It’s been a long time since I’ve read the Chronicles of Narnia, so I decided to read them again – and what a treat! Here are some thoughts I’d put down after reading each of the classics – plus the beginning of his space trilogy (see below)…
This beautifully written children’s story, the prequel to his more famous “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe”, is a wonderful ‘origin story’ for the Chronicles of Narnia, and an extraordinary ‘retelling’ of Genesis 1-3. As well as establishing the world of Narnia, the book is a draw to me for its pleasant loyalty to the genre, always one step away from ‘lashings of ginger beer’ (‘“Gosh!” whispered Digory.’) and gently treading the tightrope between alarming peril and trite nonsense. Lewis’s simple yet delightful characters ease their way gently through this humble bedtime-reading, littered with his typical theological insight (his allegory of the silver apples is especially perceptive) and concluding with a perfect teaser for his more famous work.
This isn’t a book with which to sit on the beach, nor one to consult in a coffee shop, but a story to have next to your bed and to stimulate your childish imagination before retiring to the land of Nod.
Once again I found myself sitting down next to a roaring fire and allowing Grandfather Lewis to guide me into a magical domain of talking animals and blatant Christian allusion. C. S. Lewis himself explained in a 1961 letter that “the whole Narnian story is about Christ. That is to say, I asked myself ‘Supposing there actually were a world like Narnia, and supposing it had (like our world) gone wrong and supposing Christ wanted to go into that world and save it (as He did ours) what might have happened?’ The stories are my answer.”
This book was the first that was written, and noticeably so – it feels more introductory, and it carries throughout its story echoes of its dedication (to Lucy Barfield). Perhaps that is why this imaginative allusion to the death and resurrection of Jesus feels so much like a gentle bed-time story. Rather than sensationalising its battles, as Hollywood has chosen to do, the book focuses on the theologically charged moments.
Of course, fiction is a dangerous place to learn theology, and as with the whole series it would be more profitable to use it as a springboard to the Bible. The depiction of Aslan’s death probably attributes the fatal blow to the wrong person (perhaps instead it should be the Emperor beyond the Sea?). But if instead the book is opened to creatively stimulate our imagination in useful ways, and to appreciate the gospel more, then all to the good. After all, this is the book which contains that oft-quoted insight into the nature of Jesus – ‘”Safe?” said Mr Beaver; “don’t you hear what Mrs Beaver tells you? Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.“‘
Continuing my love affair with these tremendous stories, Prince Caspian opened the door into this fantasy land once again, jumping forward hundreds of years from the time of Mr Tumnus and the White Witch. Although it took many chapters to reach the point when the plot started to move, it remained a compelling read and a welcome return to the land of magic, warfare and talking animals. Reepicheep, the heroic and valiant mouse, was something of a favourite in the 1980s TV series and more recent film, and it was a delight to see him as originally introduced in Lewis’s classic.
With the (spoiler alert) inevitable victory of good over evil, the suspense wasn’t so much in the outcome as much as the manner in which it came about. Having seen the films more recently than the book I was surprised by how swiftly the climax was over, but it nonetheless prompted the same sense of nostalgia that drew me to the series – and drove me on to the next one.
As with them all, highly loved.
The Voyage of the Dawn Treader
My limited experience of Lewis’s writing identifies his piercing analysis of the human condition to be his greatest skill. In a series of books that offers little opportunity to demonstrate this gift, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader stands apart as a brilliant opportunity to expose the trials and temptations facing those who make the journey to ‘Aslan’s Country’. With each of the protagonists drawn by a variety of lures, Lewis has expressed with his inimitable imagination the vast array of offers that would draw Christians away from their pursuit of Jesus. Although this structure to the book completely passed me by while I enjoyed my bedtime reading, I’m struck now by how cleverly the plot employed such a device. Consider the allure of riches presented to Eustace, or the pit of despair into which the whole boat sailed.
Though I had forgotten most of the plot, I’m sure that nostalgia continues to draw me back to these books. As with the previous books in the series, there is something homely about their 1950s style that makes is a wonderful world into which I can venture each evening. A return to Narnia is like a return to my childhood.
More than the other Narnia books that I’d read to this point, the plot of this book was totally unknown to me, and reading it reminded me immensely of the BBC series from 1990. It consequently succeeded in drawing the same combination of nostalgia and intrigue that the earlier books have achieved.
