Creative Writing · Reading

C.S. Lewis on Children’s Writings

By tracking down a quote on Pinterest, I came across C.S. Lewis’s essay “On Three Ways of Writing For Children” (full text online here). Though I don’t write specifically for children, I like to think that my fantasy novels would appeal to (and be appropriate for) some young people. After all, I can’t be the only child who was reading Jules Verne by age 10 and searching for other stories of the fantastic.

The essay becomes most interesting to me when Lewis addresses the question of what kinds of stories are worth reading as children. Since he wrote children’s fantasy — not because he set out to write for children, but “because a children’s story is [sometimes] the best art-form for something you have to say” — he spends much of the essay defending fairy tales.

If I have allowed the fantastic type of children’s story to run away with this discussion, that is because it is the kind I know and love best, not because I wish to condemn any other. But the patrons of the other kinds very frequently want to condemn it. About once every hundred years some wiseacre gets up and tries to banish the fairy tale. Perhaps I had better say a few words in its defence, as reading for children.

Just as when Lewis was writing (in 1952), modern parents have been banning classic fairy tales. Hansel and Gretle and Little Red Riding Hood are not read because they are “too scary,” but there are other reasons as well. More than 50% of parents wouldn’t “read their kids Cinderella because the heroine spends her days doing housework. Many felt that this theme of female domesticity didn’t send a good message.” The politically incorrect word “dwarves” disqualifies Snow White from polite society. Rapunzel’s kidnapping and imprisonment is “too dark” a theme (actually, it is darker than they think — in the Grimms version she’s not actually kidnapped. Her father gives her to a witch to save his own life).

Whether or not to read fairy tales (and which ones to read) to children is a choice that will vary from parent to parent and also depends on the child. There are plenty of fairy tales I wouldn’t read to a very young or sensitive child (like The Little Mermaid, where she is in agony the entire time she has legs and dies at the end). But on the whole, I tend to agree with Lewis when he said,

Since it is so likely that they will meet cruel enemies, let them at least have heard of brave knights and heroic courage. Otherwise you are making their destiny not brighter but darker. Nor do most of us find that violence and bloodshed, in a story, produce any haunting dread in the minds of children. As far as that goes, I side impenitently with the human race against the modern reformer. Let there be wicked kings and beheadings, battles and dungeons, giants and dragons, and let villains be soundly killed at the end the book. Nothing will persuade me that this causes an ordinary child any kind or degree of fear beyond what it wants, and needs, to feel. …

It would be nice if no little boy in bed, hearing, or thinking he hears, a sound, were ever at all frightened. But if he is going to be frightened, I think it better that he should think of giants and dragons than merely of burglars. And I think St George, or any bright champion in armour, is a better comfort than the idea of the police.

As a child who was deeply afraid of things that go bump in the night, I can wholeheartedly support Lewis’s claim that a “bright champion in armour” is a far better comforter than the police. And if my mind had not been filled with fairy tales, fantasy, and knights in shining armor I would never have dreamed up Jamen and Karielle or Bryant and Aelis (who now live in my  in-progress and finished novels) or invented Ves’endlara.

Which fairy tales would you read, or not read to children? As an adult, do you enjoy reading fairy tales?

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