The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe: Classic

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsbook review The Chronicles of Narnia The Lion, The Witch and the WardrobeThe Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis

How does one review this book? Everyone knows about it, everyone has an opinion on it and not everybody likes it. Any discussion on the matter seems somewhat redundant. Deemed controversial because of its religious connotations, adored by millions of readers young and old, the subject of hundreds of different interpretations and now the focus of a blockbuster movie (with sequels still to come), it doesn’t seem the “Lion, Witch and Wardrobe” debate will end any time soon.

The four Pevensie siblings are evacuated to the country estate of Professor Kirke during World War II: responsible Peter, worrisome Susan, sullen Edmund and imaginative Lucy. During a game of hide-and-seek Lucy creeps into an old apple-wood wardrobe, pushing aside heavy fur coats, and “a moment later she was standing in the middle of a wood at night time with snow under her feet and snowflakes falling through the air.” Befriending a faun named Mr Tumnus, Lucy learns of her new situation: she’s in the land of Narnia, which has been ruled over for a hundred years by an evil White Witch who has made it eternal winter, but never Christmas. But Lucy’s coming may portend a change in Narnia; it has long been prophesied that when two Sons of Adam and two Daughters of Eve (that is, humans) sit on the thrones of Cair Paravel it will herald an end to winter and the coming of the great “Aslan”.

But first Lucy has to convince her siblings of the reality of Narnia, especially tricky considering the attitude of Edmund who is determined to ridicule his younger sister. His mind is instantly changed when he follows Lucy into the wardrobe for a second time — but meets up with the White Witch herself. Entranced by the taste of her magical Turkish Delight, Edmund is soon convinced that his best course of action is to lure all his siblings into her power so that he might be made her son and heir.

Once Peter and Susan discover the secret of the wardrobe, the story really starts to roll. Discovering that Mr Tumnus has been captured by agents of the White Witch, the siblings make the acquaintance of two talking beavers shortly before Edmund sneaks out in order to defect to the Witch’s side. Desperate to get their brother back (as nasty as he is), Peter, Susan and Lucy agree to accompany the beavers to where Aslan is said to have set up an army to combat the Witch…

There is a lot of debate over the correct reading order of these books, whether they should be read in chronological or publishing order (in which The Lion comes either first or second). Technically, I don’t think it really matters (heck, I read The Silver Chair first), but if you want to make the effort then I recommend that The Lion is read first, considering the nature and identity of Aslan is kept mysterious throughout the first half of the book in order to build suspense for those new to Narnia. What may not be known to the new reader (if there are any left that is), is that The Lion is surprisingly short. The story speeds by at a cracking pace, and so is accessible to a young audience, especially since Lewis himself is a heavy presence within the narrative, often addressing the reader directly to explain, elaborate or shift the scene.

As of late, The Chronicles of Narnia have been under some critical scrutiny, accused of sexism, racism and heavy religious propaganda. Yikes! That’s heavy stuff for a children’s book! Fellow British fantasy-writer Philip Pullman in particular has made stinging attacks on the Narnia books, but how bad are they really? Well, there’s sure to be some frustration over the fact Susan and Lucy receive weapons as gifts before being instructed not to use them in battle since “battles are ugly when women fight”; never mind the fact that Peter and Edmund (both children) are perfectly able to hack their way through enemy ranks.

But that’s not even opening the discussion of the religious content. Just how Christian is Narnia? In my opinion; as Christian as you want it to be. For me personally, it was several years before I realised the religious connotations at work within the novel and the book can certainly be enjoyed by readers who have no spiritual convictions whatsoever. That being said, it is undeniable that Lewis drew on his own belief system to establish certain story-points, most clearly seen in the sacrifice and resurrection scene that is the centrepiece of the novel. Yet one shouldn’t consider Narnia as in any way allegorical; Lewis himself preferred to call it “suppositional”. Aslan doesn’t represent Christ; he is Christ as he might exist in another world where he is called upon to take a similar (but not identical) course of action as he was in this world. Other elements; such as Mr Tumnus or the Turkish Delight have no allegorical purpose at all — they serve the story and cater to Lewis’s imagination — it’s as simple as that.

Read into the content any way you want, since the way in which the story is told is beautifully done. Lewis was the master of unforgettable imagery; whether it be the contrasting colours of red lips, white skin and black hair of the witch, four children crowned as monarchs, a faun scurrying through the woods with an umbrella and scarf, and what is perhaps the most widely recognised scene in children’s literature: a lamp-post glowing softly in the darkness of a snow-covered wood. Drawing on a range of mythological creatures (from Roman nymphs and fauns, Norwegian dwarfs, talking animals and even a cameo from Father Christmas), the land of Narnia doesn’t come anywhere near the detail and workmanship of Tolkien’s Middle-Earth, and yet has a charm and beauty all of its own. Lewis’s vivid detail and wonderful invention of a land and its inhabitants are followed through in the sequels, and in my humble opinion it is one of the most beautifully-realised subworlds ever created.

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REBECCA FISHER, with us since January 2008, earned a Masters degree in literature at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand. Her thesis included a comparison of how C.S. Lewis and Philip Pullman each use the idea of mankind’s Fall from Grace to structure the worldviews presented in their fantasy series. Rebecca is a firm believer that fantasy books written for children can be just as meaningful, well-written and enjoyable as those for adults, and in some cases, even more so. Rebecca lives in New Zealand. She is the winner of the 2015 Sir Julius Vogel Award for Best SFF Fan Writer.

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