Reading Narnia to My Daughter

narniaA couple of months ago, I decided to read The Chronicles of Narnia to my seven year old daughter, Hayley. It was a test to see whether  she or I had the patience to read a book that was a masterpiece of children’s literature and probably a little advanced for a girl of her age.. Actually we were inspired by seeing the  two wonderful Andrew Adamson films of the epic story. She and her friends were play acting the characters after seeing the film. Hayley liked to play Susan. So she was excited about listening to the whole story.

Well, 1500 pages later we finished reading the sixth book, The Silver Chair. Hayley’s patience started to flag as had C.S. Lewis’s inventiveness (in my humble opinion). I still couldn’t give it up, so I read the final volume: The Last Battle by myself. It was an annoying and entirely unsatisfactory ending. More on that later.

Several years ago, the publisher had changed the order of the books. For most of the time, the books were numbered sequentially as they were written by Lewis, beginning with The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe. For some reason, and probably an error in judgment and in marketing, the publisher changed the sequence to coincide with the order of   internal time in which the stories took place in Narnia. The result was that instead of reading The Lion… first, we read The Magician’s Nephew, a prequel that tells how Narnia began. It is an inferior book.   I recommend starting with The Lion. It is certainly the best of the stories and a good way to get hooked on the series.

What struck me about the books, particularly in comparison to the films,  but also in comparison to popular young adult books being written today, was their slow moving plot. I suppose this was to be expected. Films have their own dynamic. Action needs to be compressed. And commercial considerations require the story to move along at a good clip. I wonder, though, whether Lewis’s leisurely pace was a result of the fact that he was writing in another time when life was a little slower and narratives could be more drawn out.

What raises Narnia to the level of literature is neither  plot nor  character. It is Lewis’ majestic conception of the story. When the movie came out, there was a lot of talk amongst a highly opinionated segment of the population that I happen to hang around with, that the books and the movies were didactic stalking horses for Christian dogma (a very bad thing).

I felt otherwise. Without the character of Aslan, unarguably a metaphor of Christ, the story would have been, well, just another story. Aslan  gave Narnia  a sort of larger than life universality, an epic dimension that raised  it  from  being simply  a wonderful story into an enduring masterpiece. At least until the final volume,  Aslan can be appreciated as an character representing  the quest in all religions and in all cultures  for something greater than our life on earth. In the final book, The Last Battle, Lewis does succumb to the temptation of reducing  the story into what is simply a Christian parable.  And the story suffers as a result. Additionally the return of the Pevensie children to Narnia, which could have been a dramatic  and moving experience even as a Christian story, was undermined by the author’s  flawed decision (from a dramatic perspective)  to have one of the children, Susan,  not return. How sad that was. She was always the most interesting  of the Pevensie children, anyway. I finished the book by throwing down The Last Battle in  rage and disgust. Shame on you, C.S. Lewis!

Narnia has had a huge impact on readers and writers over the years.  Most recently and most successfully, Philip Pullman created a fantasy trilogy: His Dark Materials. I heartily recommend it to anyone reading in the fantasy genre. The story is complex, the characters deeply drawn, and the plot  ingenious. Pullman was highly critical of Narnia and of Lewis’ Christianity.  Indeed, it struck me that one could call Pullman’s trilogy the Anti-Narnia. At the end, Pullman pointedly rejected the “kingdom of Heaven” for a “republic of heaven” here on Earth.

But all of this is of no consequence to Hayley. For her it was a beautiful and breathless story. She loved Aslan, particularly as he would come bounding into the story in the nick of time to insure that good triumphed over evil. And even though Susan was banished by Lewis from Narnia heaven, Hayley still plays her in school yard pretend.

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