Review: The Chronicles of Narnia

The Chronicles of Narnia by C. S. Lewis

Well, I suppose to completely wrap up Narnia Week, I need a proper review of the series, even if it breaks my MWF review schedule. As I’ve said during the challenge posts, I didn’t grow up on The Chronicles of Narnia–my childhood allegiances lay with fandom, The Lord of the Rings, and, of course, The Legend of Zelda. So I don’t have the warm, fuzzy feelings associated with them that most people do–which, in a way, is a blessing; there’s nothing hiding from me here. This review will be an overview of the series; if you’re curious about my thoughts on certain books, I direct you to the challenge posts for Narnia Week.

The Chronicles of Narnia are composed of seven books, all of which focus on the magical land of Narnia, created by the Narnian incarnation of Jesus, the Lion Aslan. When humans accidentally stumble onto Narnia during its creation and introduced evil in the form of Jadis, the Witch Witch, Aslan places the welfare of Narnia into human hands to pay for this. Whenever Narnia is in trouble, humans are called upon to rescue it. While there are other rescuers of Narnia, such as Eustace Scrubb or Jill Pole, the Pevensie siblings–Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy–are usually called to action, in journeys that benefit them as much as they benefit Narnia.

I can’t help comparing The Chronicles of Narnia to Tolkien–heck, I can’t help comparing most fantasy novels to Tolkien. Whenever I read (or watch) fantasy, I like a cohesive world that stands up to casual scrutiny. Narnia does and doesn’t, depending on the book, although the fantastic theory that Aslan based Narnia on the imaginations of Digory and Polly almost makes up for the fact we have to work around the shaky worldbuilding. I’m not talking about Mrs. Beaver’s sewing machine here (although that certainly ought to be an emblem for the worldbuilding here), but a sort of free-floating Britishness that doesn’t quite integrate with the whimsy and hidden darkness of Narnia that mucks things up by dropping in sewing machines and tyrannical schools into this world. Narnia, when properly put together, has a very distinct and charming flavor, so it’s hard to see it trip over itself occasionally. But after Lewis hits his stride, Narnia is every inch itself.

Part of this stumbling can be attributed to the tone. Lewis is always addressing himself to a British child of the 1950s, conflating this reader with Edmund and Lucy, referencing your experiences at school, and talking about being in Boy Scouts or Girl Guides. There’s a difference, as I’ve discussed previously, between written for children and appropriate for all ages– I usually find the difference to be how seriously the author takes the world and his audience. And Lewis sticks to this narrator voice throughout The Chronicles of Narnia, even when things take a decidedly grim turn. This leads to some not particularly funny slapstick humor in The Magician’s Nephew, and, of course, several problematic things, as Lewis has no hesitation in telling you what’s right and what’s wrong… in his view. This gives us the racist presentation of the Calormene, Narnia’s suspiciously Turkish-like demon-worshipping enemies, cutting remarks about non-smokers, non-drinkers, vegetarians, lovers of nonfiction, and progressive schools, and a peculiar form of sexism where a good girl is praised for being just as good as a man or a boy and denigrated for being traditionally feminine–all highly problematic concepts that should be recognized by adult readers. Let’s just say that Hypothetical Niece will have to read this series with me.

All this being said, Narnia has a charm all its own–its specific flavor of worldbuilding, the way it’s a little too heavy on the Hero’s Journey, the quintessential Britishness of the human characters, its romantic whimsy, and Aslan. (Until I’d read the books, I’d had no idea that Aslan was, in fact, actually Jesus instead of allegorically Jesus.) Just like the Hero’s Journey, the Christian allegory can be a bit thick, but I think that can be beneficial for a child. Indeed, part of the good of The Chronicles of Narnia is that it presents theological problems (sin, betrayal, lack of faith, and death) in a way that a child can understand and work through–albeit, of course, this is in a Christian context that rejects non-Christian contexts. And Lewis can create wonderful characters, all of whom grow in some way (save Lucy, whose flatness is by no means an insult); Edmund and Eustace’s transformations, especially, are touching, and Reepicheep, who is destined for great things, is a fantastic romantic hero–in the body of a Mouse.

