Eight children witness the history of the world of Narnia, from its creation out of inchoate blackness to the extinction of its stars and the return of darkness. In The Magician’s Nephew, Polly and Digory see the creation of Narnia and take back to London an apple from its garden. That apple grows into a tree which is turned into a wardrobe through which Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy enter Narnia, help to defeat its cruel ruler, and are crowned kings and queens. During their reign, Bree and Shasta, in The Horse and his Boy are instrumental in saving Narnia from attack. After the children return to England, they are all called back once more to help establish Prince Caspian as Narnia’s rightful ruler, defeating his usurping uncle. Edmund and Lucy go back once again in the company of their annoying cousin Eustace. Together they share in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, travelling with King Caspian to the outer islands and to Aslan’s country at the edge of the world. After this, Edmund and Lucy may not return to Narnia, but Eustace does come again bringing Jill Pole from his school. They travel across the northern wastes to find Caspian’s son Rillian, held for years in the clutches of a witch who plans to invade Narnia. All the children bar Susan are called back to Narnia for The Last Battle when they discover that not only Narnia but their own lives have come to an end, and they all now live in Aslan’s country of which our world and Narnia are merely pale shadows.
This series is one of the most enduring forces in children’s literature of the 20th century. Fifty years after its first publication it is still being produced in many and varied editions, including boxed sets, graphic novels, talking books, radio and television dramatisations and, most recently, a series of feature films. The protagonists are children who must enter a land which mirrors theirs in many ways, but where fantastic creatures and concepts are commonplace. There is a clear distinction in each of the different stories between the characters who are for the good and those who are not. In our society where all values are relative and where non-judgmentalism is considered a virtue, one wonders whether it is the simplicity of Good and Evil within the worlds of Narnia which draws so many people to them. No-one could accuse C.S.Lewis of playing too subtle a game with his characters’ affiliations or of promoting an anti-hero ethic.
One might imagine that the Christian elements of the story could hardly escape any reader’s attention. The world created from nothing by the mysterious and lordly creature who brings into being land and sea, plants and animals, gives them intelligence, and has a garden planted with an apple tree. The sacrifice of that same lordly being, an innocent victim to save the rest of the world from evil. The final conflict between good and evil, after which all creatures are divided, doomed to darkness or raised to a new awareness of the Real World of which this one is merely a shadow. As the children grow older, each is told that he or she may not return to Narnia. At the same time, Aslan assures each one that he is to be found in their own world if one knows where to look. This is a clear appeal to a childlike vision of spirituality, to a simplicity and innocence too little found in modern-day society. When Susan is excluded from the final lineup in The Last Battle, the reader understands very well that she has become too grown up (lipstick and parties and all that), and she has lost the sense of childhood which, even when grown up, one needs in order to encounter God.
Growth of character is an important part of the children’s journeys through Narnia. Edmund turns traitor and must forever overcome that initial handicap. Lucy, the youngest and most innocent of all the children, has the least growing to do in that sense. Always closest to Aslan, she relies more on him than the others. But she, too, has to overcome her own weaknesses and learns her lesson when she uses magic to eavesdrop on her schoolfriends. Susan, hardest of all, never really grows as close to Narnia and ends up losing hold of it altogether. Peter admits his own faults and must shoulder much responsibility as High King. Eustace starts from a weak position compared to his cousins, and it takes a magical transformation to cure him. But he, then, is in a position to bring Jill Pole to Narnia where she learns to trust Aslan and to admit her own mistakes.
Each book is short and lends itself to any manner of cover illustrations, quite apart from those of Pauline Baynes. There are seven of them, which is a nicely collectible number. People young and old enjoy the simplicity of a story which one can read in a day and which leaves the reader happier at the end of the book than when he/she started.
Tim Golden is a computer programmer in London. He also is the editor of the Good-to-Read website.