I would imagine that anyone who has ever fallen under the spell of “Once upon a time,” the enchantment of a well told story, has examples they can cite of books, plays, essays, pieces of poetry, or songs that have fundamentally changed and enriched the way they see the world. It’s possible that this consciousness-altering phenomenon happened to me the first time I heard Goodnight Moon, or The Tale or Peter Rabbit. But the first time I was actually aware of a piece of storytelling opening up a wider, more interesting world for me was in Miss Alleyne’s fourth grade class.
Miss Alleyne had silvery hair and wore twinkling cat’s-eye shaped spectacles and some kind of perfume that smelled of mandarin oranges. Every Friday afternoon, after we’d all finished colouring maps of Europe and pasting together collages of magazine clippings, she would take out a book and read to us with her sonorous Caribbean-lilted voice.
One winter afternoon the book she pulled from the shelf was C.S. Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. From the title onwards, I was transfixed and, like the book’s characters, transported into another world. My imagination lit up like a magic lantern, filling my head with images of goat-hoofed fauns, talking beavers, a terrible and magnificent lion, a sinister witch queen, and a mysterious, dangerous delicacy called Turkish Delight that I could almost taste.
When I was in high school, I read the book again. This time, of course, I read it more critically. I was, after all, like most other teenagers, a genius. To my more observant and mature eye, Lewis’s story now seemed flat and rather poorly written. Worst of all, there was what seemed to me a smug and smarmy sort of didactic Christian agenda that left me feeling more than a little uncomfortable. Coincidentally, when doing my readings for an AU English course, I came across this sentence in Written For Children, John Rowe Townsend’s critical study of children’s literature, that almost perfectly sums up the way I had felt: “For an adult, a return to Narnia after a lapse of years can be disconcerting: there is much in the books that now seems derivative, condescending, dated, even at times shoddy, and the Christian allegory can occasionally cause queasiness.” Yes, he was bang on.
A couple of years ago, my daughter got Lewis’s book for a Christmas gift. She was bewitched. As soon as we’d finished it, she begged me to start again from the beginning. We read it again in one go on a rainy afternoon, while she filled a Hilroy notebook with her own illustrations of the White Witch, Tumnus the faun, and the old professor.
Later on, I began to think about why my experience of Lewis’s book had been so much different for me as a young adult than as a child. I think it’s because my education, from playschool on, had inexorably taught me to approach ideas more critically–to pick out the hidden agendas and underlying messages in what I’m reading, seeing or hearing. This critical thinking is a good thing, because it helps me to understand why I like or dislike a certain book, film, piece of music, work of art. It also helps me to avoid being manipulated and to form my own judgments. Because I’m not myself a Christian, and I can now clearly see that Lewis’s work is, at least on one level, a Christian allegory, it’s only natural that my enthusiasm for this book has been dampened.
On the other hand, when we completely lose the ability to see things through the eyes of a child, I think we have thrown away a pearl more valuable than all our experience. I thank my daughter for helping me get back that sense of wonder that can only come from seeing the world, at least sometimes, with an uncritical eye.