Are you up for a Narniathon?

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After I posted a review of Katherine Langrish’s excellent From Spare Oom to War Drobe one blogger expressed the thought “how wonderful a group read of the Narniad followed by Langrish’s book would be!” She teasingly added “Host it, Chris, host it next year!” And then another blogger joined in… Thanks so much, Laurie and Sandra, I hope you’re not offering me what could turn out a poisoned chalice!

Well, as leery as I am of potentially onerous commitments here I am actually contemplating it. Who knew? So what form should it take? When should it start? Which of the Chronicles of Narnia should a readalong begin with? And would any bloggers be interested in joining in?

I haven’t run a poll in quite a while so you lucky people will be treated to a short series now. To get you focused I’m borrowing a title previously used on social media (for, I think, watching screen adaptations of the series), namely Narniathon — short, precise and hopefully memorable.

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#Narniathon21 notice

Narniathon21 design based on a Pauline Baynes image

A little earlier than promised comes this announcement for a Narniathon, following the polls I conducted on this post.

As of the first week of July, the overwhelming majority of those who replied were in favour of a readalong of the Chronicles of Narnia. Not only that but almost all of you wanted to start at the end of 2021, rather than next year.

And finally, few were in favour of reading the series in chronological order, some didn’t mind, but most were for publication order. So here’s the beginning of a plan!

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#Narniathon21 begins

#Narniathon21 image after Pauline Baynes

On this, the last Friday of the month (and three days short of C S Lewis‘s birthday on 29th November) the start of #Narniathon21 is officially announced: the wardrobe door is now open!

As previously noted, we’ll be reading all seven titles of The Chronicles of Narnia in publication order, beginning with The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (1950). You will have a month to read each title at your own speed, in your own time, until the last Friday of the corresponding month when you’ll be invited to comment. Here’s the schedule:

  • December. The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.
  • January. Prince Caspian.
  • February. The Voyage of the Dawn Treader.
  • March. The Silver Chair.
  • April. The Horse and His Boy.
  • May. The Magician’s Nephew.
  • June. The Last Battle.
  • July. Optional read: From Spare Oom to War Drobe by Katherine Langrish.

At the end of the month you’ll be invited to join a conversation here — and also on Twitter — about that month’s instalment. If you find yourself at a loss as to where to begin, I’ll pose three general questions which you can either respond to or ignore, as you wish—this readalong is designed to be an enjoyable experience, not an examination! (But in the meantime feel free to add initial thoughts below.)

Two more points: as the last Friday in December happens to be New Year’s Eve (when you may have other things on your mind!) that month’s summative post will be on Thursday 30th December.

Secondly, roughly midway through each month I shall aim to post (or repost) a review of a related title or discuss a topic which touches on an aspect of that month’s selected title. As always the tag #Narniathon21, with or without the hash, may alert you to that post, principally on Twitter if you don’t already follow this blog.

And now all that remains is to remind you how it all started so innocuously:

Once there were four children whose names were Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy.

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Contemplating the Narniad

Ptolemaicsystem
The spheres of above the Earth: Luna, Mercurius, Venus, Sol, Mars, Jove, Saturn, the Stars and the Empyrean

Planet Narnia:
the seven heavens in the imagination of C S Lewis
by Michael Ward.
Oxford University Press 2008

It is of supreme importance [in the construction of the human person] that children hear good fables and not bad. — Plato The Republic

I have been on the look-out for Michael Ward’s study of Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia ever since his 2009 BBC TV documentary The Narnia Code (also the title of a condensed version of Planet Narnia published in 2010). The seven titles of the so-called Narniad have garnered praise and criticism in almost equal part, frequently fixated on the author’s Christian subtext. Sometimes there have been attempts to ascertain Lewis’ grand design for the Chronicles: why seven? Does each have a distinct theme? Is there a hidden meaning other than that obvious subtext?

