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Tag: The Chronicles of Narnia

Ranking The Chronicles of Narnia, Part 5: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader

We are now halfway through a series of posts in which I am ranking the different volumes of C.S. Lewis’s masterpiece, The Chronicles of Narnia. So far, I have covered The Magician’s NephewThe Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, The Horse and His Boyand Prince Caspian.

To evaluate each book, I am using a rubric with four different categories: 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 have been following the chronological order of the books (even though I don’t consider that to be the best order in which to read the books), which means that this week, I will be ranking The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (VDT). I think this was my third time to read VDT, and it remains one of my favorites of the Narnia series.

The Voyage of the Dawn Treader

This is from a series of brilliant Narnia cover designs by Jeffrey Nguyen

Story

Some may feel differently, but I have always enjoyed the narrative flow of VDT. It is a story of exploration in the form of a sea voyage to remote and undiscovered lands, and of course, this voyage is paralleled by the spiritual journeys of the characters themselves.

As the book begins, Edmund and Lucy Pevensie are staying with their cousin Eustace.[1] The three children are suddenly taken up into Narnia through a painting of a ship at sea hanging on the wall of a bedroom. The three children find themselves in the ocean near the Dawn Treader, a Narnian ship upon which they are quickly taken aboard, and where they find King Caspian, Reepicheep, and other Narnians. The Dawn Treader is in the midst of a sea voyage with two goals. First and foremost, the mission is to locate the seven lost Lords of Narnia (who had been friends and supporters of Caspian’s father, but exiled or encouraged to leave by his uncle Miraz). But in addition to that mission (and ultimately, more important than it) is Reepicheep’s goal of finding Aslan’s Country beyond the seas, in the “utter East.”

The narrative arc of VDT is somewhat repetitive, as Caspian, his friends, and his crew sail from one island to another, gradually meeting (or finding the remains of) all of the lost lords and experiencing significant trials and transformative experiences along the way. However, the variety of the places they visit, the characters they meet, and the trials they face combine in such a way that the story doesn’t seem repetitive at all: it is interesting and gripping throughout, and also cultivates a building anticipation as the Dawn Treader grows increasingly closer to Aslan’s Country.

Story: 9/10

Characters

As is always the case in The Chronicles of Narnia, human children from our world feature prominently in VDT; in this instance, it is Edmund and Lucy Pevensie, along with their cousin, Eustace Scrubb.

Eustace is a major character in VDT, especially early in the book, so we will start with him. The opening line of the book is an all-time great:

“There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it.” (1)

Lewis then goes on to explain just why this Eustace fellow is so unlikeable:

“His parents called him Eustace Clarence and masters called him Scrubb. I can’t tell you how his friends spoke to him, for he had none. He didn’t call his Father and Mother “Father” and “Mother,” but Harold and Alberta. They were very up-to-date and advanced people. They were vegetarians, non-smokers and teetotalers and wore a special kind of underclothes. In their house there was very little furniture and very few clothes on beds and the windows were always open.

Eustace Clarence liked animals, especially beetles, if they were dead and pinned on a card. He liked books if they were books of information and had pictures of grain elevators or of fat foreign children doing exercises in model schools.

Eustace Clarence disliked his cousins the four Pevensies, Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy.” (1-2)

In addition to clueing us in to some character traits that Lewis himself apparently didn’t think too highly of, he gives us the impression of an annoying little boy, but one who largely seems to be so due to the influence of his annoying parents. Perhaps this is unsurprising, because adults can be pragmatic and unimaginative in a way that can be a barrier to faith, but there may be a glimmer of hope in this description as well: if freed from the influence of his parents, perhaps there is hope for Eustace.

His time in Narnia doesn’t begin well. He insults the honor of Reepicheep, complains about everything, and is constantly seasick. He refuses (or is unable) to acknowledge the reality of Narnia, and keeps asking to see the British consulate. Finally, everything comes to a head when they reach Dragon Island, where, upon discovering the hoard of a dead dragon, Eustace greedily stuffs his pockets with treasure before falling asleep. He awakens to discover that he has become a dragon. In his dragonish state, Eustace begins to reevaluate things. He realizes that his cousins and shipmates weren’t so bad after all, and that it was really he himself who had been acting beastly all along. Eustace begins to change his behavior, and now seeks to help his friends. But it is not until he encounters Aslan that he is able to return to human form, and this only occurs when Aslan uses his claws to cut through his dragon skin in painful fashion, throws him into a pool of water, and then dresses him in new clothes. Later, Eustace describes his experience with the Lion to his cousin Edmund:

“What do you think it was, then?” asked Eustace.

“I think you’ve seen Aslan,” said Edmund.

“Aslan!” said Eustace. “I’ve heard that name mentioned several times since we joined the Dawn Treader. And I felt—I don’t know what—I hated it. But I was hating everything then. And by the way, I’d like to apologize. I’m afraid I’ve been pretty beastly.”

“That’s all right,” said Edmund. “Between ourselves, you haven’t been as bad as I was on my first trip to Narnia. You were only an ass, but I was a traitor.” (117)

The whole experience transforms Eustace, and he is dramatically different for the rest of the book. In fact, the book closes with this description:

“…Back in our own world everyone soon started saying how Eustace had improved, and how “You’d never know him for the same boy”: everyone except Aunt Alberta, who said he had become very commonplace and tiresome and it must have been the influence of those Pevensie children.” (270-71)[2]

Lucy shows some familiar character traits from previous novels. Moved by compassion, she uses her vial of magical healing liquid on two occasions to bring relief to Eustace. She also shows her spunk and courage when she gets in between Edmund and Caspian when they quarrel at Deathwater Island.

But Lucy also struggles. On the Magician’s Island, she is tempted to use a spell to make herself beautiful, and is only prevented from doing so by the image of an unhappy Aslan. She gives in to a lesser temptation to spy on her classmates at school, and damages a relationship with a friend in the process. And like everyone else (except, perhaps, Reepicheep) she is plagued by terror at the Dark Island.

Edmund takes somewhat of a backseat in VDT, but does show up in key moments. It is Edmund to whom Eustace reveals his transformation, and Edmund responds with comfort and understanding. Later, Edmund opposes the foolish behavior of Caspian on two occasions, but it is unclear how pure his motives are: both times, he ruffles at the implication that he is subject to Caspian, and we are left realizing that Edmund still has some growing to do.

Caspian is now three years older than he was in PC, is a confident king rather than an inexperienced youth, and is possessed with the spirit of adventure and obligation as he leads the expedition to explore the Great Eastern Ocean in search of the seven lost lords of Narnia. On the whole, he shows wisdom and courage, but he struggles as well in VDT. First, at Deathwater Island, he is tempted by greed and desires to seize the magic pool that turns everything to gold. Ultimately, Aslan appears and Caspian comes to his senses. Later, Caspian is tempted to go to Aslan’s Country with Reepicheep and to shirk his duties as king in order to do so. Again, it is an appearance from Aslan that sets him straight.

Reepicheep was previously introduced in PC, but is a much more central character in VDT. All of his previous characteristics are on display again—his bravery, daring, keen sense of honor—but most prominent is his devotion to Aslan, and his desire to travel to Aslan’s Country:

“My own plans are made. While I can, I sail east in the Dawn Treader. When she fails me, I paddle east in my coracle. When she sinks, I shall swim east with my four paws. And when I can swim no longer, if I have not reached Aslan’s country, or shot over the edge of the world in some vast cataract, I shall sink with my nose to the sunrise and Peepiceek will be head of the talking mice in Narnia.” (231)

All of the other events of the book—dragons, gold, sea serpents, lost Narnian lords, and the rest—cannot distract Reepicheep from his singled-minded goal: to reach Aslan’s Country and forever dwell in the presence of the Lion.

