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.
At last, I’ve finished The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis! I posted about the first four books in my seven-in-one volume two weeks ago. This week I’ll talk about the last three: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, The Silver Chair, and The Last Battle. The first two were my favorites of the Chronicles; the last was my least.
The Voyage of the Dawn Treader
First up: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. Many people have told me this is their favorite Narnia story, and I can see why, though it came in at number two for me. In it, the younger two Pevensies, Edmund and Lucy, are sucked into Narnia through a painting in their aunt’s house. Their grouchy cousin, Eustace, gets pulled along with them, and the three land on King Caspian’s ship, the Dawn Treader. He and his crew are sailing east toward Aslan’s lands in search of seven Narnian lords and friends of Caspian’s father who left Narnia many years ago.
What follows is a journey that reminded me of Homer’s The Odyssey. The comparison first came to mind when one of Caspian’s men catches the children, just arrived on the ship, up on their travels so far:
“‘And we sailed from Galma,’ continued Drinian, ‘and ran into a calm for the best part of two days and had to row, and then had the wind again and did not make Terebinthia til the fourth day from Galma. And there their King sent out a warning not to land for there was sickness in Terebinthia, but we doubled the cape and put in at a little creek far from the city and watered. Then we had to lie off for three days before we got a south-east wind and stood out for Seven Isles. The third day out a pirate (Terebinthian by her rig) overhauled us, but when she saw us well armed she stood off after some shooting of arrows on either part…'” (p. 434)
You’ll notice there’s little mention of danger or gods; that comes later in the journey. The Dawn Treader sails from island to island in the unexplored far east of the world. On each, they encounter something: a dragon, a strange race in need of assistance, slave traders. The crew’s adventures reminded me of Odysseus’ in their structure (mini adventures in various lands) and their resolution (either by their own wits or by divine intervention).
It was this last piece–the constant divine intervention–that knocked The Voyage of the Dawn Treader down a notch for me. I have nothing against Aslan swooping in to save the day, but it makes for less exciting reading. When you suspect a great lion will turn up and fix everything, you’re not particularly concerned for the characters. I wanted the kids to figure it out for themselves.
I did like that this Chronicle dealt with just the two Pevensies. It was easier to get to know them, since I wasn’t trying to keep track of four related and similarly mild-mannered children. Eustace was no problem, as his temperament, at least initially, was quite distinct. I also liked that a few of the Narnian characters from Prince Caspian carried over: Caspian himself, as well as Reepicheep the Mouse, for example.
The Silver Chair
The Silver Chair was my favorite Chronicle. In it, Eustace and his schoolmate Jill (known to one another by their last names, so Scrubb and Pole, respectively) are called into Narnia and sent on a quest by Aslan. Narnia’s prince has been missing for many years, and his elderly father, King Caspian, will not live much longer. Aslan gives the children four signs to watch for on their quest and sends them off to find the missing Prince Rilian.
I liked The Silver Chair best for a couple of reasons. First, I really liked that the children had an overarching quest. Compared to this Chronicle, the others felt sort of meandering, with no real, clear, unifying aim. From start to finish in The Silver Chair, Eustace and Jill were hunting for Prince Rilian. Of course they had adventures along the way, but always as they sought the prince. Second, I liked how absent Aslan was. He wasn’t constantly popping up to save the children from whatever danger they’d gotten into; they had to figure it out themselves. It made the story more enthralling for me.
I love it when Lewis’s cleverness shines through in his storytelling. For instance, if you’ve ever wondered why a Centaur takes so long to eat breakfast, here’s Lewis’s explanation:
“‘A Centaur has a man-stomach and a horse-stomach. And of course both want breakfast. So first of all he has porridge and pavenders and kidneys and bacon and omelette and cold ham and toast and marmalade and coffee and beer. And after that he attends to the horse part of himself by grazing for an hour or so and finishing up with a hot mash, some oats, and a bag of sugar. That’s why it’s such a serious thing to ask a Centaur to stay for the weekend. A very serious thing in deed.'”
Aren’t you glad you know? I certainly am. Now I’ll think twice before inviting a Centaur over! It’s also in this book that Lewis uses the word “smotheriness,” which I quite like.
The Last Battle
The final Chronicle, The Last Battle, was my least favorite. I’d been warned it was the heaviest on religious symbolism, which it was, but not in a way I found subtle or interesting. The story opens with an Ape and a Donkey, who are supposedly friends. They discover a discarded lion skin floating in a pond, and the clever Ape sews up a suit for the Donkey, saying it is to keep his friend warm. But the Ape has ulterior motives, which are soon revealed.
Meanwhile, King Tirian of Narnia is alerted to strange and disturbing events in his kingdom by several of his subjects. He sets out to investigate these events and discovers that Narnia is now plagued by false gods who have tricked many Narnians into acting wrongfully.
This Chronicle had potential, I thought, to be good. I found the false Aslan setup to be interesting, if a bit obvious. But as soon as the battle became hopeless, I began to wonder where the end would lead. And once the children entered the stable to discover they were in a new and better Narnia with all of their friends, both dead and alive, and Aslan sorted the believers from the nonbelievers and led everyone off into better Narnia, I couldn’t conceal the rolling of my eyes. The last straw was finding out that all the children and their parents had actually died in a train collision back in London, so they were all in Aslan’s country together. I was bored by all the running through beautiful country and annoyed by the silliness of it all. Perhaps if this had been just a few pages it would have a tolerable, if disappointing, ending. But it was more like a good 30 pages, and I got fed up.
The Last Battle goes down as my least favorite of the Chronicles…which is rather a disappointing way to finish up a generally good series!
One aspect of the later Chronicles I liked was how they referred back to earlier Chronicles. The Horse and His Boy was something of a legend told in later days; creatures had heard of the deeds of so-and-so at such-and-such a time, which happened to be something about which I’d already read. It created a sense of continuity amongst the stories and really made me feel like I was reading the complete chronicles of the land of Narnia.
These books are not without their flaws. Religious themes, racism, and sexism run rampant. I set out to read The Chronicles of Narnia as I would have as a child–that is, ignoring as best I could all the potentially problematic elements and enjoying an imaginative fantasy story. For the most part, I feel I succeeded. Even when I myself couldn’t overlook a certain element, I could see how some could and how such elements added another level to the stories.
Overall, I did enjoy the series. Like everyone, I had my favorites, though I lack the childhood attachment to The Chronicles of Narnia that some people enjoy. I would say my favorites, in order of most to least, would be:
- The Silver Chair
- The Voyage of the Dawn Treader
- The Horse and His Boy
- Prince Caspian
- The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe
- The Magician’s Nephew
- The Last Battle
And with that, I’m on to my next classic: A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens, then Through the Looking-Glass by Lewis Carroll, both on audio!