The Chronicles of Narnia
In Brief: Simple adventure stories, with a clear Christian basis. Heroic valour and virtue among straightforward characters who must each face individual challenges, overcome their own shortcomings, and decide where they place their trust.
Series: The Chronicles of Narnia
Age Range: Children+
Period: Mid 20th C
Eight children witness the history of the world of Narnia, from its creation out of inchoate blackness to the extinction of its stars and the return of darkness. In The Magician's Nephew, Polly and Digory see the creation of Narnia and take back to London an apple from the garden at the centre of the world. That apple grows into a tree which when it falls is turned into a wardrobe through which Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy enter Narnia, help to defeat its cruel ruler, and are crowned kings and queens. During their reign, Bree and Shasta, The Horse and his Boy are instrumental in saving Narnia from an attack by Prince Rabadash of Calormene. After the children return to England, they are all called back once more 1,000 years after their time and help establish Prince Caspian as the rightful ruler, defeating his usurping uncle Miraz. Peter and Susan are told that they are too old to return to Narnia, but Edmund and Lucy do go back once again in the company of their annoying cousin Eustace. Together they share in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, travelling with King Caspian to the outer islands and to Aslan's country at the edge of the world. After this, Edmund and Lucy may not return to Narnia, but Eustace does come again bringing Jill Pole from his school and they travel across the northern wastes to find Caspian's son Rillian, held for years in the clutches of a witch who plans to invade Narnia. All the children bar Susan are called back to Narnia for The Last Battle when they discover that not only Narnia but their own lives have come to an end, and they all now live in Aslan's country of which our world and Narnia are merely pale shadows.
This series is one of the most enduring forces in the children's literature of the 20th century. Fifty years after its first publication it's still being produced in many and varied editions, including boxed sets, graphic novels, talking books, radio and television dramatisations and, most recently, a series of feature films. Like the Harry Potter series, there are seven books. Like Harry Potter, the protagonists are children who must enter a land which mirrors ours in many ways but where fantastic creatures and concepts are more commonplace. Like Harry Potter, there is a clear distinction in each of the different stories between the characters who are for the good and those who are not. Also, like Harry Potter, the books are read by adults and by children. It will be interesting to see which has more staying power in years to come.
In our society where all values are relative and where non-judgmentalism is considered a virtue, I wonder whether it's the simplicity of Good and Evil within the worlds of Narnia and of Harry Potter which draws so many people to them. No-one could accuse C.S.Lewis of playing too subtle a game with his characters' affiliations or of promoting an anti-hero ethic. Decentfilms.com's Steven Greydanus, contrasting the earlier and later Star Wars films, points out that even young children can follow the plot points of the original set: Luke needs to get the plans of the Death Star to the Rebels so they can blow it up. In contrast, even adults have difficulty in discerning the motives of, for example, the blockade around the planet Naboo which seems to be involved with some sort of Trade Route taxation!
In Narnia, there's rarely a problem of that sort: Miraz is bad because he wants to kill Caspian so his own son can claim the throne; Jadis is bad because she wants to take over the world and anyway she killed Aslan; Shift and the Calormene captain have an ersatz Aslan, and don't really believe in him or Tash anyway. And so on. Yet there's just enough enquiry into the motives and morals of various characters to satisfy young minds. Why was Coriakin exiled to the island of the Dufflepuds? Was it some enchantment or just because of his attitude that Eustace was transformed into a dragon? Was Aravis right to let her slavegirl take the blame for her escape? Some of the answers are there in the books; some aren't.
One might imagine that the Christian elements of the story could hardly escape any reader's attention. The world created from nothing by the mysterious and lordly creature who brings into being land and sea, plants and animals, gives them intelligence, and has a garden planted with an apple tree. The sacrifice of that same lordly being, an innocent victim to save the rest of the world from evil. The final conflict between good and evil, after which all creatures are divided, doomed to darkness or raised to a new awareness of the Real World of which this one is merely a shadow. The extremely obvious hints in Dawn Treader which finishes, for goodness sake, with a lamb on the seashore beside a meal cooking! And yet I come across many people who had simply enjoyed the story and had never considered the close Christian analogy. The makers of the recent film series, when pressed on this point, shuffled their feet and said that people could see what they liked in the story. This is obviously true, and yet sooner or later any reader must surely see in the very appeal of the story the appeal of the Christian message.
As the children grow older, each is told that he or she may not return to Narnia. At the same time, Aslan assures each one that he is to be found in our own world if one knows where to look. This is a clear appeal to a childlike vision of spirituality, to a simplicity and innocence too little found in our modern-day society, even among children. It may have been a simple expedient to bring the numbers down to a suitably mystical 7, but when Susan is excluded from the final lineup in the the Last Battle, we understand very well that she's become too grown up (lipstick and parties and all that) and she's lost the sense of childhood which, even when grown up, we need in order to encounter God.
Growth of character is an important part of the children's journeys through Narnia. Edmund, of course, turns traitor and must forever overcome that initial handicap: he's the first to believe Lucy when she alone sees Aslan in Prince Caspian, and he cheers Eustace up after the latter's return to human form by contrasting Eustace's merely annoying behaviour with his own far more serious betrayal. Lucy, the youngest and most innocent of all the children, has the least growing to do in that sense. Always closest to Aslan, she relies more on him that the others. But she, too, has to overcome her own weaknesses and learns her lesson when she uses magic to eavesdrop on her schoolfriends. Susan, hardest of all, never really grows as close to Narnia and ends up losing hold of it altogether. Peter admits his own fault in being too hard on Edmund and must shoulder much responsibility as High King. Eustace, of course, starts from a weak position compared to his cousins and it takes a magical transformation to cure him. But he, then, is in a position to bring Jill Pole to Narnia where she learns to trust Aslan and to admit her own mistakes.
Not everyone likes the Narnia stories. Some find them too simplistic in a modern world where decisions are not so easily made. Others dislike Lewis' often avuncular style. Some dislike the portrayal of the Calormenes as Crusade-style infidels, natural enemy of the northerners, worshippers of a True God. Some are concerned about the use of magic in an otherwise very Christian story. Some even find them too short: I think all seven Narnia stories together weigh in under the page count of the longest of the Harry Potter series.
And yet they keep being produced and sold. Aside from the less tangible aspects above of virtue and valour, there are very simple reasons besides. Each book is short and lends itself to any manner of cover illustrations, quite apart from the Pauline Baynes illustrations which have been in every edition I've read. There are seven of them, which is nicely collectible number, although with cheap print editions these days, you can get the entire boxed set ridiculously cheaply. Ultimately, though, I think people young and old simply enjoy the simplicity of a story which you can read in a day (or in a few hours) which doesn't demand that you wade in sordid and murky waters and which leaves you happier at the end than you were when you started.
Wednesday 17th October 2007