Wednesday, July 04, 2007

The Chronicles of Narnia

The Chronicles of Narnia Box Set

C.S. Lewis

  —   Book

product page


Fiction, Fantasy, Children's

Pauline Baynes is still alive? Wow. The things you learn.

Pauline Baynes, for those of you who don't know the name, is the original illustrator of the Narnia books. Her artwork was sadly butchered for the American editions, a fact readily apparent to me as my family had many of the British paperbacks from a few years they spent there. The American editions took every picture that Ms. Baynes created, picked just one, and then cut one tiny bit out of it to stick at the beginning of the chapter, probably in an effort to save expenses. Collier, I blame you.

These new editions restore all of the illustrations, newly colored by Ms. Baynes, which is how I tracked down the fact that she was still alive. They're on nice glossy paper, and this set is dirt cheap (not listed because the little box didn't pull up this one, so I had to stick the info in myself.) They do, unfortunately, renumber the set as all modern editions do, but at least they've fixed the typos.

Why is it so important that they be read in the published order? According to the publishers of the current editions, this is "the order Mr. Lewis preferred," which is balderdash as this "directive" was taken from a letter to a fan in which Mr. Lewis said it was okay to read them in chronological order. Of course you can do that. AFTER you've read them in the original order.

It's a personal annoyance of mine. Sure, The Magician's Nephew is chronologically first, but it makes reference to things that happen in The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe. Furthermore, reading it first takes some of the wonder out of that first true glimpse of Narnia, and that lampost standing in the snow. It is more of a discovery to read LWW first, then find out the backstory. Chidren need to learn the value of flashbacks, really.

I've even seen a valid theological reason for putting LWW first, and that goes back to that scary thought of Lewis drawing from Christian tradition when creating Narnia. What is the most important book of the Old Testament? What is the central defining characteristic of Jewish and Christian theology? It is the story of Exodus, the fact that once we were slaves, but now we are free. Our entire culture is based on that fact, an argument which would take far too long to lay out in a book review.

The parallels to Exodus are quite clear. The Hebrews were enslaved to the Pharoah, while the Narnians are enslaved to the White Witch. The promise of freedom is the promise of this book, and it is so theologically powerful that it has to come first. Genesis, and the Fall, are comparatively weak entries to begin a series with.*

Besides, the contrast of Narnia's creation and its destruction is likewise powerful, and a child's attention span necessitates close proximity of the books lest the impact be lessened.

One final note on LWW: I had one friend, who read this as an adult, complain about the lack of dramatic tension and about the repetition of what a foolish thing it is to shut oneself into a wardrobe, O Best Beloved.† These are stylistic marks of a fairy tale, and children love the repetition of phrases.

Prince Caspian is the second book of the series, and furthers the concept of flexible time in Narnia. (It was introduced in LWW by the fact of the Pevensies— who, incidentally, don't have their last name revealed for another book— getting older in Narnia, but returning to their own ages and their own time.) It's a more standard fantasy of the displaced prince regaining his kingdom. The aforementioned friend preferred this book, which has a stronger narrative, but it wasn't my favorite as a child. That may be because this sojourn in Narnia is very short; the siblings are only in Narnia for a week or so if you count it up. That's hardly time to acclimate, let alone have a rousing fantasy.

The Voyage of the Dawn Treader is very weak on narrative but very strong on the fantastical journeys; I have always liked all the little island worlds they visit. I was introduced to Eustace in another book, a book on dragons, and found out the story of a boy who was turned into a dragon because he hadn't read the right books. The accompanying illustration showed a forlorn little dragon peering over a scholar's shoulder, and I had to read the book to find out what happened!

Incidentally, there is a fairly major discrepancy in between the British and American versions of the chapter of the Island of Dreams; this was an authorial revision by Lewis, who decided that his original ending was not quite as he had intended. (In the original, they watch the island disappear behind them; in the revision, the island is completely gone when they turn around.)

The Silver Chair is a favorite of many of my friends, though it made me a little claustrophobic. It is the book of What Goes Wrong and seems to be overcast for me. (Yes, I tend to get weather overtones with some books, not always congruent with the descriptions. In this case, overcast is right; aside from one interlude they're always in rain, or snow, or just plain gray skies.) The children don't follow directions and the adventure just gets dimmer and dimmer. But it all turns out right in the end, barely.

Now we go back in time, to A Horse and His Boy, which is a delightful relief from the gloom of The Silver Chair. Forecast is desert sunny, a familiar feel for me. It's a lot more straightforward adventure, and is perhaps the simplest of the Narnia books, dealing with only two perspectives at most and one overreaching tale. Very likeable.

Then we get around to The Magician's Nephew, which is the only Narnia book to be largely set in our world. It gives it an entirely different feel from the other books, and is particularly good to read as a child who has not yet discovered how to make connections between books. The reveal at the end that Digory Kirke is the Professor from LWW is surprising to the target audience (oh, the things we forget as we age!)

This is a world with extreme depth, but one which we only touch on shallowly. We learn that the housemaid is having a wonderful day, but we never find out why. We find out about the Wood Between the Worlds, but we only explore two, and find that further exploration is forbidden. And we find out about the history of Narnia that we never will learn, never quite. This one has always been one of my favorites, not the least because of the access hall along the back of the houses. Which child hasn't dreamed of a secret tunnel in their very own house?

The final book, no matter how you count it, is The Last Battle. A lot of people don't like this one because good things shouldn't come to an end, or because the Christian imagery is stronger in this one, or just because. The first time I read this book was one of those years when California was burning down (this happens quite a lot, you know), and I got to the end of the book in the car and could look out to see a smoke-stained sunset and it really did look like the end of the world. It's a powerful book and doubly so when it's the first time you come across such apocalyptic imagery.

Ever since that time, though, I've wanted to write a story about Susan, who was left behind. I fully believe she caught up with them eventually, but her road became very, very hard after that. (I didn't even realize that some people thought the comments her siblings made about her meant she had, in effect, turned to the Dark Side. Nonsense. She just tried to fit in with everyone "normal", which isn't a sin, but which can obscure what's really important.)

The most interesting thing about Narnia is an observation once made upon it. "These are books that get bigger in memory." If you have not read them in years, you might be surprised at how short they are. And though I read them on a regular basis, I, too, find they're always a bit... maddeningly... shorter than I remember them, or want them, to be.

*For those of you who are fond of biblical criticism, scholars tend to agree that Genesis was created later than Exodus. At least if I remember my Old Testament classes correctly. While bits of Genesis may have predated Exodus as oral tradition, Exodus is considered to be a central, unified creation long before Genesis made paper.

†Just So Stories, by Rudyard Kipling. What do they teach you in those schools?

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