Are Fairy Tales Just for Children?

The central thrust of this recurring column is that learning to live like a Narnian is something worth pursuing. Indeed, I want to commend it as a crucial component of Christian discipleship. In other words, I want to make a case for Narnian discipleship, not merely as a coincidental byproduct of reading the Narnian stories, but as one of Lewis’s (and God’s!) chief goals in the Narniad itself.

Beware of Two Traps

But our tendency is to fall into one of two traps. Either we accept the idea of discipleship through Narnia and rush to the moral or allegorical meaning of the stories prematurely, short-circuiting the actual breathing of Narnian air, or we dispense with the notion that the stories can be a component of Christian discipleship at all. “It’s just a story,” we think. And a children’s story at that.

To this latter point, it must be said that C. S. Lewis did not regard children’s fairy tales in this fashion. Following J. R. R. Tolkien, he recognized that the association of fairy tales with children was a relatively recent and misleading phenomenon. Moreover, he wrote, “I am almost inclined to set it up as a canon that a children’s story which is only enjoyed by children is a bad children’s story” (“On Three Ways of Writing for Children,” in On Stories, Mariner: New York, 2002). Or again, “it is certainly my opinion that a book worth reading only in childhood is not worth reading even then” (“Sometimes Fairy Stories,” On Stories).

Lewis Turns the Tables

In response to those who regard adult lovers of fairy tales as childish and suffering from arrested development, Lewis turns the tables and reminds us that the obsession with being “grown-up” is the mark of adolescence, not adulthood. “When I became a man I put away childish things, including the fear of childishness and the desire to be very grown up” (On Stories). Growing up doesn’t mean replacing old loves as much as it means adding new ones. Thus, a love of Aslan and Narnia ought not be limited to children, as though it were beneath adults. In fact, adults ought to be able to find more to love in the stories.

Much could be said about the broader question of whether fictional stories should be seen as components of Christian discipleship at all. For the moment, I’ll simply close with a quotation from Peter Leithart in an excellent essay entitled “Authors, Authority, and the Humble Reader”:

There are many mysteries in trying to unravel how reading shapes the self . . . Mimesis or imitation is one of the fundamental realities in the formation of the self. Children learn language, manners, gestures, parenting (!), and a host of other habits and passions from their parents, without either parents or children putting much conscious effort into it.

And the dance of mimesis does not end with childhood: Disciples become like their masters, soldiers are molded by their commander, and college basketball players (and many flabby former players) aspire to ‘be like Mike.’

It is absurd to suggest that fictional characters, whom most readers know more intimately than they know their own parents, do not have a similar effect. Earlier critics took it for granted that literature, an imitation of life, presents models for imitation to the reader” (The Christian Imagination, ed. Leland Ryken, Shaw Books: New York, 2002, paragraphing mine).