“One autumn when the nuts were ripe, and the leaves on the hazel bushes were golden and green, Nutkin and Twinkleberry and all the other little squirrels came out of the wood, and down to the edge of the lake.” So begins The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin, an early tale by Beatrix Potter written in 1903.[1] These words not only inspire seasonal longing in readers today, but they also harvested Joy in one very famous reader, Clive Staples Lewis, over one hundred years ago. Potter’s natural artwork and her daring animal tales extracted this unarticulated divine longing within Lewis which he termed Joy and describes in his autobiography, Surprised by Joy.

Lewis relates three specific encounters in his young childhood that gave him Joy. The first was a vague memory of a “toy garden” which gave him an impression of beauty. The second was the above encounter with “The Idea of Autumn”[2] in the The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin, and the third was through the poem by Longfellow, Saga of King Olaf, which left a memory of the “cold, spacious, severe, pale, and remote” Norse landscape.[3] Later he describes other Joy-filled encounters with literature and music (most notable was Richard Wagner’s The Ring of the Nibelungen).[4] It might be easier to see how epic literature or music dramas (Wagner and otherwise) inspired someone like Lewis, but Beatrix Potter tales? William Ross Wallace says in his poem by the same title that “The hand that rocks the cradle rules the world.”[5] One might also expand that saying to “The stories read at the cradle inspire the influencers of the world.” It seems that Potter’s tiny tales moved the heart of a lion.

Potter’s Scrupulous Observation

Potter’s observation and love of her subjects and audience led her to illustrate with realism and sincerity, allowing readers to attend well. Furthermore, her stories capture the nature of human truths in a way with which children can connect in a lifelong manner. It is important first to peer into the background of this notable woman and observe how the context of her life and nature of her talents affected her works. Beatrix Potter was born on July 28, 1866 to an upper-middle class family in London. Her early life exemplified proper Victorian upbringing: she wanted for nothing, however she endured an isolated existence. Her days were filled learning the decorum proper for a young lady her age. Fortunately, her artistic talents were encouraged by her father, and she was able to spend many hours drawing the menagerie of live animals she was allowed to keep in her rooms upstairs.[6] Years of observing nature as a child allowed Beatrix Potter to attend to important details. Sir John Everett Millais, a famous pre-Raphaelite painter who graced the Potter’s home frequently, once told Potter, “Plenty of people can draw, but you and my son John have observation.”[7] These early experiences fueled her ideas for later children’s books.

Although Potter lived primarily in London, she spent many of her early days in the woodland landscapes of Camfield Place in Hatfield, Hertfordshire, her Potter grandparent’s home, and Dalguise, the family Holiday house in Perthshire, Scotland. Camfield awakened her own senses with the colors of the countryside, the routines of farm life, and an old house to explore. Dalguise, the “home to her heart,” outshone all other landscapes with its rugged, untamed beauty. There she began to devote her life to the aesthetic value of nature evident in her drawings and illustrations.[8]

As Lewis remembers awakening to Joy with the landscapes of stories, Potter remembers awakening to the Joy of beauty through observing the landscape of nature. Potter recalls that, “Even when the thunder growling in the distance, and the wind swept up the valley in fitful gusts, oh, it was always beautiful, home sweet home…”[9] Before Potter wrote and illustrated children’s books, she attempted to study mycology (fungi). During her many long stays in the countryside, she interacted with many types of mushrooms and discussed her findings with resident expert in the village, Charles McIntosh. He encouraged her to be as detailed in her drawings, showing the beauty of the fungi gills from a distinct perspective.[10] Her mushroom drawings are works of art and illustrate how her distinct gift for observation and detail allowed her to capture natural beauty (see fig.1). At one time, Potter sent her research to the Linnean Society, an assembly of scholars dedicated to natural history and taxonomy, but they rejected the work since she was a female. She was not taken seriously even though time proved her research was correct.[11] Her work as a researcher and illustrator of mycology illuminates her serious attention to detail and the accuracy of microscopic specimens.

