This article was originally published in The Catholic News Herald of the diocese of Charlotte.
I have always been an avid re-reader of books, just as I also delight in re-watching favorite movies and television series. In some ways, this is due to finding comfort in the familiar and predictable, knowing that my imagination is not going to be assailed by inappropriate or untimely thoughts and images. But I have also learned that the pieces I enjoy returning to can be treasure troves, with new ideas and insights to be gained on each visit, and they can also be balms for an anxious mind over-burdened by the constant influx of the 24-hour news cycle.
In the past few years, I have reread (or listened to the audiobooks) of C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia series multiple times. These are stories I grew up with as a child, at least the first few books. The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, Prince Caspian, and The Voyage of the Dawn Treader were staples of my childhood, though most of the others I did not read until I was grown. But my frequent returns to these books as an adult are not just for nostalgic reasons (there are plenty of books that I loved as a child but find rather tedious now). I return to them because of the rich theological and philosophical thought that Lewis put into them.
In The Horse and His Boy, the most underrated of the Narnia books in my opinion, the Christ-like character of Aslan teaches many valuable lessons to the children throughout the story. The most prominent idea to me on recent readings has been how Aslan illuminates a person’s personal history, showing where he was himself at work and guiding their path, but he will not tell them the story of anyone else. This is clearly an important point for Lewis, because it is repeated multiple times.
To one inquiring character, Aslan says, “I tell no one any story but his own.” And just a few chapters later, to another character asking of the consequences of a prior incident, Aslan repeats, “No one is told any story but their own.” How often do we pay more attention to the lives of others than we do to our own lives and actions? We live in a voyeuristic culture, as we scroll through others’ updates on social media, follow the lives of celebrities, scrutinize the decisions and circumstances of people whose lives do not even affect our own, or needlessly critique actions that have already been made. St. Thomas Aquinas warned of the dangers of curiosity – how it can lead us astray of our own paths by distraction or into the sins of pride and vanity as we judge others.
It might be tempting for us to dismiss works like Chronicles of Narnia as mere children’s books. However, Lewis’ own philosophy and writings argue for the potential benefits of reading children’s stories even as an adult. In his essay “On Stories,” Lewis wrote, “No book is really worth reading at the age of 10 which is not equally (and often far more) worth reading at the age of 50.” This argument is two-fold: we should not dismiss good stories simply because they are primarily aimed at children, and we should also make sure our children are being read and shown good stories in the first place. If one can’t enjoy or see the benefit of the stories children are reading or watching, perhaps we should reevaluate the entertainment being given to them. No matter the age, our minds should be cultivated with only the best of stories and ideas.
C.S. Lewis himself was a great proponent of rereading and actively engaging with what he read by making notes right in the book and underlining passages which caught his eye. The books in his personal library showed his history with them in different pencil and pen marks from these multiple readings. None of us should be expected to do this for every book that we read, for some books certainly don’t invite the effort. Some books may be worth reading only once, even if greatly enjoyed that one time, but some books are capable of being much more fruitful.
Think of how we benefit from frequent reading of the Bible. Personally, I love revisiting the books of Genesis and Exodus. These books contain so many stories we all think we know, even if we have only infrequently picked up a Bible ourselves, and yet the stories are so rich every time we visit them. As we gain life experience, knowledge and wisdom, stories take on different lights. We might identify with a new character we overlooked on previous readings, or we might gain new insight on an event we had not considered earlier.
Lewis intentionally crafted the Narnia books to bring readers closer to God. In The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, Aslan tells the children (and us readers): “This was the reason why you were brought to Narnia, that by knowing me here for a little, you may know me better there.” By exposing ourselves and our children to certain allegories like Narnia, it helps us to recognize God in our own world. Lewis was one of the greatest thinkers and Christian apologists of the past several centuries, and it is such a gift to us that he worked in so many different forms of writing. He wrote essays, poems and fiction in several genres – all of it influenced by his deep love for God.
A final note and personal opinion on the reading order. The books were originally published with The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe and Prince Caspian as the first two books, as those were the first to be written. Now generally published in the narrative’s “chronological” order, they begin with The Magician’s Nephew. If you are reading the books for the first time, or reading them to your children for the first time, my recommendation is to start with The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, as this book is the best introduction to the world of Narnia. The Magician’s Nephew works best as a prequel, when one is already familiar with the world and characters, and it is also very fruitfully read in conjunction with The Last Battle.
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