COVID-19 has brought all sorts of challenges, but one benefit that it has brought to me is that I have gotten a lot of reading done during my time of sheltering-in-place (I believe I have completed 18 books in the 60+ days that we have been isolated at home). One particular highlight is that I have been able to re-read the seven volumes of C.S. Lewis’s classic series, The Chronicles of Narnia.
I did not grow up reading Narnia, and it wasn’t until the influence of some friends in college that I read it for the first time. I really liked the series, but it had been over a decade since I had read it and I decided it was time to do so again. Not only has it been an enjoyable experience, but it also has struck me as very appropriate reading for the anxiety-filled time of global pandemic: not only does the fantastic world of Narnia offer some imaginative escape at a time when actual travel is not possible, but the centrality of the character of Aslan serves as a theological reminder that Jesus Christ is the focus of my life and the source of my hope at a time when it is easy to be distracted and dispirited.
As I re-read the series I also started debating with myself (and with friends) which of the Narnia books was best. It has always been a characteristic of my personality that I enjoy keeping records, rating, and ranking things, and so I decided it would be a fun exercise to do so with Narnia. Ranking books is an inherently subjective task, but to make my ranking a little bit less haphazard and arbitrary, I decided to develop a rubric in order to give my rankings some level of consistency.
Using this rubric, in this series, I will provide the definitive ranking of the Narnia books.
After some reflection (and discussion with the aforementioned friends), I settled on four different categories in which I would grade each book: story, characters, worldcraft, and theology. For each category, I will provide a subscore of 1-10, yielding a cumulative maximum score of 40 points.
I do not claim that my rubric is perfect by any means, and it is not one that I would apply to just any book or set of books, but I think it works well for The Chronicles of Narnia:
- Story: Simply put, how good is the story? Does the pacing of the plot make me want to keep reading, or do I have to plow through tedious pages? Is there a good mix of humor and heaviness, entertainment and poignancy?
- Characters: Are the characters compelling, or are they shallow and lacking in depth? Do they grow and change throughout the narratives, or do they remain fixed and simplistic?
- Worldcraft: Inherently, this is a series about another world, so how is the world of Narnia and its surrounding lands portrayed and developed? Are new locations described with passion and interest, or are they just treated as obstacles to plot development?
- Theology: Building upon the last point, this is a series about another world that teaches us lessons about living in this one. It is a children’s series written by a brilliant theologian: what lessons does Lewis teach us about God, or about the life of following Jesus?
The Magician’s Nephew
Having introduced the rubric, I’ll conclude this post by applying it to the first book in the series, The Magician’s Nephew:
Honestly, the story of The Magician’s Nephew is kind of rough. It is a classic prequel in the negative sense: you care about the story because you are already invested in the world in which it exists; if you actually read the prequel first, you wouldn’t understand what was so great about the series and may not even be inclined to continue.
It seems like great pains are taken to explain things that really don’t need to be explained (like how a lamppost ended up in Narnia, or why the wardrobe is a doorway to it), while other unexplained items more central to the plot are introduced (like the origin of Uncle Andrew’s rings).
The plot is not particularly interesting or compelling. The pacing is slow, it feels like it takes forever for Digory and Polly to get to the other worlds, and once they do, what they find is not particularly exciting. The appearance of Jadis in England leads to a battle that is anticlimactic. Really, nothing very exciting happens until the founding of Narnia.
The main characters of The Magician’s Nephew are Digory Kirke (the old professor in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe; hereafter referred to as LWW) and Polly Plummer. Digory is a fairly-well developed character: he is concerned about his sick mother and despises his wicked uncle. He craves adventure, and does not think highly of Polly when she doesn’t:
“It’s because you’re a girl. Girls never want to know anything but gossip and rot about people getting engaged.” (57)
Ultimately, that desire for adventure gets him in trouble, as he foolishly unleashes Jadis upon England and, ultimately, Narnia. But he owns up to his mistake and shows courage as he seeks to make amends.
Polly is less developed, and serves largely as a sidekick and somewhat of a foil to Digory. She shows prudence and also loyalty, sticking with Digory throughout his misadventures.
