Childhood and Wonder

There is something magical, a naive belief early on. It is a part of the innocence which is proper to children. I don’t mean by that that children are pure, but that they naturally expect good outcomes. But then, eventually, we aren’t protected from all outcomes and things that are not so wonderful take hold, and we can lose at least the naivete.

I think, however, we are still children if we acknowledge that we don’t understand and as a result we still trust, still believe, desire is still strong. That is how The Wind in the Willows and Narnia are childlike and can appeal to us: they believe in happy outcomes. They are all about the happy outcome. And good stories still magically provide them, though a good story doesn’t always. But a good story always provides a good thing in the sense of an outcome for the reader, if not a good outcome in the story.

I say that because there is a feeling (a dogma in some cases) that being an adult is about losing those dreams: not believing in them again, passing into life without that simple trust, settling into tedium and taming your expectations. And then what some people do is project on those successful authors of the innocent outcome such as Lewis the idea that he can’t have grown up–that Narnia is wishful thinking. And what is worse, that somehow he doesn’t take suffering into account.

Related, but somewhat obliquely, I’ve heard it said of Tolkien that he conceives his characters all in terms of black and white, and the great thing about George R.R. Martin–an author for grown-ups–is that he has morally ambiguous characters. That’s not the case. There are morally ambiguous characters in Tolkien (Denethor, Boromir, and especially Turin Turambar), but that does not relativize the morality of his world, which is what some really want when they criticize him. But a morally unambiguous universe has clear outcomes, is the one that we live in, not an escape, and that is why we believe in the four last things.

Lev Grossman helps me to get some of this straight. He’s not altogether on my side of that observation. He makes fun of Narnia, and he’s so good it almost works. The second half of his first novel can be construed as a relentless attack on Narnia–if one doesn’t have the tools to take it as an argument, in a more detached way. But I’m specially impervious, you have to understand, I’m a congenital believer, an incurable romantic, I seek wonder and I don’t think life has disappointments enough to quell me. And in that way I’m like Grossman’s main character, Quentin Coldwater. He believes, he is scolded for believing and for giving up on things that are not what he wants, and despised not altogether wrongly, but also with misunderstanding. Lev Grossman takes the boy through all the stages of dissapointment, by means of vice, betrayal, even the gods deny him. But in the end Quentin’s innocence cannot be quelled and Grossman, incredibly, rewards him. (Very satisfying ending.)

And that’s what I learn from Lewis: life’s troughs are in final analysis small. Life’s problems, however great, are not great in the scale of being. We are at present children, growing, but in a way always children if there is room to grow a infinite distance, and we have every reason to think we will continue to grow if we will continue to live not only for the happiest of outcomes, but the increase that begins at that point.

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