It’s rather strange when you come to think of it that two of the greatest scholars of their era, bogglingly knowledgeable about literature and language, should each invest time in crafting fantasy stories for children. J. R. R. Tolkien’s area of expertise was philology. C. S. Lewis, as Michael Ward points out in Planet Narnia, was “a childless academic in his fifties” when he began the Chronicles of Narnia (3). Why then did they spend years working on these imaginative children’s tales? Perhaps because, according to Lewis, “A children’s story is the best art form for something you have to say (Duriez, C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien: The Story of Their Friendship, 134).
Tolkien is famous for declaring that the idea that faery stories are merely for children underestimates both the stories and children (Duriez, 72). In other words, the world of the imagination is also for adults–but children are more capable of absorbing and appreciating good story than you think. (In truth I think Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy blurs the lines between “children’s” and adult literature, perhaps even creating a new genre: children’s literature written for adults.)
In pondering the contribution of Lewis and Tolkien I’ve found myself developing a renewed appreciation for good children’s literature. As Meg Ryan’s character says in the movie “You’ve Got Mail” (1998), “When you read a book as a child it becomes a part of your identity in a way that no other reading in your life does.” The early books, the books you grow on, matter deeply. What they portray and how they portray it has the potential to develop within a child a value for the true and the beautiful and a disgust for what is false and evil. This is not done, I think, by showing only the beautiful, but by displaying the true and beautiful and the false and evil as they are.
A dear friend of mine is engaged in an inspiring project. She has created a blog designed to provide careful, in-depth reviews of “theological” books written for children. She and a friend spend time finding, reading, considering, and writing about their finds for the rest of us. Coincidentally, the site is called Aslan’s Library. I interviewed Haley recently, with this post in mind, about why they so entitled it. Her response: “In so many ways the Chronicles of Narnia epitomize all that is good in children’s literature: excellent writing, captivating storylines, characters to both love and despise. They are books that stick with you for life, that make you better for having read them. The books that we’re reviewing on the blog are all overtly theological, so they’re a bit different than the Narnia books, but we couldn’t do what we’re trying to do without acknowledging Lewis’s influence on us. We loved the idea of Aslan having a personal library (he would have made it accessible to all Narnians, no doubt) and fancy ourselves as trying to unearth what he might keep in his theology section.” Even the reviews of books that my Norah isn’t ready for yet are helping me in my thinking as I develop into Mommy the Book Selector.
As Plato wrote in The Republic, “The beginning is the biggest part of any work, and therefore it is of supreme importance, in that work which is the construction of the human person, that children should hear good fables and not bad.”*
*Michael Ward brought this quote to my attention.