Celebrating the Childlike in Neil Gaiman’s “The Ocean at the End of the Lane”
It’s Christmas Eve, and you are 7 years old. You can barely sleep because you know tonight Santa is coming. Every blinking light and star outside your window might be a magical sleigh. Every creak, pop, or squeak must mean someone just descended your chimney and is laying out presents for the next morning. The sun rises and you run toward the Christmas tree to see presents laid out for you. The sense of wonder is indescribable. The belief in mystery and magic and surprise fills your young heart and imagination.
Unfortunately, we get older. The wonder leaves us, and we trudge through a world less than magical, and often disappointing. The wonder is still there, but buried, and the recent book The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman attempts to recapture that wonder, that sense of the childlike, reminding us that it need not disappear upon entering the adult world, but is necessary to survive and thrive in this life.
The main character of this short novel returns to his childhood village for a funeral. While there, he indulges in a bit of nostalgia, wandering with his car on the lane where he was lived as a boy. Something at the end of the lane draws him, and he finds himself in an old farmhouse with familiar women he must have remembered as a child but now has forgotten. As he enters their house, the memories return, and he wanders behind the house to a small pond that as a boy he called an ocean, after the description given by the young girl of the house.
The waves of this ocean unleash a flood of memories into his heart, drawing him back to his life as a 7-year-old boy. Fantastical memories, unbelievable to his adult mind, but through the heart of his 7-year-old self, they were real.
At the recollection of these memories, the true story begins. It is a story of danger to his life, his family, and neighbors when an ancient evil is unleashed. He becomes a central figure in the struggle of life and death and the fulcrum on which balances the question of whether good or evil will win.
The good is a group of mysterious women; the youngest is a child. It is this small girl, his playmate, who helps him be the hero. He endangers his life to save her, but then in turn she does the same but with much more dire consequences to herself.
The evil is disguised as an entity bringing peace and prosperity to the boy’s family and community. Yet this prosperity comes at a price and enters through the basest part of man’s nature, trying to satiate the passions of the human heart, but rather than satisfying, it enflames.
The man wakes from his memories, and is surprised to learn this trip is not his first back to the old farmhouse. Unfortunately, life in the world made these real memories of childhood dissolve in the mist of adulthood, and we are left to wonder if these recollections will brand his soul with a permanent newness as he returns into the world.
Ultimately this story reminds us to retain childlike innocence and wonder without becoming a childish adult. In Matthew 18:25, Jesus says, “Assuredly, I say to you, unless you are converted and become as little children, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore whoever humbles himself as this little child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.”
So what does it mean to become as little children?
The childlike are humble, knowing they are dependent on something else for survival and life. Theirs is a heart of faith, trusting completely in another person. If you have been close to any children, they naturally trust you, expecting to be cared for and kept secure. As adults we become guarded with each other, questioning and suspicious, and this carries over into our relationship with God Himself.
The childlike heart is filled with wonder and expectation, open to new experiences. In the eye of the child, there is no separation between spiritual and physical, miracle and normalcy, fantasy and reality. Surprise is everywhere. God is present. Wondrous things can happen and do happen all the time.
Stories are often recounted of children seeing angels (and demons), of seeing icons move, and saints appear. For them the unseen is nothing strange, but if it happened to us, we would announce it as a strange phenomenon, analyzing and marketing it, letting it puff us into arrogance.
Go into any nursery and playground, and watch wonder be present. Notice they still believe in good and evil. Boys will take turns wearing the white hat so they can be the hero against all that is evil in the world. As adults we become obsessed with nuance and subtlety, painting everything gray, making evil a matter of perspective even within our own heart.
Seeking a childlike heart has its dangers, and the danger is that we twist the childlike into childishness. St. Paul, speaking of growth and maturity in the life of his flock, says, “When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child; but when I became a man, I put away childish things (1 Cor 13:11).”
Being childlike does not mean we don’t mature. To refuse maturity is not an embrace of the childlike but a descent into childishness.
In Gaiman’s book, the childish are in constant search for fun and amusements. They want their passions engaged, and usually this is expressed through material gain. The boy-hero of this story has a younger sister who exemplifies childishness by embracing the evil presence because it gives her what she wants. This is much like the children in Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. All but Charlie run greedily through Willy Wonka’s factory eating and drinking and grabbing, only to be given their wishes to disastrous ends. Or remember Edmund in the Chronicles of Narnia. He is willing to sell his soul and the lives of his family, if only the White Witch will continue feeding him Turkish Delights.
Childishness is self-centered and insatiable. Good and evil disappears into wants and desires, and the childish are unwilling to fight, only wanting to be fed.
Gaiman’s book paints a wonderful picture of the opposing poles of childlikeness and childishness. He forces us to look at the stark contrast and the results of each path.
Reading such stories makes our hearts leap to celebrate the childlike and return to that Edenic innocence. The stirring of this desire is good and right. It provides fuel for the heart to move and reach, but the gap toward innocence is so far. We are so bound in the chains of childishness, despair comes soon. Yet we can look to the Blesser of Children and the One who celebrates the heart of the child to make us new, stripping away the debris of this world to fashion us young again.