Aslan appears more frequently in VDT than in the other books, but for brief periods each time, and generally, at a time of crisis or a moment of transformation for the various characters. He appears to Eustace and frees him of his dragon skin. He appears to Caspian, Edmund, and company on Deathwater and brings an end to their argument. He appears to Lucy on the Magician’s Island, helping her to overcome one temptation and to understand the consequences of her actions in giving into another. In response to a prayer from Lucy on the Dark Island, he encourages her. When Caspian seeks to abdicate the throne, he offers correction. And when it is time for Edmund, Lucy, and Eustace to leave Narnia (and for Edmund and Lucy to never return), he gives them spiritual guidance in their own country. In short, in a book about the journey of faith (see Theology section below), Aslan is a co-traveler and guide who shows up in the journeys of various characters, granting what is needed in the moment. It is a typically apt characterization.

Characters: 9/10

Worldcraft

Although I consider VDT to be all-around excellent, I think this is its strongest area. It significantly expands the world of Narnia by taking is us into the Great Eastern Ocean, to never-before-discovered places and then even beyond the world of Narnia itself, giving us glimpses of Aslan’s Country.

The Lone Islands are intriguing. Unlike the other places the Dawn Treader will visit, these islands are not totally new. They were the previously-known “ends of the earth” and were technically under the authority of Narnia. But Miraz feared Aslan, the sea, and everything from the East, and it had been a long time since Narnia had exercised jurisdiction over the Lone Islands. In the meantime, the Islands have come under the influence of Calormen and now practice the slave trade (really, these are the only villains in VDT). Caspian and his forces stage a coup and insert Lord Bern as the Duke of the Long Islands.

After leaving the Lone Islands, though, everything is totally new: it is now a voyage of discovery. Dragons, sea serpents, and water that turns everything submerged in it to gold add to the mystery and enchantment of the journey. On another island, we discover the delightful Dufflepuds, and are introduced to the notion of a former star who now rules them as punishment. The Dawn Treader then stumbles upon the Dark Island, where dreams actually come true (which means that nightmares come true), and then encounter another former star, Ramandu, who lives with his daughter on the Island of the Star, where they sing the sunrise each morning.

As the journey continues, they encounter merpeople, water that is now sweet rather than salty, and an increasing shallowness to the sea. Eventually, only the three children and Reepicheep are allowed to continue in the ship’s small boat, and they move ahead through a sea of lilies until they reach a wave of water that extends into the sky like a waterfall. Beyond that, they catch glimpses of impossibly-high green mountains: Aslan’s Country.

The nature of the journey means that we don’t get to dwell long and fully explore any one location, but the sheer number of novel places, the wondrous discoveries, and the expansion of the world of Narnia that we experience renders a high score in this category.

Worldcraft: 9.5/10

Theology

I have mentioned this multiple times in this series, but late in his life, C.S. Lewis wrote a letter in which he provided a brief overview of The Chronicles from a spiritual perspective. Describing VDT, he said it was about the spiritual journey, and that this was especially seen in the character of Reepicheep.[3] While the valiant mouse is doggedly determined in his quest for Aslan, the other significant characters are on spiritual journeys of their own, and must repeatedly face their own flaws and overcome them with the assistance of the Great Lion:

“In contrast to other Narnia books, Dawn Treader has virtually no overt villains, other than the slavers in the very beginning who are quickly overcome and disposed of. Rather, the plot confronts the protagonists again and again with the flaws of their own character. Eustace’s greediness and general bad behavior cause him to turn into a dragon, and he must work hard to show himself worthy of becoming human again; Caspian is tempted to seize the magic pool which turns everything to gold—which would have turned Caspian himself into a greedy tyrant ready to kill in order to preserve his power and wealth; later, Caspian faces the nobler but still wrong-headed temptation to go off to Aslan’s Country and abandon his responsibilities as a King; Lucy is tempted to make herself magically beautiful, which would have led to her becoming the focus of terrible wars devastating Narnia and all its neighbors; and having resisted this temptation, she succumbs to a lesser temptation to magically spy on her schoolmates—and is punished by hearing malicious things and destroying what could have developed into an enduring nice friendship.…Edmund, who had undergone a very severe test of his character on his first arrival in Narnia, is spared such an experience in the present book, and acts as the most mature and grown-up member of the group.”[4]

Through the various characters, Lewis highlights different aspects of the spiritual journey.

In Reepicheep, we see the ideal: despite everything that surrounds him, he “seeks first the kingdom of God.” Above all else, he wants to dwell in the presence of Aslan. It is his greatest goal, ever present at the forefront of his mind.

In Eustace, we see the cost of spiritual transformation and rebirth. As Aslan cuts through Eustace’s dragon skin, I have always thought of the image of Jesus pruning branches in John 15, and the inherent pain of that metaphor. Then, in a clear baptismal scene, Aslan “kills” Eustace’s old, dragonish self, buries him in water, and then dresses him as a new creation.

In Lucy, we see the importance of gracious judgment. Through magic, Lucy spied on her classmates and heard one of her friends make hurtful statements about her. Lucy calls her a “two-faced little beast”, but is later chastened by Aslan:

“‘Spying on people by magic is the same as spying on them in any other way. And you have misjudged your friend. She is weak, but she loves you. She was afraid of the older girl and said what she doesn’t mean.’” (170)

In Caspian, we also see the unfortunate reality that part of the spiritual journey is saying goodbye to fellow travelers with whom we would prefer to travel longer. Caspian is determined to travel with his friends to the end of the world and into Aslan’s Country, even if it means deserting his duties as king. Aslan appears to Caspian to gently correct him, and we see Caspian’s motivations more clearly when he describes the encounter to his friends:

“It’s no good,” he said. “I might as well have behaved decently for all the good I did with my temper and swagger. Aslan has spoken to me. No—I don’t mean he was actually here. He wouldn’t fit into the cabin, for one thing. But that gold lion’s head on the wall came to life and spoke to me. It was terrible—his eyes. Not that he was at all rough with me—only a bit stern at first. But it was terrible all the same. And he said—he said—oh, I can’t bear it. The worst thing he could have said. You’re to go on—Reep and Edmund, and Lucy, and Eustace; and I’m to go back. Alone. And at once. And what is the good of anything?”

“Caspian, dear,” said Lucy. “You knew we’d have to go back to our own world sooner or later.”

“Yes,” said Caspian with a sob, “but this is sooner.” (262-63)

In a fallen world marked by the painful realities of sin and death, it is a sad fact that a significant part of life is saying goodbye to some of the people we most care about.

And finally, in multiple characters (Eustace, Lucy, Caspian, even Edmund), we see that often, as we progress through the spiritual journeys of our lives, our greatest opposition comes not from without, but within: our own internal flaws and inclination toward sin must be addressed and overcome, and this can only be done with the help of Aslan. As one author points out in reflecting upon this:

“I will leave us with this: I grew up in religious culture, and so often I was told that I needed to stop being a dragon. It was a sort of moralistic teaching that said something like, “Stop being a dragon and come to Aslan.” But if I could stop being a dragon myself, what need did I have of Aslan? I’ve been a minister for over twenty years and I’ve met a lot of dark places in a lot of broken hearts, including my own. I don’t know where you may be on your journey, whether stuck at sea, or lost in darkness, or in some place better or worse than that. But I do know this: you are not alone. Aslan, whether you see the great lion or not (“I was always here”), and whether you know the great lion or not (“follow me” he said to Eustace, not even saying his own name), and whether you feel hope or despair…there is a lamb, an albatross, a painting, a picture, a lion, or whatever you need Aslan to be. I believe Aslan will take that form to bring us hope. To free us from our dragon skin. To show us the way out of darkness. To give us what we need to know peace.”[5]

Aslan’s final appearance to the three children has strong echoes of John 21.[6] After Reepicheep has paddled into Aslan’s Country, the three children walk to dry land where the heavens seem to meet earth. Aslan appears to them as a Lamb and invites them to breakfast.

