A young reader's letter never went unanswered by C.S. Lewis. The author's replies are rich in humor, wisdom

In crafting ``The Chronicles of Narnia'' - seven magical novels about a land and people of rich and textured fantasy - C.S. Lewis sent a multipage ``letter'' of delight to every child in the English-speaking world. ``Narnia'' ensures Lewis's long-term place in the world of fine-quality children's (and adults') authors, which includes such timeless masters as J.B. Barrie, A.A. Milne, T.H. White, J.R.R. Tolkien, E.B. White - and perhaps, to future critics, Susan Cooper.

Through the years, young readers of ``Narnia'' have ``answered'' Lewis's seven-book-long letter with countless replies.

Lewis is said to have responded to every one. ``The funny thing,'' he said, ``is that I was far worse about writing letters when I had far fewer to write; now that I have such a lot to write, I've just got to do them all at once, first thing every morning.''

Published in 1985, C.S. Lewis's Letters to Children (Macmillan, $9.95), edited by Lyle W. Dorsett and Marjorie Lamp Mead, is a charming, somewhat ignored compilation of Lewis's kind responses to these ingenuous letters from the young - and a fine way to get to know him better.

Although the body of this slight book opens with ``A Note to Children,'' the text is preceded and followed by a number of scholarly trappings: foreword, introduction, bibliography, footnotes.

But they don't get much in the way and for older readers provide a bridge to the fuller body of Lewis's work.

Throughout most of the letters is a tendency toward childlike mirth. Here's a sampling:

``I have done lots of dish-washing in my time and I have often been read to, but I never thought of your very sensible idea of doing both together. How many plates do you smash in a month?''

``I am thrilled to hear that your street runs North as well as South, because in this country all streets (and even country roads) run in two directions at the same time. They are trained to change the moment you turn around. What is even cleverer of them they turn their right side into their left side at the same time. I've never known it to fail.''

At the same time, underpinning Lewis's thinking is the clearheaded Christian faith and high-toned morality seen as much in ``Narnia'' as in his other, so-called ``more serious'' writings. His Christian qualities appear here in such a simple passage as:

``It is nice to like anything but specially nice - almost a kind of victory - to learn to like what at first seemed hateful.''

And Christian morality comes through even more broadly in this discussion of having fun versus being good versus being dutiful:

I don't think being good always goes with having fun: a martyr being tortured by Nero, or a resistance movement man refusing to give away his friend when tortured by the Germans, were being good but not having fun. And even in ordinary life there are things that w[oul]d. be fun to me but I mustn't do them because they w[oul]d. spoil other people's fun ....

A perfect man w[oul]d. never act from sense of duty; he'd always want the right thing more than the wrong one. Duty is only a substitute for love (of God and of other people), like a crutch, which is a substitute for a leg. Most of us need the crutch at times; but of course it's idiotic to use the crutch when our own legs (our own loves, tastes, habits etc) can do the journey on their own!

Many of the children who wrote to Lewis sent him poems or stories for him to critique. He apparently read each submission, and with gentleness and affection offered some short, to-the-point advice or background for each one. For example:

A strict allegory is like a puzzle with a solution: a great romance is like a flower whose smell reminds you of something you can't quite place. I think the something is `the whole quality of life as we actually experience it.' You can have a realistic story in which all the things and people are exactly like those we meet in real life, but the quality, the feel or texture or smell, of it is not.

On creativity and criticism:

All I can tell you is that pictures come into my head and I write stories about them. I don't know how or why the pictures come.

Remember this if you ever become a critic: say what the work is like, but if you start explaining how it came to be like that (in other words, inventing the history of the composition) you will nearly always be wrong.

Lewis once wrote to a little girl:

``Everyone is pleased, you know, to be appreciated, even elderly authors!'' Reading ``C.S. Lewis's Letters to Children,'' one establishes or renews an appreciation for an author who never became ``elderly'' in his creativity or Christianity.

Faith and imagination kept part of him a perennial and delightful child.

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