Fig 1.[12]

From the time Potter was fourteen years old until her thirties, she kept a detailed diary. The word “detail” must be highlighted because Potter gives meticulous accounts about her days spent at her home in London, her family’s schedule, her trips to the art museum, conversations with John Millais, and her observations of the countryside. No event seems to be left unattended from the duteous eye and thorough pen of Beatrix Potter. Her narrations of each daily happening allows one to correlate the personality of her pen to the personality of her paintbrush — both painstakingly detailed. For example, her description of a field trip to the London Winter Exhibition in 1883 reveals a sense of attention to every feature. She was seventeen years of age. The exhibit focused on the Old Masters of the Renaissance. She says on January 13, 1883:

Of the Italian School I suppose I should speak first of Michelangelo, but I was disappointed with his picture, or rather several small panels. The colour was beautiful but painfully brilliant and hard. The small heads of the two monks by Fra Bartolomeo, St Francis and St Dominic, were quiet enough in colour but otherwise uninteresting. Two works by Paolo Veronese and Tintoretto I liked better, the former being noticeable for the colour, the latter for the grouping of the figures.[13]

It is not surprising that her detailed eye for critiquing art translated to fine intricacies for her children’s book capturing stories about rabbits, squirrels, mice, geese, and the surrounding landscape — immersing a child into the natural world within a tiny book.

Tales of Dangerous Truth

Potter’s artistic attention to the detail of nature was not the only strength of her books. According to David Hicks, “A good myth, like a good map, enables the wanderer to survive, perhaps even to flourish, in the wilderness” and “one’s chance of survival in a wilderness are greater when one is not alone.”[14] Stories provide a common artifact for children  to interpret their world. Potter’s strength as a detailed illustrator and engaging storyteller helped her relate effectively to children. Her tales are considered by many to be in the category of a  “fairy tale” because they have “moral elements” and offer prohibitions (though Tolkien considered them more specifically “beast-fables”).[15]  In essence, stories like those written by Beatrix Potter offer a shared, wise experience for others.

For each young reader, the tales of Beatrix Potter contain wisdom for living. The Tale of Peter Rabbit, for instance, describes a family of four bunnies and their poor single mother. It seems that Flopsy, Mopsy, and Cottontail align with their mother’s expectations, but Peter represents the child who needs to push the boundary and do things his own way. After being sent out and told not to enter Mr. McGregor’s Garden, he disobeys. How relatable this story is to young children who find themselves in naughty situations. Sure enough, Peter is almost caught (see fig 2). He barely survives being placed in a pie by the skin of his teeth. He races home unscathed yet without his little clothing. He falls into bed alive, but thoroughly befuddled.[16]

Potter addresses moral truths such as temperance and prudence which children  understand by a combination of detailed pictures and a relatable yet harrowing adventure  which ends with the final safety of home. As Rebecca Luce-Kapler says in “The Seeing Eye of Beatrix Potter,” “Predators and death are not denied or softened with humor.”[17] Potter does not eliminate danger and the consequences of disobedience in her story. Death is imminent and Peter suffers for his mistake. The relief a child feels at the story’s end is quite real and memorable.

Fig 2.[18]

Squirrel Nutkin also suffers loss, but not his clothes. Naughty Nutkin pesters the owl, Old Brown, with his foolishness one too many times. He falls out of line with the other reverent squirrels and the consequences are great. Whether this is a warning to children to behave appropriately or a warning to children that unique behavior is not appreciated, no one is sure. What is certain is that stepping out of line has consequences: Squirrel Nutkin is dismembered — his tail gone forever (see fig 3).[19]

Fig 3.[20]

Potter’s tales give children a safe place to live out danger in story. The art and beauty of her stories allow the child to see a situation of decision and consequence play out before their very eyes and reveal that life is hard, there is danger, but there is hope. Luce-Kapler highlights the moral stories and the way in which they allow children to safely unfold poor decisions and their forthcoming consequences. According to Luce-Kapler, Potter  accomplishes this with “proper gravity” mixed with a “light relief and a sense of comedy.” Children receive a strong, truthful message but with a spoonful of sugar.[21]

