Narnia! Mysterious world of Talking Beasts - Dragons, Unicorns and Giants - Satyrs, Fauns, Tree-people and Well-women - rivers and forests and mountains and castles....
Ruled over by the Sons and Daughters of Adam (ie human beings), Narnia is a small land dedicated to its strange inhabitants, most notably animals that can talk and think. Trees are alive, and their souls walk the earth as beautiful, slender women, and mighty, gnarled men. Each water well and brook has its associated Naiad, and so Lewis elegantly blends Celtic cosmology with ancient Greek mythology - not in a sense of veneration, but rather to appreciate its abstract loveliness. Bears, Badgers, Stags, Horses, Owls and Squirrels all wend their way charmingly through the narratives, each a character in its own right. And behind all, the presence of Aslan glows with hidden, golden light.
I bless my school librarian for first introducing me to the Narnian books when I was about eleven. There are seven books in all, and contrary to popular belief, the series doesn't start with The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. It begins, in fact, with The Magician's Nephew, which is set fifty years earlier - in a small borough of London.
Digory is a small boy living in what is probably Edwardian London, (at least before 1914), in a little house completely the same as every other house in the row. (The houses are completely undetached, and it is possible to get from one house to another along the entire row, provided you are willing to crawl through the attics and over the rafters of each house. This fact is crucial to the plot.) Digory and his mother are living with his Great-Aunt Lettie and his Great-Uncle Andrew, as Digory's father is in India and his mother is dying. He meets the little girl next door (Polly) over the garden fence, and they form a tentative friendship.
Events soon, however, begin to get out of control, as great-uncle Andrew enters the picture as a sort of sinister and (for the time) rather terrifying eminence grise. The children on a rainy afternoon decide to explore the attic spaces above Polly's house, as - in the middle of the row - there is a house that has stood empty for years. If it is possible to get from Polly's house to Digory's next door, why not climb past Digory's house to the empty, haunted one that's probably full of treasure and smugglers?
Unfortunately they miscalculate the number of rafters, and instead of ending up in the empty house, they tumble into Uncle Andrew's upstairs study. Now, this relative of Digory's has been viewed by most of the family as rather barmy but essentially harmless, a sort of nutty scientist type without the actual genius usually required for the position. But this is not true - Uncle Andrew is actually an amateur magician, hence the title of the book. And no, he is not the "take a card, any card" sort of conjuror, but has ambitions towards real magic, the sort that isn't usually in the purview of mortal man.
Towards this end, he had acquired from his "fairy godmother" ("I bet she was a bad fairy," sniffs Polly), an ornate box by dishonest means. Upon opening it, he was rather disappointed to find that all it contained was fine dust. But what dust! The box, he later finds, is actually Atlantean, and the dust itself is not from our world at all - not even our universe, to tell the truth. And he used this dust to make magic rings, beautiful things that seem to glow and thrum in the dim light of the study. He offers one to Polly, who reaches out towards it mesmerised, and as she touches it - she vanishes! And now Digory is forced to follow her, carrying two home-coming rings (made from the dust of our earth) and one away-ring of his own. If he wants to get back before tea-time, and before his mother starts to worry about him, says his uncle sneakily, he must leave our world and travel to save Polly, who may very well be anywhere, surrounded by unimaginable horrors...
-- And so the world of Narnia is introduced, although I won't divulge any more of the plot than I have here. We see Narnia's creation, and meet Aslan the great Lion, the Son of the Emperor Over the Sea, for the first time. We also meet the White Witch, who features so prominently in the next book, and find out from whence she comes, and who she really is. The denouement - perhaps the twist - at the end of the book is so emotional, yet so unexpected, that I find tears coming to my eyes when I read it even now. The great theme of this book, as is also true of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, is Redemption. And also forgiveness, and the price of staying true to your honour and beliefs; it was never said that truth and honour, freedom and courtesy came easily - or worse, cheaply. And one is left refreshed and renewed by the story, like a soul bathed and cleansed. All the Narnian tales are some of the best allegories ever written, and it shows. I never could despise a happy ending, although in the first book that happy ending is still far enough away.
It is many years since the events described in The Magician's Nephew. Digory has grown up into Professor Kirke - any closer alter ego to C.S.Lewis is impossible - and he is now living out in the country in a house his father inherited many years before. It is war-time, and four children, Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy, have been sent to live with the professor - as far away from London and the blitz as their parents could place them.
The Professor is a "brick" (the charming slang used by the characters brings the period briskly to life) and the children feel quite at ease with him. Unfortunately his housekeeper (christened "The Macready") is rather curmudgeonly, and the children do their best to stay out of her way. The house - similar to the bizarre mansion Lewis grew up in - is old and quite famous; visitors are always applying to see over it, and the housekeeper is rather opposed to the children intruding on her self-important little tours of the place.
