Better late than never, or #Narniathon21 finally coming to Reenchantment

When Chris announced the great re-read of Lewis’s classic series for children back in 2020, I was a vocal supporter of the idea. I wanted to revisit Narnia for some time, having read all of the books at least twice over the period of some twenty years, and wanted to check if the ambivalent feelings of my former encounters would still dominate my reading.

But life intervened, and while other Narniathoners are already reading The Voyage of the Dawn Treader in preparation for the February 25th discussion, I’m here, discussing The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe in conjunction with Prince Caspian. Well, better late than never πŸ˜‰

I’ll be frank: Narnia seems to be a much more divisive fantasy classic than, say, Tolkien’s Hobbit, or Nesbitt’s Five Children and It. Many people scoff at it, many try to criticize it through their own work, the angry half-pastiches and half-rebuttals of Pullman and Grossman coming to mind. Yes, Narnia is simplistic. It doesn’t allow for any grey areas; all is easily – and sternly – morally judged, the sins punished, virtue rewarded. There’s no allowance for mistakes, and not much room for repentance, as poor Edmund can testify. His transgression, after all quite small, requires in the end a godly intervention, and a sea of blood. (Indeed, Lewis is quite bloodthirsty in the two first books; and the very traditional gender divisions are not helping much in dispelling the sense that we’re reading a boy’s fantasy).

Written clearly for a younger audience, The Chronicles of Narnia nevertheless focus on topics that require a good deal of consideration. Lewis never pretended that his series is anything but apology of Christianity, or a thought experiment on its merits, at least from the philosophical perspective. But at the same time, Narnia is a fantastic world filled with fantastic creatures spawned in different ages and cultures, from nature spirits to mythological creatures such as centaurs and fauns and pegasi, to dwarves and talking animals, to Father Christmas/Odin and an alien conquering witch (!). What I’m trying to say is that Narnia can be more complex and more ambivalent if you allow it to be: even the Christlike figure of the lion Aslan seems to inherit more than his fair share of the pagan tradition of Adonis’s spring ressurection. Lewis more than most knew how much Middle Ages owed to the culture and thought to ancient Greece and particularly Rome; how old traditions were slowly banalized, bastardized, and half-forgotten, yet still upheld, keeping the flame alive.

And while Lewis’s prose is clunky and plodding, and his treatment of female characters (Susan!) had been throuroughly lambasted by others, and rightly, his fantastic ideas and his enthusiasm and love for the recaptured childhood imagery are contagious. I absolutely love the concept of a portal leading to another world; as a kid, I have dutifully checked the backs of my share of suitably looking wardrobes and peered at many a tree, wondering if a driad might sleep inside. I find Lewis’s quite paganic reverence for the forces of nature very endearing, and very evocative. His whimsically Victorian characters of the faun Mr. Tumnus, hurrying through the forest with an umbrella and a load of packages, or the hedge knight Reepicheep (less comical in my opinion than Lewis would have liked ;)) are stamped into my memory – not in the least because of the lovely illustrations of Pauline Baynes.

And I feel that’s the lasting heritage of Lewis: the earnestness and flamboyance of his imagination, borrowing with abandon and without shame from many cultures, many times, and many places, creating a world like no other. His characters are mostly one-dimensional, his attempts at humor work best when he’s not trying, and his vision of life’s choices is forcefully simplistic, as if he’s trying to talk down to his readers, afraid they wouldn’t understand otherwise. But Narnia still holds enough of the childhood magic and enjoyment to engender harsh critiques, blockbuster movies, and instill in the readers the need to choose a side ;). Can there be a higher compliment, or a stronger proof that Lewis’s work lives on? πŸ˜‰

19 thoughts on “Better late than never, or #Narniathon21 finally coming to Reenchantment

  1. After reading this and other bloggers’ contributions to Chris’s event, I’ve gotten confirmation of something I’ve suspected for years: that a reader’s response to Narnia depends on the age of first entry into Lewis’s magical realm. I have no memory of reading any of these books before the age of 25, so I suspect I missed the right time. I can see the appeal (and I do remember friends raving about Narnia when I was young), but I got there too late. I’ve read the series, twice, and still have the books, but I doubt I’ll pick any of them up again.
    But — and this is important — I also got to Nesbit and Aiken and other classic fantasy authors well after my teens, yet I felt as if those books had been written just for me.