He tells the children that it is time for them to return home, and that Lucy and Edmund will never return: they are too old, reminiscent of what Peter and Susan are told at the end of PCEdmund and Lucy have learned all they can in Narnia, and now, it is time for them to come to know Aslan in their own world:

“Are—are you there too, Sir?” said Edmund.

“I am,” said Aslan. “But there I have another name. You must learn to know me by that name. This was the very reason why you were brought to Narnia, that by knowing me here for a little, you may know me better there.” (270)

It is for this reason that Edmund and Lucy were brought to Narnia, and it is the same reason that we, the readers, are taken there by Lewis: that having seen Aslan in Narnia, we can better know in our own lives the Lion who is also a Lamb, and that we, with the determination of Reepicheep, may seek first His kingdom and live eternally with Him Someday.

Theology: 9/10

With a score of 36.5/40, VDT is an excellent book, and in my ranking system, resides as a near neighbor in the stratosphere of LWW and HHBfitting in between those two books. Unlike those two books, VDT did not receive a perfect 10 in any subcategory, but it got consistent high scores all around: no real weaknesses. On Amazon, this would be a clear 5-star rating.


[1]  We learned in PC that Peter and Susan would not be returning to Narnia. Here, we are told that Susan is traveling with her parents in America, and that Peter is studying to prepare for an exam with the help of Professor Digory Kirke (of MN fame).

[2] Although several characters receive significant attention in VDT, I would argue that Eustace is the main character, as evidenced by the way that content about him frames the entire novel. Hopefully, that justifies me spending so much time on him here!

[3] Paul Ford, Companion to Narnia: Revised Edition (San Franciso: HarperCollins, 2005): 6.

[4] Sue Baines, “Moral and educational themes in the Narnia and Harry Potter books” in Gerald Sumner (ed.) “Round Table on the Development of Twentieth Century Fantasy”.

I do not believe, though, that Edmund comes off as spotless as Baines claims. As I described in the Characters section, in both of the instances where Caspian acts foolishly, Edmund opposes him. He was right to do so, but his opposition is based on his own pride and position: in both instances, Edmund asserts that he is no subject of Caspian’s. This echoes the dark side of Edmund’s character in LWW, and I think should give us caution before fully approving of his behavior here: to do the right thing (oppose Caspian’s foolishness) for the wrong reason (out of a competitive sense of pride) is, ultimately, to do the wrong thing.

[5] Matt Mikalotos, “Eustace Was a Dragon All Along,” in The Great C.S. Lewis RereadI have mentioned this before, but Mikalotos is writing a great series of articles on The Chronicles of Narnia. He covers a lot of stuff that I don’t get into in my own series here.

[6] The parallels with John 21 are numerous and striking. The image of Aslan serving breakfast clearly echoes Jesus serving breakfast to His apostles, and Aslan’s appearance as a Lamb echoes the language Jesus uses with Peter. We see further echoes of Jesus’ conversation with Peter in Aslan telling the children unpleasant news (they will not return to Narnia/Peter will be killed for his faith), giving them a task (to discover Aslan in their own country/to shepherd the flock), and gently refraining from telling them the destiny of others (not speaking of whether or not Eustace will return to Narnia/not telling Peter what will happen to John).

Ranking The Chronicles of Narnia, Part 4: Prince Caspian

For the last few weeks, I have been ranking the different volumes of C.S. Lewis’s masterpiece, The Chronicles of Narnia. So far, I have covered The Magician’s NephewThe Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobeand The Horse and His Boy

I am scoring each book using a rubric with four different categories: 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 have been following the chronological order of the books (even though I don’t consider that to be the best order in which to read the books), which means that this week, I will be ranking Prince Caspian (PC). I think this was my third time to read PC, and although I enjoyed it, I found myself a little more critical of certain aspects this time around.

Prince Caspian

This is from a series of brilliant Narnia cover designs by Jeffrey Nguyen

Story

Coming off the heels of LWW and HHB, PC is…slow. Certainly, there are elements of the story that are entertaining and compelling—the intrigue in the court of King Miraz, the Old Narnians living in hiding, the battle scenes around Aslan’s How—but significant chunks of the narrative feel like drudgery to get through.

As the book begins, the four Pevensie children from LWW find themselves almost immediately whisked into Narnia near an old ruined castle. After a frustratingly-long time, they realize that the castle is Cair Paravel, where they themselves reigned long ago, and that they have somehow returned to Narnia hundreds of years after they left it.

They soon rescue a dwarf, Trumpkin, who is about to be executed, and he proceeds to tell them the story of young Prince Caspian, who is a Telmarine, a human from the land of Telmar to the west of Narnia. Caspian’s ancestor had conquered Narnia, but now, his uncle Miraz is seeking to usurp the throne. The birth of Miraz’s son has placed Caspian in danger, and under the advice of his tutor, Doctor Cornelius, Caspian has fled from his uncle and taken up company with the Old Narnians: talking beasts, dwarfs, centaurs, and other fantastic creatures that had long ago been driven into hiding (Caspian had been raised to believe that such creatures didn’t even exist, until he learned differently from his nurse and then Doctor Cornelius).

The Old Narnians decide to follow Caspian as King, and marshal their forces to meet the army of Miraz in battle. Things go poorly for Caspian’s side, however: they are outnumbered and outmaneuvered in battle. Desperate, Caspian blows the magic horn of Queen Susan,[1] and Trumpkin is sent off to the ruins of Cair Paravel, where it is suspected that aid may arrive. He is captured along the way, but then freed by the Pevensies, as mentioned above.

From here, the Pevensie children have to convince Trumpkin that they really are the Kings and Queens from Narnia’s Golden Age and that they are able to help Caspian in his plight. This takes some doing, for the good-hearted Trumpkin is thoroughly skeptical about anything related to Aslan and Narnia’s revered history, but he proves to be a loyal ally.

Trumpkin and the children then head off to join Caspian’s forces at Aslan’s How. The journey there is long and arduous (perhaps nearly as slow and painful to read about as it would be to travel!), and is marked by Lucy seeing Aslan, the rest of the party being unable to, and as a result, going the wrong way, which puts the group in peril and delays their progress (more on this in the Theology section below). Eventually, Aslan appears to them again, this time in a way that all see him, and Aslan instructs them to divide their party: Peter, Edmund, and Trumpkin take off for Aslan’s How to join with Caspian’s forces, while Susan and Lucy join Aslan for a wild party in the woods with the tree creatures who Aslan awakens with his roar.

Aslan and the queens continue to travel and gather various allies, while Peter, realizing that Caspian’s forces are outnumbered, challenges Miraz to single combat. The duel is ended by the treachery of Miraz’s own lieutenants, but the chaos works to the advantage of the Old Narnians who, joined by Aslan’s recently-gathered forces, overwhelm the Telmarine army.

Caspian is installed as King by Aslan, the surviving Telmarine are allowed to return to their origin in our world, and the Pevensie children return home as well, with Peter and Susan possessing the knowledge that they will not return to Narnia again because they are getting “too old.”

The plot of PC has good (really good) elements, but it feels like a series of starts and stops. It takes too long to get to the “good stuff,” and once there, you don’t stay there for long.

Story: 7.5/10

Characters

The four Pevensie children, Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy, function as major characters in PC, as they do in LWW, and they are very similar to how they were in that novel (in Edmund’s case, how he was at the end of LWW, after he had repented of his treachery). All characters are now a year older, and perhaps this plays a part in the struggle of the older children to see Aslan when he first appears. With this cursory overview, we will move on to other significant characters, of whom there are many.

