C S Lewis The Chronicles of Narnia
HarperCollins Children’sBooks 2004
seven children’s tales
underpinned by magic, myth
Is there anyone who hasn’t heard of Narnia, that magical world reached by various rather devious means, most famously through a wardrobe? The films and, before them, British TV serials, not to mention DVD sales, have widened the audience for the books which, decades after their first publication, still sell by the shelf-full. Aided and abetted by Pauline Baynes’ classic illustrations this collection of the novels in their chronological sequence in a one-volume hardback edition is clearly designed to be enjoyed, kept and treasured. And I intend to keep it and treasure it, but I wasn’t as enraptured by Lewis’ tales as I was led to expect.
Successful novels, and by extension successful novel sequences, should work on many levels to be satisfying. Characterisation must be high on the list, plotting of course should be there, and the creation of a world that one can imagine being in or being a part of must surely also be a sine qua non. Much has been said of Lewis’ moralising, his avuncular or even patronising tone, about his hidden agendas, but I won’t go over what has already been written about in depth and more authoritatively than I can manage. So what I will touch on is characterisation, plotting and creation of a universe.
As the sequence progressed I continued to be disappointed by the ciphers that were the Pevensie children. Yes, they change as they grow older but not into the rounded adults that either other adults or, more importantly, young readers might expect and hope for. They had some individuality but I did not find them engaging. If, as the recent study Planet Narnia suggests, much of the characterisation and action is suggested by Christian planetary astrology, I sense that much of what goes on is almost predeterministic while appearing on the surface to be childish whimsy.
Plotting seemed at times to me to be rudimentary, lacking the richness of, say, his contemporary Tolkien, and frequently individual books seemed to come to a end with a suddenness like an antique deus ex machina denouement. As I came to the final pages of each book I felt I’d been given candy floss to eat: tasty but insubstantial, and not very nutritious.
Last but not least, a sense of place: this, for me, was the most successful part of Lewis’ creation, the geography of Narnia. Here were landscapes I could imagine walking in, and while relative distances (at least according to Pauline Baynes’ maps) were hard to gauge, the lands of The Horse and his Boy and The Silver Chair often felt real if at times nightmarish.
I might give the sequence a second chance in the future, but on a first reading (admittedly as an adult) I was largely disengaged and unsatisfied, and it is with a great sense of regret that I say so.
When I first reviewed the Chronicles, in August 2012, I had yet to read Michael Ward’s Planet Narnia. Will this 2008 study change my view of Lewis’s fantasy? The next post will reveal all