Book Review: The Chronicles of Narnia

The Chronicles of Narnia are classics of children’s and fantasy fiction with a strong and enduring following. Its clever fusion of Christian, Pagan and Classical elements, with easy storytelling, magic and talking animals, make it easy to enjoy. Yet it is common to hear people say they do not enjoy them as much in adulthood. The stories certainly contain elements that are more noticeable and less endearing to those old enough to question what they are told. My patience with it lasted until the final book. After that, I could not longer defend it.

The Chronicles of Narnia

I think I ought to start by saying I’m not going to be offering ‘Spoiler Alert’ warnings throughout this post. This post is mostly to offer food for thought for those of us who, like me, enjoyed The Chronicles of Narnia as children, but perhaps have not returned to it as adults or found it less enjoyable when we did.

I had expected that I would not enjoy them as much as I did when I was a child (though I did not read all of them as a child). For one reason, I did something CS Lewis would have hated – I grew up. For another, I am no longer a subscriber for the worldview that Lewis is promoting, if I ever was, which is a serious impediment to enjoying his work. Nevertheless, I had expected the storytelling, the fantasy, the adventure, would be enough for me to enjoy them overall.

Once I was part way through the sixth novel, The Silver Chair, I pretty much wrote an entire review. My original review was going to say that while the series has flaws, and they are some big flaws, I still found considerable enjoyment for the adventures nonetheless. But part way through the seventh novel, The Last Battle, I knew I had to start over. The volume and frequency of the flaws became overwhelming and I knew I could no longer support my original conclusion.

The Chronicles of Narnia need no introduction. CS Lewis’ series comprises seven children’s novels where children have adventures in the magical land of Narnia, participating in battles and quests, always under the watchful eye and guidance of Aslan the lion. This edition produces the novels in the author’s preferred order – The Magician’s Nephew; The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe; The Horse and His Boy; Prince Caspian; The Voyage of the Dawn Treader; The Silver Chair and The Last Battle. This order places the stories they contain in chronological order but differs from the order in which they were first published.

The order in which they should be read is favourite arguing point amongst fans. The stories that were published later but are set earlier do not assume what the reader may already know from reading in publication order. Personally I prefer the above order, any issues are only minor.

That the stories are Christian allegories, suffused with Christian mythology, philosophy and morality, and with Aslan representing Jesus, is an undisguised fact (though Lewis considered the stories ‘suppositional’ rather than allegorical). The most obvious example is the first story published, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, which mirrors the story of Christ’s death and resurrection. But the stories also contain many Pagan elements – fauns, witches, giants, dwarves, centaurs, etc. Though the Pagan elements are only superficial – they make an appearance but do not greatly inform the themes and messages – they certainly add a great deal of fantasy, magic and enjoyment to the stories. One Pagan theme that does come through is a respect for nature and animals, at least the talking ones, as equals. The Horse and His Boy, with the reversed possessive in the title, and the assertions of talking horse, Bree, probably exemplifies this best.

What is less well known, but becoming increasingly accepted, is that the collection also contains elements of Ptolemaic cosmology and the associated Classical astrology and mythology. It was already apparent that the world of Narnia conforms to a Biblical understanding of cosmology; Narnia is flat, the sun travels around it and the sky is a dome above it. The theory put forward by Michael Ward, in his book Planet Narnia, argues that the seven books also represent the seven spheres of Ptolemaic cosmology. In the order of the books I have given above, the associated spheres are: Venus, Jupiter, Mercury, Mars, the Sun, the Moon and Saturn respectively.

So, for example, Prince Caspian is the Mars book. Mars is the Roman god of war and the story concerns a Narnian civil war. Mars is also associated with forests and the sub-plot of the story concerns the rebirth of the Narnian forests which play a role in the decisive battle. Mars’ sibling Bacchus, the Roman god of wine, also makes an appearance, providing drinks for the post-war celebration. Lewis was very knowledgeable on medieval astrology, mythology and their understanding of science and history and almost seems to lament that such a comprehensive and, in his eyes, beautiful, worldview had to be discarded with the advent of modernity once it was found to be false. His last book, The Discarded Image, is a compendium of such ideas. Ward’s theory is certainly compelling but is not without its problems and will certainly continue to generate debate for a long time to come.