Much to the children's disappointment, the first morning at the house is pouring with rain, and they cannot explore the marvelous grounds in search of wildlife. For want of anything better to do, they play hide and seek, and it falls to Lucy to make the strangest discovery of her life. She enters a wardrobe made from a tree grown from a Narnian apple-seed; as she presses deeper into the fur coats hanging there, she discovers a long, cold, snowy wood where the back of the wardrobe should be. And so she enters Narnia for the first time.
It is very cold; always winter but never Christmas, as she soon finds out. The White Witch now rules the land after centuries of peace, and it is bound fast under her icy enchantment. Its creatures live in fear under her secret police, and are terrified by her penchant for turning them into stone if they cross her. Their only hope is an ancient prophecy that four Children - two Sons of Adam and two Daughters of Eve, as Lewis quaintly puts it - will arise to rule at Cair Paravel of the Four Thrones and bring about the return of Aslan - and of Spring. And now Lucy has arrived, and everything that the witch has worked for will be destroyed, unless she can kill at least one child and so prevent the prophecy from coming to pass.
-- So follows a sequence of events that culminate in a desperate
chase across Narnia, to escape the Witch and meet up with Aslan; the
children find themselves befriended by Beavers, fighting a battle,
and... well, I can't tell you the rest or you'll hate me forever.
Read the book! You'll love every second. And if the latest Hollywood
movie-project in any way messes up this book... I shall be most upset.
It is worth more than a thousand Harry Potters.
Lewis emphasises the power of redemption most in this book, although it is a theme which runs through them all; he explores loyalty and betrayal, introduces us to a familiar harbinger of Christmas, and closely explores the nature of evil.
Lewis doesn't make his most evil character hideous or repellent; in fact she is stunningly beautiful, if in a very heartless and icy way. As Billy Sunday once put it, we should try to see evil as a snake instead of treating it as strawberry shortcake, and he had a point. Evil is often extremely beautiful, strikingly lovely, if with a bitter aftertaste, and in almost every one of Lewis's books we see this "beautiful side of evil". A lovely immortal queen whose dark spell-casting has held Narnia literally spell-bound for centuries, neither beauty nor immortality has made her lovely of heart or immortal of spirit. She is horribly, but seductively malevolent, dedicated with every pragmatic and practical means at her command to hang onto power. The 'perfect' tyrant.
....As opposed to the boy and his Horse;  a book about a Narnian Talking Horse named Bree (his full name is un-pronounceable) and the child he meets and, er, horse-naps... The Horse and his Boy is set during the time when the Pevensies (Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy) are Kings and Queens in Narnia, but the action largely occurs out of Narnia itself.  There are also no 'Earth' characters in this book, apart from the Pevensies.  The story opens on a lonely shore in Calormen, the vast, coldly rational southern Empire which has hated and coveted Narnia for centuries.
As long as Shasta can remember, he has lived alone with his father, Arsheesh, in a small disreputable cottage next to the sea.  Arsheesh is a fisherman, and Shasta spends long hours cleaning and mending nets, in-between taking fish to the village and grooming the donkey.  But all this is about to change, as a Tarkaan rides up on his warhorse to seek shelter for the night.  A magnificent nobleman, he barely conceals his contempt for the mean little hut and the poor stable, but eventually he and the fisherman settle down in the cottage - leaving Shasta to spend the night in the stable with the animals.
Shasta eavesdrops shamelessly at the cottage door, only to find out that he is not the son of Arsheesh at all - and that the Tarkaan wants to buy him!  Naturally he is excited by the latter and not particularly upset by the former. The chance to become a favoured slave in a noble household is quite to be sought-after in Calormen, apparently.
He sneaks back into the stable and begins to day-dream aloud as he strokes the beautiful grey horse - about palaces and clothes and perhaps the chance to become a soldier in the Tarkaan's retinue, and then to save him in battle - maybe the Tarkaan will even adopt him as his heir!  He sighs thoughtfully, and wonders aloud whether the Tarkaan would be a kind master... if only the horse could talk, it could tell him what life may be like... At this point Bree turns his beautiful head and says quietly, "But I can!".  Shasta doesn't quite know how to react, unsurprisingly.  It turns out that Bree, a Talking Horse from the far northern country of Narnia, was captured as a foal and taken south to become a slave in Calormen.  Where he has managed for years to keep his secret, while waiting for a chance to escape...
And here is his chance.  Too showy to be stolen, or mistaken for anything but the magnificent charger that he is, he is also well aware that a horse wandering alone is going to be caught very quickly.  But a horse with a rider on his back is another matter entirely.  With a human accomplice, as it were, Bree has more than an even chance of getting away.