Tales of Love

Potter effectively conveys her love for her characters and her audience. Her first story was originally written to someone she loved — a personal story for a friend’s sick child. She draws what she knows and writes for whom she loves, and this comes across in each little book. “Frogs and hedgehogs do not seem likely choices for storybook characters — or pets — but Potter was unusual in her ability to realize the charms of nearly all animal behavior” says Catherine Golden in “Beatrix Potter: Naturalist Artist.”[22] Potter’s woodland creatures were real because she truly loved them. And she loved her audience. Wendell Berry says, “love makes language exact, because one loves only what one knows.”[23]

Potter’s precise language and detailed illustrations make it clear she is speaking from knowledge and love. “The notability of her work is based upon a naturalist loving observation of animal lives and on an imaginative understanding of its character.”[24]  Messer confirms this in his article about Beatrix Potter which he wrote to understand why Potter’s books were still cherished by children in 1968. In his summary he writes, “Beatrix Potter put all of her heart, her mind, and her soul into her little ‘Tales.’ They were not written for fame or for money but for the love of the work itself, the love of the little creatures and their animal natures, the love of their country backgrounds . . . Her kind of love is reassuring to children.”[25] Children naturally draw near to love. This love would not have been lost on Lewis. The sense of experiencing autumn again and again is a true memory that stayed with him forever and taught him how to love beauty. Potter’s special  relationship with children is defined by Susan Sheftiel, child psychologist. She explains how Potter’s art reveals the special point of view from the child giving them a “markedness” or an “empathetic quality that distinguishes successful interactions with young children.” Potter gives this special point of view as  a gift to children in their childhood through her art and story.[26] For a child, the joy of seeing little animals anthropomorphically wearing tiny clothing and shoes performing human tasks, links her child audience and the protagonists to a grown-up world.[27] In essence, Potter’s illustrations which brought attention to specimen details naturally led children, including Lewis, to attend as well. Through Potter’s work, Lewis experienced a longing for something not yet known and a reservoir of Joy-filled memory which allowed Lewis to later articulate the truth of Christianity in story and apologetic works.

C.S. Lewis Receives Joy

The works of Beatrix Potter fell on the ripe soil of Lewis’s tender young soul. The circumstances of his early life intersected with Potter’s works. Lewis was born at the end of the Victorian period in 1898 in Belfast, Ireland. Potter was just a few years away from publishing her first children’s story, The Tale of Peter Rabbit in 1902. Because Lewis was from an educated family, he had access to a library and his Victorian-era nursery was likely populated with children’s books, a popular yet new genre at that time so it is not surprising that during his early childhood years he encountered the tiny books of Beatrix Potter. His parents “were bookish or ‘clever’ people” and both were fond of reading, although his mother was not fond of poetry.[28] Lewis recollects that his childhood, though pleasant and relatively happy, was absent of visual beauty:

No picture on the walls of my father’s house ever attracted—and indeed none deserved—our attention. We never saw a beautiful building nor imagined that building could be beautiful. My earliest aesthetic experiences, if indeed they were aesthetic, were not of that kind; they were already incurably romantic, not formal.[29]

As mentioned before, his first encounter with this type of romantic aesthetic experience which created Joy was a toy garden placed in a tin, full of moss, twigs, and flowers. It was beautiful to him because it made him aware of beauty in nature. This memory, though unarticulated until he wrote his memoirs in Surprised by Joy, was an important impression.[30] James S. Taylor might identify this experience as “poetic.” In his book, Poetic Knowledge: The Recovery of Education, he states, “Poetic experience indicates an encounter with reality that is nonanalytical, something that is perceived as beautiful, awful (aweful), spontaneous, mysterious.”[31] Lewis’s first poetic experience of Joy perceived beauty which created a longing for divine reality beyond the visible.