The problem I had when realising I needed to re-review The Chronicles of Narnia from scratch was knowing where to begin. The plots weaknesses? The questionable moral lessons? The proselytising? Probable sexism and racism? Gleeful violence? A preference for death over life?

Maybe I should start with the aspects I actually enjoyed!

The seemingly seamless combination of Christian, Pagan and Classical elements certainly gives Narnia enormous potential, though some, notably Tolkien, found the mixing of mythologies aggravating. Though it is difficult to know which were intended and which coincidental, people are continually finding more potential references. One day when browsing our shelves, having begun The Last Battle, I picked up Aesop’s Fables, turned to a page at random and found the story of An Ass in a Lion’s Skin. That being said, the considerable borrowing from other sources means that some aspects of Narnia are rather derivative and it may have been given more credit for imagination and originality than it deserves.

Lewis does have a good appreciation of how to make stories that are appealing and relatable to children. Within The Chronicles of Narnia, we have children who enjoy exploring hidden spaces, children tormented by bullies, the youngest child not taken seriously by their elder siblings, the middle-child denied both the attention of younger siblings and the power of older siblings and children wronged by adults in various ways and seeking liberation and self-importance. It makes the characters relatable in a way that will always resonate.

That is not to say that the stories are timeless though. The first two published – The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and Prince Caspian – open with clear evocations of wartime and post-war England. This, and language used by the Earthly children – “By Jove!”, “I do declare”, “I say!”, “Oh, do lets!”; give the stories a certain antiquated charm.

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe was probably my favourite book of the series, though it is difficult to put my finger on exactly why. Perhaps being the first book written; the sense of wonder, mystery and adventure is better achieved. Perhaps the characterisation of the Pevensies, the Witch, Aslan and others, feels more considered. Perhaps it is just nostalgia for the memory of enjoying it as a child. The others I enjoyed most were The Voyager of the Dawn Treader, with its plot structure borrowed from The Odyssey, and The Silver Chair, where events go less according to plan and are more unexpected, than elsewhere.

My favourite characters were often talking animals such as the noble if proud Bree, from The Horse and His Boy; the brave and chivalrous Reepicheep, in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader; and most of all, Puddleglum, the eccentric pessimistic Marsh Wiggle from The Sliver Chair. In comparison, the human characters from Earth tended to be dull, annoying, occasionally even self-righteous.

Children’s books, particularly less recent ones, tend to suffer from a reliance on unlikely coincidences, easy outcomes and obvious plot holes. Narnia certainly suffers these issues in abundance but the easy readability helps smooth them over for the reader. As you would expect from stories with Christian themes, set in a medieval feudal world; the themes of prophesised kings, returning kings, missing heirs and princes feature heavily. In fact, they are an aspect of most of the stories. By the time I got to The Silver Chair, I wished for a bit more variety in plot.

Many of the plot issues in Narnia are superficial. However, I do want to make an example of an important one – Aslan’s resurrection. While the inclusion of Father Christmas in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe was silly, the explanation given for Aslan’s resurrection – ‘Deeper Magic’ – given after the fact, is not as satisfying to adult readers as it may be to young children.

Did Aslan know he would be resurrected before he offered himself for sacrifice? If he did, how is his death – as unpleasant as it must have been – a sacrifice? What is ‘death’ to someone who knows they will live forever – not a different life in another place but a continuation of the same one? Was it ethical to not tell those who care for him and allow them to agonise over his death? On the other hand, if he did not know he would be resurrected, then you would have to say that Aslan does not know everything and perhaps we should be more sceptical about what he tells us. Yet, despite what he may not know, if you don’t trust him implicitly, you risk damnation!