He informs Shasta that the Tarkaan is an extremely cruel man, and that Shasta would be worked to death in a very short time.  Besides, it is obvious that Shasta is one of the northern "barbarians" and that he is as out of place in brutal Calormen as is Bree.  Yes, if they were to escape together, they would not flee south, like a runaway horse in search of his stable - but north and east to Tashbaan.  The capital of the Empire and also the northern-most city, it is in the path of any traveller who might desire to go towards "Narnia and the North".  But between the Empire and Archenland, gateway to Narnia, is the Great Northern Desert, which Shasta and Bree will have to cross.
The Horse and his Boy is a typical journey-narrative, with echoes of the Book of Exodus;  slaves escape across the desert towards their own Promised Land, from the evil Egypt that has held them captive for so long, and find a freedom of the soul that is deeper than physical freedom.  In the process, each learns valuable lessons about the responsibilities of being free, and the price of exercising one's own will.  It doesn't really have anything to do with the other Narnia narratives, and is a story in its own right;  but as such, it is a pearl beyond price.  All of the Narnia tales have a tension between being a simple childrens' series, and being deeper allegories about the nature of mankind and how we relate to a God who has stepped into our physical realm and taken on our troubles, hopes and desires.  As such, they are timeless.
It has been some time since the Pevensies have been in Narnia.  In fact, they are off to boarding-school after the summer holidays, and are not looking forward to uniforms, sports, study and exams.  But these are in no way forthcoming;  all of a sudden they are dragged into Narnia itself - and find themselves on a deserted beach near thick woods, with no railway station in sight.
They have no idea where they are - or when they are, either.  But it seems that great trouble has again come to Narnia, and they are again needed to come to her rescue.  A new breed of human has arisen to conquer Narnia, the Telmarines, and the Animals and Trees have gone into hiding, in the deep forests of the South.  But even if the Trees are in a deep sleep, and Aslan has not been seen in many generations, there is now resistance to the Telmarines's rule.  And the old Kings and Queens of Narnia have returned to save her in her time of need... It's just a pity that the Telmarines have such a huge, well-equipped army.
The air of Narnia soon affects the children, and they become more and more like the great Kings and Queens they once were.  But where is the great Castle of Cair Paravel, and why have there been so many years between their first visit and the second?  The children are bewildered, but they resolve to do their best on behalf of Aslan, until He can return and effect a victory.  The great themes of Prince Caspian are the importance of faithfulness and obedience, and of holding to your integrity and resolve even in the face of seemingly insurmountable circumstances.  Not a book I enjoyed much as a child, but the adult me understands the symbolism and thematic threads, and appreciates the meta-speak.  It isn't just a campaign-narative;  it speaks of one's relationship to the world, responsibility, maturity and steadiness under fire.  Faith and belief is more valuable if tested in hard, painful conditions.  There are no death-or-glory charges in real life;  just holding the ground you're standing on for as long as you can, as best as you can, until a breakthrough comes.  And knowing that, ultimately, Death is swallowed up in Victory.
The Voyage of the Dawn Treader
It is school holidays. The Pevensies' parents have gone on holiday to America, taking Susan with them, while Peter is staying with Professor Kirke, studying for his exams. The Professor has moved to smaller lodgings, unfortunately, and so doesn't have space for the other two children. Thus Edmund and Lucy must spend their holidays with their very strange Aunt Agatha, her equally bizarre husband and her son, Eustace.
You can tell a lot, sometimes, by the name of a character: Eustace Scrubb just doesn't stand a chance to be a normal, nice, agreeable person. No, you just know that he's an utter little cockroach, and so he turns out to be. Edmund and Lucy take refuge in her upstairs room to escape him one afternoon, admiring a painting that was obviously an unwanted gift to Agatha's mind. Yet, as the children point out, "it is such a very Narnian ship"; Eustace of course shows up just in time to sneer at their fantasies, and of course, this is where everything starts going horribly wrong, at least for Eustace.
Suddenly, the painting comes alive; the ship begins to go up and down the waves as she sails towards the children (Eustace is instantly seasick) and a sudden rush of spray drenches all of them. Then they are standing in the frame; and then they are swimming in the icy sea of a Narnian spring, with a huge wooden ship passing by. And who should be on it but Caspian?
Not quite Prince Caspian anymore, as three years have passed since he was crowned, although only one had passed in our world during that time. Settled on his throne, King Caspian has decided to seek out his father's adherents, who were sent into the East by Mithras many years ago to explore the ocean, on what was then considered a suicide mission. With these loyal lords out of the way, it was a simple matter to usurp the throne of Narnia, as we saw in Prince Caspian.