Michael Ward has come up with a closely-argued and fully-referenced proposition that Lewis, long enamoured with classical and medieval literary traditions, fashioned his sevenfold book series according to the seven pre-Copernican heavens, each ruled by a ‘planet’. The Narniad (as the sequence is sometimes known) “was a literary equivalent of Holst’s Planet Suite; each one of the seven heavens gave the key to a different Chronicle” (page 251). Above the earth in the pre-Copernican universe were a set of concentric spheres: the Moon, Mercury, Venus, the Sun, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn. Above that were the stars, the Primum Mobile and the Abode of God.

Each book of the Narniad is based on the mood, atmosphere and characteristics of one of these bodies as personified in pagan mythology and appropriated by medieval Christianity. Lewis, so Ward suggests, wanted to suffuse each book with those planetary aspects that he had assigned to them, such as joviality, saturninity, mercurialness and so on.

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#Narniathon21: Through the door

Pauline Baynes

You will by now — I hope! — have completed your first (re)visit to Narnia for this #Narniathon21 event by reading and thinking about The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, the first published title in the series of what’s variously become known as the Narniad or the Chronicles of Narnia.

As promised, I’m going to pose three general questions as a spur to your discussion in the comments section below, which you can either answer or ignore as you choose — though I hope you will have lots to say with or without my prompts!

My three questions will centre around three themes — magic, allegory, and character — but feel free to range beyond these if you so wish.

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A jovial comedy

Circe (The Sorceress) by John William Waterhouse: a model for Jadis?

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe:
A Story for Children,
by C S Lewis,
illustrated by Pauline Baynes.
Puffin Books 1959 (1950)

Queen Susan said, ‘Fair friends, here is a great marvel, for I seem to see a tree of iron.’

‘Madam,’ said King Edmund, ‘if you look well upon it you shall see it is a pillar of iron with a lantern set on the top thereof.’

‘By the Lion’s mane, a strange device,’ said King Peter…

‘The Hunting of the White Stag’

When so much has been written and expressed about a children’s classic can there be anything new or even worthwhile added in respect of it? When that classic is C S Lewis’s first instalment of his Narnia septad, a series which has attracted so many contrary opinions for and against, should one risk possibly fanning the flames of controversy?

Speaking as a reader who has had different reactions to each encounter in the near half-century since I first picked it up, and having veered from disappointment to irritation and now to grudging admiration, I feel I may indeed have some new things worth adding to the reams of ink spilt over seven decades and more — even if it’s only to acknowledge that each individual could well have a personal and instinctive reaction which a rational argument mayn’t affect.

I first read this in the 1970s when our first child was growing up and felt that, compared to The Lord of the Rings, this was a poor patchwork creature, a Christian allegory in which the tail wagged the dog and different mythic lore sat awkwardly side by side, all couched in an impossibly patronising text. A more recent read of the Chronicles of Narnia seemed to reinforce my feeling of unease. And so to now.

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#Narniathon21: Back to Narnia

© C A Lovegrove

Narniathoners! Here we are again, with Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy back on Narnia soil, called back by the sounding of Susan’s horn. But all is not as it should be, is it, as the Pevensie children soon find out after emerging from a thicket.

Our Narniathon now takes us to the second of C S Lewis’s chronicles, Prince Caspian, published in 1951 a year after The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. As before I shall pose three general questions which you can answer or evade, depending on what you may want to say.

And as ever, feel free to to share here and elsewhere on social media your thoughts or your reviews, your favourite quotes or your photos, remembering to include the hashtag #Narniathon21 to let like-minded readers in on it all.

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Narnia revisited

Cair Paravel, by Pauline Baynes

Prince Caspian: The Return to Narnia
by C S Lewis,
illustrated by Pauline Baynes.
Puffin Books 1962 (1951)

It is a year after the events in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and  Lucy, Edmund, Susan and Peter are waiting at a train station to go to their respective boarding schools for the summer term. Suddenly they find themselves in a thicket, and after extricating themselves from that they discover that they’re on an island amid some castle ruins.