Caspian, the eponymous hero of the novel, grows up as in the house of his uncle Miraz. He is the rightful heir to the throne of Narnia, but knows nothing about it or the history of his nation until first, his nurse, and later, Doctor Cornelius, open his eyes to the reality of his world. He later flees his home and throws his lot in with the Old Narnians, and is declared their king. He loves stories from the old days, believes in Aslan, and ultimately, shows his allegiance to him when he stands against Nikabrik’s plot (see more below). Caspian is also humble, and we are given indication that this humility will serve him well:

“Welcome, Prince,” said Aslan. “Do you feel yourself sufficient to take up the Kingship of Narnia?“

“I—I don’t think I do, Sir,“ said Caspian. “I’m only a kid.“

“Good,“ said Aslan. “If you had felt yourself sufficient, it would have been a proof that you were not.” (220)

Doctor Cornelius is Caspian’s tutor who educates him in all manner of subjects, including the history of Narnia how it used to be. Cornelius proves the truth of what he says by his own existence (he is part dwarf), he gives Caspian the all-important horn, and he saves his life on the night of the birth of Miraz’s son by encouraging him to flee the castle. Later, he meets up with Caspian’s forces and serves as one of his main advisors.

When Caspian flees from his uncle into the woods, he runs into a tree branch and is knocked out. When he revives, he finds himself in a cave surrounded by three interesting characters: Trufflehunter, the talking badger, Trumpkin, the red dwarf, and Nikabrik, the black dwarf (the colors referring to the color of their hair and beards). As we will discuss later, PC is about the restoration of true religion after it has been corrupted, and in some sense, these three characters display three possible responses to “true religion.”

Trufflehunter represents the truly faithful. Despite the fact that talking beasts and the rest of the Old Narnians had been driven into hiding long ago and Aslan seemed to be distant silent, Trufflehunter remains loyal and committed to the order that Aslan had established:

“Don’t you go talking about things you don’t understand, Nikabrik,” said Trufflehunter. “You Dwarfs are as forgetful and changeable as the Humans themselves. I’m a beast, I am, and a Badger what’s more. We don’t change. We hold on. I say great good will come of it. This is the true King of Narnia we’ve got here: a true King, coming back to true Narnia. And we beasts remember, even if Dwarfs forget, that Narnia was never right except when a son of Adam was King.” (71)

“I tell you, we don’t change, we beasts,” said Trufflehunter. “We don’t forget. I believe in the High King Peter and the rest that reined at Cair Paravel, as firmly as I believe in Aslan himself.” (72)

If Trufflehunter is the faithful believer, Nikabrik is at the other extreme. He is fearful of Miraz and, therefore, all humans, and wants to kill Caspian when they find him. He has no desire for humans to rule Narnia (though he reluctantly goes along with the others to support Caspian), and, ultimately, has no allegiance to Aslan. He is entirely pragmatic, and is willing to support anyone—no matter how wicked—who will seek his interests:

“Do you believe in Aslan?” said Caspian to Nikabrik.

I’ll believe in anyone or anything,” said Nikabrik, “that’ll batter these cursed Telmarine barbarians to pieces or drive them out of Narnia. Anyone or anything, Aslan or the White Witch, do you understand?”

“Silence, silence,” said Trufflehunter. “You do not know what you are saying. She was a worse enemy than Miraz and all his race.”

“Not to Dwarfs, she wasn’t,” said Nikabrik. (80-81)

Later, Nikabrik’s pragmatism goes to the greatest extremes, as he enlists a Hag and a Wer-Wolf as allies and, ultimately, they try to bring the White Witch back from the dead through sorcery. This leads to a struggle where Nikabrik and his unsavory allies are killed, but ultimately, Nikabrik shows how corruption and extreme self-interest ultimately lead to destruction.[2]

Trumpkin sits in between Trufflehunter and Nikabrik on the spectrum of faith. Unlike Trufflehunter, he is no true believer. Time and again he is skeptical about the Kings and Queens from Narnia’s past coming to save them, or Aslan having any influence over the situation at all (it is not until Aslan roars and pounces on him that Trumpkin finally sees him and believes). But, despite his skepticism, Trumpkin is loyal and is open to having his mind changed. If he has forgotten the history of Narnia and the foundations of faith, he has still clung to its byproducts in a way that Nikabrik has not: Trumpkin has no desire to kill Caspian when they find him, nor to have any association with one form of evil (the Witch) in order to triumph over another (Miraz).

Miraz is Caspian’s uncle, the usurper to the throne. He previously had Caspian’s father killed, and all of his allies killed or banished. As Caspian gradually becomes aware of more things,

“He also began to see that Narnia was an unhappy country. The taxes were high and the laws were stern and Miraz was cruel man.” (58)

Despite his cruelty, Miraz was willing enough to train Caspian to be his successor until his wife give birth to a son of their own, and then Caspian’s life was in peril. Miraz shows himself to be skillful in his duel against Peter, but he is also easily manipulated, as his noblemen lead him to accept the duel in the first place, and then turn on him and kill him in a moment of confusion.

Reepicheep is the fearless and chivalrous leader of the talking mice, and is arguably the greatest character in The Chronicles of Narnia not named Aslan. He will feature more prominently in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, but in PC, we get clear indications of his bravery, daring, devotion to Caspian and Aslan, and his keen sense of honor (and with it, the ease at which he is offended).

Aslan’s role in PC is similar to the other books. He is a supremely important character, but is not directly involved in much of the narrative. Early on, Caspian is taught about Aslan but has never seen or experienced him. Miraz denies his existence and even some of the old Narnians are skeptical or disbelieving. When the Pevensie children arrive in Narnia, only Lucy sees him at first while the others disbelieve. But still, ultimately, it is Aslan who guides the Pevensies on what they must do, and it is his work that establishes the throne of Caspian.

Characters: 8.5/10

Worldcraft

For me, this area was another relative weakness of PC. We are given detailed descriptions of the ruins of Cair Paravel, and similar descriptions of the forests and rivers that Trumpkin and the Pevensies traverse as they make their way toward Caspian. These extended descriptions serve to illustrate how much time has elapsed since Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy sat on their thrones as the Kings and Queens of Narnia, and also are likely indicative of the decay that has come across the land over the years as “true religion” has been lost.[3]  But, on the whole, I found these descriptions to be pretty dry; in fact, these were the sections I most wanted to skim through.

Perhaps the most interesting element in the development of Narnia a thousand years after LWW was the description of Aslan’s How, a mound of earth riddled with tunnels that had been built over the broken Stone Table. This serves as the headquarters of Caspian’s forces, and the scene of the decisive battle-within-the-battle where the faithful Caspian, Trufflehunter, and Doctor Cornelius oppose Nikabrik, the Hag, and the Wer-Wolf.

Worldcraft: 7.5/10

Theology

I alluded to this above, but late in his life, C.S. Lewis wrote a letter in which he provided a brief overview of The Chronicles from a spiritual perspective. Describing PC, he said it was about “restoration of the true religion after corruption.”[4] By now, that theme is probably pretty clear from what I have described above in the three previous categories, so I won’t dwell on it here. To summarize,  in the context of Narnia, true religion is a son of Adam upon the throne living under the delegated authority of Aslan. In the words of Trufflehunter:

“…Narnia was never right except when a son of Adam was King.” (71)

Miraz was a son of Adam, but not the right kind, as he had sought to abolish any reference to Aslan or talking beasts at all. He was a cruel tyrant who ruled according to his own standards and notions of propriety. On the other hand, Caspian is the ruler that Narnia needs, in the tradition of Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy.

