by CS Lewis800 pages, HarperCollins
Retentive reader: Pat Black
A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, I was partly responsible for ruining some poor kid’s Christmas.
It was 1988, and the BBC was screening a six-part live action adaptation of The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe. Previously, I’d only come across CS Lewis’ Narnia Chronicles in a cheap n’ cheerful animated feature-length version as a video rental when I was laid low with a stomach bug. Sadly, I will forever associate that cartoon with shuddering at the thought of trying to manage one single slice of buttered toast. But this new adaptation was super, it flared my imagination, the festive period is still magical when you’re a young ‘un, and I had asked for the books for Christmas.
Ma Black was having no luck finding the box set I’d asked for, though. She’d left it a little bit late in getting them, and every shop was sold out owing to the series’ renewed popularity. In desperation she went into a second-hand book stall in a market somewhere on December 23rd. The proprietress said that she did have one copy of the treasured box set... but it had been ordered by some other mother for her child a few weeks beforehand, and had been laid aside especially for her. The lady was due in that very day to pick it up...
I’ll never know how my old dear managed to persuade this lady to sell her the box set instead of holding it for the person who ordered it. Bribery? Threats of violence? Theft? A massive sob story? Did she invent a disability for the young Black? Perhaps we should draw a veil over the matter. Suffice to say that she worked some kind of magic, and I was delighted come Christmas morning.
But the other kid, the one whose mother was canny enough to order the books well in advance from a small retailer... who was perhaps detained by some pressing duties on that late, late Christmas shopping day all those years ago... looking after dying waifs in a hospice, perhaps... not so delighted, I imagine.
The books themselves are a real mixed bag. (I realise this will not come as any comfort to the Narnia-deprived child who may be reading this now – still bitter, all these years later, and perhaps thirsty for revenge.) The Chronicles of Narnia are the seven-book saga of Aslan, the Lion – or God, as we might imagine him - who creates the land of Narnia and gives all the animals and magical creatures the gift of speech. It’s a very Christian good-versus-evil allegory, with lots of plucky British stiff-upper-lippery, cute creatures and the odd bit of Celtic mythology. It is hard to imagine any fantasy series for children which does not owe CS Lewis some kind of debt – you wouldn’t have Harry Potter or His Dark Materials, there’s no doubt about that.
Although the series is anchored by the Pevensie children - Peter, Edmund, Susan and Lucy - they don’t appear in every episode. The first book, The Magician’s Nephew, follows the children Digory and Polly as they enter the world of Narnia through the sorcery of Digory’s Uncle Andrew. The story is a queer fish indeed – although it plays with the idea of universes running parallel to dear old post-war England, it’s really the Creation myth re-imagined, as Aslan the Lion literally breathes life into the land of Narnia.
But aside from the biblical references, it also features Jadis, aka the White Witch from the most famous book in the series – and as an adult, I’m most struck by the relationship between the villainess and Uncle Andrew. She’s wicked, but, ah, Uncle Andrew is most taken by the woman, that’s for sure. This ties in with another big theme of the book – that of our heart’s desires not quite turning out the way we wanted them to once we achieve them. It’s all to do with eating forbidden magic apples (can you spot a biblical parallel, kids?) – and Aslan has a special curse for those who defy him and help themselves. This was actually one of the last Narnia books to be written – a prequel, in its time - and it is pregnant with references to a disappointing, distinctly unmagical adult world.
Next we’ve got The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe. Easily the best in the series, and I’m sure you all know it. We follow the four Pevensie children through the magic wardrobe into a snow-bound Narnia, in the icy grip of Jadis, the White Witch. Aslan’s on hand to turn things around for the poor creatures of the forest, including the memorable fawn Mr Tumnus, but he must suffer a terrible fall from grace in order for things to be put right. Christ-like? You betcha. But he does turn it around in a massive climactic brawl between the goodies and baddies, which I don’t think was part of Jesus’s plan.