Clearly they’re back in the magical world of Narnia — but why and, in particular, when? Because they soon work out that this is Cair Paravel where they reigned as sovereign queens and kings, but the castle’s ruinous state suggests that much time has passed, certainly more than the year since they’d been evacuated to the Professor’s house back (we may assume) in 1940, or even 1944.

And then they see a boat with two soldiers in chainmail about to drown a dwarf, and by rescuing him they are precipitated into a sequence of actions when they hear the story of Prince Caspian and the dire straits he and the Old Narnians are in.

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The virtues of vice

Nemesis (1502) by Albrecht Dürer, here conflated with Fortuna

Many of us are familiar with the Seven Deadly Sins. No, I’ll rephrase that: Many of us are familiar with the concept of the seven deadly sins but, I trust, we hope we manage to steer clear of them! But in case you’ve forgotten what they are, this is them: pride, greed, wrath, envy, luxury or lust, gluttony and sloth. They sound even more impressive in Latin:

  • Superbia (pride)
  • Avaritia (greed, avarice)
  • Ira (anger, wrath)
  • Invidia (envy)
  • Luxuria (extravagance, lust)
  • Gula (gluttony)
  • Acedia (sloth)

There are virtues, some corresponding to these vices, others not, but I’ll discuss these a bit later because now I just want to focus on one particular deadly sin — avaritia — which many commentators have identified as one of the prime motivations ruling our age. Avarice or greed has also struck me as a key element in narratives by some authors which I’ve been reading. Especially, but not exclusively, writers like C S Lewis and J R R Tolkien.

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March in books

© C A Lovegrove

For the last few years March has found my reading dominated by particular themes. This year will be no different, and I shall aim to have book-related posts put up on particular dates.

Reading Wales #Dewithon22 Bookjotter.com

First up: 1st March is dedicated to St David, the patron saint of Wales, and Paula of Bookjotter.com is again running the Dewithon, aka Reading Wales Month, for which I aim to post a couple of reviews by Welsh authors.

The much missed Terry Pratchett (who died on 12th March 2015) will be celebrated with March Magics hosted by Kristen of webereading.com, and the theme for 2022 will be Friends Old and New. I’d like to think I will manage at least one title, or even two, by him over the thirty-one days

Terry Pratchett

Ireland’s St Patrick also has a feast day this month (on 17th March) and Cathy of 746books.com is again marking the occasion with Reading Ireland Month, affectionately known as Begorrathon. Again I have a couple of promising books to read and review during the four weeks.

Also missed this month is Diana Wynne Jones who left us on 26th March 2011, and she too is included under the #MarchMagics banner (formerly just known as DWJ March). I suspect one of my reads at least will be a reread since I think I’ve already read and reviewed about 95% of her published work.

Finally, I shall be reading the next published instalment in our Narniathon21 readalong, C S Lewis’s The Silver Chair. This was the fourth of the Narniad titles to appear, meaning we’ll have reached the midway point in the whole sequence. A discussion post will appear on the last Friday of the month, the 25th March, and my review a few days later.

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So that’s my March mostly planned out — we’ll see how it proceeds! Are you planning to join in with any of these events?

© C A Lovegrove

#Narniathon21: the World’s End, and beyond

The picture in the bedroom, by Pauline Baynes

It’s time for the next stage in our exploration of C S Lewis’s Narnia, but now we are no longer in the company of Peter and Susan. Instead, it’s just Edmund and Lucy returning, with the addition on this trip of Eustace Clarence Scrubbs (whose middle and last names, note, have the initials of the author’s own forenames).

No horn-call this time however, nor even a wardrobe: it’s a picture in a bedroom that provides the portal in this Narniathon, now that we’ve reached the third of C S Lewis’s chronicles. The Voyage of the Dawn Treader first appeared in 1952 following on from Prince Caspian the year before. As is the established pattern I am posing three general questions which you can answer or evade, depending on whatever you may be bursting to say.

And as ever, feel free to to share here and elsewhere on social media your thoughts or your reviews, your favourite quotes or your photos, remembering to include the hashtag #Narniathon21 to let like-minded readers in on it all.

