Almost 40 years ago I received a paperback box set of the Chronicles of Narnia for my birthday as a gift from my sister. I’d already read The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe so she thought the set would be a good gift. As it was the school holidays I could sit there and devour the books, reading them all inside of 6 days. I still have that box set with me, even though other treasured books from childhood were given away to nieces and nephews.
More recently – about 18 months ago in fact – I walked into a second hand bookshop in Plymouth and spotted a hardback box set of the series. I resisted buying it and later regretted doing that. A month ago whilst on holiday in the area I looked in and the books were still there. As fate was clearly on my side I couldn’t resist and bought it this time (that’s them pictured there – it’s a 1997 set that originally cost £90).
My relationship with this series is complex, as I’m sure is the case for most people who are older and have read them. It cannot be hidden that there are some real issues for a contemporary audience who pick up these novels.
As a child I loved the books unconditionally, I read nothing more into them than a heroic fantasy series with brave children and talking animals. I wanted to visit Narnia and live in Cair Paravel, and travel to remote islands onboard the Dawntreader. But then I grew up and there are reasons why for many years I stuck to reading The Lion etc, Prince Caspian, The Voyage of the Dawntreader, and The Silver Chair. The other three books (The Magician’s Nephew, The Horse and his Boy, The Last Battle) are much more overtly religious and with the description of the Calormenes also come across in a very negative way towards Islam and middle-eastern cultures generally. As an atheist with mixed-faith friends this was always something I struggled with (though one of my closest Muslim friends loves the series, has the same issues with it I do, and we argue about whether Dawntreader or Silver Chair is the best book…)
This time I decided I had to read all the books again and look at them with older eyes. The quick summary is that I still love the core 4 stories, The Horse and His Boy came out better than I remembered, and I still absolutely hate The Last Battle.
Now to explain more! The books are basically a Christian allegory with The Magician’s Nephew being a creation myth, and The Last Battle featuring the end of a world and a view of an afterlife. We have our Christ figure in the great lion Aslan, and in The Lion etc (the first book published) we have a Judas figure in Edmund, one of the four siblings who end up in Narnia. There’s the fact that Narnia, a land populated by mythical creatures and talking animals must be ruled by a “Son of Adam” or a “Daughter of Eve” and yes, they’re all white and believe in Aslan…
The main 4 books recount the visits of the Pevensie children (Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy), their cousin Eustace, and his friend Jill to Narnia over the course of many years. And it’s these stories that still work for me. Yes, they have religious allegories, but they’re also fun romps featuring evil witches, brave princes, and high adventure. Not without problems – Peter was always a smug brat (I preferred Edmund), the crucifixion parallels with Aslan are eye-rollingly obvious, they have era-defined sexism issues (girls don’t fight, and just want to look pretty), and if you don’t believe in Aslan you’re not a good person – but still a good read. And I always like Prince Caspian – casting Ben Barnes in the movie role was a great attempt by Disney to resurrect that childhood crush!
The Magician’s Nephew is, for me, just kind-of-there. It’s a creation myth for a created world and as such just doesn’t grip me as a story. The characters feel like jigsaw pieces being moved around to set up the other books – here’s Aslan, here’s how the wardrobe gets built, here’s how the White Witch gets to Narnia.
The Horse and His Boy is one of the two books that focus on the Calormene people, and it’s the better of the two. It’s set during the reign of the Pevensies and the story is a problem – young white boy stolen from his people escaping the cruel dark-skinned Calormenes – but this story at least humanised the Calormenes to an extent with Aravis being brave, smart, and independent. It did however trade in stereotypes with plots involving forced marriage, cruel rulers, vast deserts, and comments about smells (describing people smelling of garlic and spices and acting as if the only good food is anglicised…). I enjoyed the story more than I thought I would but would not rush to re-read it.
It’s The Last Battle that is a real problem for me. The “evil” Calormenes have invaded Narnia, their god is repeatedly described as false (with Aslan implying you can’t worship him if you’re a good person), they’re described as “Darkies”, and they bring about the end of the world. On top of that you have a literal train-crash of a plot that involves all the children we knew from the earlier books (and their parents) dying in a rail accident and getting to go to Aslan’s Country a.k.a. Heaven – except Susan because she’d stopped believing in Narnia. So yes, not a good book. C.S. Lewis did intend to address the Susan issue by making it clear she wasn’t on the train and hadn’t died (because it’s so much better to think of her being orphaned and alone afterwards…) but didn’t complete writing that before his death.
I’ve struggled rating this overall but have decided to go with 4 stars. I still love to read 4 out of 7 of these books and really can’t be doing with the last one so I averaged this out. I think it’s an important series for people to read and would still recommend it to children along with a conversation about how times and attitudes have changed.