I am not going to review of the books of the series for separate and specific ratings. Instead, I will give the whole series a rating (five stars for all kinds of reasons) which is not to say they’re all of equal quality or all great or any of them perfect. But because of their influence, their precision, their quality, and my own specific sentimental value…well, I just can’t do otherwise.
The other thing is: I am not a Christian and I used to be. So I have read all these, and don’t care about Christian allegories in the sense of feeling some kind of way about them, like a lot of people do. My sister for one didn’t want her children reading them. But I kind of think this is silly. Welcome to Western Literature!, where half of everything we have in based in Christian religious tradition or is a reaction against it. It does have its issues. It’s orientialist, Islamophobic, and racist in its own ways. It doesn’t think too terribly much about its female characters (even beavers get gender normed).
The Magician’s Nephew
The first time I even really knew this one existed was in college when I bought the omnibus edition prior to the first film coming out. It might have been a few years after this, actually, but regardless, I surprised. I thought there were four books: The Silver Chair, The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe, Prince Caspian, and The Horse and his Boy. I thought these were it because they were the ones we had in my house as a kid.
As a separate book, I am not sure this one works. If I had never read any of the books, I would suggest reading this one next to last because I think to best appreciate the creation of Narnia and the setting of the terms and the introduction of the witch and Aslan, this one should be moved toward the end. You should already know about all these things before you learn about them. So as a prequel, it works, but as a book on its own, less so.
I like origin stories but they are kind of limited in this way.
The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.
This is one of the books I have read more than any other book…in existence, actually. It’s probably in my top ten most reread books too. And, I have specific memories of reading it as a kid and loving it, and also being both proud and Proud about my having read it. Because so much happens in so short a space, it’s easy for a kid to get big on himself.
So I was a little surprised this time around to recognize just how short this book is. And how much action happens off-screen. The Witch dies offscreen, Edmund dewands her offscreen, and a lot of Aslan’s machinations happen by the time the humans arrive to the battlefield.
What’s really funny to me about this one is and always has been the arrival of Father Christmas to them the tools for battle. It’s funny in part because while he’s giving the kids weapons, he also gives Mrs Beaver a sewing machine.
But it made me think about the story as a whole, and to be reminded of a moment in The Magician’s Nephew where Diggory says to his uncle something to the effect of: “I have read all the fairy stories, so I know that you are evil.” And it’s a reminder of the mythopoeic motif behind these stories….that all myth is real and connected to the same central metanarrative.
The Horse and his Boy
In some ways this is the best of the books. It’s got the deeply problematic element of inventing a Muslim/Near Eastern race/kingdom and casting them as the villains…or a kind of villains. They are at the very least the adversaries of the novel and some future novels.
But also this is the most fantasy adventure of the novels. We have a boy enslaved who meets a Narnian horse (ie can talk) who tells him they should escape together. While on the run they meet a runaway princess, the meet the Pevensie children from the previous novel now Kings and Queens, and they become enmeshed in political intrigue and politicking.
So it’s the most clear example of fantasy so far that doesn’t involve origins or reawakenings. It’s a reminder that in all the talk in the final chapter of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe of the decades of their rule, there was a whole kingdom happening.
This one, where almost nothing happens…..or more so, where everything that happens is almost the same as what happens in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, is absolutely brilliant. What I think specifically is brilliant in this one is that instead of an adventure in which the protagonist summons helps and they join in battle, we have the protagonists be the heroes and legends that are summoned in. I find that to be an interesting reversal.
It’s also an opportunity for the legends themselves to weigh in on the future of their own legacy, or the legacy of their legacy. It’s also the first book in the series in which we see things move on past the children and start to understand more about the rules.
There’s the bittersweet idea of outgrowing the fantasies of our youth and moving forward into adulthood. This is especially bitter because of the truths out there waiting.
This is also the clearest explanation of Aslan being Jesus in a mythpoeic way. I am the same in your world with a different world. This is the kind of cosmology involved.
Voyage of the Dawn Treader
The first time I read this one I didn’t like it very much. My issue I think looking back now is that I wasn’t ready to move past Peter and Susan, and felt that Eustace was a very cheap replacement.
So depending on your views of Eustace, who out Edmunds Edmund in this one, you might feel the same. But Eustace gets an arc and is able to transcend his own failures of course.
So in this one, Lucy, Edmund, and their cousin Eustace are pulled into a painting of a ship, what would become known to them as the Dawn Treader. It turns out to be the ship of the self-same Prince Caspian, now King Caspian, who is sailing around his newly won kingdom surveying the realm and searching for the lost and exiled advisers who his father sent away. In addition, we have Caspian following another kind of prophecy and looking for the ends of the earth — the far east.
The structure of this novel is our first “journey” style book — a sea-going story — and one in which the limits are farther than the extremes of the rising of a king to the throne. It’s also one that continues to challenge kings with their limits as kings. It’s quite clear that everyone here believes in the tenets of monarchy, but also understand that monarchs are beholden to the care of their subjects.
We also get a great, extended sequence in which a characters awakens in the form of a dragon, doesn’t realize it at first, hates it, grows to accept it, and recognizes the ways in which it allowed him personal growth. I think Eustace’s growth here mirrors Edmund’s in a lot of ways, and helps to us to realize that heroes are created and not simply born.
The Silver Chair
In this book we also get the most pure adventure/fantasy adventure book. Eustace and new friend Jill Pool are brought to Narnia in order to help find the lost son of Caspian, who is now quite old. Jill is completely game for the adventure as soon as she shows up, so there’s none of that frustrating character progression as with Eustace in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. Instead we get something a little different, where their earned skills in this book show up in modified ways in their home world and then also in the next book.
They head off to the land of giants with a friend of the king in tow and they meet up with a Queen and her knight who suspiciously tell them that a glorious night of hot food and hot baths await them. They are waylaid and end up in the ruinous city of giants where the lost son of the king likely is held. He is. He ends up being that self same knight they met on the road and they learn that once per night for one hour he goes “crazy” and during that hour they wait for him and it turns out he actually turns normal. Then they have to fight against the witch…bada boom bada bing.
Also Aslan shows up and does some things for those whose faith in him never wavered and even more for those whose did.
The Last Battle
I hated this book the first time I read it and still think it has some significant issues. For one, it’s anti-atheist and fuck that. Two, the way it does this is by being Islamophobic and fuck that. And three, it’s Islamophobic by suggesting that all Muslims worship a false god who is actually the devil and pull the wool over the eyes of good, godfearing Christians. And well, fuck that.
Once you get through that, the story itself is actually quote good. It’s basically Prince Caspian by way of Wise Blood in which an ape dresses a donkey up as a fake Aslan and they get used by some opportunistic potential usurpers. Luckily the king is quite capable and also draws on Aslan’s power to summon Eustace and Jill Pool back into the world to help him. He helps them as much as they help him, but he also taps into the cosmos a little and has some communion with Aslan, the Pevensies minus Susan who likes makeup and boys now, and also Diggory and Polly both of The Magician’s Nephew.
This book closes off the conversation about the mythopoeic interpretation of the myths of Narnia where in the lifespan of Uncle Diggory, we’ve seen the creation of and destruction of the entire world of Narnia.
It’s an interesting close for the books with the obvious shitty takes on race and Islam and women, but provides an interesting model for the role imagination in one’s life.