The Chronicles of Narnia

Monday, December 21, 2009


The Chronicles of Narnia
C. S. Lewis, 1954

(FYI, this is my goodreads review reposted for those of you who may have read it last year)
Fair Warning:
I am reading (in some cases, rereading) this as an adult, one who is most decidedly Not Christian, and somewhat against religious children's books. If that doesn't describe you, your mileage will obviously vary. The following is very long, as I sum up each book. Spoilers aplenty.


After seeing the new Prince Caspian movie last summer, I decided that, as a fan of both classic children’s literature and fantasy literature, I should really take another look at The Chronicles of Narnia. As a child, I read what I considered to be “the good ones” of this series (Lion, Witch, and the Wardrobe, Caspian, Dawn Treader, Silver Chair) although the little I remember is mostly from the BBC TV specials.


Overall opinion: Any book with the default plot of “kids fall into fantasy world, proceed to defeat evil” is going to have at least some fans in the legions of kids who wish they could do just that. I enjoyed the ones I read as a child. Reading as an adult, the writing is weak, the characters thin, the plots thinner.

The more of these I read, the more I couldn’t stand the writing style. Sometimes speaking directly to the reader works, but most of the time here, I just find it hugely patronizing and distracting. The first time Lewis reminds his readers that it is "foolish" to shut oneself into a wardrobe, it's cute. The 5th? Less so.

Now, I’m going to sum up what I liked and didn’t like in each book. (Also note, these books are really short! Around 110 pgs each in the collected edition.)


The Magician’s Nephew:

Had some very pretty parts. The beginning was interesting, but this book seemed to do its level best to demystify the later adventures, and make all the magic more like science. This is not inherently a bad thing, but it felt out of tone with the books which were written earlier, but come chronologically later.

Best: The descriptions of the wood between the worlds, and Aslan sings the world into being.
Worst: Shoehorned in references to Lion/Witch/etc, making that book less cool.
Most Annoying Jesus-the-Lion Moment: Actually not awful, despite the whole creating out of the void and all.
Score: 2 stars out of 5


The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe:

Classic. When I read this as a child, I completely missed the whole “Jesus” thing. What surprised me on rereading was that they spend, pretty much, one single day in Narnia before they fix everything. That’s kinda silly in my book.

Best: Lucy and Mr. Tumnus, Edmund and the White Queen. Santa brings them weapons.
Worst: And then, we won the battle... Lewis starts a grand tradition for him of all major action taking place ‘offstage’.
Most Annoying Jesus-the-Lion Moment: You know what? After reading some of the later ones, I’m behind Jesus-the-Lion on this one.
Score: 3 stars


The Horse and His Boy:

And now, suddenly, we’re in the Arabian Knights. But no one who lives in Arabian Nights world is nice and kind and good like the people of Narnia... Eesh. I’m also confused, at this point, why there are huge human countries just off the borders of Narnia. I never got that implication that they were there before...Even the Telmarines in Prince Caspian are given a special explanation for how there happen to be Humans in Narnia. Note that this one was written fifth, after Lion, Caspian, Dawn Treader, and Silver Chair.

Best: Shasta and company sneaking into/around the big city is pretty well done.
Worst: Not only is the person who doesn’t treat you well not your father, you’re a prince! Yay! Not a surprise, and not interesting.
Most Annoying Jesus-the-Lion Moment: Throughout, Aslan "secretly" helps them escape to Narnia by scaring them, appearing as a friendly cat, etc. A pretty wussy power set, overall. This is the Son of the Emperor-etc-whatever? What, do your powers only work in Narnia, all of a sudden? Ironically, this is almost more annoying than his super mega powers in other books.
Score: 1 star


Prince Caspian:
Okay, first off, all the cool scenes in the movie? Not here. Most of the lame scenes in the movie? Also not here. Clearly it was adapted in the loosest sense. Caspian spends his time joyously capering with the good folk of Narnia, and then they get in trouble, and call some kids. Kids bring Aslan, he fixes it. Huh.

Best: Peter’s hysterically funny letter to Miraz. Seriously. And mice who kill soldiers. They’re cool.
Worst (Sort of): Downright weirdest part is that when the Earth kids finally get to Caspian, where he’s fighting off armies and such, the boys get to go help fight. Not that it makes a huge difference, since Aslan sends the trees to scare the Telmarines away "almost before the Old Narnians had really warmed to their work". The girls, on the other hand, get to take a nap, and then dance with Aslan and Bacchus and his Maenads (Wha-Huh?!?) all over Narnia, freeing people to be happy, and turning nasty little boys into pigs and nasty men into trees and such. I kid you not. One little girl is brave enough not to run away and "The Maenads…whirled her around in a merry dance, and helped her take off some of the unnecessary and uncomfortable clothes that she was wearing." I could not make this up.
Most Annoying Jesus-the-Lion Moment: Subtext of the Lucy/Aslan scene is basically the same as the movie: If you really trusted/believed, you wouldn’t care what your family thinks, you’d trust me... Creepy...
Score: 3 stars


The Voyage of the Dawn Treader:

I have fond memories of this one, but it was awful. Like Gulliver’s travels, but with Jesus. They go to an island and get into trouble due to a magical thingy. Aslan bails them out. Rinse. Repeat. Oh, and then they sail to the end of the world.

Best: Lucy and the Magician’s book. A pretty decent scene, if somewhat overly moralizing.
Worst: Whole thing deadly dull. No Plot.
Most Annoying Jesus-the-Lion Moment: All of them.
Score: 1 star


The Silver Chair:
Lovely after the dreck that was the Dawn Treader. Aslan gives two kids a quest, they mess up some, but mostly get out of it on their own, overall a good solid adventure story.

Best: Adventure in the Giant’s House is predictable, but good. Scene with the ensorcelled Prince. Jill and Eustace terrorize their school bullies with swords.
Worst: Almost anytime Aslan butts in. He’s out of tone in this one. Happily, he’s barely in it.
Most Annoying Jesus-the-Lion Moment: See above.
Score: 3 stars


The Last Battle:
This was just... odd. I already had heard the plot, but it was just weird. An Ape sets up a false Idol Aslan to make himself rich and important, the Arabian folks we last saw in Horse and His Boy show up to conquer Narnia with the Ape’s help, the King totally fails to stop them, and then Aslan shows up to end the world. It was just... that. Also King Tirian has a very special relationship with a unicorn, and as a side note, all the characters are dead and in joint Earth/Narnia Heaven. Whatever.

Best: King Tirian and Eustace and Jill sneaking around the countryside.
Worst: The number of things in this book described as indescribable was pretty annoying. Also, Susan can’t go to joint Earth/Narnia Heaven because she grew up and likes boys. I can understand that with Neverland, but really, now.
Most Annoying Jesus-the-Lion Moment: Aslan has a heart to heart with an Arabian, I mean Calormene, and is told that all the good stuff he (and anyone) ever did in the name of his Calormene god was actually done for Aslan, and all the bad stuff for his god. Oh dear.
Score: 1 star (Not actively bad, just dull)



Conclusion:
Even trying to put aside the heavy handed preachifying, I probably wouldn’t read these again, or give them to my hypothetical future kids. Okay, maybe The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Only, however, along with books I prefer, like The Wind in the Willows (better talking animals), Peter Pan (better plot, characters, and themes) and 
The Just So Stories (better use of narration).

Overall: 2 Stars - An Okay Book 

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