Encounters with books such as Squirrel Nutkin provided more poetic moments of unarticulated knowledge and Joy. He says, “Of the books that I read at this time (when he was around 6-7 years of age) very few have quite faded from memory, but not all have retained my love.”[32] After listing the initial books read, he ends the section, “Then came the Beatrix Potter books, and here at last beauty.”[33] He recalls several glimpses of Joy, one which was specifically related to The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin.

Repeated encounters with Squirrel Nutkin created “a sensation, of course, of desire; but desire for what?” He goes on to say, “Before I knew what I desired, the desire itself was gone, the whole glimpse . . . withdrawn, the world turned commonplace again, or only stirred by a longing for the longing that had just ceased.”[34] Time and again, Lewis would return to The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin (see fig 4) to “reawaken” the “Idea of Autumn” for which he had a desire and “in this experience also there was the same surprise and same sense of incalculable importance.”[35] This memory would perpetuate wonder and Joy which he eventually shared with others. They were integral to his interpretation of truths and his coming to Christian faith.

Fig 4.[36]

Lewis admits later  in Surprised by Joy that after his childhood days enjoying The Tale of Peter Rabbit, there was a “decline in my imaginative life.” He further laments that, “For many years Joy (as I have defined it) was not only absent but forgotten.”[37] He describes his encounters with Joy turning into encounters of “lusts.” No longer was he seeking the truths that would bring him closer to his Creator and his purpose; he now pursued the things not worth loving. They were bound in his own attempt for glory, adventure, and entertainment, not the glimpses of Joy from beauty that made him align with something greater than himself. He says:

Peter Rabbit pleases a disinterested imagination, for the child does not want to be a rabbit, though he may like pretending to be a rabbit as he may later like acting Hamlet; but the story of the unpromising boy who became captain of the First Eleven exists precisely to feed his real ambition . . . I simply wanted sandals, temples, togas, slaves, emperors, galleys, amphitheaters; the attraction, as I now see, was erotic, and erotic in rather a morbid way. And they were mostly, as literature, rather bad books.[38]

In essence, Lewis describes how the beauty of certain literature and illustrations drew him to truth and goodness and others did not. By his own account, his imagination of his earlier years and the type of beauty which he craved (like Potter’s books) reflected the state of his soul. Through the encounters with Potter’s books and others, he was drawn to the things in life worth loving. His sense of beauty was oriented to a normative standard, ascending him higher and higher into more glimpses of Joy which oriented his soul rightly.

Lasting Impressions

The beauty of Potter’s works inevitably inspired Lewis’s own works. It is natural for an impression of beauty to inspire an equal response.  The anthropomorphic nature of Potter’s characters and realistically drawn fantasy created a wonder with each tiny smoking jacket and pair of slippers. As a youngster, he and his brother created an elaborate fantasy world called Animal-Land. Lewis tells of incorporating fair illustrations and stories of chivalrous animals accomplishing heroic and human tasks. He lived in this world every day. In the absence of artistic beauty around him (on his own admission — besides that which was in books and nature),[39] Lewis retreated to the beauty of his own imagination inspired from works of Beatrix Potter. In response, he created his own:

I soon staked out a claim to one of the attics and made it ‘my study’ . . . Here my first stories were written and illustrated with enormous satisfaction. They were an attempt to combine my two chief literary pleasures— ‘dressed animal’ and ‘knights of armour,’. As a result, I wrote about chivalrous mice and rabbits who rode out in complete mail to kill not giants but cats.[40]

One might draw a line between the chivalrous creatures in Animal-Land to the knightly mouse Reepicheep in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader,[41] the third book in his Chronicles of Narnia series. Although Lewis makes no explicit connection with his Narnia characters to his Animal-Land characters, except that they are anthropomorphic in nature, his imagination was certainly awakened by the anthropomorphism by the human-like animals of Potter’s series.[42] Although Lewis could not clearly articulate his thoughts and feelings at the time, his encounter with Potter’s stories and illustrations, created a lasting impression in Lewis’s memory to imitate later.