The Horse and His Boy comes next, introducing the people of Arabesque Calormen who are largely viewed with fear and suspicion in Lewis’ ultra-white, ultra-christian fantasy world. There’s a Booksquawk article in full lurking in this one, but we’ll keep it brief, restricting it to the tale of twin brothers separated at birth, rightful heirs, and a droll talking horse called Bree.
The series is ordered in the chronology Lewis envisaged, but they are not ordered in the same sequence Lewis wrote them. That’s why in this box set, the next book is Prince Caspian – technically book number four, but in fact the second to be written after The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe. Thus, the Pevensie children are back – only a year after their adventures in the previous book, but after a span of many centuries in the parallel world of Narnia. The land has been invaded by the Telmarines, and the rightful ruler of the land, Prince Caspian, is in exile while the talking animals have been driven out or enslaved. Cue some derring-do as justice and order is returned to Narnia, with the help of some terrific side-characters and battles which very much echo the scale, if not the detail, of Tolkien – a friend of Lewis’s and a fellow member of Oxford’s Inklings group.
It’s the second-best book in the series, just edging out the Voyage of the Dawn Treader. In this one, we drop the brave but dull Peter and Susan (who, it is mysteriously hinted, are too old to come to Narnia any more), retaining the more sprightly and obnoxious Lucy and Edmund, and adding the annoying Eustace Scrubb. They cross universes through a picture of a ship at sea, and find themselves swashing their buckles aboard the Dawn Treader with Caspian and Reepicheep, the plucky, sword-fighting mouse, as they bid to find the seven Lost Lords of Narnia. Eustace becomes a dragon in this one, and there are more exotic lands and dangerous quests for the children to negotiate.
In the penultimate book, Eustace hooks up with the bullied Jill Pole at the mismanaged Experiment School – Lewis was not a progressive when it came to education, you might guess – and the pair are soon whisked away to Narnia on a quest to find the son of King Caspian, Prince Rillian. On the way they encounter giants, gnomes, enchantresses and spells in perhaps the series’ most mystical entry.
And then we come to the one that almost ruined it. The Last Battle, as you might suppose, sees the end to the saga. It won the Carnegie Medal – but, like an actor who is rewarded with an Oscar for a role on the strength of past work, I can only assume it wasn’t for the book on its own. It has an apocalyptic feel to it, as the talking animals – including Shift the ape and Puzzle the donkey, perhaps the most unappealing double act since Burke and Hare – band together to battle those wicked Calormenes as time itself seems to come to an end in Narnia.
The Pevensie children appear one last time to help out their furry friends, but... but... but...
I won’t spoil what happens. But I will say that the conclusion and CS Lewis’ search for what Narnia actually means, as opposed to what it stands for, is utterly appalling for me. It ruins the magic and mystery of the series – Narnia’s midichlorians moment. If you’re already scarred by Anthony Hopkins trying and failing to be all stoic in the face of Debra Winger’s cancery death in Shadowlands, this book will not help remove the image of CS Lewis as a very strange, tragic person with unusual ideas. A moral person, for sure, and an ardent supporter of ecumenical Christianity (he was from Northern Ireland), but there’s a fatalism and a conservative stuffiness in what he writes, and I can’t bring myself to admire that. A product of the times and a lifetime of negative experiences, perhaps – not least of these, the Trenches in World War One, where he endured similar horrors to the ones that scarred Tolkien.
The end to this book, and to the Narnia universe itself, might be uplifting and heartening for some, but to me it was a dreadful cheat. I wanted more than that, and I demanded answers of the text and the author.
And thus, we question what we read, and we grow up.
I will take this opportunity to apologise to that poor child who Went Without nearly 23 years ago. What can I say to you? Another harsh lesson we learn early in life is that some of us Have, and some of us Have Not. That Christmas, it was your turn for the shitty end of the stick. For what it’s worth, I do feel bad about it.
But there’s a lot of sentimentality locked up in that handsome box set for me, and under no circumstances can anyone else borrow it. Not even you.