This son-of-Adam-on-the-throne idea is a clear reflection of the biblical notion of Imago Dei, the idea that humans are created in the Image of God. This means that God placed humanity in the garden to rule over it, but with His delegated authority. As creatures made in God’s image, humans possess enormous potential for good or evil. Aslan says as much:

“Do you mark all this well, King Caspian?”

“I do indeed, Sir,” said Caspian. “I was wishing that I came of a more honorable lineage.”

“You come of the Lord Adam and the Lady Eve,” said Aslan. “And that is both honor enough to erect the head of the poorest beggar, and shame enough to bow the shoulders of the greatest emperor on earth. Be content.”

Caspian bowed. (233)

Another key theological motif of PC is the correlation between age and faith. Repeatedly throughout the book, being “old” or “grown-up” is presented as a barrier to having faith in Aslan.

  • When Caspian talks to King Miraz about the stories from Narnia’s Golden Age, Miraz replies that such stories are “fit for babies” and that Caspian is getting “too old” for fairy tells such as these.
  • Miraz asks Lord Glozelle, one of his noblemen about these “fairy tales” as well, and if he believes them. Glozelle replies, “I believe my eyes, your Majesty.”
  • As described in the discussion of Characters above, skepticism and pragmatism are noted characteristics of the Dwarfs Trumpkin and Nikabrik.

Even the Pevensies are victims of the seeing-is-believing malady that Lewis correlates with advancing age. Lucy, the youngest Pevensie child, is the one who sees Aslan first, but her older siblings doubt her (though Edmund, the second youngest, suspends his disbelief enough to side with his younger sister). Susan asks, “Where did you think you saw him?” and Lucy responds, “Don’t talk like a grown-up.”

Eventually, Aslan appears to Lucy again and strengthens her resolve to convince her siblings about seeing Aslan and following him, but it is still a challenge for her:

It is a terrible thing to have to wake four people, all older than yourself and all very tired, for the purpose of telling them something they probably won’t believe and making them do something they certainly won’t like.

Older people struggle to believe. They choose the pragmatic option, or the reasonable option. As Lord Glozelle said, they “believe their eyes.”

Or, as Jesus said:

“Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”

(Matthew 18.3)

Is it any wonder that Peter and Susan are told that this will be their last trip to Narnia, because they are getting too old?

Theology: 8/10

At 31.5/40, PC is not, in my estimation, at the same level as LWW or HHBHowever, it is still a good book, and a noticeable step above MNIf I were rating it on Amazon, I’d give it 4 stars. I mentioned that HHB had climbed dramatically in the rankings after this read-through; PC fell in the rankings this time around.


[1] This horn was given to Susan in LWW by Father Christmas, and whenever it is blown, aid will come to Narnia. The horn had been kept and handed down over time, and Doctor Cornelius gives it to Caspian to blow in his moment of greatest need.

[2] Later, right before his treachery, Nikabrik again asserts that the White Witch “got on all right with us Dwarfs” (180). And this seems to be somewhat true, as we see dwarfs serving the White Witch in LWW. This stubborn determination to look out only for Dwarfs and the interests of Dwarfs also points ahead to The Last Battle, where the Dwarfs remain this way and refuse to ally themselves with King Tirian.

In some ways, I think Nikabrik is an almost prophetic character. Back in 2016, I remember sharing “Nikabrik’s Candidate”, which I thought was a soberingly-accurate article leading up to the 2016 Presidential Election. The article itself seems to be prophetic to me, and worth a read in hindsight (or, foresight, as another such election approaches).

[3] This theme of corruption is most clearly seen in the ruins of Cair Paravel and the apple trees they had planted now growing wild. But it also seen in the overgrowth of forest, the erosion of the land by the river, and the binding of the river god represented by the Bridge of Beruna.

[4] Paul Ford, Companion to Narnia: Revised Edition (San Franciso: HarperCollins, 2005): 6.

 

Ranking The Chronicles of Narnia, Part 3: The Horse and His Boy

So, I have been ranking the different volumes of C.S. Lewis’s masterpiece, The Chronicles of Narnia. So far, I have covered The Magician’s Nephew and The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.

I am scoring each book using a rubric with four different categories: 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 have been following the chronological order of the books (even though I don’t consider that to be the best order in which to read the books), which means that this week, I will be ranking The Horse and His Boy (HHB). Unlike LWW, which I had read multiple times, I think this may have been only my second reading of HHB, and I can’t believe how much more I enjoyed the book this time around.

The Horse and His Boy

This is from a series of brilliant Narnia cover designs by Jeffrey Nguyen

Story

HHB is unique in The Chronicles of Narnia because the entire story takes place within the world of Narnia—no characters are drawn from Britain through magical means. Instead, it is a story from the time in which Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy are ruling as the kings and queens of Narnia, and centers around characters—two children and two horses—who live in that world. To me, this feature alone is a point in favor of HHB—Lewis is using what he has already created rather than importing outside elements. It also helps greatly with the pacing of the story, because we launch right into the story of Shasta after one introductory paragraph, rather than the usual instance of having to introduce the children from our world, establish their context, and describe the circumstances that bring them to Narnia.

In the simplest terms, HHB is a travel narrative, recounting the journey of Shasta, the adopted son of a Calormene fisherman, who basically lives the existence of a slave. He meets Bree, an enslaved Narnian (and thus, talking) horse, and the two of them decide to flee together and head North, toward Narnia. Along the way, they encounter Aravis, a Calormene girl of noble birth, and her horse Hwin (another enslaved talking horse from Narnia). Together, they flee from their old lives, discover the wonders of the city of Tashbaan, stumble upon a Calormene plot to overthrow both Archenland and Narnia (Shasta meets Susan and Edmund in the process), brave a grueling journey through the desert, and, ultimately, provide the warning that brings deliverance to Narnia and her allies.

Along the way, Shasta and his companions are pursued by Aslan himself, and they eventually meet and come to love and serve him (more on that in the Theology section below), and Shasta comes to discover his true identity as the missing son of the king of Archenland. Aravis is invited to live with the king and his family as well, and she and Shasta (who’s actual name is Cor) grow up to get married and live happily ever after. Well, sort of. With his typical wit, Lewis says:

Aravis also had many quarrels (and, I’m afraid, even fights) with Cor, but they always made it up again: so that years later, when they were grown up, they were so used to quarreling and making up again that they got married so as to go on doing it more conveniently. And after King Lune’s death they made a good King and Queen of Archenland and Ram the Great, the most famous of all the kings of Archenland, was their son. (241)

The plot of HHB is gripping, and the pacing is excellent. Humor, danger, and intrigue are well combined to produce a story that is as interesting and compelling as any in the series.

Story: 9/10

Characters

The main characters of HHB have already been mentioned above: Shasta (Cor), Bree, Aravis, and Hwin. As previously mentioned, these characters are not teleported in from the outside, but arise within the world that LWW creates.

Shasta is the story’s main protagonist. As the adopted son of a Calormene fisherman, he lives a small, poor life, unaware of what lies beyond his home. A chance encounter with Bree and the prospect of his being sold into slavery provides the motivation for his flight from all he has known. Shasta is keenly aware of his deep ignorance and humble beginnings. He is impressed by and envious of the knowledge and experiences of Bree and Aravis, and desperately wants to impress them. He is also kind and courageous, and in a person so marked by fear and self-doubt, the courage is all the more impressive. Meeting Aslan gives Shasta (who feels that he is incapable of accomplishing the task he has been given) the refreshment, vision, and confidence to do what must be done.