Essentially, it is problematic to have both a sacrifice and a miracle. If Aslan stayed dead, you’d have a sacrifice but no miracle. Since he rose again, you have a miracle but no sacrifice. Even the pain and torture he experiences will be nothing compared to what he will inflict on those who don’t do as he sees fit (Aslan even ‘eats’ children!). Or perhaps we are to believe that Aslan is our superior, therefore for him to suffer at all is a greater wrong than anyone else’s suffering.

Why was sacrificing himself the only option open to him? Aslan seems pretty omnipotent; he could probably destroy the witch and restore Narnia anytime he wants to yet he chooses not to. He seems to want events to proceed in a specific way and at a specific time no matter how many suffer in the meantime. To what purpose? The only one I can see is that he wants people to feel they owe him something.

Alternatively, Aslan may not be as omnipotent as he may seem. In The Last Battle, he seems to suggest that he cannot save the Dwarves from damnation. Aslan, therefore, is perhaps more of an enforcer, a referee, than an omnipotent agent. He may be as beholden to the laws of the Emperor as everyone else. Indeed, his self-sacrifice in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe in the place of Edmund comes about because of rights due to the Witch which he cannot deny. The difficulty for Narnians is in following rules that can seem unjust and may be applied arbitrarily, through believing in someone who is possibly not entirely omniscient, not entirely omnipotent, yet they will suffer terribly if they do not.

The Narnian stories are of course morality tales as well. But it is a very antiquated sense of morality and one based on blind unquestioned faith and authoritarianism.

My least favourite book, until The Last Battle, was Prince Caspian. The early parts of the book, giving us the back story of Caspian, and the latter parts, covering the decisive battle, were enjoyable. But the middle section, covering the Pevensie’s difficulties in reaching Caspian’s camp and making up about half the story, was quite dull. The purpose of this section of the story seems to be to instruct the reader on the virtues of blind faith. Literally, as Aslan is present to guide the Pevensies but he is only visible to Lucy – the most easily trusting and least questioning of the Pevensies. Lost in the wilderness, it is only by trusting meek, naïve, Lucy when she says she can see Aslan, that the children can find a way out, each of them coming to see Aslan once they take that leap of faith.

Lewis seemed to abhor the idea of ‘growing up’, preferring the ease with which young children can obey and believe without question. Frequently in Narnia, characters are told that there are things they are not meant to know, they are ‘someone else’s stories’, none of their business, or Aslan will ask if you really need to know. This is deeply problematic, especially when you consider the consequences of doing the wrong thing.

Consider the case of Aravis. In The Horse and His Boy, Aravis, a young woman, escapes from her stepmother’s house by drugging a slave who, unknown to Aravis, is consequently whipped. Aslan later mauls Aravis and explains this by saying it was in return for the harm done to the slave as a result of Aravis’ actions, giving Aravis equivalent wounds. In other words, Aslan appears to be applying reciprocal justice – an eye for an eye – here.

(I suppose one could argue this is in keeping with the reciprocal justice of the Old Testament (such as Leviticus 24:19-22). But then again, didn’t Jesus refute the reciprocal justice of the Old Testament in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:38-42)? But then again, this refutation comes right after he says he is not going to do away with the Old Testament laws (Matthew 5:17-20)! Like attempting to explain why Aslan’s resurrection is not a plot cheat, we could go on and on without getting anywhere while missing the point – such is Theology. It is worth noting that there are a number of objections to The Chronicles from Christians as well. Mostly about the mixing of pagan and Christian elements or the portrayal of Christ as a powerful, terrifying, lion rather than the more traditional mild, meek, lamb. There are objections to some of the moral lessons as well by those Christians who have different interpretations of the religion. I imagine that the geological changes in Narnia that speak to the passage of time – peninsulas become islands, hill streams become gorges – would also aggravate those who insist on a young Earth!)

You may instead wonder why Aslan holds Aravis fully accountable for something she did not directly do, did not intend to do and may not have foreseen? Or why Aravis must be mauled while Aslan will sacrifice himself for Edmund? Is that what ‘Deep Magic’ has to say for Aravis’ case? Or why he does not punish those that whipped the slave? Perhaps he did, but neither Aravis or the reader would ever know of it – Aslan would tell us it is ‘someone else’s story’.

