‘Neglectful’ was the word tossed around by one reviewer of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Apparently the Professor was neglectful of the children he’d taken into his house during the bombings of WWII, letting them run through his house on their own and not over-scheduling every minute of their day with dance class, extra tutoring, or athletics.
Let’s leave aside the fact that a bachelor professor who appears to be entirely unused to children decides, out of the kindness of his heart, to shelter a group of four children seeking refuge from the bombing of London. Such a man might not be exactly up-to-date on the recent recommendations of the mommy blogs, nor might he think it harmful for children to just take care of themselves for some hours of the day (as children used to do in decades past). Let’s leave all that aside and look at how the children in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe are actually allowed to grow up in this book.
Now that our society has invented the idea of childhood (and this is not a bad thing), we have created a very specific, protected idea of what childhood should be. However, in order to grow up children have to eventually step outside of this safe, protected bubble. You might even let them blunder through your house and through a half-forgotten wardrobe that sometimes is a portal to another very dangerous and magical world.
In other words, they become independent and make their own decisions.
It’s very interesting that one well-known criticism of Narnia is that the children don’t grow up–or at least, not in the right way.
“The idea of keeping childhood alive forever and ever and regretting the passage into adulthood—whether it’s a gentle, rose-tinged regret or a passionate, full-blooded hatred, as it is in Lewis—is simply wrong,” the famously outspoken critic of Narnia, Philip Pullman said once in an interview in The New Yorker. His own series, His Dark Materials, attempts to rectify this by having his protagonist grow up and awaken to her own sexuality at the end. Now, as far as I can tell, the children don’t embark on any sexual relationships in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, but I don’t think this is the only valid marker of growing up. They do grow up.
And this is why I loved this book. At the end, they actually get to live out their whole lives in Narnia–become kings and queens and put into practice everything the story taught them up to then. So often as a child I’d read fiction where the characters went back in time, or went to another world, and learned something, but they never got to use it in that world. They always had to come back. They always remained children. The reader never fully saw the consequences of the story’s ideas.
And besides the ending of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, which so satisfyingly lets the children have a life in the world they helped to save, they have to ‘do’ things throughout the book.
I, who was raised in the safe, coddled confines of ‘be careful!’ ‘safety first!’ and ‘accidents are always preventable!’ was astonished to read about Peter picking up his sword when Susan is attacked by the wolf, and to read Aslan saying, “Back! Let the prince win his spurs!”–just after Aslan finished telling Peter about how he must become king one day. My heart was in my mouth–they weren’t actually going to let Peter do something, were they? Of course he would want to rescue his sister, but there must be some more experienced, more adult character around that should save her.
But no, if Peter is to be a king one day he must shoulder the responsibilities of adulthood himself.
Here we come to another controversial aspect–the children fight in the story. Now, we could point to the times, and argue that children in history had very different lives than they have today, and nobody at the time thought it at all odd. We could point out that Lewis lived through WWI, when very young teenagers died by the thousands in the trenches. We could point to the fact the story is set in WWII, when ‘fighting the enemy’–physically fighting, and not with economic sanctions or making a show of army exercises on a country’s borders–was viewed positively. But really what it comes down to is allowing the children to learn that not everything in life comes easily, or without a struggle. The villain won’t helpfully toss himself off the cliff for them. They must act.
This is not to say violence is glorified here–the children don’t especially like fighting. But they certainly have to back up their beliefs with their deeds.
Now, there may be books where children must grow up even more than the children do in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. They may have to, say, face a thousand more deaths of close friends, and watch graphically described gore pass in front of them. You could certainly imagine a ‘grittier’ children’s book than Narnia, even if you’d hesitate to actually give such a book to a child. I’m just arguing this was the first time I read a children’s book that showed me how to go beyond childhood. It showed me the good and bad in the challenge of growing up.
Millennials, a group of which I am a member, are frequently derided as a group that doesn’t know how to grow up. And I obviously can’t point to The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe as a guide that taught me how to grow up–of the typical markers of adulthood (marriage, children, house, career), I can only possibly point to career as an objective marker of the level of adulthood I’ve achieved. Reading literature in this vein is not a cure-all for the ‘millennial problem’ (and I’ve read His Dark Materials too, lest you argue that series would’ve helped me more). However, children need a vision of adulthood to aspire to. They need to read different ways of shouldering the responsibility of living. And if we only present fiction where parents and guardians are not ‘neglectful,’ and hover over children just as much as parents and guardians actually do nowadays in real life, we’d hold back the whole process.
Give the kids some space. Let them grow up.