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'The only moral that is of any value...'

Lewis wrote about how to write for children and came up with three fundamentals, the first two of which we have looked at earlier. This is the third:

3. Writing a story for children because that is the best form for the story you’re trying to tell.

The third way, which is the only one I could ever use myself, consists in writing a children’s story because a children’s story is the best art-form for something you have to say: just as a composer might write a Dead March not because there was a public funeral in view but because certain musical ideas that had occurred to him went best into that form…

‘Science fiction’ had been the first form Lewis had tried for what he had to say; arguably, Christian apologetics was the second. Each form had its own templates and tools, expectations and limitations. Literature for children brought its own set of parameters:

Where the children’s story is simply the right form for what the author has to say, then of course readers who want to hear that, will read the story or re-read it, at any age… I am almost inclined to set it up as a canon that a children’s story which is enjoyed only by children is a bad children’s story. The good ones last. A waltz which you can like only when you are waltzing is a bad waltz.

Writing for children placed limitations on vocabulary; it restricted references to a while range of things familiar to adults; it demanded a pacing and colouring quite different to a novel written for ‘grown-ups’. This was a challenging mode through which to transmit a message of any kind. And, in common with Tolkien, Lewis felt that there was a unique power in the stories that had been assigned to the genre ‘fairy tales’: he rejected the idea that fantasy and fairy tales were particularly for children along with the notion that adulthood was innately ‘superior’ to childhood:

Critics who treat adult as a term of approval, instead of as a merely descriptive term, cannot be adult themselves. To be concerned about being grown up, to admire the grown up because it is grown up, to blush at the suspicion of being childish; these things are the marks of childhood and adolescence. And in childhood and adolescence they are, in moderation, healthy symptoms. Young things ought to want to grow.

This attitude toward maturing as a person is healthy when one is actually still maturing as a person - but in the fullness of adult life, it becomes an oddity:

But then into middle life or even into early manhood this concern about being adult is a mark of really arrested development: When I was ten I read fairy tales in secret and would have been ashamed if I had been found doing so. Now that I am fifty I read them openly. When I became a man I put away childish things, including the fear of childishness and the desire to be very grown up.

To be so concerned with ‘growing up’ was, for Lewis, a sign of the times and of the Ironic culture which he found himself opposing. In the modern culture, ‘adulthood’ could only exist if it rejected ‘childhood’ - the two states had been divided in much the same way as the inner world had been divided from the outer. Lewis supported the re-joining or re-connecting of the two:

The modern view seems to me to involve a false conception of growth. They accuse us 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? I now like hock, which I am sure I should not have liked as a child. But I still like lemon-squash. I call this growth or development because I have been enriched: where I formerly had only one pleasure, I now have two. But if I had to lose the taste for lemon-squash before I acquired the taste for hock, that would not be growth but simple change. I now enjoy Tolstoy and Jane Austen and Trollope as well as fairy tales and I call that 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.

But there was another, even more fundamental misunderstanding that had taken root in modernism largely because of this artificial split between the child and the adult: stories which set out to resemble the ‘real’ world had been separated from those which used other elements to convey their meaning. The growth of verisimilitude in the novel had paralleled the burgeoning Ironic culture; fantasy elements had become aligned with a prior age, and by a process explored by Tolkien in his famous essay ‘On Fairy Stories’, with a younger audience.

Lewis writes:

‘[The fairy tale] is accused of giving children a false impression of the world they live in. But I think no literature that children could read gives them less of a false impression. I think what profess to be realistic stories for children are far more likely to deceive them. I never expected the real world to be like the fairy tales. I think that I did expect school to be like the school stories. The fantasies did not deceive me: the school stories did. All stories in which children have adventures and successes which are possible, in the sense that they do not break the laws of nature, but almost infinitely improbable, are in more danger than the fairy tales of raising false expectations.

Lewis held that the truly dangerous fantasies are based on the strong presence of verisimilitude:

The dangerous fantasy is always superficially realistic. The real victim of wishful reverie does not batten on the Odyssey, The Tempest, or The Worm Ouroboros: he (or she) prefers stories about millionaires, irresistible beauties, posh hotels, palm beaches and bedroom scenes—things that really might happen, that ought to happen, that would have happened if the reader had had a fair chance. For, as I say, there are two kinds of longing. The one is an askesis, a spiritual exercise, and the other is a disease.

At the core of every good story is a moral of some kind, whether easily reducible to a plain statement or not. Stories which encourage a materialistic wish-fulfilment have the perilous moral that, ‘if only things had been different’, the reader might have actually possessed the things which he or she reads about. Such stories generally start from the world in which the author lives but seek not to escape from it or become enlightened within it: they normally have the end of trying to make that world more palatable in a delusory way. If the stories are written for children, then the message is potentially dangerous.

If we accept that Lewis’s intention in using children’s literature was to produce a profound spiritual experience, a transformation of how the so-called ‘real world’ was perceived, then the stories had to have a different vector altogether - he had to have a different starting point and a different direction:

I rejected any approach which begins with the question “What do modern children like?” I might be asked, “Do you equally reject the approach which begins with the question ‘What do modern children need?’ — in other words, with the moral or didactic approach?” I think the answer is Yes. Not because I don’t like stories to have a moral: certainly not because I think children dislike a moral. Rather because I feel sure that the question “What do modern children need?” will not lead you to a good moral.

It boils down, Lewis felt, to the false separation between the definitions of the child and the adult. In explaining this further, he reveals that, if an author is going to attempt to write for children at all, any moral arising in the story should be fundamental to the way in which the author’s mind is cast as a whole:

If we ask that question we are assuming too superior an attitude. It would be better to ask “What moral do I need?” for I think we can be sure that what does not concern us deeply will not deeply interest our readers, whatever their age. But it is better not to ask the question at all. Let the pictures tell you their own moral. For the moral inherent in them will rise from whatever spiritual roots you have succeeded in striking during the whole course of your life. But if they don’t show you any moral, don’t put one in. For the moral you put in is likely to be a platitude, or even a falsehood, skimmed from the surface of your consciousness. It is impertinent to offer the children that. For we have been told on high authority that in the moral sphere they are probably at least as wise as we. Anyone who can write a children’s story without a moral, had better do so: that is, if he is going to write children’s stories at all. The only moral that is of any value is that which arises inevitably from the whole cast of the author’s mind.

So the important things are to communicate in a way which can be shared and which treats children as participants rather than an inferior audience, and to generate tales the morals of which grow out of the core of the story itself and out of the way in which the author lived.

For Lewis, the ‘moral’ was the desire for the Dantean universe.


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