Last year I introduced an occasional feature I call “Throwback Thursday.” This is where I find a blog post from the past–raiding either my own blog-hoard or someone else’s–and throw it back out into the digital world. This might be an idea or book that is now relevant again, or a concept I’d like to think about more, or even “an oldie but a goodie” that I think needs a bit of spin time.
In this case, I want to repost Lewis’ classic piece, “Sometimes Fairy Stories May Say Best What’s to be Said.” It is, of course, such an important piece for understanding Lewis’ approach to writing. I posted this piece a few years ago, with a screenshot of the full article, hoping that it would be a resource for readers and writers. Over time, it has proved to be the 6th most popular C.S. Lewis post on A Pilgrim in Narnia. As I noticed that newer and, in my estimation, less important pieces were starting to take its place, I decided to throw it back out into the world. And as I did, I also noticed some things that intrigue me in the article.
First, Lewis links the vocation of the “poet” with that of “all imaginative writers”–an approach that I think needs recovery. Second, there is a kind of mystical or erotic pain that is involved in writing that is worth thinking about in C.S. Lewis’ biography. And yet, this poet’s tension is not like the utter dislocating angst of the poetic school that would soon appear on the scene, as the poet in Lewis’ view is not subject to a totalizing force like “inspiration” or “poetry.” Third, Lewis thinks that good writing requires a goodness or synchronicity of morality or meaning beyond its literary quality. I think that is a feature that is re-emerging today, and it is worth thinking more about.
And, of course, there are eminently quotable moments in this piece. I hope you enjoy.
Perhaps no one would be more surprised than C.S. Lewis himself at the success of his classic children’s stories, The Chronicles of Narnia. Hundreds of millions of copies of the Narnian tales have been sold in more than forty languages, and they are read and reread by children and adults everywhere. It won’t be surprising that C.S. Lewis’ Christian worldview emerges in Narnia, though some (like a character in one of Neil Gaiman‘s stories) can feel betrayed by this emergence. For some, the Christian ideas break into a world and destroy the artfulness and beauty of the series. For others, they assume that Lewis began with a Christian message and squeezed a story around it.
And, of course, there are some that read Narnia only for that message, as if the Narnian adventures were a substitute for flannelgraph nativity scenes in church basements.
But for Lewis, it was a much more complex and organic project. He speaks a bit about it in “On 3 Ways of Writing for Children” now in the essay collection, Of Other Worlds. Any reader of Lewis will need to know J.R.R. Tolkien’s essay, “On Fairy Tales.” But Lewis also shares some of his process of writing in a short article in The New York Times. Here is the bulk of what he said, copied from Of Other Worlds, with the full article attached below.
“Sometimes Fairy Stories May Say Best What’s to be Said”
C.S. Lewis, The New York Times, Nov 18, 1956
In the sixteenth century when everyone was saying that poets (by which they meant all imaginative writers) ought to please and instruct, Tasso made a valuable distinction. He said that the poet, as poet, was concerned solely with pleasing. But then every poet
was also a man and a citizen in that capacity he ought to, and would wish to, make his work edifying as well as pleasing.
Now I do not want to stick very close to the renaissance ideas of ‘pleasing’ and ‘instructing’. Before I could accept either term it might need so much redefining that what was left of it at the end would not be worth retaining. All I want to use is the distinction between the author as author and the author as man, citizen, or Christian. What this comes to for me is that there are usually two reasons for writing an imaginative work, which may be called Author’s reason and the Man’s. If only one of these is present, then, so far as I am concerned, the book will not be written. If the first is lacking, it can’t; if the second is lacking, it shouldn’t.
In the Author’s mind there bubbles up every now and then the material for a story. For me it invariably begins with mental pictures. This ferment leads to nothing unless it is accompanied with the longing for a Form: verse or prose, short story, novel, play or what not. When these two things click you have the Author’s impulse complete. It is now a thing inside him pawing to get out. He longs to see that bubbling stuff pouring into that Form as the housewife longs to see the new jam pouring into the clean jam jar. This nags him all day long and gets in the way of his work and his sleep and his meals. It’s like being in love.
