Nicholas Callaghan on C.S. Lewis and the wonder of childhood for Salt & Iron: Seasoned Writing

Outgrowing Narnia: part one

C.S. Lewis’s famous Chronicles of Narnia ends with a bang in The Last Battle. A constant theme in earlier books revolves around who gets to return to the land of Narnia. In The Last Battle, while three of the four Pevensie children return to Narnia, the eldest girl Susan does not.

Peter explains that his sister Susan is “no longer a friend of Narnia.”

‘Oh Susan!’ said Jill. ‘She’s interested in nothing nowadays except nylons and lipstick and invitations. She always was a jolly sight too keen on being grown-up.’

‘Grown-up, indeed,’ said the Lady Polly. ‘I wish she would grow up. She wasted all her school time wanting to be the age she is now, and she’ll waste all the rest of her life trying to stay that age. Her whole idea is to race on to the silliest time of one’s life as quick as she can and then stop there as long as she can.’

Lady Polly’s distinction between “grown-up” and “grow up” might be the same as the difference between “childish” and “childlike”—one is immature and throws fits, while the other is innocent and joy-filled. To be “grown-up” is perhaps too close to being “important”, like a stuffy office worker who doesn’t have time to talk because he’s “too busy right now.” As if time will ever slow down for him! Susan unfortunately is too interested in being seen as “old.” 

Too Old for Narnia

In good faith, this author must admit that he too found himself “too old” for the Chronicles of Narnia. Who reads fairy tales, after all? Yet, Lewis pens in his dedication of The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe to his goddaughter Lucy, “One day, you will be old enough to start reading fairytales again.” It is not that we have grown too old. We have instead become “grown-ups,” boring. What needs to change? In this essay and the next, I’d like to consider how Lewis can show us what it means to keep our sense of wonder even as we grow up.

The more I thought about the series, the more I thought about how the whimsy of it had captured my imagination as a child. Then I, like Susan, had “grown up” and moved to Lewis’s more mature works. Did that mean that the Chronicles were a lesser work of fiction, or was there something hidden in the pages?

The more I delved, the more I realized that I had missed something—the virtue of hope that is spread throughout the series. The series are written for children, so of course they do not have the same level of depth as That Hideous Strength, The Screwtape Letters, or The Great Divorce do. This was why I had originally left them for other works by Lewis. That’s how it’s supposed to be—in fact, the series would lose their wonder if they were written for adults. In their simplicity, the Chronicles of Narnia suit simple minds, minds that can wonder at the world and hope for more. 

In his other works, Lewis writes about heaven and hell and the nature of temptation, such as when Ransom grapples with the devil in Perelandra. He shows us the danger of sin and the wiles of the devil in The Screwtape Letters. The Great Divorce illustrates the tragedy of the soul that decides to remain in hell because he’d rather not chance it on the bus to heaven. Children might see these things as sad, but it takes a person who has experienced more to fully comprehend the depths of this tragedy.

Lessons from the Pevensies

In The Chronicles of Narnia, we receive something different—it’s a story unlike one we have ever read before. Like his compatriot J.R.R. Tolkien, Lewis pulls us into the lands of Narnia through our own daily experiences by putting us in the shoes of the Pevensie children. While we may not have been hiding from the destruction of World War II, we have all been schoolkids at some point in our lives. I am sure we have all wanted a huge house like the Professor’s to get lost in, and we can hopefully all relate to playing hide and go seek where even the smallest basement becomes a new world to discover and explore.

There our hearts are caught and held. We all were children at one time; we all knew what it was like to wonder at the world and wish that we too could go through a magical wardrobe to escape its cares and strife. Here’s the thing, though: the care and strife come with us, and we become better for it. We never left Jadis—she came with us through the wardrobe, following us at every turn. Instead we learned how to confront her, to fight her temptation. We understand our struggles through the lenses of the Pevensie children, of Diggory and Polly, and so many others.

That’s what Lewis does—he shows us ourselves as children and how our little faults can have devastating consequences. Edmund only tells a small lie about the wardrobe not existing, only a little lie about never having been to Narnia. He’s only a selfish boy in war-torn England who wants his sweets. What’s so wrong with that? His selfishness has far-reaching consequences, however—it ends with his siblings almost being captured by the White Witch, who wants them all dead. Here little children learn that even they can be heroes like Peter, and also that they can wreak havoc with little white lies like Edmund.

What about Lucy? With her joy, her innocence, her belief in the goodness of others, she alone of her siblings thinks that Edmund is still worth saving even after he has betrayed them to the White Witch. Maybe we smile a little when we see Lucy, wishing we could be more like her while the pragmatist inside of us says otherwise.

Lucy’s example, her constant hope in redemption for her brother Edmund, comes out of her great capacity for true love—her “great heart,” as Aslan affectionately calls her. Lucy constantly encourages her siblings on to greater things, and she enters into the joy of Narnia because her soul is ready to receive it. Her joy comes not out of sugar-coating life, but rather the deep peace of Christ. In Lucy, we find that childlike wonder only arises from that true inner peace.

To be continued…

Author: Nicholas Callaghan

A graduate of Benedictine College, Nicholas currently resides in Michigan while pursuing his PhD in Politics. He enjoys reading, cooking, brewing beer, and generally living life well. He writes so that he and others can learn how to fall more passionately in love with this world, to be contemplative souls in a world that has forgotten how to do so.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *