63–69: The Chronicles of Narnia

Less preachy than the Out of the Silent Planet sequels.

OK, so it’s obvious why nobody is ever going to employ me as a tagline writer. But if you’ve ever read Lewis’s space-based trilogy, you’ll understand exactly what I’m driving at (and also that that’s not necessarily saying much).

That’s not to say his faith doesn’t come through in the Narnia books. Aslan is more than just a Jesus allegory; he’s literally Jesus (for some sense of “literally”; Aslan and Jesus of Nazareth are the Narnian and “normal” world manifestations of the same thing, I suppose would be the best way of putting it).

If you never read at least The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, I’m not really sure what you were doing all childhood, to be honest. They’re pretty much the paradigmatic “fairy story”, charting the whole life of an entire world of talking beasts, of nymphs and naiads and dryads and hamadryads. And I think that’s why they’re difficult books to write about – I can’t remember being unfamiliar with them, so I’m not sure where to begin. For one thing, they’re deeper and richer and more varied one to another than you might expect, and the way the events of each one move into myth as you progress through them is wonderful.

Perhaps I should do what I don’t tend to do with series, which is take each book in turn and talk about them. That might help focus my mind.

The Magician’s Nephew, then. Although it’s the first in the saga, it was actually the penultimate-published. It contains the story of the creation of Narnia, and the origin of the White Witch and the lamppost (and the wardrobe, for that matter) of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. It gives us the first King and Queen of Narnia, the first flying horse, the first evil. It’s a fabulous story of a young world full of life and hope, and Digory and Polly are genuinely engaging protagonists.

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe needs very little introduction. Here Edmund is enticed by Turkish Delight; here the four Pevensie siblings are crowned Kings and Queens of Narnia; here Father Christmas gives them wonderful gifts; and here Aslan is killed and resurrected, a perfect sacrifice made once for the sins of another. I think Lewis probably regarded this as the most important part of the whole story. After the ultimate victory, the siblings remain in Narnia for many years, until one day, fully grown, they return through the wardrobe at the instant they left.

The Horse and His Boy is set during this long reign of the four Kings and Queens. Shasta, a Calormene fisher-boy, and Bree, a Narnian talking horse, ride from Calormen for “Narnia and the North”, chasing memories and dreams of freedom. Along the way they meet another pair of escapees, Aravis and Hwin (a young noblewoman and her horse). I think if I had to choose this might actually be my favourite of all the books. There’s a feeling of engagement with the characters, and of this being a very personal adventure, not a world-threatening crisis – perhaps because the nature of a great escape means attention has to be pretty solidly focused on those few escaping rather than a raft of supporting characters.

Prince Caspian has an altogether different slant; Men (the Telmarines) have complete dominance in Narnia, and the young Prince’s uncle Miraz has usurped the throne. The Pevensie children are returned to Narnia to ensure the victory of the “Old Narnians” – the talking animals, the Dwarfs and the spirits of the rivers and the trees – and secure Caspian on his throne. It was actually the second of the novels to be published (after The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe). The Pevensies return as children, but the longer they spend in Narnia the more they settle back into their old selves, and regain their old adult strength.

In The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, Edmund and Lucy return to Narnia with their cousin, Eustace (“There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it”). Caspian, now King Caspian, has set out across the sea to find those of his father’s lords whom Miraz had sent away to consolidate his own power. They’re also looking for the edge of the world, of course – what else would you do?

The Silver Chair is rather peculiar. The new and improved Eustace, and his schoolmate Jill Pole, find themselves in Narnia on a mission from God Aslan. So two schoolkids and a Marsh-wiggle by the name of Puddleglum are tasked with rescuing a prince.

It’ll show you a side of the world of Narnia that doesn’t really come through in the other books – and it shows you just how cruel the different rates of time can be. Coming back when everyone you knew previously is long dead, as the Pevensies did in Prince Caspian, is one thing; they never expected to see any of those people again, though the thought is sad. But Eustace returns to find the young, vibrant monarch of his previous visit a bent and tired old man, and it’s almost more than he can bear. “And to see that old man with a white beard, and to remember Caspian as he was the morning we captured the Lone Islands, or in the fight with the Sea Serpent – oh, it’s frightful. It’s worse than coming back and finding him dead.” (Also interesting to note is that Lewis refers to The Horse and His Boy, which was actually published after The Silver Chair.)

Finally, The Last Battle sees the end of Narnia – at least, of the Narnia we know. But with a healthy streak of neo-Platonism, Lewis gives us the “real” Narnia, of which the one we knew was only a copy. “The reason why we loved the old Narnia,” declares a Unicorn, “is that it sometimes looked a little like this.” This is the end of the story in more ways than one. And, excellently, Digory and Polly are there for the end as well, as are Peter and Edmund and Lucy and Eustace and Jill (though Susan has made a headlong rush to grow up and to convince herself that it was only ever a childish game).

There we go. If in doubt, summarise and end by quoting the author:

I wrote this story for you, but when I began it I had not realised that girls grow quicker than books. As a result you are already too old for fairy tales, and by the time it is printed and bound you will be older still. But some day you will be old enough to start reading fairy tales again.

The Magician’s Nephew
Author CS Lewis
Published 1955
Pages 198
Best character King Frank and Queen Helen.

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe
Author CS Lewis
Published 1950
Pages 187
Best character Mrs Beaver, for remembering to pack lunch

The Horse and His Boy
Author CS Lewis
Published 1954
Pages 224
Best character Aravis. She’s the most interesting, in many respects.

Prince Caspian
Author CS Lewis
Published 1951
Pages 222
Best character Trumpkin. “I know the difference between giving advice and taking orders. You’ve had my advice, and now it’s the time for orders.”

The Voyage of the Dawn Treader
Author CS Lewis
Published 1952
Pages 244
Best character Reepicheep, the wonderfully brave and swashbuckling Talking Mouse.

The Silver Chair
Author CS Lewis
Published 1953
Pages 241
Best character Puddleglum, because pessimists make the best world-savers.

The Last Battle
Author CS Lewis
Published 1956
Pages 212
Best character Jewel the unicorn, who tells us of the peaceful times of Narnia.


3 thoughts on “63–69: The Chronicles of Narnia

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