Aravis is a firecracker. She is a young Tarkheena, which means that she is the daughter of a Tarkhan, a Calormene noble. She has grown up wealthy and privileged, but a detestable arranged marriage spurs her to freedom. She respects Bree who, as a Tarkhan’s war horse runs in the same sorts of circles that she does, but in her pride and haughtiness, she looks down on the lowly Shasta. She is also brave and resourceful, and shows great development over the course of the novel. First, she comes to respect and admire Shasta (especially for his bravery), and ultimately, after meeting Aslan, comes to repent of the cruel indifference with which she had previously treated those she had considered to be her inferiors.

Bree was a character who was hard for me to like, at least initially. A war horse who knows his Narnian birth, Bree is proud of both characteristics, and his arrogance occasionally results in his belittling of others. Much of this, however, is really a reflection of his deep-seated insecurity. As the group draws closer to Narnia, Bree is increasingly concerned that he won’t act like talking horses are supposed to act, and once the plot has resolved, this insecurity actually makes him delay his return home. Ultimately, he meets Aslan and is changed by the experience, realizes the Great Lion for who he really is, and repents of his own pride and foolishness.

Hwin is probably the least-developed of the four, but is still differentiated. She is good-natured, sensible, and shy, and is in awe of Bree the war horse, but also shows her courage in speaking up, and as soon as she meets Aslan, is devoted to him:

“Please,” she said, “you’re so beautiful. You may eat me if you like. I’d sooner be eaten by you than fed by anyone else.”

“Dearest daughter,” said Aslan, planting a lion’s kiss on her twitching, velvet nose, “I knew you would not be long in coming to me. Joy shall be yours.” (215)

There are other minor characters who are important to the plot of HHB, but not emphasized much.

The Tisroc is the ruler of Calormen. He is cruel and calculating. He allows his son, Rabadash, to mount a secret invasion of Archenland in hopes of overthrowing Narnia. The Tisroc reasons that if Rabadash is successful, it will be beneficial to Carlormen, and if he is killed, it will eliminate a rival for the throne. For his part, Rabadash is rash and foolhardy—his plan to invade Narnia is partially generated by Queen Susan spurning his romantic advances.

Susan and King Edmund make an appearance in Tashbaan, where Shasta meets them (they mistake him for his twin brother Corin, though neither they nor we realize they are twins at the time). They are visiting Calormen in the first place because Rabadash has asked Susan to marry him. She has no desire to, and they end up sneaking out of town, fearful of the intentions of their hosts. Queen Lucy also makes an appearance when she, along with Edmund and a cohort of other Narnians arrive to give aid to their allies in Archenland.

Overall, the Penvensie children are minor characters in HHB, but they are still crucial to the plot, and Edmund has opportunity to utter one of my favorite lines of the book, which is a clear reference to the events of LWW:

“Your Majesty would have a perfect right to strike off his head,” said Peridan. “Such an assault as he made puts him on a level with assassins.”

“It is very true,” said Edmund. “But even a traitor may mend. I have known one that did.”

And he looked very thoughtful. (230)

As always, Aslan is of supreme importance to the book. In HHB, none of the main characters really know him. Bree has heard of him and repeatedly says things like, “By the Lion’s Mane,” but doesn’t know that Aslan is actually a lion. As a Calormene who grew up worshiping the god Tash, Aravis has heard only fearful things about Aslan. Shasta knows nothing about him at all. But Aslan is still a central character in the story, calling out to Shasta and his companions and driving them along their journey (see more below under Theology), and in meeting him, all four of the central characters experience significant transformation.

Characters: 9/10

Worldcraft

HHB stands out in The Chronicles of Narnia because it significantly expands and fleshes out the map of the world of Narnia. Specifically, HHB gives us a detailed portrayal of Calormen, a briefer description of Archenland, and the desert in between the two.

The focus of much of the book is on the people and land of Calormen, and especially its capital city, Tashbaan.[1] Shasta is overwhelmed by what he sees:

At first Shasta could see nothing in the valley below him but a sea of mist with a few domes and pinnacles rising from it; but as the light increased and the mist cleared away he saw more and more. A broad river divided itself into two streams and on the island between them stood the city of Tashbaan, one of the wonders of the world. Round the very edge of the island, so that the water lapped against the stone, ran high walls strengthened with so many towers that he soon gave up trying to count them. Inside the walls the island rose in a hill and every bit of that hill, up to the Tisroc’s palace and the great temple of Tash as the top, was completely covered with buildings—terrace above terrace, street above street, zigzag roads or huge flights of steps bordered with orange trees and lemon trees, roof-gardens, balconies, deep archways, pillared colonnades, spires, battlements, minarets, pinnacles. And when at last the sun rose out of the sea and the great silver-plated dome of the temple flashed back its light, he was almost dazzled. (53-54)

Inside, the city is hot (the heat of Calormen is emphasized to the degree that I could feel it while reading) and crowded, but Shasta remains impressed with it. Further descriptions of fruit trees, watered gardens, silk-curtained litters, and palace corridors add to the mystique of the place. In my estimation, the level of creative detail is unmatched elsewhere in The Chronicles.

The description of the tombs, the desperate trek through the desert, the narrow gorge into Archenland and the description of mountainous country add to the already impressive worldcraft of HHB. Like no other book in the series (even Dawn Treader), HHB creates a vivid world that the reader can easily visualize and experience.

Worldcraft: 10/10

Theology

As much as I enjoyed HHB, theology represented its weakest sub-score on my rubric.

Late in his life, C.S. Lewis wrote a letter in which he provided a brief overview of The Chronicles from a spiritual perspective. Describing HHB, he said it was about “the calling and conversion of a heathen,”[2] and this makes sense, as the missionary nature of Aslan shines through clearly. Aslan seeks out Shasta and Aravis, nudges them together, aids them on their journey and, ultimately, reveals himself to them:

“Don’t you think it was bad luck to meet so many lions?” said Shasta.

“There was only one lion,” said the Voice.

“What on earth do you mean? I’ve just told you there were at least two the first night, and—”

“There was only one: but he was swift of foot.”

“How do you know?”

“I was the lion.” And as Shasta gaped with open mouth and said nothing, the Voice continued. “I was the lion who forced you to join with Aravis. I was the cat who comforted you among the houses of the dead. I was the lion who drove the jackals from you while you slept. I was the lion who gave the Horses the new strength of fear for the last mile so that you should reach King Lune in time. And I was the lion you do not remember who pushed the boat in which you lay, a child near death, so that it came to shore where a man sat, wakeful at midnight, to receive you.” (175-76)

All along the way, even from Shasta’s infancy, Aslan was there, behind the scenes, orchestrating circumstances and providing nudges that would lead Shasta to himself. As Shasta says of Aslan late in the book:

“…he seems to be at the back of all the stories” (222-23)

Clearly, then, it is not just Narnians who are loved and called by Aslan. He calls Archenlandians and Calormenes as well, which reflects the biblical motif of a God who loves all people and seeks to bring blessing to all nations through Abraham and his descendants.

And when Aslan does reveal himself to Shasta after staying in the background for so long, the exchange brings chills (and, to me, evoked echoes of God’s interaction with Elijah in 1 Kings 19):

“Who are you?” asked Shasta.

“Myself,” said the Voice, very deep and low so that the earth shook: and again “Myself,” loud and clear and gay: and then the third time “Myself,” whispered so softly you could hardly hear it, and yet it seemed to come from all round you as if the leaves rustled with it.

Shasta was no longer afraid that the Voice belonged to something that would eat him, nor that it was the voice of a ghost. But a new and different sort of trembling came over him. Yet he felt glad too. (176)

The conversion motif plays out clearly in the book, as it applies not only to Shasta, but each of the four main characters who are transformed after meeting Aslan (as described above).[3]

Theology: 8/10

A 36/40 is a really high mark; this would be a 5-star rating on Amazon. What’s more impressive than that is how much HHB climbed in my estimation: prior to this read-through, I think it may have been my 6th favorite (out of 7); it is certainly higher than that now. Also, with a 10/10 in the Worldcraft category, HHB earned the second Perfect 10 that I awarded to any of the books (I gave LWW a 10/10  in Theology).


