Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Of Prunes, Pumpkin Juice and Stewed Rabbit

This is one of my favorite quotes from Lewis, as he talks about how the author of children's stories needs to connect to his audience, not as a teacher or a parent, but beyond those types of relationships. He writes:
"Once in a hotel dining-room, I said, rather too loudly, "I loathe prunes." "So do I" came an unexpected six-year-old voice from another table. Sympathy was instantaneous. Neither of us thought it funny. We both knew that prunes are far too nasty to be funny. That is the proper meeting between man and child as independent personalities. ("On Three Ways of Writing for Children")
Which leads me into my main argument - that Good Stories have a universal appeal. And part of that is because the authors don't try to act like a teacher or parent to the reader. The reader is an equal, regardless of his age, and that must certainly makes any story more accessible and attractive! But I think there's something more to it, and that's where I'm headed...

I've been reading C. S. Lewis's collection of essays called Of Other Worlds, which is about writing and fiction and fantasy and fairy tales. I was having a discussion with someone here in the library about Harry Potter, and we were debating about whether or not Rowling's work should be considered in the same breath with Tolkien (and Lewis, and Le Guin, and all those others that seem to come up as comparisons). The ultimate question then, is "What makes a fantasy novel 'good'?" (Philosophers, feel free to chime in!) Lewis makes the comment:
If good novels are comments on life, good stories of this sort [the marvelous and fantastic] (which are much rarer) are actual additions to life; they give, like certain rare dreams, sensations we never had before, and enlarge our conception of the range of possible experience. ("On Science Fiction")
Which reminds me of a quote by Frederick Buechner:
... faith is like the dream in which the clouds open to show such riches ready to drop upon us that when we wake into the reality of nothing more than common sense, we cry to dream again because dreaming seems truer than the waking does to the fullness of reality not as we have seen it, to be sure, but as by faith we trust it to be without seeing. (Sacred Journey)
So according to Lewis, a good fantasy story "expands our horizons", and I would say it also gives us a longing to return to that world. Admit it, you Tolkien and Potter fans, how many times have you read the books??!? Yes, I know Buechner is talking about Christian faith in this passage, but I might argue that our faith in the Story (to borrow from Tolkien again) has the same effect. Good novels and good stories open doors for the reader, and we are free to wander in and take up residence for as long as the story lasts. Indeed, once there we can take what we learn within the story and apply it to our own Story when we return to the world of the mundane.

And you know what's really interesting to me? (I touched on this in my Pooh Lessons post) Many of the best stories are stories for children. Pooh. Wind in the Willows. Narnia. Grimms' and Anderson's and Aesop's fables and fairy tales. And (in my humble opinion) the best of these stories are not the "mundane", but the fantastic - those that take us out of our everyday world and plop us down in the middle of Someplace Else. I enjoy children's stories much more as an adult than I did as a child, and that's a good thing, according to Lewis. "... a children's story which is only enjoyed by children is a bad children's story. The good ones last." ("On Three Ways of Writing for Children")

Maybe as adults we are attracted to these stories, not only because we better understand the deeper narrative, but because they connect us to an age of innocence amd remind us how to "do nothing". In the final chapter of The House at Pooh Corner ("In Which Christopher Robin and Pooh Come to an Enchanted Place, and We Leave Them There") Christopher Robin tells Pooh that he won't be able to "do nothing" anymore.

"I like that too," said Christopher Robin, "but what I like doing best is Nothing."
"How do you do Nothing?" asked Pooh, after he had wondered for a long time.
"Well, it's when people call out at you just as you're going of to do it, What are you going to do, Christopher Robin, and you say, Oh nothing, and then you go and do it."
"Oh, I see," said Pooh. "This is the sort of thing that we're doing right now."
...Then, suddenly again, Christopher Robin, who was still looking at the world, with his chin in his hands, called out, "Pooh!"
"Yes?" said Pooh.
"When I'm --- when --- Pooh!"
"Yes, Christopher Robin?"
"I'm not going to do Nothing any more."
"Never again?"
"Well, not much. They won't let you."
Pooh waited for him to go on, but he was silent again.
"Yes, Christopher Robin?" said Pooh helpfully.
"Pooh, when I'm --- you know --- when I'm not doing Nothing, will you be here sometimes?"
"Just me?"
"Yes, Pooh."
"Will you be here too?"
"Yes, Pooh, I will be, really. I promise I will be, Pooh."
"That's good," said Pooh.
"Pooh, promise you won't forget about me, ever. Not even when I'm a hundred."

Sitting down and getting drawn into a good book, for me, is the best and most beloved time of "doing nothing." Good novels, good Stories (whether they're about pumpkin juice or stewed rabbit) will always be there, and we readers won't forget about them. And that's the thing, I think, about children's stories. We read them as kids and they stick. We re-read them as adults and return to them, even if we're a hundred. Our childhood and our adulthood are made better because of them.

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