So we're watching Prince Caspian, Disney's second live-action Narnia movie. Benjamin, my 12-year-old son, is enjoying a cool action film with high-budget CGI. And sitting next to him in the same theater, theoretically watching the same movie, I have tears streaming down my face.
I'm not sad. I don't even know how to describe what I'm feeling. It's an intense feeling of longing, of nostalgia even...but I do not mean "Oh, for the childhood days when I first read these stories." I felt nostalgic the first time I read them, say around sixth grade. So it's not that Kenny-now is nostalgic for Kenny-then; it's that Kenny-now and Kenny-then are both the same sort of person, and we are moved by the same things. C.S. Lewis was that sort of person, too. So is someone on Disney's Narnia-movie staff. I can smell that sort of person a mile away.
This essay is an Apology (in the older sense of that term) for that sort of person.
I spent my childhood immersed in worlds of fantasy. The Shire, the Daily Planet, and the Enterprise were more substantial to me than Raleigh, Newsweek, and the school bus. The worlds were vivid, the characters were alive, and the decisions mattered. In school, where I was a social and academic misfit, nothing seemed to matter much at all.
The defining myths of my childhood were Alexander Key's The Forgotten Door and Escape to Witch Mountain. The misfit children in Key's books had powers, but more importantly, they dimly knew about another place. Sometimes they wondered if they were just imagining it, but the faint glimpses, or memories, kept returning. Andthis really is the key pointthose glimpses turned out to be completely and literally true. The other place was as real as this world, more real than this world, and it was where they belonged.
In another booka book that I treasured, read and re-read, and now I have no idea what it was called or who it was by or how to find itthe magical woodland creatures are invisible except to children with "clear eyes." I knew there were only a few of us.
Fast forwardfive years agoI watch Witch Mountain with 9-year-old Mary. The story is as haunting as when I was a child. The vague memories, or are they dreams? A ship, a man...yes! Yes, that's it! Keep going for it, it's out there!
Mary enjoys the movie, it's fun, and she moves on. She has no particular need to escape to Witch Mountain herself. Her Waldorf teachers are gentle and wise, her social skills are more developed than mine will ever be, she has more friends than she can possibly see, and, in short, the real world is exactly where she belongs. All my wildest parenting dreams have come true. So why do I feel so sad? Why do I want to show her the movie again, and say "Don't you see it? Don't you see it?"
Which brings me to the current day, and Prince Caspian, which Benjamin also thought was fun.
In Prince Caspian, the four Pevensie children return to Narnia to discover that a hundred years have passed. Everyone they knewMr. and Mrs. Beaver, Mr. Tumnus, et alis long dead. Cair Paravel, where they ruled for a Golden Age, is in ruins. More importantly, an upstart race of men called the Telmarines has taken over Narnia. The talking animals and magical creatures have been driven underground and are widely considered a myth. (*Can you see what this man-vs-myth battle symbolizes to me?)
Walking through the woods, the four children make camp and quickly fall asleepexcept Lucy.
Through a gap in the bracken and branches [Lucy] could just see a patch of water in the Creek and the sky above it. Then, with a thrill of memory, she saw again, after all those years, the bright Narnian stars. She had once known them better than the stars of our own world, because as a queen in Narnia she had gone to bed much later than as a child in England. And there they wereat least, three of the summer constellations could be seen from where she lay; the Ship, the Hammer, and the Leopard. "Dear old Leopard," she murmured happily to herself.You would think they would leave that scene out of the movie, wouldn't you? But they didn't. They represented it beautifully with wind-blown leaves that almost form into a human dancing figure...and then don't. Somebody on the Disney staff knows what Lucy feels like in that moment. Somebody has had a few moments of his own.
Instead of getting drowsier she was getting more awakewith an odd, night-time, dreamish kind of wakefulness. The Creek was growing brighter. She knew now that the moon was on it, though she couldn't see the moon. And now she began to feel that the whole forest was coming awake like herself. Hardly knowing why she did it, she got up quickly and walked a little distance away from their bivouac.
"This is lovely," said Lucy to herself. It was cool and fresh; delicious smells were floating everywhere. Somewhere close by she heard the twitter of a nightingale beginning to sing, then stopping, then beginning again. It was a little lighter ahead. She went towards the light and came to a place where there were fewer trees, and whole patches or pools of moonlight, but the moonlight and the shadows so mixed that you could hardly be sure where anything was or what it was. At the same moment the nightingale, satisfied at last with his tuning up, burst into full song.