But Caspian has felt it to be right that he should go in search of these men, missing for so long, in an attempt to find out what has happened, and whether any are still alive. They pass through both known and unknown waters, and have many strange adventures on various islands. It almost feels like the Pilgrim's Progress, as each adventure has a lesson in it somewhere, although you aren't aware of that when you're eight.
All in all, this one's my favourite. The symbolism
is so rich and varied, and the colours are jewel-bright. One is joyfully
taken into the heart of the beautiful world of the author's imagination,
filled with fascinating characters, baleful enemies and startling imagery.
I have always loved this book, getting lost in the beautiful narrative. And
naturally Eustace goes through an extremely trying time, but even he comes
to understand the beauty of Narnia, and is profoundly changed - especially
due to a meeting with Aslan. Extremely enjoyable, Dawn Treader never
loses it's savour for me, as every time I read it I get some other deep
spiritual life-lesson from it. And don't sneer at the Talking Mice,
either: the little things have nasty sharp
knitting needles rapiers.
The Silver Chair
As a child I didn't enjoy The Silver Chair, as it is a very bleak, sad book that quite depressed me. But as I reread it now I find hidden depths gleaming in it like gold under the sea. I think one would find it a little cheerless if one didn't realise that it's about integrity and standing fast, and not judging by appearances, but instead looking at the heart.
As far as the background goes, the Pevensies don't enter the story at all. This time, Eustace takes center stage; the book opens at Eustace's school, a horrible forward-thinking place low on discipline, where bullies rule and the Headmistress thinks they're all rather nice people, really, just misunderstood. Eustace and Jill are both hiding from Them; giving the bullies such a sobriquet instantly imbues them with a deep sense of menace.
The two protagonists find themselves suddenly in Narnia - and bullying and school are further away than they can believe. They find themselves sent on a mission by Aslan - to save Narnia again. It has been decades since Voyage, and Caspian is old and grey.
Unfortunately, Caspian's beloved wife, the Star's daughter, was killed by a foul serpent and his heir has mysteriously disappeared while obsessively searching for it. Aslan has not been seen in a very long time, and Caspian resolves to go on one more sea voyage, in the hope that he might find Aslan and speak to Him.
Eustace and Jill find themselves on a massive mountain range overlooking Narnia - and beyond, to the Northern Mountains. Through a series of mishaps that are hard to explain, Jill and Eustace are separated, and Jill meets Aslan, although it is not a very comfortable meeting. He gives her signs to follow, and sends her (and, retroactively, Eustace) on a mission to rescue the Prince - and Narnia too, of course. But they don't receive the help in Narnia they expected; they end up travelling in dead of night into the far Northern wastes with only a Marsh Wiggle (strange froglike creature) for company. Of course they mess up most of the signs. But the world they discover is amazing in the extreme...
It's amazing how God uses our ridiculously weak and silly attempts
to serve Him - patiently and graciously - so that it's our availability rather
than our accomplishments that are the most telling. Two children and a marsh wiggle are
hardly a magnificent army capable of saving the North from a vile green witch, yet they might succeed
where armies of brave, strong knights have failed. They don't miss or ignore all the signs,
and they actually manage to hold their own against the evil they have been sent to
fight, in spite of great odds (and nasty giants).
The Last Battle
I think the title of the book says it all: it's a representation of Armageddon - a Narnian apocalypse, but theologically sound for all that. It is some generations (Narnian generations, not Earth's) since Chair, and Narnia is ruled by Rilian, a fine knightly king whose closest friend and confidante is Jewel, the Unicorn.
But trouble has come to Narnia. An Ape has discovered a lion-skin in the river and dressed a Donkey in it, telling the Narnian Animals that it is Aslan. The Ape conceals the Donkey in a shed and brings him out at night, when the deception is harder to penetrate. The Ape begins to institute all sorts of decrees "in the name of Aslan", even making an alliance with Calormen to conquer the land. The Calormenes use the Talking Horses to cut down the Trees - while the Ape preens himself and orders the Talking Beasts around.
Rilian - captured and tied to a tree for later execution - desperately calls on Aslan, and finds himself staring through time and space into a dining-room containing the "friends of Narnia" - from Digory and Polly to Eustace and Jill - and begging them for help. Startled, they set about a plan to get to Narnia involving the old Magic Rings which were buried in Professor Kirke's yard in Nephew - although they aren't in the end used - and Jill and Eustace, on the train-platform one minute and in Narnia the next, arrive to rescue Rilian apparently moments after his urgent call.
Is it too late for Narnia? Can Rilian and the children still recue the Animals and Trees? Or will the Tisroc win?