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A Composite Personality

With the seven books of the Chronicles, Lewis’s ambition to use literature to produce profound spiritual experience expanded into a complex moral universe which we see evolve from its creation to its apocalypse. Throughout this evolution, though, we should attempt not to lose sight of the underlying intention to move readers out of an Ironic frame and into an Epic one.

In 1952, C. S. Lewis spoke at the Library Association about writing for children and this was eventually adapted into an essay and published in Lewis’s Of Other Worlds: Essays and Stories titled ‘On Three Ways of Writing for Children’.

Lewis outlines three ways, and describes them best in his own words:

1. ‘Giving the public what it wants.’

‘I came to know of the bad way quite recently and from two unconscious witnesses. One was a lady who sent me the [manuscript] of a story she had written in which a fairy placed at a child’s disposal a wonderful gadget. I say ‘gadget’ because it was not a magic ring or hat or cloak or any such traditional matter. It was a machine, a thing of taps and handles and buttons you could press. You could press one and get an ice cream, another and get a live puppy, and so forth. I had to tell the author honestly that I didn’t much care for that sort of thing. She replied, ‘No more do I, it bores me to distraction. But it is what the modern child wants.’

The Ironic cultural machine, in other words, based on consumerism and the choices of the Self, was how this author perceived the needs of the modern child: to have its desires fulfilled as quickly and as mechanically as possible. The starting point for this kind of story was an assumption about ‘how children think’ which was in effect a reduction of how it is supposed adults think: namely, conscious or subconscious desire fulfilment. This stimulus-response world was Lewis’s enemy, a product of the ‘silent planet’ and something to be left behind in as effective a manner as possible.

Similarly, Lewis was confronted by a comment from another reader, who, after reading about Lucy’s tea-party with Mr. Tumnus in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, said:

‘Ah, I see how you got to that. If you want to please grown-up readers you give them sex, so you thought to yourself, “That won’t do for children, what shall I give them instead? I know! The little blighters like plenty of good eating.”

Lewis objected:

In reality, however, I myself like eating and drinking. I put in what I would have liked to read when I was a child and what I still like reading now that I am in my fifties.

Note the subtle difference: the commentators suggested that the elements in the stories were based on some kind of analysis of what children think and were being used for another, hidden purpose - to beguile their child audiences, in other words. But Lewis’s responses show that he was stripping away that perspective: the story elements were what they were and are what they are - genuine human needs, not used for subterfuge but because that is what human beings, children or not, like to read. Lewis spelled out his disagreement:

The lady in my first example, and the married man in my second, both conceived writing for children as a special department of “giving the public what it wants”. Children are, of course, a special public and you find out what they want and give them that, however little you like it yourself.

No, Lewis protested: writing for children was not a ‘special department’. Human needs are more fundamental and the guide to them was pretty universal.

This leads into Lewis’s second point about writing for this audience:

2. Writing that grows out of a living voice (as in Lewis Carroll telling a story to Alice Liddell, or J.R.R. Tolkien inventing stories for his children).

There is no question of “children” conceived as a strange species whose habits you have “made up” like an anthropologist or a commercial traveller. Nor, I suspect, would it be possible, thus face to face, to regale the child with things calculated to please it but regarded by yourself with indifference or contempt. The child, I am certain, would see through that.

What a child likes and needs amounts to the same kinds of things that an adult likes or needs, and most children are perceptive enough to know that even if some authors are not. Children’s literature was a particular kind of writing because of the interaction between the author and the child:

In any personal relation the two participants modify each other. You would become slightly different because you were talking to a child and the child would become slightly different because it was being talked to by an adult. A community, a composite personality, is created and out of that the story grows.

These first two points address the question of how a form of literature develops out of the nature of the audience the author has in mind; the third point Lewis made was to do with the nature of the story itself. We will address that in the next article in this series.

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