C. S. Lewis, Fantasy, & Scaring Children

I have recently been reading through a few of C. S. Lewis’ essays on fantasy (compiled in the book Of Other Worlds: Essays and Stories[1])and came across the following paragraph within an essay titled “On Three Ways of Writing for Children,” which was very intriguing since I have recently discussed the relationship between children and fantasy.

Those who say that children must not be frightened may mean two things. They may mean (i) that we must not do anything likely to give the child those haunting, disabling, pathological fears against which ordinary courage is helpless: in fact, phobias. His mind must, if possible, be kept clear of things he can’t bear to think of. Or they may mean (2) that we must try to keep out of his mind the knowledge that he is born into a world of death, violence, wounds, adventure, heroism and cowardice, good and evil. If they mean the first I agree with them: but not if they mean the second. The second would indeed be to give children a false impression and feed them on escapism in the bad sense. There is something ludicrous in the idea of so educating a generation which is born to the Ogpu and the atomic bomb. Since it is so likely that they will meet cruel enemies, let them at least have heard of brave knights and heroic courage. Otherwise you are making their destiny not brighter but darker. Nor do most of us find that violence and bloodshed, in a story, produce any haunting dread in the minds of children. As far as that goes, I side impenitently with the human race against the modern reformer. Let there be wicked kings and beheadings, battles and dungeons, giants and dragons, and let villains be soundly killed at the end of the book. Nothing will persuade me that this causes an ordinary child any kind or degree of fear beyond what it wants, and needs, to feel. For, of course, it wants to be a little frightened.[2]

I believe that Lewis makes an important point here about both the resiliency and the needs of children. You see, a common parenting mentality that I believe is an ultimately damaging to the child is the thought that parents must hide their children from the darkness of the world all around us. Of course, they should be sheltered from many things, especially in their youngest years; however, the goal of parenting is not to hide them everything evil until we send them out as adults into the world. Instead, it is the work of parents to gradually teach children how to navigate a world that is very often hostile. Indeed, we must teach them what Jesus has taught us: “Behold, I am sending you out as sheep in the midst of wolves, so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves” (Matthew 10:16). It is our responsibility as parents to instruct our children how to guard against the wiles of the world while also preserving their innocence. We do our children no favor by presenting a fantasy of the world as harmless to our children.

Stories are certainly a wonderful place to introduce children to the world, both to its darkness and to those who stand against the darkness. As Lewis said, stories give them battles, dungeons, and beheading, but they also give us heroes that display courage in the face of turmoil. I, therefore, certainly agree with Lewis that fantasy is a wonderful place for teaching children truths that run deeper than simple lessons can go.

I would, however, also emphasize that Scripture and history are more than sufficient to teach these virtues in children’s first years. Moses, Joshua, Rahab, David, Daniel, Esther, the disciples, Polycarp, Athanasius, Luther, Zwingli, Tyndale, Bunyan, and so many others all inspire courage against evil days whenever their lives are remembered and recounted. So, even while I love the ability of fiction to inspire virtue, I think it best to begin with the heroes that we will one day meet face-to-face.

[1] If such essays and short stories from Lewis interest you, I would actually suggesting getting two other books that together contain all the contents of this book: On Stories: And Other Essays on Literature and The Dark Tower: And Other Stories.

[2] Lewis, C. S.. Of Other Worlds: Essays and Stories . Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Kindle Edition.

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