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How C.S Lewis is like Roald Dahl, but better (and Aslan is like Willy Wonka, but better)

My kids have hit the age where lots of the books I loved — that formed and form my imagination — are starting to resonate with them. We’ve been devouring Roald Dahl classics as audiobooks, and we’ve worked through a couple of the Chronicles of Narnia.

I love Roald Dahl, but I’ve noticed (as have others) that his books though dark and funny have very few commendable adult characters — child protaganists are often put up against sinister, authoritarian and abusive adults (and when you read Dahl’s autobiography about his childhood, Boy, it’s little wonder why). There are exceptions of course, like the dad in Danny the Champion of the Word, Miss Honey, in Matilda, and Charlie’s family (and Willy Wonka) in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. The adults Dahl celebrates are those who haven’t lost touch with their inner-child — those who still give in to whimsy and imagination and produce wonder. The villainous adults are those who represent the mechanical, whimsy-less, adult world — who want children to grow up or stay silent (this is especially explicit in Matilda where it’s Ms Trunchbull and Matilda’s dad in one corner, and Miss Honey in the other).

C.S Lewis also has some pretty awful adult antagonists — like the White Witch, but on the whole he doesn’t position adults as buzzkills and wowsers. His fullest, most self-assured, adults (human or adult) are those who, like Miss Honey and Willy Wonka, maintain a sense of wonder — perhaps especially the Professor, Digory, whose house hosts the wardrobe in The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe (spoiler, he’s a significant character in the less widely read Magician’s Nephew). In fact, as we’ll see below, there’s one character who ‘grows up’ and loses her sense of wonder — the cardinal sin in the world of Narnia.

There’s a funny scene in Matlida where Miss Honey is discovering Matilda’s genius — that she’s read every book for kids in the public library. Miss Honey asks her which ones she liked:

“‘I liked The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe,’ Matilda said. ‘I think Mr C. S. Lewis is a very good writer. But he has one failing. There are no funny bits in his books.’

‘You are right there,’ Miss Honey said.

‘There aren’t many funny bits in Mr Tolkien either,’ Matilda said.

‘Do you think that all children’s books ought to have funny bits in them?’ Miss Honey asked.

‘I do,’ Matilda said. ‘Children are not so serious as grown-ups and love to laugh.’”

It’s curious that both Tolkien and Lewis would say they weren’t writing those books just for children, but, indeed, that our wonder-less society has consigned enchanted books like these to the realm of the child’s mind — and that section of the library. Our society seems keen on producing adults who are very much like Ms Trunchbull and Matilda’s dad — kids are blank slates to be grown up into economic units who plug in to the machine of our economy — they need education in science, technology, education, and math so that the machine might advance… one can only imagine how both Lewis and Dahl would view the modern approach to education (though Lewis, at least, was an educator and did write a bit about the problems with the earlier stages of a modern approach to education).

Both Lewis and Dahl spent time in boarding schools that they did not like; Lewis said:

“Life at a vile boarding school is in this way a good preparation for the Christian life, that it teaches one to live by hope.”

In some ways it seemed that Dahl’s experiences led to cynicism about adults, rather than hope.

Both were later confronted with the very worst of adult behaviour — Lewis fought, and was wounded, in the trenches of the World War One, while Dahl flew as a fighter pilot in World War Two (he was also wounded, in a crash landing). Both saw many of their fellow soldiers killed. Both, through their experiences, were particularly insightful when it came to identifying what it is in the human condition that produces destruction, and both suggest a new, renewed, imagination — a rediscovery of a sort of innocence of childhood, might be part of the solution.

And yet, both are quite willing to see the same flaws in the human condition at work in children — both Lewis and Dahl present the human condition in terms of a misfiring imagination leading to wrong desires that when acted on create harmful consequences. Consider these examples from Matilda, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and the Narnia stories. Children in these stories inherit a world shaped, and left to them, by their adult forbears. They both long for a child hero who can truly escape this mess; and both offer a sort of ‘rescuer’ to offer a means to escape — for Lewis, it’s Aslan, for Dahl, it’s Willy Wonka and his Chocolate Factory paradise.

One of the most unforgettable scenes in Matilda is the episode involving Bruce Bogtrotter and Ms Trunchbull’s chocolate cake. Bruce was tempted when he saw the illicit cake, he knew it was not for him, and he desired it, took it, and ate it. Ms Trunchbull’s punishment for this act was to force Bruce to eat a whole, giant, cake. Here’s the scene as rendered in the Matilda movie.

Now Bruce is a hero, of sorts, to the kids because he gets one over Ms Trunchbull by finishing the cake, but Dahl is dabbling with an idea more fully developed in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, that we are what we love — an that we will be shaped and possibly consumed by those loves.

