Growing up with C.S. Lewis (And Staying Young With Jack)

A great paradox at the heart of Christianity is that Christians are called to be both child-like and mature! On the one hand Jesus says “whosoever shall not receive the kingdom as a little child, he shall not enter therein (Mark 10:15) on the other hand Paul reminds us: ‘That we henceforth be no more like children, tossed to and fro and carried about by every wind of doctrine … but speaking the truth in love, may grow up into him in all things, which is the head, even Christ.’ (Ephesians 4:14-15)

This paradox also goes right to the heart of C.S. Lewis’s vision of life and a reading of his works helps us to ask and answer the questions raised by this strange double command that we should grow up and at the same time remain children; what is the difference between the childish and the child-like? what is true maturity?

Phillip Pullman has famously accused Lewis of preaching an infantalising religion and refusing to let his characters grow up, but this is very wide of the mark, for the Narnia stories are in fact a profound and subtle exploration of what it means to grow up, of how we find true maturity without abandoning or despising the gifts and insights of our childhood.

That Lewis could write immortal children’s tales in late middle age, and weave into those tales such truth and vision that the children who first read them at 8 or 9 keep returning to them in adult life and finding more and more, is a sign that he retained to the end, ‘the child within’, to borrow George Macdonald’s phrase. And yet in those very stories he provides for both children and grown-ups some very searching truths about what it is both to be a child and to grow up.

For though they are stories for children they are, in a profound sense, stories about growing up. The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe is the story of a journey to a coronation, the profoundly symbolic moment when a prince becomes a king, a princess becomes a queen, always symbols, in the world of fairy tales, of becoming adult. Though in Lewis’s handling, the coronation is also a profound symbol of our ‘royal priesthood’ and of maturity in Christ. Both the witch and Aslan promise a coronation, but offer very different visions of what it means and how it is to be achieved.  What the witch pretends she can offer Edmund is the childish wish-fulfilment fantasy version of adult power, to ‘wear a gold crown and eat Turkish delight all day long’. Her offer of ‘adulthood’ plays on and exaggerates exactly what is most childish in Edmund; the childish desire to be ‘grown-up’. This desire has its place in the young but as Lewis observes in his essay “On Three Ways Of Writing For Children” the sign of true maturity is a freedom to reconnect with the child in oneself:

“To be concerned about being grown up, to admire the grownup because it is grown up, to blush at the suspicion of being childish; these things are the marks of childhood and adolescence…but to carry on into …early manhood a concern about being adult is really a mark of arrested development. When I was 10 I read faity 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.” (In C.S. Lewis Essay Collection; Literature, Philosophy and Short Stories ed. Lesley Walmsley Harper Collins 2000 p.99)

Parallel, and contrasted with the scene in which the witch tempts Edmund with fantasy kingship, is the scene in which Aslan shows Peter a glimpse of Cair Paravel in the distance, the castle in which he is to be king, and the way in which, far from infantalising Peter, as the witch does Edmund, Aslan allows Peter to face his wolf and win his spurs and so grow into his kingship. In the end Edmund too leaves the false path of childish ‘maturity, the fantasy of lording it over others.

Learning, and so growing, by bitter experience, he comes at last to join the others at their coronation. But the coronation, itself the sign of their maturity, is preceded in Lewis’s narrative by the glorious playful and child-link romp with Aslan and the little vignette in which the children paddle in the sea and get the sand between their toes, signs that they have accomplished that true growth in maturity which includes, rather than abandons the child within. As Lewis comments a little later in his essay on writing for children “A tree grows because it adds rings” (ibid p.100) and in that image touching as it does on the first psalm, that sees us as a tree planted by the water, he gives us a picture of what it might mean to fulfil both halves of the paradox, to be like Christ’s ‘child in the midst’ and yet also to grow up into the fulness of His stature.

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Born in Nigeria and raised in Africa and Canada, Malcolm Guite is a poet and singer-songwriter living in Cambridge, where he also works as a priest and academic. He has published two collections of poetry; Saying the Names (2002) and The Magic Apple Tree (2004) and has also published poems in Radix, The Mars Hill Review, Crux, Second Spring and the Ambler. He has played in rock’n’ roll band The Crocodiles, trad jazz outfit Ecu-Jazz, and is currently front man for Cambridge rockers Mystery Train. He has collaborated and recorded with Kevin Flanagan on the Rip-Rap jazz-poetry project and also Flanagan’s Oratorio The Ten Thousand Things for which he wrote the libretto. His CD, The Green Man, is available on Cambridge Riffs and iTunes.

His book Faith Hope and Poetry is published by Ashgate in September 2010 and he has contributed the chapter on Lewis as poet to The Cambridge Companion to CS Lewis. Read more

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