To hold people under your power in ignorance and yet punish them so harshly for unintended or unforeseen consequences seems extreme. Aslan’s moral teaching is very much authoritarian – ‘do as I say, not as I do and don’t expect an explanation’. Does Aslan do good? Sure, some. Could he, or someone else with his power, do better? Definitely. Does anyone get a choice in the matter? No. Without an explanation you may only be doomed to commit and repeat offences, even to the extent of being denied salvation when the world of Narnia ends. A heavy price to pay.

Consider the Dwarves Aslan couldn’t/wouldn’t save. Their crime? They abandoned their faith after their faith was taken advantage of. It seems the Dwarves couldn’t win. To question is to lack faith, but to take things on authority and not question leaves them vulnerable to those who would take advantage of their unquestioned faith. Nor can the agent of the ‘true’ faith reveal himself to guide them since that would negate the need for faith; it would cheat the test.

It is very difficult for anyone in Narnia to be saved. You can have no foreknowledge of what might see you saved or condemned, the rules are somewhat arbitrary and inconsistent and the agent who polices them refuses to explain himself. Blind luck may be more apt than blind faith with severe consequences for the less fortunate. As the late, great, Christopher Hitchens might have said, living in Narnia would be like living in an other-worldly North Korea.

We could go on and on here as these issues repeat themselves frequently in the books. If you subscribe to Lewis’ worldview, then you may not have liked what I have had to say. As someone who does not subscribe to that worldview, these are issues of plot and theme for me, more than issues of theology and faith. But more than that, I also cannot agree with Lewis that blind faith and an authoritarian moral system are virtues. I believe the enormous improvement made by the West, in improving the quality of life of its citizens, since the end of the medieval period is largely due to the exact opposite – questioning authority.

Let’s move on. While Christian themes dominate the stories, do the stories proselytise? For the most part I would say ‘no’. A reader not familiar with the Christian stories and mythology would read past it without necessarily sensing the author’s attempt at influence. Although they do tread a fine line, especially the resurrection story of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Aslan hurting us to help us in The Horse and His Boy and the moral of blind faith in Price Caspian already discussed. There is also the Ontological Argument presented by Puddleglum in the crucial scene of The Silver Chair and the moral of death being preferable to life in The Last Battle.

There are a couple of points where the stories perhaps do cross the line into proselytising because they encourage the reader to make the connection between Narnia and Earth themselves. One comes at the end of The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. At the end of the World, the characters encounter Aslan (briefly as a lamb, possibly in response to critics who took issue with the portrayal of Jesus as powerful, terrifying lion) who tells Edmund, Eustace and Lucy that he exists in our world, but goes by another name and tells them to seek him out.

“But there I have another name. You must learn to know me by that name. This was the very reason why you were brought to Narnia, that by knowing me here for a little, you may know me better there.”

As well as being proselytising, this scene breaks the metaphor and I guess lends support to Lewis’ claim that the stories are suppositional not allegorical. Another occurs in The Last Battle, where Lucy points out the similarity of the stable to another stable in our world.

More than just promoting his own worldview, Lewis also takes the opportunity in the stories to criticise those he disagrees with. I say ‘criticise’ but it is really a case of taking cheap shots and I found it to be unnecessary. I don’t necessarily have an issue with an author being critical of aspects of society he disagrees with; it is the chosen style and method that I found to be in poor taste. In the beginning of The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, we are introduced to Eustace and his parents who seem to be some bad stereotype of a progressive family. ‘Up-to-date and advanced people’, they are vegetarian, non-smokers and teetotallers. Eustace collects beetles, like a young Darwin, likes books on information, is a bit of a know-it-all and calls his parents by their first names. The inference is that these are far from admirable qualities.

