Commonplace Book

Spiritual Formation in Children's Literature

Posted at — Sep 19, 2019

Months ago I finished Alan Jacobs’ book The Year of Our Lord 1943: Christian Humanism in an Age of Crisis. I found the book to be incredibly enlightening, and I believe it is a well researched and fascinating look at the lives of its five main protagonists. While slightly academic, I recommend it for anyone interested in Christian responses to the philosophical and cultural underpinning of World War II.

There was, however, a nagging thought that has been itching at the back of my mind for the last nine months since finishing it. It refers to this section in the second-to-last page of the book:

… the events leading up to the war, had generated a body of reflection that—while genuinely deep and rich, as I think has been seen throughout this book—came about too late to have any of the social effects that its authors hope and prayed for. “The owl of Minerva flies only at night,” as we are told (with perhaps pardonable inaccuracy) Hegel said, and it flew for these thinkers, for Maritain and Eliot and Lewis and Auden and Weil, when the wisdom it brought could no longer find its best use. It is then no wonder than after having spent the years of the war narrating, dramatizing, and arguing for a richly humane model of personal and cultural formation, they all—save Weil, lying in her grave in Kent—turned to other matters: Maritain to his human-rights work and then to aesthetics, Eliot to the theater, Lewis to the children’s books that would win him his greatest and most lasting fame …1

The part my mind has been fermenting these past months is the phrase “turned to other matters”, in particular, how I think it is worth expanding on the power of cultural formation through children’s literature (in Lewis’ case).

In fact, Lewis wrote an essay on three ways of writing for children, which has interesting things to say about stories for children and illuminates his own thinking about the purpose of books for children. I encourage you to read the whole thing, and I’ll pull out some parts I found interesting:

Where the children’s story is simply the right form for what the author has to say, then of course readers who want to hear that, will read the story or re-read it, at any age.

I’ve found this to be true in my own reading, where a child’s story fits more as a genre (such as “novel”) than a category of books2. And while Lewis talks a lot about fairy/fantasy stories, he makes it clear that is in regard to his own taste, rather than a limiter of books for children. The books I read and considered formative as an adolescent are no more diminished now that I’m an adult, on the contrary I treat them as nostalgic old friends.3

Lewis also goes on to talk about an essay that Tolkien wrote entitled ‘On Fairy Stories’ where he shares the particular appeal of fairy stories:

According to Tolkien the appeal of the fairy story lies in the fact that man there most fully exercises his function as a ‘subcreator’; not, as they love to say now, making a ‘comment upon life’ but making, so far as possible, a subordinate world of his own. Since, in Tolkien’s view, this is one of man’s proper functions, delight naturally arises whenever it is successfully performed. For Jung, fairy tale liberates Archetypes which dwell in the collective unconscious, and when we read a good fairy tale we are obeying the old precept ‘Know thyself’. I would venture to add to this my own theory, not indeed of the Kind as a whole, but of one feature in it: I mean, the presence of beings other than human which yet behave, in varying degrees, humanly: the giants and dwarfs and talking beasts. I believe these to be at least (for they may have many other sources of power and beauty) an admirable hieroglyphic which conveys psychology, types of character, more briefly than novelistic presentation and to readers whom novelistic presentation could not yet reach.

Here I believe both Tolkien and Lewis understand the parabolic power of literature for children (as well as for adults).

In ‘On Reading Well’, K.S. Prior reinforces this when describing the value of literature:

Literature embodies virtue, first, by offering images of virtue in action and, second, by offering the reader vicarious practice in exercising virtue, which is not the same as actual practice, of course, but is nonetheless a practice by which habits of mind, ways of thinking and perceiving, accrue.4

I would argue that reading (high quality) fiction is the practice of incremental accrual of the virtues contained in those books. And if my own experience is to go by, nowhere during the accrual of those virtues does this have a larger impact on your future life than during childhood and adolescence.

One more quote from Lewis about why he felt he must write his fairy tale:

I am not quite sure what made me, in a particular year of my life, feel that not only a fairy tale, but a fairy tale addressed to children, was exactly what I must write—or burst. Partly, I think, that this form permits, or compels you to leave out things I wanted to leave out. It compels you to throw all the force of the book into what was done and said. It checks what a kind, but discerning critic called ‘the expository demon’ in me. It also imposes certain very fruitful necessities about length.

And to tie it in to the work Lewis pursued during his years described in Jacobs’, a quote about morals in literature for children:

For the moral inherent in them will rise from whatever spiritual roots you have succeeded in striking during the whole course of your life.

Alan Jacobs demonstrates wonderfully the life of CS Lewis in “striking” his spiritual roots during a particularly turbulent time which—I believe—Lewis turned around and embodied in his Narnia book series, leading to no small degree of cultural formation as a byproduct. I hope that in some part it did in fact have the social effect that its author hoped and prayed for.

  1. Alan Jacobs, “The Year of Our Lord 1943: Christian Humanism in an Age of Crisis” (Oxford University Press 2018), page 205. [return]
  2. This seems not very clear, but I mean it more in a non-limiting versus limiting fashion [return]
  3. On the subject of fairy stories for adults, I plan to write another post discussing George MacDonald’s books “Phantastes” and “Lilith”. Both approachable to children but rich in allegory mature enough for any adult. [return]
  4. Karen Swallow Prior, “On Reading Well: Finding the Good Life Through Great Books” (BrazosPress 2018), page 15 [return]