Welcome to Part I in my Narnia Trilogy!
It started when my seven or eight year-old-self came home from school one day and my mom said “I recorded some cartoon for you. I found it on cable and I think you’ll really like it. It has four children and magic in it.” This was of course the 1979 animated version of THE LION, THE WITCH, AND THE WARDROBE. I watched it many times and even then, felt there was something special about this story. Unlike ALICE IN WONDERLAND or THE WIZARD OF OZ, this story had a sadness to it, and the fantasy world was more than just a dream. There was just an emotional depth here that I responded to.
In fourth grade our class read the book, and then I just kept on reading the series. It blew my mind to discover the concept of a book series, of a story lasting seven volumes. Maybe it was also my first time really connecting with reading material at all. Reading a story in written form is a very personal, intimate experience, unlike the communal experience of watching a film, and so I was allowing this series to touch me deeply. I think all of us have a passion for the first books that get us to read, whatever they are. I had also always been into Greek and Nordic mythology, especially creation myths, and loved the way these elements were used in the series. Here was a series tackling such major fantasy concepts as the creation and destruction of an entire world.
Here are my thoughts on each book, and I’m listing them in the original publication order, which is how they were ordered when I was a kid, before HarperCollins decided to reorder them chronologically:
THE LION, THE WITCH, AND THE WARDROBE – A classic story that holds its own along ALICE IN WONDERLAND, WIZARD OF OZ, and other works of children’s fantasy literature. Edmund is a character with depth and probably experiences the biggest arc of anyone in the series.
PRINCE CASPIAN – Has always been my least favorite, mostly because it focuses more on battles and fighting than magic. Miraz is also a boring villain. Just not very original or compelling.
THE VOYAGE OF THE DAWN TREADER – The most lighthearted of the series, following our heroes on a series of episodes on the sea. A whimsical fairy tale.
THE SILVER CHAIR – One of my favorites! A good quest story with one of the best supporting characters of the whole series (Puddleglum!)
THE HORSE AND HIS BOY – Unfortunately suffers from the same problem as PRINCE CASPIAN, and lacks much magic or any world-traveling, though at least this one is a little more interesting. I always liked Shasta and Aravis.
THE MAGICIAN’S NEPHEW – Love it! The creative way Lewis reinterprets the Adam and Eve parable with children is, in my opinion, a superior story to the actual Adam and Eve parable of the Bible. Has some very beautiful and touching passages involving the creation of Narnia.
THE LAST BATTLE – The darkest and heaviest entry. Sometimes I would rank this as my favorite, while other times I would say it was tied with THE MAGICIAN’S NEPHEW. Later I discovered that Lewis actually wrote both books at the same time, so I actually think of the two as a single work.
By the time my ten-year-old-self finished THE LAST BATTLE, it was my first time not wanting to finish a story. I remember putting aside the book, procrastinating from reading the last paragraph (I’d have a similar experience when I’d finish THE PRYDAIN CHRONICLES that same year, where I’d feel like crying as I came towards the end). Long after finishing the books, I couldn’t let it go! I continued searching out new illustrations of the series and audiobook recordings. The final book ends with the following passage:
“…but the things that began to happen after that were so great and beautiful that I cannot write them. And for us this is the end of all the stories, and we can most truly say that they all lived happily ever after. But for them it was only the beginning of the real story. All their life in this world and all their adventures in Narnia had only been the cover and the title page: now at last they were beginning Chapter One of the Great Story which no one on earth has read: which goes on for ever: in which every chapter is better than the one before.”
I took this passage literally and assumed there really was such a magic book that continued the Narnian adventures into eternity and never ended, and actually asked my parents to buy it for me for Christmas, much to their amusement. I just didn’t want the series to end.
Nor was I the only one to love this series. THE LION, THE WITCH, AND THE WARDROBE is one of the most loved books in the world and has been adapted many times. Aside from the film and TV adaptations, which we’ll discuss later, it’s been dramatized on the stage in 1984 and again in 1998 by The Royal Shakespeare Company. In 2003, there was an Australian commercial stage production, using both life-size puppets and human actors. There’s also a musical version, but it’s pretty horrendous. And there was even a Spanish comic book that I owned as a kid.
Why is the story so popular? I think CS Lewis, who ironically had never written for children before, managed to come up with a great narrative and charming cast of characters, providing an interesting mix of Beatrix Potter-style fairy tales with emotional weight and religious commentary. The way he occasionally wrote in the first person, establishing himself as an old Storyteller, added to the storybook quality.
By the time I got to high school and moved on to darker, edgier stories, I gave the NARNIA books another look. This time I noticed the Christian elements a lot more. The whole bit with Aslan the lion being sacrificed in a public execution and then resurrected had always been pretty obvious, but I never realized how overtly religious the whole series was. The character talk about having faith in Aslan. Puddleglum gives a whole speech vilifying Atheism. The Caloremenes represent Muslims and the Eastern religions. Puzzle the Donkey ends up becoming the anti-Christ. In one book, Aslan even tells the kids that he exists in our world too:
“But there I have another name. You must learn to know me by that name. This was the very reason why you were brought to Narnia, that by knowing me here for a little, you may know me better there.”
When I read that as a kid, this cryptic piece of writing intrigued me. I loved the idea of Aslan secretly living in our world, waiting to meet us. Now I realized “Oh, wait. He’s just supposed to be Jesus.” Must admit, I was a little disappointed to discover a plot point that I found filled with narrative possibilities was actually just an attempt to preach some Bible at the reader.
But when I was in college, something happened. Up till now, everyone I knew who had read the NARNIA books always had nothing but positive things to say about them. “Oh, that’s a classic of my childhood” or “Remember Aslan the lion and Mr. Tumnus the faun?” However, early in the 2000’s, NARNIA seemed to receive a sudden critical revaluation that was very negative. I’m guessing it was caused by several factors: author Philip Pullman was a very vocal critic of the series and his own book series HIS DARK MATERIALS, seen as a response to NARNIA, was published around that time. JK Rowling rose in prominence and made her criticisms of NARNIA well-known. And in 2005 the Walden Media film adaptation of the first book introduced NARNIA to a whole new generation that had grown up with Peter Jackson‘s LORD OF THE RINGS flicks. Now the Elite Literary Snobs seemed to bash NARNIA as “overly juvenile entertainment.”
And then, in the years immediately post-college, I myself experienced a major personal change. I stopped being religious, and so did the cultural zeitgeist. I’m not saying everyone’s an Atheist now, but I do feel religion is viewed a lot more negatively today in the post-September 11th/Evangelical/George W. Bush era than it was in the 1990’s I grew up in. And so, perhaps because of that, NARNIA has lost some of its magic. Looking at the books today, I do find them more juvenile and simplistic than they were when I was younger. Their flaws stick out a lot more, and perhaps the fact I no longer share its religious conviction makes me take more notice of the constant-preaching, especially in the later books.
When asked for my favorite books of all time, I have to admit that NARNIA is probably not one of my favorites any longer. Of course I have a lot of affection for the series, but with nostalgia goggles. It will always be part of my life, and I’m glad I took the journey, even if I must admit the books have not aged that well. Join me next time as I evaluate the criticisms of the series made by those Elite Literary Snobs, and which ones hold water, and which ones don’t. Stay tuned…