Though less of a focus, Uncle Andrew is a well-written character in his own right: at first, he appears impressive in his magical knowledge and frightening in his villainy, but as the book unfolds, we see that he is more of a selfish and doddering old man who dabbles in magic without understanding it, and less of a villain than he is a cowardly jerk. He is placed in sharp contrast to Jadis, Queen of Charn and the White Witch of LWW. She is the true villainess of The Magician’s Nephew, but honestly, she is less impressive and less developed here than in LWW.
Aslan, the Great Lion, is mysterious and exciting, and the most impressive actions and best lines of the book are largely reserved for him: we are struck by his power, wisdom, severity, and forgiveness.
The Magician’s Nephew transports us to two different worlds. Charn is the ancient and crumbling world of Queen Jadis, which she herself has destroyed. The description of the dying world prepares us for the twilight of Narnia in The Last Battle, and also, I think, the sort of cold, lifeless reality that Jadis will unleash upon Narnia in LWW.
We also are taken to Narnia at its creation and founding. Since the world is brand new, there is not much to explore in some ways, but the creation account, along with the origin of the talking animals and the life-infused ground that grows trees from anything dropped upon it (like lamppost bars or gold coins), is compelling.
I enjoy reading the Narnia books, but in many ways, I am here for the theology, and The Magician’s Nephew does not disappoint on this score. I thought the most significant instance of this was the creation account, where Aslan sings the world into existence. John 1 and Colossians 1 teach that Jesus is the agent of creation, and Aslan’s singing reminds us of Yahweh speaking everything into existence (Genesis 1), and the Word who was with God in the beginning (John 1).
But there were other profound tidbits that Lewis sprinkled throughout the book. On God’s response to our suffering:
“They were such big, bright tears compared with Digory’s own that for a moment he felt as if the Lion must really be sorrier about his Mother than he was himself.” (168)
On the importance of asking God for things:
“‘Wouldn’t [Aslan] know without being asked?’ said Polly.
‘I’ve no doubt he would,’ said the horse. ‘But I’ve a sort of idea that he likes to be asked.’” (178)
On the contentment that comes when we truly see Jesus:
“But he was in no danger of feeling conceited for he didn’t think about it at all now that he was face to face with Aslan. This time he found he could look straight into the Lion’s eyes. He had forgotten his troubles and felt absolutely content.” (197)
And Lewis also hints at his vision of hell and eternal punishment, which he develops further in The Last Battle and, especially, The Great Divorce:
“I cannot tell that to this old sinner, and I cannot comfort him either; he has made himself unable to hear my voice. If I spoke to him, he would hear only growlings and roarings. Oh Adam’s sons, how cleverly you defend yourselves against all that might do you good!” (Aslan, 202-203)
“All get what they want. They do not always like it.” (Aslan, 208)
A score of 27.5/40 basically comes out to 3.5 stars on a 5-star scale, which is not bad. That probably says something about The Chronicles of Narnia (or, at least, my opinion of them): to me, this is easily the worst of the seven books. I have not yet applied my rubric to the other six, but I expect those scores to be higher.
In the next post, we will examine the book that started it all: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.
Definitive, according to me.
Some of you are probably screaming, “The Magician’s Nephew is not the first book in the series!” And I would totally agree with you. The first Narnia book Lewis wrote and published was The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, while The Magician’s Nephew was actually sixth. But The Magician’s Nephew is a prequel, and chronologically occurs first in the series.
I prefer reading The Chronicles of Narnia in the order in which they were published, but I am following the chronological order in this series because (1) this is, sadly, almost universally the way the books are published now, and (2) I think The Magician’s Nephew is the weakest book in the series, and this enables me to get it out of the way.
This is very similar to The Phantom Menace in the Star Wars series. There are a lot of people out there who put up with The Phantom Menance because they were already Star Wars fans, but I cannot imagine that there are too many people out there who became Star Wars fans because of The Phantom Menace (in fact, most Star Wars fans I know try to forget that The Phantom Menace exists).
By the way, this is a really strong reason in my opinion why you shouldn’t read The Chronicles of Narnia in chronological order (at least, the first time you read them): because you might dislike The Magician’s Nephew and become discouraged from reading the other, superior books.
I know there are debates about whether the Narnia books in general and LWW, in particular, should be read as allegories of the Christian story. I am not really interested in engaging those discussions, beyond saying this: it is clear that Aslan is a Christ-figure, and, thus, my comments in this series on the theology of The Chronicles of Narnia will look at what Aslan teaches us about Jesus.