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    1. I think you are right, Lizzie: I’m sure I’d have been much less forgiving had I not read Narnia as a kid. Even then I had my reservations, but the world created by Lewis captured my imagination and some part of the magic remains. For me, this is exactly what happened with regards to Nesbit and Aiken: I have read them as an adult, and while I can perceive the appeal of these books, it remains a sort of theoretical knowledge πŸ˜‰

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    1. A mystery indeed! πŸ˜€ Perhaps you’ve read them before the spreadsheet times! I’d say the first three and Magician and his Nephew are the best – though opinions vary wildly πŸ˜‰

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    1. Thank you, carol.!
      It was easier to wax nostalgic about the first two books – I’m afraid I’ll have nothing good to say about Last Battle, or The Horse and His Boy πŸ˜‰ Though my continuous favorite is The Magician’s Nephew, so I don’t think it’s a chronology problem πŸ˜‰

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  2. Welcome aboard! It’s never too late to embark on the good ship Narnia, and to do so with eyes open to strengths as well as shortcomings! I can’t and won’t disagree with anything you say here — but I do hope you’ll join in with the discussion on the VDT at the end of the month. I’ve just struggled with the crass opening castigating Eustace Stubbs’s family set-up; he did something similar in the opening paragraph of That Hideous Strength, ultimately getting the female protagonist to agree to be ‘obedient’ to her husband. Ho hum. But now islands! Adventures! Dragons! The open sea! 😁

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    1. I will happily join you, Chris, in the discussion! Voyage is interesting particularly from the perspective of slow attrition of the Pevensies and how the older children are substituted by newcomers. There’s some great imagery in this one, and high seas are always welcome, but – forgive me for saying this – I feel that the magic is leaking out and there’s less and less of it in the subsequent tomes πŸ˜‰ Still, VDT is an enjoyable journey!

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  3. A Narnia group read and discuss sounds wonderful. I’d also like to reread the series one day.
    Great review though. I really think it’s these books (and probably Blyton’s as well) that made me develop a soft spot for portal fantasy.

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    1. Do join in Zezee! πŸ˜€ The discussion on The Voyage of the Dawn Treader will take place on Chris’s blog on the 25th Feb if I’m not much mistaken.

      Thanks! Yep, for me too it was a most memorable entry to portal fantasy! 😊

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  4. Nataliya

    I have never read any of Narnia books since I wasn’t sure they would appeal much to adult-me rather than kid-me. I’m a bit curious though, I must admit.

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    1. I think reading these books for the first time as an adult is a bit of a risky proposition – if you’re willing to overlook some outdates views on women, other races etc. and have some childish fun with it, it can really be a delight. Portal fantasy! Talking animals! Battles and witches! πŸ˜€ But – and I can’t believe I’m actually writing this – I think you may be better off starting with the movie with Tilda Swinton and James McAvoy πŸ˜€ If you like that, you’ll probably enjoy the books too 😁

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  5. “Childhood magic” is indeed the best element in this book (the only one I’ve read of the Narnia series), and it translated quite well in the movie too. Younger readers can appreciate that magic and let it carry them through the story, while the more mature ones cannot avoid some form of nitpicking or other… πŸ˜‰
    Personally, I’ve found that Lewis’ penchant for allegory weighted down his stories and robbed a grown-up reader of that very necessary magic element that could sweep them away as the novel intended.

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    1. Yeah, Narnia is a tough little nut – too much a product of its times, too much a forced allegory, and yet, and yet, it can still be charming at times and shine with some absolutely great ideas πŸ˜‰ I take it you’ve read it as an adult, Maddalena?

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      1. Yes, it was several years ago, when I also tried – and DNFed – Out of the Silent Planet: in my exploration of all things Tolkien, I had to sample Lewis’ works, but I’m afraid they did not work for me, mostly because of the heavy-handed allegory. Still, the remnants of the child still alive in this old crone’s soul πŸ˜€ did appreciate that magical quality that was at the roots of the Narnia stories…

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  6. Welcome to the Narniathon! Point taken about the response to Edmund’s transgression being way out of proportion; I’ve always thought the same thing. But this time a little side comment struck me, that he had started to go wrong at a “horrid school” (and Lewis knew a lot about those); imagine how awful a bad boarding school can be, and you can see why a mighty transformation was needed to put him to rights. Which in the end happened through his own courage and intelligence in the battle with the Witch, not through a deus ex machina, or not only that.

    Anyway, book 3 beckons and it’s lovely to have you along.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Lory! 😊

      Yes, “horrid school” can do immeasurable damage, and in the end Edmund was lucky to have Narnia adventures to put him straight again. What strikes me the most this time around however is that the Pevensie children lived their whole lives in Narnia, becoming adults and making adult decisions, and then suddenly returned to their childish bodies and childish concerns, with Narnia not much more than a dream. That must’ve been devastating, especially to the older two – the taste of power for Peter, and the allure of being an adult for Susan seem to have haunted them since.

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  7. Glad to see this series survive through your analysis! πŸ˜› I’ve read the first one as a kid but barely remember much of the adventure beyond a couple of characters and the good ol’ portal. You’ve definitely made me want to revisit this one properly sooner rather than later. Great thoughts, Ola! πŸ˜€

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    1. Heh, nostalgia is a powerful feeling πŸ˜‰ I still contend it’s a solid book, nevertheless – even (or maybe especially) kids who have no idea about the intricacies of Christianity can really enjoy it – the adult kids, too! πŸ˜‰

      Thanks, Lashaan! πŸ˜€

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