[1]Lewis has long been accused of racism for his portrayal of the Calormenes in The Chronicles of Narnia. I don’t fully intend to go into that here, but I think those accusations are at least partially misguided. Clearly Lewis portrays Calormen in generally negative terms, but a strong argument could be made that this is based not upon their race, but rather their allegiance to the false god, Tash, which leads to negative characteristics (for example, their cruelty and violence).

We could also talk about the fact that Lewis does not universally portray the Calormenes in a negative light (Aravis is an example of this), and that humans in general are frequently portrayed negatively in Narnia (such as the Telmarines in Prince Caspian). But perhaps the most fundamental question is whether or not we can truly call descriptions of an imaginary people group “racist”: as the imaginative creator of this nation, why would Lewis’s depiction be considered racist rather than an accurate description of the thing he created?

And, finally, we could point out that the word “racist” as it is frequently used in contemporary discussion makes little sense in this context, as the Calormenes are hardly an oppressed people group. Rather, the Calormen Empire seems to represent the strongest force in the world of Narnia, and is bent upon the conquering and subjugation of other nations. So, it would seem that the word “prejudiced” would better fit in the accusations against Lewis here, but I still think that is a problematic term for the reasons described above.

[2]Paul Ford, Companion to Narnia: Revised Edition (San Franciso: HarperCollins, 2005): 6.

[3]One commentator sees significant similarities to Moses in the character of Shasta:

  • Shasta and Moses were both sent away from their families at birth.
  • Both babies were found floating in water: Moses was found in a basket on the Nile (with his protective sister hiding nearby), and Shasta was found in a boat in the ocean (with a dead Archenlandian knight who had been his protector).
  • Both turned away from the country in which they were raised: Shasta from Calormen, Moses from Egypt.
  • Both turned out to be saviors of their true countries: Shasta of Archenland, Moses of Israel.

Of course, there is a significant difference as well: “In one aspect, the roles of Shasta and Moses are reversed: Moses was raised in nobility and wealth and eventually became a shepherd. Shasta was raised in a poor fisherman’s home, and eventually became a King (although Moses also eventually became the leader of the Israelite nation).”

I haven’t fully thought this through, but I think the similarities are striking.

Ranking The Chronicles of Narnia, Part 2: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe

Last week, I began the process of scoring and ranking C.S. Lewis’s masterpiece, The Chronicles of Narnia.

I am scoring each book using a rubric with four different categories: story, characters, worldcraft, and theology. For each category, I will provide a subscore of 1-10, yielding a cumulative maximum score of 40 points.

In the first post, I ranked The Magician’s Nephew, and explained that I would be following the chronological order of the books (even though I don’t consider that to be the best order in which to read the books), which means that this week, I will be ranking The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (or LWW).

The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe

This is from a series of brilliant Narnia cover designs by Jeffrey Nguyen

Story

This is the book that started it all, introducing us to the world of Narnia and the Pevensie children. Despite this, the book doesn’t get bogged down in introductory material—Lucy is already in Narnia before the end of the first chapter, and the character of the White Witch and the menace she represents has already been revealed in chapter two.

It then takes a few chapters to get the rest of the Pevensie children into Narnia (including Edmund’s misadventure where he meets the Witch and becomes her ally), where they soon meet Mr. Beaver, who tells them:

They say Aslan is on the move—perhaps has already landed. (74)

This simple statement represents a key plot device in LWW: the building anticipation of the arrival of Aslan, who will not actually appear for several more chapters.[1] In the meantime, several signs begin to indicate that the Witch’s icy hold on Narnia is weakening.

Once Aslan does arrive, things move quickly: in a retelling of the biblical story, Aslan willingly gives himself to the Witch in order to redeem the treacherous Edmund. His mane is cut off in shameful fashion, and then he is killed by the Witch, who assumes that she has been victorious. But…Aslan returns to life. I will reflect on this further in the theology section below, but for me, this is a phenomenal retelling of the gospel story. I didn’t read the Narnia books as a child, so I am not sure what my reaction would have been there, but as a college student, this series of events brought me to tears and, then, to praise.

Following his resurrection, Aslan the Pevensie children, and the Narnians loyal to him quickly overwhelm the Witch and her forces. Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy are enthroned as kings and queens of Narnia, and “live happily ever after” for many years before returning home to England.

Story: 9/10

Characters

The main characters of LWW are the four Pevensie children, Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy, and despite the fact that they frequently have to share the stage with one another, each is well developed. Peter is the big brother, a natural leader who is courageous and looks out for his siblings, but can be stubborn at times. Susan is practical, motherly, and gentle, but tends to boss around her siblings. Edmund comes across as churlish and selfish, while ultimately manifesting great potential for growth and change. Lucy, the youngest of all, is most faithful in her devotion to Aslan and possesses great bravery herself, but is also somewhat naive.

The Professor (Digory Kirke from The Magician’s Nephew) plays a minor but important role in LWW, as it is his house where the Pevensies are staying when they encounter the wardrobe that serves as a portal to Narnia, and his encouragement that opens the older Pevensie children to the possibility of other worlds.

Upon entering Narnia, Lucy encounters Mr. Tumnus the Faun, with whom she establishes a quick and deep bond. Tumnus features in the story mainly to introduce us to the White Witch and the power she has exerted over Narnia. The fear and sense of dread that this produces increases when the children return and find Mr. Tumnus missing and his home destroyed.

Mr. and Mrs. Beaver serve to guide the four children in Narnia, to keep them safe from the White Witch, and, ultimately, lead them to Aslan. It is they who provide some of the most famous dialogue about Aslan:

“Don’t you know who is the King of Beasts? Aslan is a lion—the Lion, the great Lion.”

“Ooh!” said Susan, “I’d thought he was a man. Is he—quite safe? I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion.”

“That you will, dearie, and no mistake,” said Mrs. Beaver; “if there’s anyone who can appear before Aslan without their knees knocking, they’re either braver than most or else just silly.”

“Then he isn’t safe?” said Lucy.

“Safe?” said Mr. Beaver; “don’t you hear what Mrs. Beaver tells you? Who said anything about safe? ’Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.” (86)

The White Witch, Jadis, Queen of Charn in The Magician’s Nephew, is the villainess of Narnia. When we meet her in LWW, she has held Narnia in a 100-year reign of terror, characterized by a never-ending winter. Compared to her appearance in MN, the White Witch is significantly more frightening in LWW: she is cruel, manipulative, and powerful, and no longer is she on her own—now in control of Narnia, she has amassed her own wicked army to support her. When, in exchange for Edmund’s freedom, she captures and kills Aslan, it seems that all hope is lost.

As mentioned previously, much of the plot of LWW revolves around the anticipation of the appearance of Aslan, which is forecasted fairly early on by Mr. Beaver, but does not come to fruition until many chapters later. His portrayal here is even better than in MN. He is mysterious, powerful, forgiving, severe, and wise. He is not safe, but he is good. Lewis repeatedly insisted that LWW was not an allegory, but Aslan is clearly a Christ-figure,[2] and, from my perspective, the Aslanic depiction of Jesus in LWW is as good as any interpretation I have seen outside of the gospels themselves.

