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CRP: “The Chronicles of Narnia” by C.S. Lewis (Part 1)

The Classics Reclamation Project is my personal challenge to read and enjoy the classics. Each Wednesday, I post about the classic I’m reading at the moment. I’m currently reading The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis.

The Classics Reclamation Project

It’s taking me some time to get through The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis. I’m enjoying them immensely, but the edition I’m reading is all seven books in one and, as a consequence, is quite hefty. I’ve pretty much been reading it in my reading chair, opting for lighter books elsewhere and for travel.

At this point, I’m just over half way through the Chronicles, having read four of the seven books. My edition claims to have placed the stories in the order that Lewis preferred, which is as follows:

  1. The Magician’s Nephew
  2. The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe
  3. The Horse and His Boy
  4. Prince Caspian
  5. The Voyage of the Dawn Treader
  6. The Silver Chair
  7. The Last Battle

I can certainly see why the order of the books isn’t set in stone. Unlike the other series I’ve read, each chronicle occurs in the same world but not in a clear, set-in-stone order. I never realized, before I picked The Chronicles of Narnia up, how much dipping in and out of Narnia there was, and how many different lead protagonists it involved. Thus, its order is flexible in a way that Harry Potter or His Dark Materials could never be.

The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis (cover)The Magician’s Boy tells of the founding of Narnia. I didn’t particularly love this first tale as a story. I did like the relationship between Polly and Digory, the story’s child hero(in)es, which was rather cute. I also liked the way it set up the rest of the Chronicles by explaining where Narnia came from, how the White Witch got involved, and how a magical wardrobe came to exist in our world. But it felt very much like a set-up to the other novels, not so much a story in and of itself.

The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe is the Narnia story most familiar to me. In reading the original, I was impressed by how true to the book whatever movie version I saw as a child was. In this story, Lucy, Edmund, Peter, and Susan–all siblings–find their way into Narnia through a magical wardrobe. After their initial adventures, they are crowned kings and queens of Narnia. The time between their coronations and the point at which they eventually leave Narnia–a substantial length of time, as the children are adults by the end–isn’t explained in any detail, and when they do return to their own world, it’s as if no time has passed. I enjoyed reading this tale, but as I already knew what would happen, I wasn’t riveted.

The Horse and His Boy was the first Chronicle I really enjoyed. It takes place while the four children are ruling in Narnia, even though it doesn’t involve them directly. This adventure follows Shasta, a boy from a country south of Narnia, and Bree, a talking Narnian Horse who was taken from Narnia when he was a colt, as they escape from their own country to Narnia. I cringed now and again at the way in which the dark-skinned barbarians from the south were portrayed but tried not to dwell too much on it. Lewis portrays Bree the Horse in a way that is highly entertaining. For instance, when he asks Shasta if he has ridden before and Shasta replies that he has ridden the donkey:

“‘Ridden the what?’ retorted the Horse with extreme contempt. (At least, that is what he meant. Actually it came out in a sort of neigh–‘Ridden the wha-ha-ha-ha-ha?’ Taling horses always become more horsy in accent when they are angry.)” (p. 209)

Prince Caspian is as far as I’ve gotten. Centuries after the four childrens’ time, Caspian’s uncle, Miraz, has ruled wrongfully in Narnia for many years. Caspian longs for the Old Narnia of Talking Animals and Dwarves and nature spirits, but men have driven all the creatures of old out. When his tutor, who is part Dwarf himself, warns Caspian that his life is in danger from Miraz, Caspian flees to the woods, where he encounters the very creatures he’s dreamed of restoring to Narnia. A war begins to determine who shall rule the land. Through magic, the four children (known to the Narnians as the kings and queens of old, though they are children once again) are summoned to aid the Old Narnians in their rebellion.

Lewis really does have a delightful writing style, which I would have loved as a child. He pops up here and there as the story’s narrator, such as when he is describing the enemy’s army in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe:

“Ogres with monstrous teeth, and wolves, and bull-headed men; spirits of evil trees and poisonous plants; and other creatures whom I won’t describe because if I did the grown-ups would probably not let you read this book–Cruels and Hags and Incubuses, Wraiths, Horrors, Efreets, Sprites, Orknies, Wooses, and Ettins.” (p. 180)

He also has a way of describing the potentially gory bits in a way that avoids being graphic but takes away no excitement from the scene. For instance, in The Horse and His Boy, a huge battle is described blow-by-blow, almost like a sporting match, by a hermit who is watching the whole event in his magical pond. Naturally, he leaves out anything especially disgusting.

I have been making a conscious effort to ignore all the religious imagery and symbolism in which The Chronicles of Narnia are steeped. I have no wish to analyze such things, and I know that, had I read the stories as a child, I would only have picked up on a wonderful fantasy story. I have nothing against what I know is there, but I am not interested in digging into it.

At about the halfway point, I’m definitely enjoying The Chronicles of Narnia, and I can see why they are considered a classic. Lewis writes delightfully and cleverly, and his imagination must have been a spectacular place. While I don’t particularly love all the underlying layers below the story’s surface and have turned a blind eye many times, I am quite looking forward to wrapping up the series with the last three books.

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  • http://wormhole.carnelianvalley.com Charlie

    The one that I got stuck on the first time I tried reading them was Dawn Treader, which this time turned out to be my favourite, so I’d definitely say you’ve got more fun yet to come. I can see how reading an all-in-one is difficult! Does your version have illustrations?

    I found it difficult not to read into all the religiousness because it was so obvious most of the time, though I’m not sure if I liked how obvious it was. I read that he didn’t start out to write religiously, and it does read that way, as if he suddenly realised.