Consider the children who secure golden tickets to the chocolate factory — Augustus Gloop a food addict, who is ‘consumed’ when he falls into the chocolate river as he, despite being told not to contaminate it, tries to slurp it up… Violet Beauregarde, the gum-chewing machine/addict, who, when told not to chew a magic piece of gum, pops it in her mouth and then once she blows up like a blueberry has to be ‘squeezed’ back down to size… Veruca Salt the spoiled ‘I want it now’ troublemaker who owns more pets than she can handle because ‘I want it now’ — who in a bid to gratify her latest desire for one of Wonka’s magic squirrels, gets sorted into the rubbish as ‘spoiled’… Mike Teavee, a television addict who is so keen to ‘get on TV’ that he jumps in front of Wonka’s magic TV teleporter, despite being told not to, only to be shrunk down to TV size… There’s a common theme here — these kids want too much of a good thing, in theological terms they all have identities tightly connected to what they worship — and they get what they want, only to discover it doesn’t deliver… it destroys. There’s no redemption for these kids — because they don’t save themselves, their imagination isn’t big enough for them to find a way out of these problems. Problems that the classic Oompa Loompa song, which develops episodically through the book (and the movie versions of the book)as each child is farewelled, lays at the feet of the parents.

“Who do you blame when your kid is a brat
Pampered and spoiled like a siamese cat
Blaming the kids is a lie and a shame
You know exactly who’s to blame
The mother and the father”

Charlie is the alternative — the child captivated by wonder, and enamoured by Wonka’s vision, the child who, though he pockets an everlasting gobstopper, and enjoys an illicit taste of the magical fizzy lifting drink, is not consumed by his own desires. Instead, he values his potential relationship with Wonka himself as his means for flourishing and liberation, and he truly sees the Factory as paradise, not as a means to an ends on his own terms. He redeems himself, confessing his misadventures… and, as a result, Willy Wonka gives him his factory.

“How I love my chocolate factory,” said Mr Wonka, gazing down. Then he paused, and he turned around and looked at Charlie with a most serious expression on his face. “Do you love it too, Charlie?” he asked.

“Oh, yes,” cried Charlie, “I think it’s the most wonderful place in the whole world!”

“I am very pleased to hear you say that,” said Mr Wonka, looking more serious than ever. He went on staring at Charlie. “Yes,” he said, “I am very pleased indeed to hear you say that. And now I shall tell you why.” Mr Wonka cocked his head to one side and all at once the tiny twinkling wrinkles of a smile appeared around the corner of his eyes, and he said, “You see, my dear boy, I have decided to make you a present of the whole place. As soon as you are old enough to run it, the entire factory will become yours.”

And why? Why does he do this? He says there are all sorts of clever adults who’d do anything to take over from him — but they’d ruin it by not listening — by losing the magic. The key to paradise in Dahl’s world — in the Chocolate Factory — is to not lose the sense of wonder, the imagination, that makes Willy Wonka tick — that produces the sort of coherent world within that chocolate factory, or the sort of world Dahl would very much have liked — where parents are more like Danny’s dad than Matilda’s…

Lewis’ equivalent to chocolate cake is turkish delight, in the unforgettable scene where Edmund meets the White Witch for the first time.

“The Queen let another drop fall from her bottle on to the snow, and instantly there appeared a round box, tied with green silk ribbon, which, when opened, turned out to contain several pounds of the best Turkish Delight. Each piece was sweet and light to the very centre and Edmund had never tasted anything more delicious. He was quite warm now, and very comfortable.

While he was eating the Queen kept asking him questions. At first Edmund tried to remember that it is rude to speak with one’s mouth full, but soon he forgot about this and thought only of trying to shovel down as much Turkish Delight as he could, and the more he ate the more he wanted to eat, and he never asked himself why the Queen should be so inquisitive.

The Queen — the witch — promises more if he will become her creature, but he has to do her bidding first, before she’ll give him any more…

“Why not now?” said Edmund. His face had become very red and his mouth and fingers were sticky. He did not look either clever or handsome whatever the Queen might say.

It’s this desire that leads Edmund to betray his family, and Aslan, and that ultimately leads Aslan to lay down his life to rescue him.

He’s not the only one Lewis depicts being consumed by desire; Edmund’s cousin Eustace, the ‘boy who almost deserved it,’ came across a dragon’s lair filled with treasures. He was already greedy and selfish, and in this scene we get a little bit of what Lewis thinks about education for kids that is utterly without wonder  — it fails to prepare us for how to live as people:

“Most of us know what we should expect to find in a dragon’s lair, but, as I said before, Eustace had read only the wrong books. They had a lot to say about exports and imports and governments and drains, but they were weak on dragons.”

