November 16, 2016

On Reading The Chronicles of Narnia

I grew up reading the Narnia books. My mom read The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe to me when I was six or seven, and the box set we own has worn spines from so many readings. 
In my adolescent literature class this fall, we read LWW (as my prof abbreviated it) towards the beginning of the semester. It was one of the books in the first unit, and we had to write a take-home essay about one of those first three books (to put it simply; there were other options but this was the main one). I chose a topic relating to LWW, and I decided I should share my essay with y'all.

Preserving the Buried Treasure
If one is a Chronicles of Narnia fan, he or she will usually reside in one of two camps. The first camp believes that the series must be read in chronological order—that is, with The Magician’s Nephew as the first book. The second group adheres to the belief that the series should be read in in publication order with The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe as the first book. This view is how C.S. Lewis intended his children’s book series to be read.
Lewis never intended to write a whole series. In his famous letter to Laurence Krieg, Lewis shared that he finished writing The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and believed that it would be a standalone. Even after he wrote Prince Caspian and The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, he believed the series was complete after each one. As we know today, seven books compose The Chronicles of Narnia. The events of two of the later books, The Magician’s Nephew and The Horse and His Boy occur before four of the other novels in the series, and that is why many people argue they should be read first (in the case of The Magician’s Nephew) or third (in the case of The Horse and His Boy). However, if Lewis wrote the first books in the series without the intention of writing the latter ones, should that not be an indicator that the books should be read in publication order? He created the stories in a specific order, and to read them in publication order respects his process.
In addition, one might say the passage of time between our world and Narnia mirrors Lewis’s process of writing the books “out of order.” Time works much differently in Narnia than it does in our world. When the Pevensies and others go to Narnia, no time passes in our world. However, they never know how much time will pass in the magical world when they are in ours. Prince Caspian takes place 1,300 Narnian years after The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, even though it has only been a year in our world. When it comes to Narnia, time is different, and perhaps the order of the books is simply Lewis playing with the order of time. A story can be told out of chronological order and still make sense.
Reading The Chronicles of Narnia is similar to viewing the Star Wars movies—George Lucas created and released the films in a specific order. Additional meaning appears when Lewis’s books are read “out of order.” First-time readers of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe go through the wardrobe alongside Lucy Pevensie, and they journey into a magical land where it is always winter with her. They meet the White Witch with Edmund and see the magnificence of Aslan with the Pevensies. If someone reads The Magician’s Nephew before The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, he expects those classic elements. The surprise is lost on the reader who already knows the story of The Magician’s Nephew.
To elaborate further, when readers proceed through The Chronicles of Narnia in publication order, they get to participate in a special magic not unlike when Lucy first arrives in Narnia. Readers will view the events with wonder and excitement. In The Magician’s Nephew, they are introduced to the wardrobe, the lamppost, and Professor Kirke, among other familiar elements of the series. Learning how those things got to where they are in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is like solving a mystery you did not know even existed. It is infinitely more fascinating to learn how something familiar came to be after one knows about its existence. Jane Saska, a former educator of 16 years who read The Chronicles of Narnia to her students for 10 years, holds this belief.  She said in an interview, “The story and characters are revealed in the order the author intended. I just remember the excitement and looks on my students’ faces when I read them The Magician’s Nephew (as the second-to-last book) and they realized who Digory was and how the lamppost came to be, and a variety of other moments like that. It was like they were discovering buried treasure. Therefore, Lewis’s series should be read in publication order; otherwise, the magic of Narnia will be incomplete.
The 1980 Collins editions of The Chronicles of Narnia were the first to number the series in chronological order rather than publication order. The copyright page claims the publisher did this in compliance with C.S. Lewis’s original wishes. However, Hope College professor Peter Schakel, in his book Imagination and the Arts in C.S. Lewis, disagrees with this phrase. He states, “Does original mean from the time at which The Magician’s Nephew was completed? If so, why did Lewis not request the Bodley Head to include this renumbering in the new book, or in The Last Battle the following year, or have Geoffrey Bles change the order in later reprints of the other books?” (43). In other words, why was it 17 years after Lewis’s death before this change was instated? These could not have been Lewis’s original wishes at all in that case.
There is no law stating that one must read The Chronicles of Narnia in publication order. However, this is the superior way to read the series. The magic is kept alive, and it seems to coincide with how C.S. Lewis intended his book series to be read.

So what's your opinion? In what order should readers encounter the Narnia series?

1 comment:

  1. I still haven't finished the Narnia series! But so far, I haven't gone in either of those orders. I read The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe first. Then, I heard that I was supposed to read them in chronological order, so I read The Magician's Nephew second. Then, I started reading The Horse and his Boy, but I had to return it to the library before I finished it and then never got around to getting it again. I'll finish the series someday! And I'll do it in publication order.

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