In The Silver Chair, we are given considerable details about the school Eustace and Jill attend. It is a co-ed school where the Bible is not taught, the children have no knowledge of Adam and Eve and girls are not taught to curtsey. Not by coincidence, we are told it is also a horrid place.

As the years have gone by, other criticisms have arisen, accusing the series of being racist, sexist, xenophobic and more. Such claims have been made by esteemed authors and academics and if you want to find evidence for their claims in the books you do not have to search far.

Naturally, a number of counterclaims have arisen as well. Most tend to focus on finding examples of more progressive interpretations of characters and events in the stories, as if one excuses the other, or they point out that many of the negative words and deeds are performed by villains or more complex characters, or they search for defensive arguments from Lewis’ other writings. On the surface these counterpoints are not completely without merit and it could be said that these are unresolvable issues of alternative interpretation. But I believe the apologist argument falls down for three reasons.

First, there are instances where Lewis is explicit about what he means. These deserve more weight than passages which are open to interpretation. Further, given that he felt compelled to offer clarification in such instances, we must ask why he did not in others. The apologist argument instead relies on assumptions about what Lewis may be implying while not giving greater weight to his explicit comments and failing to explain his silence elsewhere. If there are areas where characters say things that can be misinterpreted as sexist or racist, why doesn’t Lewis clarify the situation, especially since the stories are aimed at children who will require clarification? An obvious answer is that it might make for poor storytelling, but that has never stopped Lewis!

An example of Lewis offering clarification occurs in The Silver Chair. Here, Jill struggles with orientation to which Eustace remarks that “It’s an extraordinary thing about girls that they never know the points of a compass”. In the next chapter, Lewis clarifies that Jill, in particular, has difficulty with orientation but, contrary to Eustace’s comment, this is not necessarily true for all girls (or rather, he says ‘I don’t know about girls in general’). By the next book, Jill has become skilled at orientation thanks to time in the Girl Guides.

So, in The Last Battle, when the Dwarves repeatedly refer to a Calorman as ‘Darkie’, the apologist argument has been that by now the Dwarves are fallen, they even attack other Narnians, and therefore their racism is a result of their fall from grace even though Lewis does not make this connection explicit. Unlike the case of Jill’s orientation skills, Lewis offers no clarification here or where else it was needed. Similarly, when the characters apply pigment to their skin in order to disguise themselves as Calormen with the comment from King Tirian that “Nothing but oil and ashes will make us white Narnians again”, where is the clarification? Are there non-white Narnians or are we to understand that all Narnians are white? Why does Lewis feel he needed to clarify Eustace’s comment but not King Tirian’s?

Yet, at the end of The Silver Chair, when discussing the incompetence of the Head of Eustace and Jill’s horrid co-ed school, we do get additional commentary. Here, Lewis feels it necessary to explicitly point out that: “the Head (who was, by the way, a woman)…”.

Clearly there are moments when Lewis feels he needs to clarify what he or his characters mean and moments when he does not. The apologist arguments do not take account of this and instead take liberties in assuming what they think he means elsewhere in an attempt to defend his work from the accusations of racism and sexism.

We must also consider the double-standard on the apologist side in that they are willing to take the text at face value where it suits them but insist on our consideration of extensive extra material where they are on the back foot. We are supposed to think these are arguments are sophisticated and nuanced, but they read as presumptive, convoluted and wishful. This relative difficulty faced by the defenders in making their case is the second failing.

The third failure of the apologist counterarguments is that they forget that The Chronicles of Narnia is a fantasy created to conform to Lewis’ worldview. There is no need for Lewis to adhere to a factual and authentic reality as he would for a historical novel. There are plenty of novels that intentionally contain racist or sexist elements in order to be consistent with a real time and place. There is no such requirement of Lewis in The Chronicles.

Nor is he able to distance himself from his creation. Again plenty of novels contain villains, anti-heroes or complex characters with less than admirable qualities, but, depending on the book, we can feel confident that the author is not expressing their own views or condoning their behaviour but has other intentions in mind; authenticity or thematic considerations most of all. The Chronicles of Narnia on the other hand, was created to impress on us Lewis’ worldview. If the stories contain racist and sexist elements without explanation or clarification, he probably did not notice them, did not think twice about including them or did not think he needed to clarify.

