As is often the case, film versions of books, well-made or otherwise serve to cast a shadow upon those books to which they owe their inspiration. In some cases the author of the book is no doubt grateful to the film for popularizing his or her story, but there is a residue of disappointment that the book was unable to reach the number of people a film version reached. But C.S. Lewis can rest easy that his series of books known as The Chronicles of Narnia has sold 100 million copies in forty-seven languages, and did it before anyone got a notion to make a series of Narnia films.
I am happy that some beckoning tendril or flash of something led me to The Chronicles of Narnia at a time long before Hollywood got the gleam in its eye. Written for young children during the years 1949-1954, the books quickly captured an audience well beyond the children’s market, and anyone familiar with the seven books who tells you that they weren’t captivated by these books just might be be shading the truth.
The story is set in the fictional realm of Narnia, where four English children explore their rabbit hole, where animals talk, good battles evil, and magic is the coin of the realm. The children are a central part of the chronicle and through their eyes we see the unfolding history of the Narnian world. Lewis’s creation of this fantastical world inspired and shaped fantasy literature profoundly in the years after World War II. It is a world inspired by Roman, Greek and Turkish mythology, spiced by the imagination of English and Irish fairy tales and salted with a dash of Christian theology. Narnia is a magnificent creation, but how did the writer come to it? C.W. Lewis said it this way: “At first I had very little idea how the story would go. But then suddenly Aslan came bounding into it. I think I had been having a good many dreams of lions about that time. Apart from that, I don't know where the Lion came from or why he came. But once he was there, he pulled the whole story together, and soon he pulled the six other Narnian stories in after him.”
I first read the series in cheap issue paperbacks, pretty much devouring the seven in weekly installments. From beginning to end the unravelling of the story is an almost-Eden of allusion, parable, metaphor and symbolism, an architecture that Christian-minded readers make much of. There’s little doubt that the lion Aslan is a Christ figure throughout the story and that other metaphors align with Christian thought, but the writer had these remarks on that idea: “Some people seem to think that I began by asking myself how I could say something about Christianity to children; then fixed on the fairy tale as an instrument, then collected information about child psychology and decided what age group I’d write for; then drew up a list of basic Christian truths and hammered out ‘allegories’ to embody them. This is all pure moonshine. I couldn’t write in that way. It all began with images; a faun carrying an umbrella, a queen on a sledge, a magnificent lion. At first there wasn’t anything Christian about them; that element pushed itself in of its own accord.”
But I am not here to argue theology in The Chronicles of Narnia. The books stand as undoubted classics in whatever context you choose to read them. Only do read them if you have not yet had the pleasure. These are not books that story lovers pass up.
I finally passed on my cheap paperbacks and bought a large edition with all seven books included. It is the one pictured here, a Harper Collins 2000 edition, with the original illustrations by Pauline Baynes. For those interested first-time Narnia explorers much cheaper editions are available here.
There aren’t many—young or old—who put down the last of the chronicles without a feeling of deep satisfaction.