In many children’s stories, authors place their main characters in magical worlds in order to help children understand the adult-world lessons they’ll receive as they continue reading. C.S. Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe puts its main characters in a make-believe world where they’ll have to grow and change. In this way, Lewis’s novel —and others— replicate adult-world issues using a magical plot to hand children the tools they’ll be needing as they grow up.
The first of the four children to walk into Narnia is the youngest, Lucy. She is first to discover Narnia because, as the youngest, she’s the least involved in the adult-world and therefore the priority tool-receiver. Next is Edmund, who is second youngest, and tied for third are Susan and Peter. In later novels, both Susan and Peter are too old to return to Narnia. They’re told this at the same time, even though Peter is the eldest. However, in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, the siblings learn together which brings us to our first tool: Family.
Although Lucy is first to enter Narnia, the adventure doesn’t follow only Lucy. It follows all of the children.
They all went out in the daylight and crowded around Peter as he read out the following words:
The former occupant of these premises, the Faun Tumnus, is under arrest and awaiting his trial on a charge of High Treason against her Imperial Majesty Jadis, Queen of Narnia …. also of comforting her said Majesty’s enemies, harboring spies, and fraternizing with Humans.
Lucy faces earth-shattering news and her family is literally right there. C.S. Lewis wrote The Chronicles of Narnia during World War II, when families were torn apart and children were sent away to live with relatives in the country. It was because of this evacuation that our characters came to the mansion with the wardrobe. During a time when the world was torn apart, family —sometimes what was left of family— was all people had to hold on to. Young Lucy, Edmund, Susan, and Peter are taken out of their comfort zone and into the midst of a war when they enter the wardrobe in their caretaker’s home. It’s these parallels between fantasy and reality Lewis draws for his readers that makes the tool, such as family, stand out all the more.
The next tool Lewis gives his young readers is the importance of friends or allies.
“….’How do we know you’re a friend?’
….’Quite right, quite right.’ Said the Beaver. ‘Here is my token.’ With these words it held up to them a little white object.
….‘Oh, of course. It’s my handkerchief —the one I gave to poor Mr. Tumnus’”(67). At this point in the novel, the knowledge of an impending war is becoming increasingly real. Narnia again parallels the non-fictional world —as it should— given the novel is meant to teach children real-world lessons. During a war, keeping whatever social ties a person can is necessary for overall health. As we grow older and learn more about our own families, we may find that friends become our family or our family becomes our friends which is why Lewis gives us these tools one right after the other: friends and family are sometimes the same. When they aren’t, both will make the journey easier.
In Bob Smietana’s article, Lessons from the Lion, he pulls fiction and fantasy writers’ interviews on the subject of children and storytelling. In his acceptance speech for the Carnegie Medal, Phillip Pullman said that children understand the power of stories, something adults have let themselves forget. Pullman believes there are some subjects too large for adults and can therefore, only be dealt with in children’s stories (32). I believe this is because adults find foundational concepts too simple —too childish. As we grow, we pride ourselves on abstract and complex ideas, deeming concrete facts as laughable. “Of course,” we might say, “Family and friends would be important tools for the adult-world.” However, this may only seem simple because it’s in thought and not practice. When the sky is falling it’s easy to feel like the basics won’t help. Which is why children’s story after children’s story presents the same lessons in miscellaneous ways: Children’s authors are trying to beat the idea into our brain that basics aren’t simple, they’re foundational. When talking about Lewis, Smietana goes on to say, “Lewis understood that stories, rather than sermons, are the best way to discuss the great questions of life” (32). Stories quietly explain their ideas. They’re wrapped up in fiction or fantasy, rather than a person telling someone else, “This is the answer.” Stories allow people to interpret what they will from its plot and message, which is why children’s stories are so adequate for children. Complex ideas are presented to them in ways they understand —like Lucy’s friend’s arrest but her family is there to help, or a talking Beaver who brings a token to show he’s a friend.
The next tool is having someone or something to believe in. Lewis wanted to show children the gospels through storytelling (32) so in the character of Aslan he brought in the concept of a greater being to believe in. If we were to strip away Lewis’s intention, however, I believe we’d get down to the core and that is finding something to believe in. The Hunger Games series by Susan Collins gives the fictional people of Panem Katniss Everdeen to believe in. In the early 2000’s tv series Avatar: The Last Airbender, the nations are given Aang, a reincarnate and Buddha-like figure to believe in. The idea of having a good sense of self can go hand-in-hand with this tool, too. It was Maya Angelou that said, “I don’t trust people who don’t love themselves and tell me, ‘I love you’” (Annie Clark Tanner Lecture) The same can be said for belief. If you don’t believe in yourself, it’s much harder to believe in anything else.
In the Child Development field, it’s common knowledge that the first few years of schooling are meant to give children a sense of self. Jerri Bollman is a Child Development and Dynamics of Play professor at Chaffey College. When I was in her class, she consistently stressed that up until the fourth grade, children needed to develop their core selves. They needed to figure out the foundation of who they were because it was what they learned from preschool up until fourth grade that was going to develop their distinct characteristics. Psychology tells us that personality is fifty percent genetic and fifty percent experience. However, how comfortable a child is with themselves proves to be a significant asset. The reason fourth grade is the end-point is because children are loosing their fresh, blank synapses because they weren’t used (The Defining Decade). Bridges have been built and burned in their minds. Through an indirect way, children’s authors are trying to help the foundational process by providing stories with language geared toward children.
There are plenty of other tools in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, such as: forgiveness, mindfulness, and more but it’s the beginnings of the idea that there’s more than meets the eye that I wish to conclude with. Those who write books of lonely children who love to read, like Roald Dahl, or of magical closets like C.S. Lewis, have not yet forgotten what it was like to be a child and don’t view children as childish, but rather, ready learners.