I have heard criticism for this book – being slightly harder to follow, perhaps slower to absorb the reader. Some of this may be justified. The links to the realm of theology were still present, but seemed more piecemeal than the overarching biblical theme that has been easier to identify in this book’s siblings – which perhaps suggests that I haven’t yet worked hard enough to integrate the insights!
Notwithstanding criticisms above, the book holds together well and is another exciting journey into Narnia – which I shall enjoy making again in the future.
Favourite: The Horse and His Boy
This was the book within the Narnia series about which I could remember the least. Combine that with the comments of several friends (“Oh, that one’s my favourite!”), and I entered this book with a high level of anticipation that was not disappointed. The book is different in form from the others (the intervention of children from “our world” is essentially immaterial) but is framed around an epic escape, through a fantastic chase to an awesome showdown.
Assessed against modern temperaments, the Horse and his Boy (like all the Narnia novels) feels awkward and fails the political-correctness test. But to evaluate the book by such standards seems unreasonable. The book is a well-crafted tale with great characters and thrilling suspense; it is no surprise that – unlike the others in the series – I found it much harder to limit myself to single chapters. Rather, the book was finished with alarming – even disappointing – rapidity.
I was asked by a friend of what this book was an allegory. My best suggestion was that the freedom from slavery of the main character, and his journey to his true home, correspond to a Christian’s freedom from slavery to sin and journey to the New Creation. Nonetheless, as with any allegory, the illustration breaks down when pushed too far, and it’s clear that while many, many features were deliberately chosen to demonstrate some broader point, some parts fit less closely to that bigger allegorical structure. However, this book remains a favourite of mine within the series, if only because of its vivid and thrilling plot. If you haven’t read it recently, go for it – now!
I found this book much harder to read than the others, and I think it’s because of the incredibly unpleasant nature of some of the main characters; the ape, specifically, is so incredibly repulsive that every line from his mouth grated in the core of my being. Nonetheless, I fought through it to enjoy the close of the series.
Everything about the book feels to be ‘winding to a close’, and the return of many familiar characters is welcome. Stepping back from the comments and moments which would, today, be deemed racially insensitive or inappropriate (at one point the characters appear to ‘black-up’ in order to disguise themselves), the broader plot is aptly summarised in the title. It is perhaps no surprise that we end up in Lewis’s allegorical New Creation.
This is the strength of the book – perhaps of the whole series. Lewis captures the language of the Bible in producing an amazing view of God’s perfect world; it is worth reading all seven books purely to benefit from his creative perspective on eternity. Yes, the book has thrilling developments and excitement thrown in, but it is the last three chapters that make it so exceptional.
Unfortunately they are also the chapters with the greatest error in the whole series. None of us are without fault in our theology, and I dread the moment when I discover my own mistakes. So also, this book (alas) has a few – from the almost-universalism of the penultimate chapter, to the suggestion that Aslan is incapable of rescuing the dwarves who have blinded themselves to His goodness… Oh, to have such views tempered by the exclusivity of Acts 4:12 and the illumination of 2 Cor 4:1-6! Such moments are especially sad for the smaller, lesser view of God with which they leave us.
And yet, for Lewis’s skill in evoking a view of every Christian’s destination, this book is well worth the read. Gaze at the face of the Saviour. Cherish the wonder of New Creation bodies. Contemplate the eternity stretched out into the distance. The Last Battle is a treasure – tainted, but nonetheless breath-taking.
Out of the Silent Planet
Who knew that C. S. Lewis wrote a trilogy of sci-fi books?
I am indebted to my friend Matt for drawing my attention to this often overlooked subsection of Lewis’s writing. To my knowledge, he wrote only three, but this one is a great start to the trilogy. Introducing our hero (Ransom), who is whisked off against his will to another planet, the book begins with a slow-paced discovery of life (agricultural, as well as animal) on Mars.
I’m not well-read within the sci-fi genre, but I’d suggest this is an unusual contribution, most particularly because it stands more in line with the allegorical (and more famous) Narnia books. I’ll leave it to the reader to discover exactly how Lewis connects this work to his theology – and, be warned, it takes quite a while to get to that point. But when the world he paints with his words comes to reach its theological significance, it is with characteristic deftness that Lewis makes his point.
The plot climaxes to an exciting (and comical) conclusion, but it is for his spiritual insight in this book that I am most grateful. It is a book that makes you appreciate God, mourn what we have lost, and long for the New Creation.
Intrigued? You should be!