Jack is reading The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe right now. He reads it to himself every night before lights-out, and he reads a couple pages to me each day so I know he’s reading the words correctly and understands what he’s reading. He is. He does. Which is pretty amazing, if you ask me, because C.S. Lewis’s language is complex, his sentences are complex, and Jack is a rather new reader.
Consider this paragraph (which I’ve broken up into smaller paragraphs because I knew that you, dear reader, probably wouldn’t read it if it were one big chunk of text; I know I wouldn’t), from the scene in which the children have a meal at the Beavers’:
You can think how good the new-caught fish smelled while they were frying and how the hungry children longed for them to be done and how very much hungrier still they had become before Mr. Beaver said, “Now we’re nearly ready.”
Susan drained the potatoes and then put them all back in the empty pot to dry on the side of the range while Lucy was helping Mrs. Beaver to dish up the trout, so that in a very few minutes everyone was drawing up their stools (it was all three-legged stools in the Beavers’ house except for Mrs. Beaver’s own special rocking chair beside the fire) and preparing to enjoy themselves.
There was a jug of creamy milk for the children (Mr. Beaver stuck to beer) and a great big lump of deep yellow butter in the middle of the table from which everyone took as much as he wanted to go with his potatoes, and all the children thought – and I agree with them – that there’s nothing to beat good freshwater fish if you eat it when it has been alive half an hour ago and has come out of the pan half a minute ago.
And when they had finished the fish Mrs. Beaver brought unexpectedly out of the oven a great and gloriously sticky marmalade roll, steaming hot, and at the same time moved the kettle onto the fire, so that when they had finished the marmalade roll the tea was made and ready to be poured out.
And when each person had got his (or her) cup of tea, each person shoved back his (or her) stool so as to be able to lean against the wall, and gave a long sigh of contentment.
What struck me about these sentences as I listened to Jack read them was how very long they are. I had never noticed this before – and I’ve read this book at least half a dozen times.
Here is a book whose primary audience is ostensibly 8- to 12-year-olds, and yet Lewis uses 291 words in just 5 sentences. The second sentence above is 71 words long; the third is 88. These same two sentences have sentences within them (couched in parentheses), and the third also has an aside in dashes. Add in the dependent clauses and compound sentences and you’ve got not just long sentences but grammatically complex ones.
But Lewis is such a good writer that he can get away with using 70+ word sentences on a regular basis (trust me, there are a whole lot more of them scattered throughout the book) without losing his young readers.
Granted, a long sentence isn’t cool just because it’s long (well, maybe it is); the content also needs to need a long sentence to express it. I wondered if Lewis’s sentences were long of necessity, so I tried revising them into shorter sentences. Here’s the second sentence above, cut into six smaller ones:
Susan drained the potatoes. She put them all back in the empty pot to dry on the side of the range. Lucy was helping Mrs. Beaver to dish up the trout. In a very few minutes everyone was drawing up their stools. (It was all three-legged stools in the Beavers’ house except for Mrs. Beaver’s own special rocking chair beside the fire.) Then they prepared to enjoy themselves.
It felt sacrilegious to me to mutilate Lewis’s sentence, especially since my revision is awful times two. First, my version is choppy; it keeps stopping and starting, instead of flowing smoothly from one thought to the next as the original did. Second, it eliminates all sense of connection among the clauses of the original sentence; Lewis used “and” twice and “so that” once, and for good reason: he wanted to show a sense of time passing, and of the children’s anticipation of this meal.
All the piling up of clauses one upon another creates anticipation that we as readers share; the commas keep coming, keep us waiting, and waiting, whetting our appetite along with the children’s, for the time when they finally get to dig into all that good food and eat. This sentence (and the paragraph in which it’s couched) had to be written this way in order to have that effect of accumulation, the steady accretion of clause upon clause, sentence upon sentence, detail upon detail, that leads, at the end of the paragraph, to the long sigh of contentment.
I suspect Lewis didn’t really think twice about the length of his sentences when he was writing them. I suspect he didn’t think twice about them when he was revising his manuscript. I suspect he was such a master of his words he didn’t need to.
I think he probably knew his audience would follow where he led them, and lead us he does, with confidence and ease, right through some fearsomely long sentences. And he’s such a master guide that we don’t even realize how difficult the terrain is.
That, my friends, is some dang good writing.