While the Author is in this state, the Man will of course have to criticise the proposed book from quite a different point of view. He will ask how the gratification of this impulse will fit in with all the other things he wants, and ought to do or be. Perhaps the whole thing is too frivolous and trivial (from the Man’s point of view, not the Author’s) to justify the time and pains it would involve. Perhaps it would be unedifying when it was done. Or else perhaps (at this point the Author cheers up) it looks like being ‘good’, not in a merely literary sense, but ‘good’ all around.
This may sound rather complicated but it is really very like what happens about other things. You are attracted by a girl; but is she the sort of girl you’d be wise, or right, to marry? You would like to have lobster for lunch; but does it agree with you and is it wicked to spend that amount of money on a meal? The Author’s impulse is a desire (it is very like an itch) and of course, like every other desire, needs to be criticised by the whole Man.
Let me now apply this to my own fairy tales. Some people seem to think that I began by asking myself how I could say something about Christianity to children; then fixed on the fairy tale as an instrument; then collected information about child-psychology and decided what age-group I’d write for; then drew up a list of basic Christian truths and hammered out ‘allegories’ to embody them. This is all pure moonshine. I couldn’t write in that way at all. Everything began with images; a faun carrying an umbrella, a queen on a sledge, a magnificent lion. At first there wasn’t even anything Christian about them; that element pushed itself in of its own accord. It was part of the bubbling.
Then came the Form. As these images sorted themselves into events (i.e., became a story) they seemed to demand no love interest and no close psychology. But the Form which excludes these things is the fairy tale. And the moment I thought of that I fell in love with the Form itself: its brevity, its severe restraints on description, its flexible traditionalism, its inflexible hostility to all analysis, digression, reflections and ‘gas’. I was now enamoured of it. Its very limitations of vocabulary became an attraction; as the hardness of the stone pleases the sculptor or the difficulty of the sonnet delights the sonneteer.
On that side (as Author) I wrote fairy tales because the Fairy Tale seemed the ideal Form for the stuff I had to say. Then of course the Man in me began to have his turn. I thought I saw how stories of this kind could steal past a certain inhibition which had paralysed much of my own religion in childhood. Why did one find it so hard to feel as one was told one ought to feel about God or about the sufferings of Christ? I thought the chief reason was that one was told one ought to. An obligation to feel can freeze feelings. And reverence itself did harm. The whole subject was associated with lowered voices; almost as if it were something medical. But supposing that by casting all these things into an imaginary world, stripping them of their stained-glass and Sunday school associations, one could make them for the first time appear in their real potency? Could one not thus steal past those watchful dragons? I thought one could. That was the Man’s motive. But of course he could have done nothing if the Author had not been on the boil first.
You will notice that I have throughout spoken of Fairy Tales, not ‘children’s stories’. Professor J.R.R. Tolkien in The Lord of the Rings has shown that the connection between fairy tales and children is not nearly so close as publishers and educationalists think. Many children don’t like them and many adults do. The truth is, as he says, that they are now associated with children because they are out of fashion with adults; have in fact retired to the nursery as old furniture used to retire there, not because the children had begun to like it but because their elders had ceased to like it. I was therefore writing ‘for children’ only in the sense that I excluded what I thought they would not like or understand; not in the sense of writing what I intended to be below adult attention. I may of course have been deceived, but the principle at least saves one from being patronising. I never wrote down to anyone; and whether the opinion condemns or acquits my own work, it certainly is my opinion that a book worth reading only in childhood is not worth reading even then. The inhibitions which I hoped my stories would overcome in a child’s mind may exist in a grown-up’s mind too, and may perhaps be overcome by the same means.
The Fantastic or Mythical is a Mode available at all ages for some readers; for others, at none. At all ages, if it is well used by the author and meets the right reader, it has the same power: to generalise while remaining concrete, to present in palpable form not
concepts or even experiences but whole classes of experience, and to throw off irrelevancies. But at its best it can do more; it can give us experiences we have never had and thus, instead of ‘commenting on life’, can add to it. I am speaking, of course, about the thing itself, not my own attempts at it. ‘Juveniles’; indeed! Am I to patronise sleep because children sleep sound? Or honey because children like it?