The Chronicles of Narnia,
by C. S. Lewis, Leo Dillon,
Pauline Baynes (Illustrator)
reviewed by Catherine Fournier
The Chronicles of Narnia:
The Magician's Nephew
The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe
The Horse and His Boy
Voyage of the Dawn Treader
The Silver Chair
The Last Battle
To my mind, the definition of a children's classic is whether or not the book can be read with equal pleasure by both children and adults. A truly classic story will entertain and instruct any reader of any age. "The Chronicles of Narnia" by C.S.Lewis fufills this requirement admirably and then goes on to set a standard for other children's books to follow. C.S.Lewis shows us what children's books can be; a medium to guide a child's formation in healthy and constructive ways. Fiction and fantasy can be used to 'spotlight' the lessons that are sometimes overlooked in real life, lessons of faith and courage and honesty in all things, in such a way that they become a part of the child's spiritual development.
The series (seven titles in all) can be read as the story of a wonderful fantasy world that is beautiful, magical, welcoming and most important logically self consistent; and as an allegory of God's Creation, our opportunity to participate in it, and the marvellous metaphysical structure of the heaven that awaits us. Each of the seven books in "The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe" stories as they are also known, tells us a part of Narnia's history. Each book also contains a central image, an image which relates to the real world and to Christian teaching. This image is not always central to the plot, but always central to the development of the characters.
Narnia is created by the song of a Lion, in the first of the series; "The Magician's Nephew". Out of Nothingness comes a Voice singing a beautiful song; a song which calls first the stars, then the sun, and eventually a whole world of rocks and vegetation and animals to join with It in a song of Life. This is the creation story, told in vivid joyous detail as it might have happened in our own World. The singer, Aslan, speaks to his creatures and instructs them, tells them how to live in harmony and warns them of the existence of evil. The story even has a Garden, with a Tree of Knowledge and Life in the centre, bearing apples which when used the right way, that is, by resisting temptation and lies, protects Narnia for many years.
This is Narnia's Golden Age, which is brought to an end by a Witch who comes out of the North seeking absolute power for herself and establishing a tyranny of fear and repression. Her reign is one of perpetual winter, symbolic of death, and the end of her power is heralded by the return of spring. Evil's hold on Narnia is broken in "The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe" by the sacrifice of a willing and innocent victim. The parallels between this episode and the cruxifiction are unmistakable. Equally unmistakable is the resurrection of the murdered Aslan, and the joy of Easter morning is echoed in the joy of Narnia when it is learned that Aslan has risen from the dead.
"The Horse and his Boy" is so titled because the horse is a Talking Horse who remarks "One might just as well say you're his human.". In this story, two horses and two children escape from a southern country across the desert and mountains into Narnia. Their journey is one of faith as well, faith that what they have heard of the freedom and peace in Narnia is true. Along the way,they discover that they have a lot to unlearn from their old life and many new things to learn about themselves, Aslan and life in the North.
"Prince Caspian" reminds me of a Crusader, taking up his sword in the name of Aslan and Old Narnia to restore the country to it's rightful ruler and ways. There are many choices to be made by Caspian and his followers in this story, choices of methods and choices of allies. Very few animals and humans in Narnia believe in Aslan any more and some argue that it would better to forget the old ways entirely and either put their faith in Science or in the Magic of the White Witch who is always waiting in the North to be called. This is our world's battle between secularism and faith, played out on a smaller stage. Caspian however, decides that following Aslan, though not easier, would be a better and more honest choice. He is proved to be right, though the cause is desperate for a time. Aslan returns to Narnia, restores the King to the throne, and encourages his creatures to continue being true to Him.
So, happier times return to Narnia with the coronation of King Caspian. After Caspian organises his kingdom and brings peace to his borders, he sets sail in "The Voyage of the Dawn Treader" to fufill an oath he swore on his coronation day to search for the lost company of his father's friends who had been sent to explore the unknown Eastern Seas. While on the voyage, the company encounters many trials, all of which in some form or another, represent the consequences between choosing evil or choosing good. In one instance, a pompous self centered boy is transformed into a treasure hoarding dragon. He is very uncomfortable and unhappy as a dragon, and eventually realises how his own greed and selfishness has made him dragonish in his heart even before he was dragonish in form. He is 'reborn' to his human shape through a symbolic death and baptism.
The battle between good and evil becomes more desperate. in "The Silver Chair", as the White Witch of the North again attempts to gain dominion over Narnia. The Witch has stolen and enchanted the crown prince Rillian and hidden him in her underground realm. An army of enslaved Underworlders have undermined Narnia with tunnels and, when all is prepared, she plans to appear with the prince and seize Narnia. The search for and rescue of Prince Rillian is an metaphor for the search for and rescue of every lost soul. Aslan gives instructions on how to find Rillian but it is up to the travellers to actually do it. In the end, the Witch is revealed to be a terrible snake, and is killed in that form. Her kingdom, built on enchantment, comes crashing down and all her captives escape.
"The Last Battle" is Narnia's Armeggedon, and Aslan's final plans for all of his beloved creatures is revealed. A false Aslan appears in Narnia, with some very distressing teachings, which most creatures follow even though it seems to them that their world is being turned upside down. Any attempt to disagree and proclaim the truth is ignored, until the lines are clearly drawn and the sides are chosen and the last battle for Narnia and Aslan begins. In a reverse of it's creation, Narnia comes to an end. The creatures are separated at the gateway to Aslan's new world, and either enter into it or flee into the Nothingness that remains. Those who enter into the new kingdom discover to their joy that this is the real Narnia and the one they knew before only a shadow or reflection of Reality.
By following the chronicles of Narnia and learning to recognise good and evil in Aslan's world, children can learn to recognise good and evil in their world. The characters in Narnia struggle with their lessons just as we struggle and learn them in an entirely believable and sympathetic way. It is this believability and applicability that make the Narnia series so rich. These are ordinary girls and boys ( and mice and badgers ) having extraordinary adventures, learning from them but remaining ordinary.
C.S.Lewis is famous as a Christian writer of thoughtful and thought-provoking books for adults, books which explore and question our Faith and our understanding of God. What makes him a extraordinary writer is his ability to write enjoyable children's books which do the same. These are books which can be read aloud by parents over a month of evenings without boredom or loss of the storyline, or devoured on a rainy weekend by an eager child. These are books that can be read again and again with fresh insight and enjoyment arising from each reading. I'm sure pleasant memories of the "Narnia" series will lead many Christian adults to explore C.S.Lewis's other writings.
The best way to end is with Aslan's own words.
"'You are too old, children,' said Aslan, 'and you must begin to come close to your own world now.'
'It isn't Narnia, you know,' sobbed Lucy. 'It's you. We shan't meet you there. And how can we live, never meeting you?'
'But you shall meet me, dear one.' said Aslan.
'Are - are you there too, Sir?' said Edmund.
'I am,' said Aslan. '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.'" ( The Voyage of the Dawn Treader )