I’m quite glad to have read The Chronicles of Narnia–their influence is so huge that it’s amazing I’ve gone so long without reading them. But I think I might only return to The Voyage of the Dawn Treader in the future; it manages to hit all the wonderful things about Narnia without hitting all the problematic things about Narnia.

Bottom line: Any fan or writer of fantasy ought to read The Chronicles of Narnia, but if you weren’t reared on them, their problematic aspects might prove too much. At their best, however, The Chronicles of Narnia have wonderful, growing characters, a uniquely Narnian atmosphere, and give children a way to ponder theological questions (fun fact: it’s not an allegory, since Aslan is explicitly stated to be the Narnian incarnation of Jesus). At their worst, racism, sexism, and dismissal of other religions rear their head, alienating modern readers. Unsure? Then pick up The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, which hits everything good about Narnia while downsizing everything bad about Narnia.

I bought a used copy of this book on Amazon.

13 thoughts on “Review: The Chronicles of Narnia

  1. It’s been quite a while since I’ve read the series, and these posts for the readalong have really sparked my interest in a re-read. Now I want to re-read just to see all of these points made in your review! I don’t remember thinking quite so hard when I read them the first time. *blushes*

  2. I agree. Having not read them until I was an adult, there are definitely things that bother me about the series. It’s probably easier for adults to gloss over them if they read them as a child and have a feeling of nostalgia when they re-read the series. I’m glad I gave them a chance, although I haven’t finished yet. Hopefully I’ll finish up tomorrow and post the rest of my reviews. Thanks so much for hosting Narnia Week. It has been fun! I didn’t love them, but I felt they were worth my time.

  3. I’m glad you didn’t waste too much time comparing Narnia to Tolkien. After all, Narnia are childrens books, or Mid-grade readers at best, while LOTR is a full force adult novel. The result, therefore, would be a bit like comparing Swallows and Amazons to War and Peace.

    Beyond that, I whole heartedly agree with you that they come off a bit dated and to be honest, a bit condescending to even the child reader. Still, I do have a fond spot for them. “The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe” and “The Voyage of the Dawn Treader” bring particularly fond memories to mind.

    On a different note, I really enjoyed following you make your way through the series. What’s next?

    • I think there’s grounds for comparison–the authors were friends who influenced each other’s writings–but they are quite different.

      That’s lovely! I don’t have those warm, fuzzy memories, so it’s nice to see someone who does.

      Oh, thank you so much! I don’t have any challenges lined up at the moment, but I’ve got several reviews queued up, including The Sign of the Four, Tangled (eligible for Page to Screen review since it’s based on a fairy tale and I’m a Disney freak), and Galatea 2.2. I reread The Lord of the Rings earlier this year, if you’re interested–all those posts will be under the Challenges category, and you can find those reviews through my Review Directory. Now that’s definitely a series I have warm, fuzzy memories of!

  4. Arggh, I meant to write all about my love-hate-love-love-love relationship with C.S. Lewis and these books, but yesterday was so hectic, and I had to buy a mattress, and I ran out of hangers, and I can’t figure out what to do with all my boxes. And that is why I did not participate in Narnia Week at all even though I think it’s awesome and I really wanted to play along. #sigh

  5. You know, this may be heresy – and I love LOTR – but I find the Chronicles of Narnia easier to take than the kind of overblown, never-use-one-adjective-when-you-use-three prose and poetry that Tolkien tends to indulge in. I like the simple, clean prose of Lewis, and I like the sincerity of his core philosophy, even when I disagree with some of his theology. I came to these as a very young adult – old enough to be critical of the theology, but young enough to find them enchanting nonetheless. Of course Dawn Treader is the very best…but I have a sneaking fondness for Lasaraleen in The Horse and His Boy, because of how much she made my kids laugh when I did her ditzy voice while reading aloud to them. 🙂

  6. Wow, I really love this blog! I’ve been perusing some of your old reviews and you’ve sparked my interest in many books that I hadn’t thought about before.

  7. Pingback: Review: Where’d You Go Bernadette « The Literary Omnivore

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