Eustace found treasure that he desired; he put on big golden bracelets, and went to sleep on the pile of gold, dreaming of his new power… only to wake up transformed by his desires into the dragon.

“Sleeping on a dragon’s hoard with greedy, dragonish thoughts in his heart, he had become a dragon himself.”

It’s fair to say Eustace didn’t want to be a dragon; he was helpless and crying when Aslan came along and cut him free from the dragon skin, he describes the transformation to Edmund.

“The very first tear he made was so deep that I thought it had gone right into my heart. And when he began pulling the skin off, it hurt worse than anything I’ve ever felt. The only thing that made me able to bear it was jut the pleasure of feeling the stuff peel off.  You know — if you’ve ever picked the scab of a sore place.  It hurts like billy-oh but it is such fun to see it coming away.”

“I know exactly what you mean,” said Edmund.

“Well, he peeled the beastly stuff right off – just as I thought I’d done it myself the other three times, only they hadn’t hurt – and there it was lying on the grass, only ever so much thicker, and darker, and more knobbly-looking than the others had been. And there was I smooth and soft as a peeled switch and smaller than I had been. Then he caught hold of me – I didn’t like that much for I was very tender underneath now that I’d no skin on — and threw me into the water. It smarted like anything but only for a moment. After that it became perfectly delicious and as soon as I started swimming and splashing I found that all the pain had gone from my arm. And then I saw why. I’d turned into a boy again.”

There are two main difference in Lewis’ stories that make him better than Dahl.

One, he offers hope for transformation for people trapped in the vicious cycle of desire and destruction. Eustace and Edmund are the sort of children who meet sticky ends in the Chocolate Factory — who are trapped, but in Lewis’ work these children are redeemed, because unlike Willy Wonka, Aslan is not a bystander who watches to see if these kids can save themselves — he enters the story to save. Aslan is a not-even-thinly veiled Jesus — in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader he tells the kids he exists in their world as Jesus — and this is what brings a certain sort of hope to Lewis’ stories, the kids aren’t the heroes — Jesus is.

Two, he actually wants us to take fairy-stories and the imagination seriously — to see them as where real adulthood — real humanity — is to be found.

Because he believed fairy stories are true and serious in a way Dahl did not.

For Lewis, wonder and enchantment flowed out of a sense that the world itself is miraculous and enchanted, he describes the moment he realised this in his book Surprised By Joy:

“For the first time, there burst upon me the idea that there might be real marvels all about us, that the visible world might be only a curtain to conceal huge realms uncharted by my very simple theology. And that started in me something with which, on and off, I have had plenty of trouble since—the desire for the preternatural, simply as such, the passion for the Occult. Not everyone has this disease; those who have will know what I mean. I once tried to describe it in a novel. It is a spiritual lust; and like the lust of the body it has the fatal power of making everything else in the world seem uninteresting while it lasts. It is probably this passion, more even than the desire for power, which makes magicians.”

C.S Lewis is serious about what Dahl jokes about; even as both want us to pursue a childlike wonder and joy. For Lewis these enchanted stories and our sense of wonder are small stories reflecting on the big story — the ‘myth that became history’ — the death and resurrection of Jesus. Which is a story that offers hope and transformation in the face of the mess we make of our lives through our misplaced desires — if only we can hold on to belief, to keep seeing the world as magic and Jesus as the Aslan of history — the redeemer who dies to free us from the cunning tempter, and cuts us free from the dragon-like mess we make of our own lives.

To ‘grow’ past that belief, in Lewis’ world, is what Susan did that kept her from the happy ending in the story — to let go of wonder in exchange for small trinkets in this world.

“My sister Susan,” answered Peter shortly and gravely, “is no longer a friend of Narnia.”

“Yes,” said Eustace, “and whenever you’ve tried to get her to come and talk about Narnia or do anything about Narnia, she says ‘What wonderful memories you have! Fancy your still thinking about all those funny games we used to play when we were children.”

“Oh Susan!” said Jill, “she’s interested in nothing now-a-days except nylons and lipstick and invitations. She always was a jolly sight to keen on being grown-up.”

“Grown-up, indeed,” said the Lady Polly. “I wish she would grow up. She wasted all her school time wanting to be the age she is now, and she’ll waste all the rest of her life trying to stay that age. He whole idea is to race on to the silliest time of one’s life as quick as she can and then stop there as long as she can.”


The author

Nathan loves stories. He gets to tell the greatest story in the world — the story of Jesus — as a job, and to his kids. But he also loves how many other stories help us see and feel our way through the world. And Like But Better is a way to bring these loves together.

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