Thursday, November 17, 2011

The Chronicles of Narnia by CS Lewis

These are not my favourite books. Nor have I always thought they were very important to me. But they are a part of my mental architecture in ways so profound that it took me twenty years to realise just how great their effect has been on me.

This would be, incidentally, an interesting topic for discussion. The Chronicles had a formative effect on my life. Was that a good thing? I think it was, because I think they are good and wholesome books. But as my (potential) children grow up, I'll be remembering how I was shaped by the books that, from age four to nine, were my favourites, and choosing books accordingly.

The Chronicles of Narnia are seven, as following (in the order in which they were written, and should be read; take no notice of the spinal numbering that is ubiquitous today):

The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe: Four children sent away from London during the Blitz discover a magic wardrobe leading into the enchanted kingdom of Narnia, which is terrorised by the cruel White Witch. An ancient prophecy states that after a hundred years of winter, the White Witch's power will be broken by Aslan, the Great Lion, who will appoint four human children to reign over a reborn Narnia. But the prophecy can only be fulfilled if all four children are present—and one of them has gone over to the White Witch.

Prince Caspian: High King Peter, Queen Susan, King Edmund, and Queen Lucy—the four siblings from the previous book—have reverted to childhood and lived another year in the outside world. But then the note of Susan's magic horn summons them back to Narnia. This time, foreign invaders have taken over Narnia and driven all non-human and magic creatures into hiding. One boy stands between Miraz the usurper and total control of Narnia—young Caspian, the true king, who resists him with a guerilla force of Old Narnians. The woods return to life, Aslan is seen again, and it's time for the old kings and queens to prepare for war.

The Voyage of the Dawn Treader: To their great delight, Edmund and Lucy return to Narnia in time to sail with King Caspian to the uttermost East in search of ten lost lords, the end of the world, and Aslan's own country. To their great disgust, they bring a hanger-on—their horrible cousin Eustace, who insists on seeing the British Consul and getting back to civilisation. Fortunately for Eustace, there is no British Consul in the uttermost East—but plenty of danger in the form of slavers, dragons, sea-serpents, magicians, and nightmares.

The Silver Chair: Eustace, now a reformed character, and Jill, an unhappy girl at his school, call out to Aslan for permission to escape to Narnia. Permission is given, but only so that they can undertake a quest. King Caspian's only son and heir Rilian has been missing for years, so Aslan solemnly commissions Jill and Eustace to go in search of him until they find him and bring him back, or perish in the attempt.

The Horse and His Boy: Shasta, a boy growing up in poverty in the Arabian-Nights land of Calormene, knows that he cannot truly be the son of Arsheesh the fisherman. But then a visiting nobleman's horse changes his life forever with one whisper. The horse is in fact a Talking Horse from the far northern land of Narnia, and it is his dream to return there and be free...and from his fair northern features, says the horse, Shasta must be from Narnia too. Boy and horse escape together, and with the company of Aravis, a young noblewoman fleeing an arranged marriage, set out for Narnia and the North. But the passion of Prince Rabadash for Queen Susan of Narnia is likely to make their trip more eventful, more dangerous, and more momentous than they expected.

The Magician's Nephew: Digory Kirke knew his uncle had a secret, but he and next-door-neighbour Polly Plummer never expected to find themselves flung across the barrier between worlds, or to waken a powerful witch-queen among the crumbling ruins of a dying cosmos. Jadis of Charn lusts for new worlds to conquer, and Digory is desperate to save his own—at any cost.

The Last Battle: Eustace and Jill return to Narnia to find the Last King of Narnia, Tirian, bound to a tree awaiting trial for slaying a Calormene. The ape Shift preaches a strange heresy on Stable Hill; the creatures of Narnia have been decieved and frightened by his lies; then the mighty Calormenes strike Cair Paravel. An eagle bears the last message of Roonwit the Centaur to King Tirian: Remember that all worlds draw to an end and that noble death is a treasure which no one is too poor to buy. In a Narnia racked with strife, strange gods, and doubt, Tirian and his friends choose a hill on which to loyally die.

When I read Michael Ward's Planet Narnia, which is the most staggering work of literary criticism any Lewis fan will ever read, I noticed Ward's overriding point with surprise: he was saying that Lewis intended to give readers a taste of a medieval aesthetic which would show many of them, for the first time, what a truly Christian work of art is like. This aesthetic would be communicated at all levels, even the subliminal.

It was at this point that I realised that I have always been fascinated by the medieval, and that this fascination was born in Narnia. I had to laugh as I realised how my whole perception of beauty and nobility were formed in Narnia.

As to that,’ said the King, ‘I do not doubt that every one of us would sell our lives dearly in the gate and they would not come at the Queen but over our dead bodies.’

Noblesse oblige, courtesy, chivalry, merriment, courage, humility, honour—I dare not say that the Chronicles of Narnia instilled these qualities in me, but they taught me to recognise them and admire them. They are first-rate stories, powerful allegories, and real food for the soul in an ugly, rebellious world.

The first three Chronicles—The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, Prince Caspian, and The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, have been made into movies produced by CS Lewis's stepson Douglas Gresham. They are of varying quality and faithfulness to the books and fall into the same traps as the Lord of the Rings movies, the Society for Creative Anachronism, and other things—that is, the trap of being meticulously researched, beautifully set-dressed, and sumptuously costumed, but not remotely authentic in attitudes, themes, or aims. I suggest reading the books five or ten times before watching the movies once.

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