Lucy's eyes began to grow accustomed to the light, and she saw the trees that were nearest her more distinctly. A great longing for the old days when the trees could talk in Narnia came over her. She knew exactly how each of these trees would talk if only she could wake them, and what sort of human form it would put on. She looked at a silver birch: it would have a soft, showery voice and would look like a slender girl, with hair blown all about her face, and fond of dancing. She looked at the oak: he would be a wizened, but hearty old man with a frizzled bear and warts on his face and hands, and hair growing out of the warts. She looked at the beech under which she was standing. Ahshe would be the best of all. She would be a gracious goddess, smooth and stately, the lady of the wood.
"Oh, Trees, Trees, Trees," said Lucy (though she had not been intending to speak at all). "Oh, Trees, wake, wake, wake. Don't you remember it? Don't you remember me? Dryads and Hamadryads, come out, come to me."
Though there was not a breath of wind they all stirred about her. The rustling noise of the leaves was almost like words. The nightingale stopped singing as if to listen to it. Lucy felt that at any moment she would begin to understand what the Trees were trying to say. But the moment did not come. The rustling died away. The nightingale resumed its song. Even in the moonlight the wood looked more ordinary again. Yet Lucy had the feeling (as you sometimes have when you are trying to remember a name or a date and almost get it, but it vanishes before you really do) that she had just missed something: as if she had spoken to the trees a split second too soon or a split second too late, or used all the right words except one; or put in that one word that was just wrong.
Quite suddenly she began to feel tired. She went back to the bivouac, snuggled down between Susan and Peter, and was asleep in a few minutes.
Benjamin didn't particularly notice that scene. The books, and the movies, stir excitement in himnot longing. It's a part of me that I will never be able to share with my four children, with the possible exception of sparkling, moody, melancholic Jack. I ache for them because they don't get it, and I ache for him because he might.
And what happens when the dreamer grows up? I cannot "live into" the stories any more, as the Waldorf folks say. The Guardians of Oa are not about to show up, any minute now, with my power ring.
But my adult life has been dominated with spiritual seeking, and the connection is too obvious to pass over. You can think about this in a cynical way, if you like: I'm still escaping from the real world. When I grew too sophisticated for talking lions, I simply adopted a more impressive-sounding fantasy with a lot of big words.
But you can also frame the same idea in the opposite way. Maybe "that sort of person" begins life with a spiritual intuition of a deeper reality that underlies the world of appearances. As children, we have to interpret that intuition in a physical way, until we are old enough to start looking for the real thing.
From Prince Caspian again:
"Was that what Aslan was talking to you and Susan about this morning?" asked Lucy.Lucy's turn does come, at the end of The Voyage of the Dawn Treader:
"Yesthat and other things," said Peter, his face very solemn. "I can't tell it to you all. There were things he wanted to say to Su and me because we're not coming back to Narnia."
"Never?" cried Edmund and Lucy in dismay.
"Oh, you two are," answered Peter. "At least, from what he said, I'm pretty sure he means you to get back some day. But not Su and me. He says we're getting too old."
"Oh, Peter," said Lucy. "What awful bad luck. Can you bear it?"
"Well, I think I can," said Peter. "It's all rather different from what I thought. You'll understand when it comes to your last time."
"Dearest," said Aslan very gently, "You and your brother will never come back to Narnia."
"Oh, Aslan," said Edmund and Lucy both together in despairing voices.
"You are too old, children," said Aslan, "and you must begin to come close to your own world now."
"It isn't Narnia, you know," sobbed Lucy. "It's you. We shan't meet you there. And how can we live, never meeting you?"
"But you shall meet me, dear one," said Aslan.
"Areare you there too, Sir?" said Edmund.
"I am," said Aslan. "But there I have another name. You must learn to know me by that name. This was the very reason why you were brought to Narnia, that by knowing me here for a little, you may know me better there."
Yeah. Those stories stuck with me, too. And left alone long enough, I start expecting to see glimpses of the other world, even still. But it takes a while of being away.
We've discussed the fact that this is a core piece of the Christian world viewthat we're really not from here, that we're just passing through, and we'll always be homesick and looking for something just out of reach while we're in the world. But few stories really capture that feeling so well. And, frankly, I think few people who even profess to believe it have the fortitude to look that possibility in the face. "What awful bad luck. Can you bear it?" I think I would have burst into tears if Lucy had asked that question so baldly.