Lewis admits in Experiment in Criticism that the Beatrix Potter series from his childhood still sat on his shelf, and he would often return to them to reminisce about their fascination, saying, “I have all these books still.”[43] As an adult, he was able to critique the beauty of her best works with others that may not have been quite as accomplished and eventually admit that the pictures gave him pleasure because he wanted their reality to be true. He wanted to live and be in the landscapes of Potter just as much as he wanted animals to talk, make decisions, and wear fine clothes. He delighted in them because his imagination deemed them real.[44]

The anthropomorphic form of Potter’s tales combined with her beautifully detailed art invited Lewis to explore Joy and the deep theology nestled within the true experiences of these aesthetic encounters. Lewis describes his Joy-filled encounters in more detail. He experienced Joy as something different from happiness and pleasure, yet as having one characteristic: “that of an unsatisfied desire which is itself more desirable than any other satisfaction.”[45] This common characteristic of his experiences with Joy created a longing to have it again and again. It was a need, not like an unhealthy addiction, but instead, a deeper need that satisfied a part of his humanity — a need for a relationship with something greater than himself; it was the calling of His Creator. In Romans 1:20 St. Paul says, “For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities — his eternal power and divine nature — have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.”[46] Knowledge of God can be known through experience and in Lewis’s case, God revealed the truth about Himself in “glimpses” of Joy through Potter’s work.

Lewis’s “glimpses “of Joy through Potter’s work provided Lewis with specific remembrances that defined his journey to faith. As an adult, Lewis is able to describe and define these first unarticulated moments in retrospect, but it should be noted that these first “glimpses”are usually not understood clearly when they occurred as a young person. They are impressions which pierced his soul irrevocably and set a course for future encounters with Joy and inspiring others towards Joy as well.

Conclusion

The beauty of Beatrix Potter’s art and story and how her work cultivated Lewis’s glimpse of Joy is complicated. It is a tangled web of experience upon experience and sometimes one is not sure where one begins and the other ends. This is the blessed miracle between a community of authors and readers. Potter’s tales and illustrations synthesized in Lewis’s deep memory. Their influential impression sustained his soul through rough times and helped him learn to perceive in the world of a Creator God who knew him personally — the best story of all.

Lewis’s Joy-filled inspiration from Potter’s tiny tales demonstrates the power of  beautiful stories and art on the young and old alike. As Tolkien says in his essay “On Fairy Stories,” “The peculiar quality of the ‘joy’ in successful Fantasy can thus be explained as a sudden glimpse of the underlying reality or truth.”[47] In other words, a good story through words and/or illustration informs realities of truth about human experience. Throughout Surprised by Joy, Lewis describes how his encounters of Joy with Potter’s work and others drew him to truth and goodness. Through these encounters, he was drawn to the things in life worth loving. Their beauty oriented him in his formative years to gaze attentively, wonder imaginatively, and hope longingly for a glimpse of goodness. They ignited a spark of Joy that began a lifelong journey toward truth. Unbeknownst to her, Potter influenced one of the greatest apologetic and imaginative minds of the 20th century. Her fidelity to detail in art and storytelling led the soul of Lewis and generations of children to Joy.


Citation Information

Carrie Eben, “Meticulous Mycologist: How Beatrix Potter Inspired C.S. Lewis’s Joy,” An Unexpected Journal: Joy 5, no. 3. (Fall 2022), 167-186.


Endnotes

[1] Potter, Beatrix. The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin, by Beatrix Potter. (New York: F. Warne & Co, 1903).

[2] C.S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy: The Shape of My Early Life (San Francisco: Harper One, 2017), 18.

[3] Lewis, Surprised by Joy, 17-19.

[4] Ibid, 88-89.