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All at sea: #Narniathon21

The Dark Island by Pauline Baynes

The Voyage of the Dawn Treader
by C S Lewis,
illustrated by Pauline Baynes.
Puffin Books 1965 (1952)

When an author takes many of their childhood obsessions — and not a few of their adult ones too — and stirs them around in the cauldron of their imagination they may well produce a dish similar to that which Lewis has concocted for us here. Some may consider it a mess of pottage, others a culinary triumph, but there’s no doubting that there is richness here, drawing on many different and mostly complementary flavours.

As he did in Prince Caspian Lewis plunges us in medias res with a call to adventure, the context for which we are told in a backstory. The fact that, after a brief preamble, that call requires three youngsters to be summarily thrust into the middle of an ocean is daring enough; that there is a ship conveniently passing by proves fortunate; and that from the start there is conflict to be resolved is sufficient to entice us to join the youngsters in their unexpected dunking.

If what follows may at first be seen as a series of random episodes, it soon becomes clear that there are patterns to be discerned and processes to be revealed as the voyage of many weeks and leagues wends its way towards a final goal. And we may be sure that, as this is Narnia, Aslan will be coming back into the picture.

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Dawn-treading: #Narniathon21

Everhardus Koster: Viking ships on the river Thames (1847)

The Dutch artist Everhardus Koster, who died in 1892, in 1847 painted a fanciful picture of Viking ships in the river Thames. This being a while before any sleek clinker-built Viking era vessels were scientifically excavated Koster’s imagined ships appear somewhat clunky, but at least they feature the familiar square sail and single mast, together with the animal head prows we know from the Oseberg longboat (a serpent’s head ornament found with other detached animal-head posts) and from depictions of Norman ships on the Bayeux tapestry.

What I find interesting though is the fact that their appearance closely resembles the illustrations that Pauline Baynes drew for C S Lewis’s The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (1952).

In this post for #Narniathon21 I want to say a bit about the sea journey undertaken by the Dawn Treader (this name somehow feels typical as a kenning for a ship of the early medieval period in Northern Europe); but I want to leave the kinds of sources and influences Lewis very likely drew on for his narrative to a later post.

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The Utter East: #Narniathon21

Illustration by Pauline Baynes

“Where sky and water meet, | Where the waves grow sweet … | There is the utter East.”

Chapter Two

I promised I’d discuss some of the possible influences on C S Lewis’s conception of The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. You may remember that this instalment in The Chronicles of Narnia featured a journey by sea eastwards, ostensibly on a quest to locate seven missing Telmarine lords but which stopped at the World’s End before reaching Aslan’s country.

It is generally accepted that Lewis’s own Christianity played a large part in the symbolic import of the story: with Aslan as a parallel to Christ where else would he be found than in an Eden-like place to the east? That this would require some form of pilgrimage towards the dawn seems to be implied in Matthew’s gospel:

For as the lightning cometh out of the east, and shineth even unto the west; so shall also the coming of the Son of man be.

Matthew 24:27, King James Version

But Lewis framed his Narnian pilgrimage to the east not as a trek but as a journey by sea; and he drew on a variety of exemplars from mythology, literature and history for the form and detail of his children’s fantasy. In this extended essay I want to mention a few of the concepts that fed into Lewis’s fictional odyssey.

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#Narniathon21: the Lost Prince

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Esteemed Narniathoners, we are now at the halfway point in our readalong of the Chronicles of Narnia. The Silver Chair (1953) is the fourth published title in the septad of titles C S Lewis set in his portal world although, chronologically speaking, it’s actually the penultimate story.

You will, by now, have hopefully read The Silver Chair but, if not, never fear! It’s never too late to complete it and return here to add your comments.

As is usual, in this #Narniathon21 post I shall pose three general questions to get you started on a discussion — but of course it’s not compulsory to answer them! Feel free to state your thoughts or respond to others who’ve expressed themselves, for this is yet another tale rich with images, ideas and emotions. And don’t forget to link to your own posts and reviews.

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