My conclusion on this matter is that The Chronicles of Narnia do contain sexist, racist and other elements and that the defensive and apologist counterargument is unconvincing. Which leaves us with one argument, which is not an excuse but an explanation – it is a product of its time. Narnia, I believe should be treated in the same was we treat The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn or Gone with the Wind. That is, enjoyed for what they are, but taken with a grain of salt for where the standards of their time have been left behind. I am currently reading The Canterbury Tales, where The Prioress’s Tale is clearly anti-Semitic and makes for uncomfortable reading, which can be explained though not condoned by remembering that it was written in the 14th century. Why still read The Canterbury Tales? Because it is an impressive and influential work. That being said, Narnia does require extra care because it does proselytise and it is aimed at children. Enid Blyton (1897-1968), a contemporary of Lewis (1898-1963), whose works are also aimed at children, also with modern accusations of racism, sexism and xenophobia; have received strong censure, even modern revision. The apologists and defenders, I feel certain, will not concede. My suspicion is that their vigour is due less to a love for the text or author, or a consistent defendable theory, but to adherence to a complementary worldview. The same can be said for the series’ enduring popularity.

There is far more to discuss on Narnian ethics; the gleeful violence such as at the end of The Silver Chair; the ‘Problem of Susan’ and the moral that death is preferable to life in The Last Battle; but I will have to leave it here.

As I said, as a child I enjoyed those Narnia stories I read, in ignorance of their message or source material and, before the age of reason, I simply enjoyed adventure stories with child protagonists. On re-reading them I had expected to not enjoy them as much, not being an adherent to Lewis’ worldview, but still expected to find some things to enjoy. For about five-and-a-half novels, that was true, and as I said I had written a whole review with a different conclusion. But The Last Battle was the last straw. It isn’t necessarily one weakness or another; it was the sheer weight and frequency of them over 767 pages. The ‘Darkie’ passages were the most shocking and the point at which I could not defend this work any further.

I had also hoped in the beginning that I may read these to my daughter, not yet one-year-old, when she is old enough. That is no longer the case. I certainly don’t believe in banning books or forbidding my daughter from reading age-appropriate ones, but The Chronicles of Narnia will likely sit on a shelf unless she decides she wants to read it. I also hope that, since she will not be indoctrinated in a worldview, when she reaches the age of reason, she will notice the areas where The Chronicles leave much to be desired. By then she may be old enough to take a look at the works of others such as JK Rowling and Philip Pullman. Both inspired in part by Narnia, both excellent, both no less magical and containing battles between good and evil. But both certainly less preachy, less flawed in plot and message and both celebrating life over death and the inevitable development of character, ‘growing up’, as something virtuous.

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4 thoughts on “Book Review: The Chronicles of Narnia

  1. Whew! I made it through the whole review! That was a long one 🙂 What made you decide to review all of the books at once? I must admit that because you reviewed them all at once you were able to hit on larger themes, especially that annoying Catch-22 of Aslan’s sacrifice/miracle. I didn’t read The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe until I was a graduate student taking a children’s lit course. I remember feeling slightly uncomfortable with the whole book, but couldn’t quite figure out why. I assumed it was because my childhood was filled with book series, like The Babysitter’s Club, Sweet Valley Twins, and Goosebumps, all written by American authors. Your review helped me puzzle through a lot of why I felt uncomfortable, and I realized that the one thing I didn’t like the most was the role of punishment. I felt like the kids were being shamed all the time.

    Thanks for this thorough review! I hope we can follow each other and continue a conversation about books!

    Like

    • Thanks for your comment and for reading my loooong post! Happy to follow you! Because of its Christian themes, Narnia is today far, far, more popular in America than anywhere else. Current generations of American kids will find it harder to miss!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: 2016: A Review of a Year of Reading | We Need to Talk About Books

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