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

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The first axiom that Lewis wishes us to apply to reading a children’s story is not to be condescending toward such a book. The view of Lewis on this subject doubtless flows from the fact that he himself did not read The Wind in the Willows and E. Nesbit’s Bastable family books until he was in his late twenties (“On Three Ways of Writing for Children” 24), though he was a devotee of fairy stories from childhood. Lewis takes his stand against “the modern view” that accuses adult readers of fairy stories of “arrested development because we have not lost a taste we had in childhood. But surely arrested development consists not in refusing to lose old things but in failing to add new things?” (“On Three Ways of Writing for Children” 25).

In this same essay, Lewis further considers his own growth as a reader:

[I came to] enjoy Tolstoy and Jane Austen and Trollope as well as fairy stories . . . growth; if I had had to lose the fairy tales in order to acquire the novelists, I would not say that I had grown but only that I had changed. . . . I think my growth is just as apparent when I now read the fairy tales as when I read the novelists, for I now enjoy the fairy tales better than I did in childhood (“On Three Ways of Writing for Children” 26).

Elsewhere Lewis wrote that “no book is really worth reading at the age of ten which is not equally (and often far more) worth reading at the age of fifty. . . . The only imaginative works we ought to grow out of are those which it would have been better not to have read at all” (“On Stories” 15).

What these comments suggest is that we should read The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe unapologetically as adult readers. This was my approach for my reader’s guide to the book, in which I combed Lewis’ critical writings for the frameworks that I myself have long used in my teaching of British literature and the literature of the Bible. I was astounded to see the thoroughness with which the usual frameworks applied. Adult readers emphatically do not need to leave their sophisticated literary ways of reading behind when they assimilate The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.

Secondly, and paradoxically, adult readers of the book need to continue to read the book as a child. The childhood responses and delights should not be suppressed. For this, too, Lewis serves as a guide. Regarding Spenser’s Faerie Queene, Lewis says,

Its primary appeal is to the most naïve and innocent tastes. . . . It demands of us a child’s love of marvels and dread of bogies, a boy’s thirst for adventures. . . . If you have lost or cannot re-arouse these attitudes, all the commentaries, all your scholarship . . . will not avail. The poem is a great palace, but the door into it is so low that you must stoop to go in. (“Edmund Spenser, 1552-99” 132-133)

Lewis added that “it is of course much more than a fairy-tale, but unless we can enjoy it as a fairy-tale first of all, we shall not really care for it” (133).

I am also reminded of Lewis’ chapter entitled “The Reading of the Unliterary” in An Experiment in Criticism. At the end of the chapter, Lewis writes,

Let us be quite clear that the unliterary are unliterary not because they enjoy stories in these ways, but because they enjoy them in no other. Not what they have but what they lack cuts them off from the fullness of literary experience. These things ought they to have done and not left others undone. For all these enjoyments are shared by good readers reading good books. (38)

To apply this to the adult reading of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, we should read the book with a child’s imagination as well as an adult’s understanding and literary sophistication. At the end of his classic essay on Hamlet, Lewis writes,

I am trying to recall attention from the things an intellectual adult notices to the things a child or a peasant notices. . . . In a sense I have kept my promise of bestowing all my childishness upon you. A child is always thinking about those details in a story which a grown-up regards as indifferent. . . . I claim that only those adults who have retained, with whatever additions and enrichments, their first childish response to poetry unimpaired, can be said to have grown up at all. Mere change is not growth. (“Hamlet: The Prince or the Poem?” 104-105)

Leland Ryken is the Clyde S. Kilby Professor of English at Wheaton College, Illinois. This paper was presented at the C. S. Lewis Foundation’s triennial Summer Institute, Oxbridge, in the summer of 2005.

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