    Seems like we’ve got pretty similar thoughts in mind for personal projects! From what I’ve read of the classics so far I’m finding it’s very much worth it.

    • Erin

      That’s where I am now, just a chapter in! My version has illustrations at the beginning of each chapter, plus a couple more at the beginning of each book.

      It is tough to ignore the religiousness! That’s interesting that Lewis didn’t start with the aim of writing religiously. I wonder if he went back and tweaked things, or if he subconsciously wove all the elements in from the start?

      I’m definitely looking forward to my project! It seems like a lot of bloggers are focusing on classics, which is cool. I like having people with whom to discuss!

  • http://zenleaf.amandagignac.com Amanda

    Narnia was ruined for me my senior year in HS. My creative writing teacher read us the Lion Witch Wardrobe book that year, only she read it to us like we were all five years old. That took away any desire to ever read any of the rest of the series. Plus all the talking animals…

    • http://loveyalit.com Em (Love YA Lit)

      That is so bizarre! My teacher read that to me too, but in 1st grade! I wonder what your teacher was thinking!

      • Erin

        Ha, yes, first grade sounds much more appropriate!

    • Erin

      Whoa, that’s nuts! That would ruin it for me too. The talking animals don’t bother me, but hearing my senior year writing teacher’s patronizing voice reading the stories to me would!

  • http://www.ragingbibliomania.net/ zibilee

    I have never read any of these books, although my husband and kids have read them all. I am going to have to give them a try, just so I can be current in my own house!

    • Erin

      Yes, if everyone else is doing it… :-) They’re nice fantasy stories, if you can overlook the little annoyances that may or may not be there, depending on how much Lewis’s treatment of certain topics bothers you!

  • http://www.stephandtonyinvestigate.com Steph

    You make this series sound so fun! I think I read the first two books when I was younger but that’s it. I’m pretty sure the religious imagery would make me groan, so I completely understand why you’re trying not to dwell on that element of the novels!

    • Erin

      It’s definitely fun. I know I would have loved these books as a kid, before I really paid attention to all the elements that now stand out to me. And definitely a classic I felt I had to have read!

  • http://loveyalit.com Em (Love YA Lit)

    I read Prince Caspian for the first time a year ago and found myself a little bored. Ah well. I want to try the Dawn Treader someday – have heard from many that it is the best!

    • Erin

      I liked Prince Caspian because of the four I’ve read so far, it revealed the most to me that I didn’t realize about the series: namely, that the same four children go back to Narnia. I’m not sure what I was expecting; maybe seven novels in which seven different sets of children end up in Narnia? I’m looking forward to the last three, seeing how it all wraps up!

  • http://lifetimereadingplan.blogspot.com/ LifetimeReader

    Congratulations on getting CRP underway! I love these books so much–and unlike you, Magician’s Nephew is my favorite. Have you looked at Laura Miller’s Magician’s Book? It is a really marvelous account of an adult coming back to CS Lewis and talking about their worth despite her position as a religious skeptic. You might enjoy it if you haven’t read it.

    • Erin

      Thanks! I actually just checked The Magician’s Book out of the library because Eva at The Striped Armchair kept raving about it! I’m thinking it’ll be a great follow-up to the Chronicles themselves and am happy to have a second recommendation!

  • http://mrstreme.wordpress.com Jill

    Hi, Erin! Thank you so much for my Secret Santa stuff! I love everything – you are so sweet! Here’s a link to my post if you want to check it out:

    http://mrstreme.wordpress.com/2010/12/09/thank-you-secret-santa/

    Merry Christmas!
    Jill =)

    • Erin

      You’re so welcome, Jill! Merry Christmas to you as well!

  • http://www.readinasinglesitting.com Stephanie

    I’m re-reading these, too, and have gotten through the first three so far. I remember loving some of the later books as a kid, so I’m looking forward to those.

    I’m doing my best to ignore the religious elements, but I’m finding that more problematic for me are the patronising sexism and the shameless racism. I know they’re novels of their time, but still…

    • Erin

      Yeah…the sexism and racism are fun too, aren’t they? I wouldn’t have noticed them as a kid, so I’m trying very hard to let it go. My husband also warned me, so I was somewhat prepared! I can see why they’re classics, though I can also see how they’re flawed.

  • http://aliteraryodyssey.blogspot.com Allie

    I think one of the best things about the Narnia books is that you can read them on different levels and pull what you will from them. You can read for the fantasy, for the adventure, for a child, to learn about the religious connections, etc. I really believe that the depth of these seemingly simple stories is why they are considered classics.

    I do have to agree with you that Magician’s Nephew seems to be just a way for him to explain the world. I think I read somewhere that Lewis was sick of being asked where the wardrobe came from and where it all began, so he wrote Magican’s Nephew to put an end to the questions. I don’t know if that is true or not, but it could seem that way, especially since it was one of the last to be written.

    I hope you enjoy the next ones!

    • Erin

      That’s very true. I do think it can be hard to close your eyes to something once you know it’s there, but at the same time, I think it’s also possible to suspend your quibbles and focus on a different level. I can absolutely see why the stories are classics and would include them on my own personal classics list as well.

      I like that the wardrobe has an origin! How funny that the main purpose of The Magician’s Nephew might have been to explain the wardrobe’s story.

  • http://jennysbooks.wordpress.com Jenny

    Ha, I think you’re going to have a hard time closing your eyes to the imagery in The Last Battle. It gets really blatant and, actually, very annoying. But I’m glad you’re enjoying these books. They are so close to my heart.

    • Erin

      Thanks for the warning! I’ll do my best :-)