[5] William Ross Wallace, “The Hand That Rocks the Cradle Rules the World,” accessed October 3, 2021, http://www.potw.org/archive/potw391.html.

[6] Linda J. Lear, Beatrix Potter, a Life in Nature (New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 2016), 25.

[7] Ibid., 45.

[8] Lear, Beatrix Potter, a Life in Nature, 26-27.

[9] Ibid., 28.

[10] Ibid., 87.

[11] Ibid.,125.

[12]Beatrix Potter,  Hygrophorus puniceus, pencil and watercolor, July 23, 2022, Country and Townhouse, https://www.countryandtownhouse.com/event/mushrooms-art-design-future-of-fungi/.

[13] Beatrix Potter, Leslie Linder, and Judy Taylor, The Journal of Beatrix Potter, 1881-1897 (London: F. Warne, 1989), 30.

[14] David V. Hicks, Norms & Nobility: A Treatise on Education (Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1999), 29.

[15]J.R.R. Tolkien, “On Fairy Stories,” accessed November 8, 2021, https://coolcalvary.files.wordpress.com/2018/10/on-fairy-stories1.pdf, 8.

[16]Beatrix Potter, The Complete Tales of Beatrix Potter: The 23 Original Peter Rabbit Books (London: Penguin Young Readers Group, 2012).

[17] Rebecca Luce-Kepler, “The Seeing Eye of Beatrix Potter,” Children’s Literature in Education 25, no. 3 (1994): 144.

[18]Beatrix Potter.Wikipedia. The Tale of Peter Rabbit, watercolor, July 22, 2022, Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:PeterRabbit15.jpg#filelinks, 1092.

[19] Potter, The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin.

[20]Beatrix Potter, The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin, watercolor. July 22, 2022, Wikimedia,

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Category:The_Tale_of_Squirrel_Nutkin#/media/File:Taleofsquirrelnu00pottuoft57-tb.jpg, 1903.

[21] Luce-Kepler, “The Seeing Eye of Beatrix Potter,” 145.

[22] Catherine Golden, “Beatrix Potter: Naturalist Artist,” Woman’s Art Journal 11, no. 1 (1990): 16, https://doi.org/10.2307/1358381, 17.

[23] Wendell Berry, Standing by Words: Essays (Berkeley: Counterpoint, 2011), 61.

[24] Alma Deknis, “Beatrix Potter,” Elementary English 35, no. 7 (November 1958): 438.

[25]Persis B Messer, “A Bibliographic Essay: Beatrix Potter: Classic Novelist of the Nursery,” National Council of Teachers of English 45, no. 3 (March 1968) 333.

[26] Susan Sheftiel, “The Child’s Child: Theory of Mind in the Work of Beatrix Potter,” American Imago 71, no. 2 (2014): 161.

[27] Ibid., 165.

[28] Lewis, Surprised by Joy, 2.

[29] Ibid., 5.

[30] Ibid., 6.

[31]James S. Taylor, Poetic Knowledge: The Recovery of Education (Boulder, CO: NetLibrary, Inc., 1999), 5- 6.

[32]Lewis, Surprised by Joy, 17.

[33]Ibid.

[34] Ibid.

[35] Ibid., 18.

[36]Beatrix Potter, The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin, watercolor, Toy Theater, July 22, 2022,  https://toytheater.com/page/squirrel_nutkin/images/s3.jpg, 1903

[37] Ibid., 40.

[38] Ibid., 41.

[39] Lewis, Surprised by Joy, 5.

[40] C.S. Lewis, An Experiment in Criticism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013), 14.

[41]C.S. Lewis, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (New York: Collier Books/Macmillan Pub., 1952).

[42]Lewis, Surprised by Joy, 16.

[43] Lewis, An Experiment in Criticism, 14.

[44]Ibid., 14-15.

[45]Lewis, Surprised by Joy, 19.

[46] Romans 1:20. NIV.

[47]Tolkien, “On Fairy Stories,” 35-36.