This Friday marks the 50th anniversary of the death of CS Lewis, one of the most influential and thoughtful writers for children among a golden generation.
A few days ago, I listened to George R R Martin tell a sold-out event in Melbourne that he can’t remember much of his real life at the age of twelve or thirteen, but he will never forget the feeling of reading Tolkien for the first time.
I feel the same about The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe.
Can you remember the first time you read it? Remember the shock of falling into another world, the fear for your new best friends (even Edmund) in the face of such evil, the wonder at the world within the wardrobe and the miraculous creatures and especially Aslan.
Something cold and soft was falling on her. A moment later she found that she was standing in the middle of a wood at night-time with snow under her feet and snowflakes falling through the air.
There was no adventure quite like it. Not then. The language may have dated, and even in my childhood I got grumpy about the gender roles, but I am still delighted by the that sustained flight of fancy, the tiny details of world-building, the compassion and the humour.
“I – I got in through the wardrobe in the spare room,” said Lucy.
“Ah,” said Mr Tumnus in a rather melancholy voice, “if only I had worked harder at geography when I was a little Faun…”
We all read it. And you see middle-aged faces light up at the thought of it even now. There are few books so universally loved by so many generations of children.
Lewis, like his friend and colleague Tolkien, was a careful, intelligent author who thought a great deal about how and why to write fantasy, and especially for young readers. Lewis wrote once that he knew of three ways to write stories for children: two good and one bad. The best way, he argued, “consists in writing a children’s story because a children’s story is the best art-form for something you have to say … A children’s story which is enjoyed only by children is a bad children’s story. The good ones last.”*
Indeed they do.
* “On Three Ways of Writing for Children”, Only Connect, 1980, Egoff et al (eds), Oxford University Press, Toronto.