A beautiful essay, Kenny. It made me think about how my two boys react to what they read and how they compare to the way I was so absorbed in these books when I was young. The two of them are so different from me and from each other and it is fascinating to think about how they will change as they grow. Evan is constantly reading and loves science fiction and fantasy but I don't think he has that same sense of longing that I did. Nathan, on the other hand...He is not nearly the Devourer of Books that Evan is but I think his nature is closer to my own. The only books that really captured him were the Spiderwick Chronicles and he was so absorbed in them, to the extent that he was heartbroken when he finished them because they were over and he would "never read anything as good as that again." He told us more than once that he wished the world really did have magical creatures in it, or that he could go to a world like that one, and that the world "just isn't exciting enough."
I wish I could find more books for Nathan that would engage him but so far he isn't willing to give longer books a try and he's not patient enough to listen to someone else read a longer story aloud (Evan had a similar attitude but at that point could read longer books for himself). I hope that third grade will give him more confidence in his reading skills. There are so many good books out there waiting for him...
I remember the part at the beginning of Mary Poppins (I think it was?) when the children lost the ability to talk to and understand the animals. I remember believing that, for some children, the ability probably did exist very early on and that some lucky souls kept at least a shadow of that ability but I'd probably never had it.
It's as if people who write stuff like that believe we must have a certain amount of innocence in order to connect so well to the rest of the universe – that loss of innocence is what disconnects us. However, I get the vague sense from you and others I've spoken to about spiritual enlightenment that it's not innocence that disconnects us; it's concentrating too much on the daily and the mundane and losing the wonder and clarity we had before we filled our days w/ the mundane. Anyway…
I can't recall the age group the Zenna Henderson is aimed at but Anne's son might appreciate the Anything Box. You might too if you haven't read it :-)
It is indeed Mary Poppins, but it isn't toward the beginningquite close to the end of the bookbecause it isn't Michael and Jane, but their baby siblings John and Barbara. In any case, you've got it: that scene has that sense of nostalgia, and loss, and forgetting, that I'm talking about.
On your other point, I honestly have no idea what disconnects us from enlightenment. But I think that in one way enlightenment involves a regression to childhood innocence, and in another way it's totally different. Imagine having a child's ability to completely immerse yourself in a model train set, a dollhouse, a fairy tale, or a sunset; but also retaining an adult sense of context and perspective. I think that's a little bit of what enlightenment is.
I have to think about this one a while. Most of the other essays felt like ideas or experiences that I've talked to you a lot about and mostly have my own takes on them, but this one was different. I clearly lived most of my childhood in worlds other than this one. In some ways I still do. I started to say that you are correct that I don't do so in as literal a way as I did when I was child, but that's not clear. I still spend a lot of time playing out fantasies in my head, which are as likely to be of bad things happening as of good. What if I could suddenly turn invisible? What if Rosemary contracted that bizarre, rare disease where people go to sleep and don't wake up for years? (Yes, it really happens.) What if adult Gary's mind were suddenly sent back in time into childhood Gary's body? (That's a mix of very good and very bad things.) I do spend lots of time out of this world thinking about very abstract things like chess programs, the meaning of life, or how matter can have consciousness, but I did that to some extent when I was little too.
More to the point perhaps, I have thought many, many times about how strong a feeling nostalgia is for me. I get nostalgic about good times, about bad times, about missed opportunities, and about outright fantasies. I've thought many times about what that says about me, and I tend to think of it as unhealthy, but it is clearly a major defining characteristic of who I am.
On a very different note, it is always oddly comforting to me that you can drop casual references to "Guardians of Oa." I'm not suggesting that you were thinking of this when you wrote it, but to me it felt like that reference was in there for me.
The difference between adult-fantasy and child-fantasy is huge, and I keep coming back to the Waldorf phrase: children "live into" the fantasy. It's not that the childhood fantasies are more "vivid" or "colorful" or "detailed" than the adult; it's that they feel so much more integral to your sense of reality.
For anyone reading through this comment stream, I want to direct you to the blog Georg Buehler wrote after he read this essay:
After knowing Georg for almost twenty years, intimately, I never realized how much he would resonate with this one. He captures it beautifully.
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