewis was of the opinion that “a great deal (not all) of our literature was made to be read lightly, for entertainment. If we do not read it, in a sense, ‘for fun,’ . . . we are not using it as it was meant to be used” (Christian Reflections 34). On one occasion Lewis uses the word Deliciousness to denote this dimension of literature: “We demand what I should call Deliciousness—what the older critics often called simply ‘Beauty'” (“Williams and the Arthuriad” 374).

Lewis rejects the view that the content of literature takes precedence over its form. In An Experiment in Criticism, he writes that a work of literature “is not merely logos (something said) but poiema (something made)” (82), and in the same discussion he claims that “an ‘appreciation’ of sculpture which ignored the statue’s shape in favour of the sculptor’s ‘view of life’ would be self-deception. It is by the shape that it is a statue” (84). Even more memorably, in A Preface to Paradise Lost, Lewis writes, “it is easy to forget that the man who writes a good love sonnet needs not only to be enamoured of a woman, but also to be enamoured of the Sonnet” (3).

Good practice #5 is to recognize and value the religious and moral viewpoints embodied in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. Despite Lewis’ dislike of allowing literature to become “a religion, a philosophy, a school of ethics, . . . anything rather than a collection of works of art” (An Experiment in Criticism 86), he does not question that literature has a moral and ideational dimension. “Wisdom by itself does not make . . . a poem,” he writes, “and the value of a poem is by no means in direct ratio to its wisdom. But the demand for wisdom remains” (“Williams and the Arthuriad” 374). Speaking as a writer of children’s literature, Lewis writes, “The only moral that is of any value is that which arises inevitably from the whole cast of the author’s mind. . . . ” (“On Three Ways of Writing for Children” 33), showing that Lewis does, in fact, espouse the possibility that a story will have a genuine moral.

How to Read a Children’s Story as an Adult Reader

My third and final topic is how Lewis advises us as adult readers to read a children’s story. For half a century, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe has been a classic of children’s literature. In many Christian circles, it has been the classic children’s story—the book in which many children discovered that they loved literature, and the book that awakened their imaginations and appetite for fantasy worlds. For many children it was also a book that awakened or enhanced their grasp of the Christian supernatural and the attractiveness of Jesus.

But The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe is also paradoxically a book widely read by adults who bring adult understanding and literary sophistication to it. Undoubtedly a majority of these adult readers were first introduced to the book in their childhood. Many of them remain readers of the book because The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe has the status of a social institution in which succeeding generations of children are initiated into the pleasures of the book by adults who want them not to miss a good thing. Adult readers actually experience the story at two levels: the level of children—either their own recalled childhood and/or the children to whom they read the book—and the level of mature readers with a superior grasp of the nuances of the book.

Who is the better reader of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe: the child or the adult? If we can trust the scattered statements of C. S. Lewis, the answer is not as clear-cut as we might think. There are some ways in which the child’s response is better, and is something that adult readers should strive to retain.

Lewis himself said something close to this in his commentary on Edmund Spenser’s Faerie Queene. The Faerie Queene, according to Lewis, “demands for its full enjoyment a double response” (Spenser’s Images of Life 1). One level is that of an “innocent and naïve” taste (“Edmund Spenser, 1552-99” 132), for which Lewis elsewhere uses the adjective “simple” (Spenser’s Images of Life 17). The other level Lewis labels “sophisticated” (Spenser’s Images of Life 17; “Edmund Spenser, 1552-99” 132).

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