Why is this important? Because beauty never stands alone. It has friends who are always close at hand. Specifically, beauty forms a triad of transcendental qualities with truth and goodness. And this idea, originally proposed by Plato, subsequently affirmed throughout the history of philosophy, is important. The complementarity of the good, the beautiful, and the true is instructive. To acknowledge one quality is to affirm all three. Thus, when we see beauty, we should anticipate verity and virtue. By contrast, when true beauty is lacking, we find deceit and corruption. This principle becomes particularly important when considering children’s stories.
Narratives written for young people will often take place in the realm of make-believe. They do not claim to depict a world that is real. The fantastic nature of the story is clear. At the same time, they do intend to educate. Having captured the mind and the heart through an imaginary sphere of existence, they commend universal truths to the child that he or she will need in the real world. For this reason, it is a weighty responsibility to assume the role of children’s author. Your task is not to entertain. Rather, you are to captivate your readers with a world that appeals to their childish ways while at the same time instructing them concerning the nature of life and the principles by which they should eventually live.
Generally, the most successful children’s stories are those where the divide between good and evil is clear. The child is not confused. He is not second-guessing the behavior of certain characters. Rather, he is confident that he has made the correct assessment of key individuals. A simple means by which the author can achieve such clarity is to ensure that the countenance of each character befits his behavior. Words and actions should be complemented by appearance. Thus, in his demeanor the hero commends himself to us. In like manner, we are disquieted by the presentation of the villain.
On this point the brilliance of Lewis is clear. Aslan is the king of Narnia. More than that, he is a savior. This message is communicated not only by what he says and does but by how he appears: as a lion. Indeed, it is not merely that in Narnia the line between form and content is consistently straight but that the king inheres a transcendental dynamic. He is good, beautiful, and true. All that he does is right, everything he says is correct, and he is a lion. While other characters in the story invert these qualities, and some must learn them, the central character exudes all three. For this reason, it should not surprise us that Lewis’ story has stood the test of time. Since the 1950s, children have been journeying to Narnia. They go for pleasure. They receive instruction, especially with respect to the transcendentals.
The immediate significance of this observation is relatively minor. Most probably you will enjoy The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe more the next time you read it. Understanding why a story works invariably leads to a greater appreciation that it works. However, there is a less direct implication that is more important: one that reaches far beyond our consideration of Narnia.
The topic of beauty has been largely eclipsed in recent times. Though previous generations gave much time and energy to the pursuit of it, today beauty is generally misunderstood or altogether overlooked. The causal factors are many, though the rise of utilitarianism has undoubtedly played a significant role. From the individual to the societal level, we have forged a tight connection between function and worth. If we can identify a level of utility, then we attribute value. Most other things fall by the wayside. Thus, as we have been trained to esteem output, we have done so at the expense of beholding beauty. We prize product, not majesty.
The problems with this approach to life are many, not least that we frequently miss out on a type of pleasure similar to what children experience when reading Narnia. Though we commend the ten-year-old to invest his time into a close reading of Lewis’ story, we willingly bypass countless, more tangible expressions of beauty because we are too busy. Somewhat related, a second problem with our utilitarian age is that when we stop pursuing beauty, we deprive ourselves of an education in truth and goodness. The three transcendental qualities are inextricably connected. Devaluing one has consequences for our perception of the others. As such, ours is an age in which we are less skilled in the perception of what is moral and just, because we have forsaken beauty.