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Tag: The Chronicles of Narnia

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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