Photo David Norris
When this book first came to my mind it came as a history and theory of the building of Magic Cities on tables, with bricks and toys and little things such as a child may find and use. But as I kept the thought by me it grew and changed, as thoughts will do, until at last it took shape as an attempt to contribute something, however small and unworthy, to the science of building a magic city in the soul of a child, a city built of all things pure and fine and beautiful. As you read, it will, I hope, seem to you that something of what I say is true — in much, no doubt, it will seem to you that I am mistaken; but however you may disagree with me, you will, I trust, at least have faith in the honesty of my purpose. If I seem to you to be too dogmatic, to lay down the law too much as though I were the teacher and you the learner, I beg you to believe that it is in no such spirit that I have written. Rather it is as though you and I, spending a quiet eveningby your fire, talked together of the things that matter, and as though I laid before you all the things that were in my heart — not stopping at every turn to say “Do you not think so too?” and “I hope you agree with me?” but telling you, straight from the heart, what I have felt and thought and, I humbly say, known about children and the needs of children. I have talked to you as to a friend, without the reservations and apologies which we use with strangers. And if, in anything, I shall have offended you, I entreat you to extend to me the forgiveness and the forbearance which you would exercise towards a friend who had offended you, not meaning to offend, and to believe that I have spoken to you as frankly and plainly as I would wish you to speak to me, were you the writer and I the reader.
It is not with any pretension to special knowledge of my subject that I set out to write down what I know about children. I have no special means of knowing anything: I do, in fact, know nothing that cannot be known by any one who will go to the only fount of knowledge, experience. And by experience I do not mean scientific experience, that is the recorded results of experiments, the tabulated knowledge wrung from observation; I mean personal experience, that is to say, memory.
You may observe the actions of children and chronicle their sayings, and produce from these, perhaps, a lifelike sketch of a child, as it appears to the grown-up observer; but observation is no key to the inner mysteries of a child’s soul. The only key to those mysteries is in knowledge, the knowledge of what you yourself felt when you were good and little and a child. You can remember how things looked to you, and how thingslooked to the other children who were your intimates.
Our own childhood, besides furnishing us with an exhaustless store of enlightening memories, furnishes us with the one opportunity of our lives for the observation of children — other children. There is a freemasonry between children, a spontaneous confidence and give-and-take which is and must be for ever impossible between children and grown-ups, no matter how sympathetic the grown-up, how confiding the child. Between the child and the grown-up there is a great gulf fixed — and this gulf, the gulf between one generation and another, can never be really bridged. You may learn to see across it, a little, or sometimes in rare cases to lean very far across it so that you can just touch the tips of the little fingers held out from the other side.
But if your dealings with those on the other side of the gulf are to be just, generous, noble, and helpful, they must be motived and coloured by your memories of the time when you yourself were on the other side — when you were a child full of your own hopes, dreams, aims, interests, instincts, and imaginings, and over against you, kindly perhaps, tenderly loving, often tenderly loved, but still in some mysterious way antagonistic and counting as “Them,” werethe grown-ups. I might say elders, parents, teachers, spiritual pastors and masters, but the word which the child himself uses seems to me, for all reasons, to be the best word for my use, because it expresses fully and finally the nature of the gulf between. The grown-ups are the people who once were children and who have forgotten what it felt like to be a child.
And Time marks with the same outward brand those who have forgotten and those who do not forget. So that even the few who have managed to slip past the Customs-house with their bundle of memories intact can never fully display them. These are a sort of contraband, and neither the children nor the grown-ups will ever believe that that which we have brought with us from the land of childhood is genuine.
The grown-ups accuse us of invention, sometimes praise us for it, when all we have is memory; and the children imagine that we must have been watching them, and thus surprised a few of their secrets, when all that we have is the secrets which were our own when we were children — secrets which were so bound up with the fibre of our nature that we could never lose them, and so go through life with them, our dearest treasures. Such people feel to the end that they are children in a grown-upworld.
For a middle-aged gentleman with a beard or a stout elderly lady with spectacles to move among other elderly and spectacled persons feeling that they are still children, and that the other elderly and spectacled ones are really grown-ups, seems thoroughly unreasonable, and therefore those who have never forgotten do not, as a rule, say anything about it. They just mingle with the other people, looking as grown-up as any one — but in their hearts they are only pretending to be grown-up: it is like acting in a charade.
Time with his make-up box of lines and wrinkles, his skilful brush that paints out the tints and the contours of youth, his supply of grey wigs and rounded shoulders and pillows for the waist, disguises the actors well enough, and they go through life altogether unsuspected. The tired eyes close on a world which to them has always been the child’s world, the tired hands loose the earthly possessions which have, to them, been ever the toys of the child. And deep in their hearts is the faith and the hope that in the life to come it may not be necessary to pretend to be grown-up.
Such people as these are never pessimists, though they may be sinners; and they will be trusting, to the verge of what a real grown-up would call imbecility. To them the world willbe, from first to last, a beautiful place, and every unbeautiful thing will be a surprise, hurting them like a sudden blow.
They will never learn prudence, or parsimony, nor know, with the unerring instinct of the really grown-up, the things that are or are not done by the best people. All their lives they will love, and expect love — and be sad, wondering helplessly when they do not get it.