C. S. Lewis dedicated the first of his Narnian fairy tales, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, to Lucy Barfield, the daughter of his good friend, Owen. In the dedication he offers this sage advice: “My dear Lucy, I wrote this story for you, but when I began it I had not realized that girls grow quicker than books. As a result you are probably already too old for fairy tales, and by the time it is printed and bound you will be older still. But some day you will be old enough to start reading fairy tales again.”
Near the end of That Hideous Strength (a novel to which Lewis added the wonderful subtitle, “A Modern Fairy-Tale for Grown-Ups”), the male hero, Mark Studdock, comes within inches of selling his soul to a demon-run secret society with plans to take over the world. As part of the initiation rite, he is thrown into a lop-sided room which is intended to destroy within him any last vestige of his belief in goodness, truth, and beauty.
Mark almost gives in, but then a still small voice within him rises up and asserts the existence of something normal and right and whole, of which the lop-sided room represents the perversion. Saved by that sudden illumination, Mark runs for his life. In his flight, he hides out in a small country hotel, where he rests for a moment in a quiet sitting room. In the room, Mark notices two shelves filled with bound copies of a periodical known as The Strand.
“In one of these he found a serial children’s story which he had begun to read as a child but abandoned because his tenth birthday came when he was half way through it and he was ashamed to read it after that. Now, he chased it from volume to volume till he had finished it. It was good. The grown-up stories to which, after his tenth birthday, he had turned instead of it, now seemed to him, expect for Sherlock Holmes, to be rubbish.”
Most modern academics who read the above paragraph would criticize, if not ridicule, Lewis for his “puerile sentimentality.” They would, of course, be wrong to do so. Lewis was unique in the academia of his day for championing (along with his good friend, J. R. R. Tolkien) children’s literature and fantasy novels as serious genres deserving serious consideration.
Rather than dismiss youthful innocence and joy as immature emotions to be cast off on the road to adulthood, Lewis treasured (as did Jesus!) that child-like view of the world that opens itself to faith and hope and that can discern magic and wonder in even the most mundane of things.
Lewis found nothing wise or mature or even realistic in the cynicism and skepticism of his academic colleagues. Indeed, because he was not too proud to look for them there, Lewis discovered great insights in Aesop’s Fables, The Wind in the Willows, The Tales of Beatrix Potter, Alice in Wonderland, and the children’s stories of George MacDonald and E. Nesbitt.
In fact, though it is not well known, we have Lewis and Tolkien to thank for the post-1950’s resurgence of children’s literature and fairy tales. Both genres, which were strong and healthy during the late Victorian Age, had fallen out of favor in the first half of the 20th century. The success of The Chronicles of Narnia, The Hobbit, and The Lord of the Rings helped restore the reputation of these discredited genres, thus enabling moderns to draw on their innocent wisdom.