C.S. Lewis’ Narnia series was a hallmark of my youth and, subsequently, is a lens through which I tend to view the world. I’m sure that the books were read to me, but I primarily remember watching the old BBC mini-series, which we would borrow from the local library on a pretty regular basis. The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe; Prince Caspian; and The Voyage of the Dawn Treader are some of the most prominent stories that I remember from my childhood. It wasn’t until my 20s that I finally picked up the other stories in the series (The Magician’s Nephew, The Horse and His Boy, The Silver Chair, and The Last Battle), and read them or listened to them on audio just because I never had before.
However, it was only last year that I actually read the entire series, all the way through, in some kind of focused manner. You can check out my reviews from last year to read my impressions as I went along, but I also wanted to take some time to reflect on Narnia in general.
First, some notes on reading order.
Reading order can be a pretty hot topic for Narnian devotees. The original publication order begins with The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (published in 1950), followed by Prince Caspian, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, The Silver Chair, The Horse and His Boy, The Magician’s Nephew, and The Last Battle. I was raised believing that this was the proper order in which to read the books. I think that it was sometime in the 1990s that the books began to be published and numbered to convey the internal chronology of the story, though I think that maybe the British editions had begun even earlier than this. Essentially, this just moves The Magician’s Nephew to be the first book, and also The Horse and His Boy follows The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe and precedes Prince Caspian. This may not seem like a big deal, after all it only affects the placement of two of the books, but people tend to be pretty diehard believers on one side or the other; publication order or chronological order, choose wisely.
I, of course, have some pretty strong opinions myself.
When I decided to re-read the series last year, I very intentionally decided to read the books in their publication order and not the chronological order. I was raised, and had always sincerely believed, that this was the proper way to read them. But now, having read the series through with a more discerning eye, I find myself in the strange position of being split between the two camps. In my opinion, The Horse and His Boy should indeed follow The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, as the story lines and characters have relevant interplay, yet I also maintain that The Magician’s Nephew should be saved until the end and read just before The Last Battle. Primarily, I think this order is important for someone’s first introduction to the series, not necessarily subsequent read-throughs. If you already know all the books, then you know yourself what order you like to read them. But someone’s very first experience with the books can be somewhat trickier. I’ve talked with a number of parents who have been trying to get their kids into the series, but with surprisingly little luck. I always ask what book they started with, and it’s always The Magician’s Nephew. And therein, I believe, lies the problem.
The Magician’s Nephew does not read like the introduction to a series, especially compared with what most kids are used to reading (or watching) these days, it reads like a prequel where you already know the important facts of the world that you are exploring. It is a wonderful book, and indeed is one of my top favorites in the series, but the action is somewhat slow-paced in the beginning and it’s not until halfway through the book that Aslan and the world of Narnia even appear. This isn’t much of a problem if the reader knows to expect Aslan and Narnia, but if the reader doesn’t have any context to start with than it can be hard to feel engaged with what is happening. As a side point, I think that you miss a lot of Lewis’s cleverness by being given too much information about Narnia right at the beginning. It’s fun to know the origin of the lamppost, but it’s more magical to be left to wonder for a bit about how there is a lamppost in the middle of a snowy wood. My second point of reasoning is that The Magician’s Nephew and The Last Battle are really companion books and should not separated by sticking the other five between them. The Magician’s Nephew is about Creation and the founding of the world. The Last Battle is about End Times and what comes after. Yes, the entire series is pretty allegorical, but these two books are especially so and deserve to be taken together. When I read the books in publication order, The Horse and His Boy suffered from being separated too much from the events and characters that were closer to it chronologically. Likewise, I think that The Last Battle suffers when it is separated too much from the themes and references that it shares with The Magician’s Nephew.
So, if you are reading the books for the first time, or trying to get someone else to read them for the first time, my advice is start with The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, read the rest chronologically, and just save The Magician’s Nephew and The Last Battle for the end.
This series is so beloved by so many, but how many of us actually know the stories as well as we think we do? Some of these books I had only ever read once before in my life, either as a child or as an adult, and yet Narnia has always seemed so embedded in my mind. Certainly, the plots of The Horse and His Boy and The Silver Chair were only dimly recalled in my memory before this most recent reading, but that is unfortunate because these had some of the most significant lessons for me. This is why, even (especially) as adults, stories like this are still important and worth reading. Some things that we may have learned as children, or maybe we never learned at all, are important to be reminded of as grown-ups, as the world is constantly putting pressures on us and trying to force us to conform to worldly standards. One of the lessons that has resonated particularly with me this past year came from The Horse and His Boy: as Aslan is teaching Shasta and Aravis about the lessons to be learned from their own lives and experiences, he is constantly reminding them that he can only tell them their own story and not the stories of others. It’s an important reminder that we can only know our own heart and soul and history, not those of others, and we must be content to focus on what we can do with our own lives rather than worrying about and judging the lives of those around us.
What makes Lewis one of my favorite writers is the way that he gives us tangible images and examples of complex philosophical and theological ideas. In The Last Battle, he gives us clear imagery of the Final Judgement and what the afterlife could look like. He is not saying definitively that these things are the truth (how could he?), but he is giving our imaginations something to latch on to; a starting point to begin thinking about the greatest questions that humanity can have. And he does it in a way that is accessible even to children, who are smarter than most adults anyway because they still know the important questions to ask. The Narnia series is not the only place that Lewis does this, either. In his book The Great Divorce, Lewis gives readers another concept of what one stage of the afterlife could look like; he does it not in fancy philosophical terms and analogies, but with concrete images and characters that we can relate to in their humanity. The Screwtape Letters is another brilliant example, as Lewis narrates through a series of letters from a senior demon to his subordinate all the various sins and minor transgressions that we humans commit. The writing is witty and illuminating, but also heart-wrenching as you see your own sins represented. There is a reason that cultures throughout time have conveyed their deepest philosophies and theologies through the medium of stories, and why even today we still flock to all forms of storytelling whether it’s movies, books, music, news, or even our social media feeds. Lewis was a masterful storyteller, but his stories also conveyed Truth and I think that is why he has proved to have such a lasting influence.
Narnia will always be one of my favorite places to escape to and I don’t think I will ever tire of reading these books. Along with J.R.R. Tolkien and Neil Gaiman, no other writer has had such a significant and lasting impact on my imagination as C.S. Lewis.
Did you grow up with Narnia? What other books had a lasting impact on you from your childhood?
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