Characters: 9.5/10

Worldcraft

In MN, we are given a picture of Narnia at its inception, but that picture is fleshed out more fully in LWW. When Lucy first enters Narnia, it is covered in snow, frozen in the curse of the Witch’s 100-year winter. This unending winter is the dominant feature of Narnia in LWW, and is a powerful metaphor for the Witch herself: while Aslan, full of creative vitality, sings worlds into existence and causes the onset of spring with His presence, the Witch is capable of none of this creative potential. All she can do is spread a cold lifelessness: we see this in the world of Charn in MN, the never-ending winter in LWW, and her preferred punishment of turning her enemies into frozen, lifeless statues. Her castle is cold, austere, and lifeless, and is a reflection of herself.

Edmund, the traitor who falls under the Witch’s influence, feels the cold keenly. He freezes while riding around with the Witch, and when he slinks away from the Beavers’ residence to report to her, it is an interminable, freezing journey.

For the other children, the cold is less of an ordeal. They seek refuge in the warm company of friends: Lucy with Mr. Tumnus, and then all the children (other than Edmund) enjoy their time in the Beavers’ home atop the dam. When they realize that Edmund has betrayed them, they begin their journey to meet Aslan at the Stone Table, but their journey is more pleasant than Edmund’s, as winter thaws all around them and spring emerges.

We are briefly introduced to the castle at Cair Pairavel and other aspects of the Narnian realm in the “happily ever after” portion of the narrative, but this is more of a footnote to the Narnia that comprises the majority of the tale.

Worldcraft: 8.5/10

Theology

LWW is an enjoyable book, but it is in this category that it truly shines. Of course, it is set up to do so, since its theological focus is on the crucifixion and resurrection,[3] but there are so many good theological elements throughout.

I already mentioned above the famous quotation about Aslan being good but not safe, which is a powerful reminder to Christians about the God that we serve. We live in a moment in history where safety and protection are valued so highly that I think it is important to remember that Scripture consistently reflects a God who is not “safe” and who calls us to follow Him regardless of what risks may come. This is part of the cost of discipleship.

A related idea occurs near the end of the book, and is also stated by Mr. Beaver (Mr. Beaver proves to be an excellent theologian):

But amid all these rejoicings Aslan himself quietly slipped away. And when the Kings and Queens noticed that he wasn’t there they said nothing about it. For Mr. Beaver had warned them, “He’ll be coming and going,” he had said. “One day you’ll see him and another you won’t. He doesn’t like being tied down—and of course he has other countries to attend to. It’s quite all right. He’ll often drop in. Only you mustn’t press him. He’s wild, you know. Not like a tame lion.” (200)

God often shows up in unexpected and unpredictable ways. At times we seek to domesticate Him and clearly delineate what He will and will not do, and the ways He will and will not act, but His ways are higher than our ways. And that is a very good thing: a domesticated God would not be worth serving.

The character of Edmund and his interaction with the Witch and with Aslan offers profound theological insight. Initially, Edmund sides with the evil Witch and disaster is the result. He craves the Witch’s Turkish Delight and enjoys eating it while he has it, but as soon as it is gone, he is unsatisfied. He is left feeling sticky and sick, but still wanting more. What a true picture of sin! Ultimately, Edmund is enslaved to the Witch, which is another very real picture of what sin does to us: it enslaves.

When Edmund comes to know Aslan for himself, it changes everything (including the way he views himself), and we have a powerful picture of God’s grace:

As soon as they had breakfasted they all went out, and there they saw Aslan and Edmund walking together in the dewy grass, apart from the rest of the court. There is no need to tell you (and no one ever heard) what Aslan was saying, but it was a conversation which Edmund never forgot. As the others drew nearer Aslan turned to meet them, bringing Edmund with him.

“Here is your brother,” he said, “and—there is no need to talk to him about what is past.” (152-153)

“You have a traitor there, Aslan” said the Witch. Of course everyone present knew that she meant Edmund. But Edmund had got past thinking about himself after all he’d been through and after the talk he’d had that morning. He just went on looking at Aslan. It didn’t seem to matter what the Witch said. (p. 155)

Once we are in Christ, it no longer matters what accusations the Evil One hurls against us.

In his depiction of Aslan’s “crucifixion,” Lewis employs a Christus Victor[4] understanding of the atonement, where Jesus brings about God’s victory of Satan and the forces of evil. The cross is, in a sense, a sort of trap, where it appears that Jesus has been defeated, only to reveal His ultimate victory when He is raised from the dead. Aslan explains it like this:

“…though the Witch knew the Deep Magic, there is a magic deeper still which she did not know. Her knowledge goes back only to the dawn of Time. But if she could have looked a little further back, into the stillness and the darkness before Time dawned, she would have read a different incantation. She would have known that when a willing victim who had committed no treachery was killed in a traitor’s stead, the Table would crack and Death itself would start working backwards.” (178-79)

Other echoes of the gospel story are powerfully re-cast, from Susan and Lucy staying near to Aslan in a Gethsemane-like scene, to the shame Aslan endures as his mane is shaved, or the Stone Table being split open.

After Aslan’s resurrection, he reanimates a host of Narnians who had been turned to stone by the Witch, and then they join in the battle between the Witch’s army and the forces led by Peter. When Aslan enters the fray and confronts the Witch, he immediately overwhelms her. It’s not even close. This gives us another powerful reminder of a core belief of Christianity. God, through Jesus, overwhelmingly conquers Satan, sin, and death. Christianity is not a dualistic religion, where equally-weighted forces of good and evil are locked in a never-ending struggle. Satan is powerful, but God is all-powerful. It is not a close thing. This reality is foreshadowed earlier by a conversation between the Pevensie children and Mr. Beaver:

“Who is Aslan?” asked Susan.

“Aslan?” said Mr. Beaver. “Why, don’t you know? He’s the king. He’s the Lord of the whole wood, but not often here you understand. Never in my time or my father’s time. But the word has reached us that he has come back. He is in Narnia at this moment. He’ll settle the White Queen all right. It is he, not you, that will save Mr. Tumnus.”

“She won’t turn him into stone too?” said Edmund.

“What a simple thing to say!” answered Mr. Beaver with a great laugh. “Turn him to stone? If she can stand on her two feet and look him in the face it’ll be the most she had do and more than I expect of her.” (85)

Theology: 10/10

A 37/40 is really high praise from me; if I were rating this book on somewhere like Amazon where I had to give 1 to 5 stars and could only choose whole numbers, it would unquestionably merit a 5-star rating. And, with a 10/10 in the Theology category, LWW earned one of only two Perfect 10’s that I awarded to any of the books.


[1]The way that Aslan is introduced and then anticipated in LWW is one of several reasons why it should be read first, rather than The Magician’s Nephew (MN). It makes no sense to introduce Aslan to readers in this way if they have already read MN, and the introduction he receives in MN is inadequate if you don’t already know who he is.

[2]In Lewis’s own words: “If Aslan represented the immaterial Deity, he would be an allegorical figure. In reality however he is an invention giving an imaginary answer to the question, ‘What might Christ become like if there really were a world like Narnia and He chose to be incarnate and die and rise again in that world as He actually has done in ours?’”

[3]Paul Ford, Companion to Narnia: Revised Edition (San Franciso: HarperCollins, 2005): 6.

[4]For an excellent read on atonement theories (including Christus Victor) in LWW, see Matt Mikalotos, “Why Did Aslan Have to Die? Theories of Atonement in Narnia.

Ranking The Chronicles of Narnia

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.[1]

The Rubric

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

This is from a series of brilliant Narnia cover designs by Jeffrey Nguyen

Having introduced the rubric, I’ll conclude this post by applying it to the first book in the series, The Magician’s Nephew:[2]

Story

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.[3]

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.

Story: 5/10

Characters

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.

Characters: 7/10

Worldcraft

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.

Worldcraft: 7/10

Theology

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).[4]

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)

Theology: 8.5/10

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.


[1] Definitive, according to me.

[2] 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.

[3] 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.

[4] 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.

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