Fiction Review: C.S. Lewis' The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe

My gateway into fantasy literature was not, as seems standard for my generation, The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings but rather C.S. Lewis' The Chronicles of Narnia, of which The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe is the first novel.

I'm not 100% certain but I believe I may have watched the 1979 animated version of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe prior to reading it for the first time. I do remember the Narnia novels displayed prominently in the children's section of my local branch of the Brooklyn Public Library.

So to start, lets talk a bit about The Chronicles of Narnia. They are a series of seven juvenile fantasy novels, originally published in the 1950s, telling tales of children from our world who visit the magical land or Narnia. Narnia is a land of talking beasts and fantasy creatures, where a Son of Adam or Daughter of Eve is meant to sit on the throne of Narnia. By that terminology one can quickly see the novels have a religious component and indeed Lewis intended them to be a sort of alternate Christianity, a Christian world where the Christ-figure is a mighty lion. To be honest, it took me some time as a child to catch onto the allegory - I originally read them for tales of a fantastic realm and to dream of the possibility of visiting my own Narnia.

The novels take place over a wide span of time in Narnia, ranging from its creation to its ending. Like many series, the order of the books take place in does not match the order in which they were published. The current publisher, Harper Collins, has been publishing them in chronological order, something I think is a mistake. In this order, The Magician's Nephew, detailing the creation of Narnia, is the first book in the series, despite being the sixth published. However, as a prequel, it refers to events that take place in the first published novel, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. This is typical of prequels and due to this I almost always prefer to read a series in the order it was originally published.

Narrowing our discussion down to The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, let us take a brief look at the novel itself. It deals with four siblings, from oldest to youngest being Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy. They are sent to live with an old professor within an enormous house to keep them safe from the London Blitz, currently taking place.

In exploring the house, Lucy finds an enchanted wardrobe which takes her to Narnia. It is a realm where it is always winter (and never Christmas) and ruled by an evil witch. Returning to the wardrobe, she is surprised to find no time has passed in our world, despite being in Narnia for several hours. She is disappointed that none of her siblings believe her tale. Interestingly, the professor is portrayed as a reasonable authority figure - when Lucy's siblings discuss Lucy's wild tale with him, he urges them to consider the possibility, even probability, that she is indeed telling the truth.

Of course the siblings all find their way into Narnia together and find themselves against the White Witch who has been on the watch for "sons of Adam" and "daughters of Eve". One of the siblings actually winds up in the witch's camp. Over the course of the novel we are told that Aslan is returning and the spell of winter begins to break up (though not before it is Christmas, a Christmas where the children receive some rather cool items to aid them in their quest, items which I've seen appear in the occasional D&D game).

With the help of Aslan the great lion (and lots of Christian allegory), our heroes fight the forces of the White Witch to put sons of Adam and daughters of Eve on the thrones of Narnia.

How is the actual book? And does it hold up to adult reading? It's a difficult question for me to read. As one of my favorite books of my childhood, it's hard for me to answer it analytically, but I'll make an attempt. The first thing I notice is it follows a trend of a lot of fantasy and science fiction of its day in having characters from our world visit other worlds. It's a useful narrative technique as it allows the introduction of a world from the perspective of characters who are not familiar with it. I found it especially effective in Narnia as it allows the reader to share in the wonder the characters feel.

As an adult one notices a bit of deus ex machina in the resolution of the story such that it seems our human protagonists have much (though certainly not all of) the challenges resolved for them. However as a Christian allegory that is perhaps not all that surprising and one could even argue for its appropriateness.

Does it work for a non-Christian? I suppose that depends on one's attitude toward Christianity. For adults the allegory is hard to miss and for someone who is hostile to Christianity I would imagine it would be a rather frustrating work to read, though I know atheists who have been able to enjoy it for the story. This shouldn't be in the least surprising - I've found enjoyment in reading tales that presuppose beliefs that are not my own. Also though a Christian allegory, there is a danger in viewing everything about it through that lens. Not everything is a one to one mapping to Christian tales and Alsan does not do everything for our heroes. They have to make their own decisions and one has to face up to making a grievous mistake. There are elements inspired not from Christian tales of our world but from those of other beliefs for example both in this work and in others in this series there is a heavy dose of Greek mythology to be found.

Moving away from our discussion of the written work I'd like to give a few thoughts to its interior art. In the first American version I read each chapter began with an illustration by Pauline Baynes, with the British version having more of her artwork. I found her artwork to be deceptively simple - at first glance it looked like a simple sketch but they are more than what they appear to be, imparting, at least for me, as strong feel and being rich in detail.


  1. Like you, this was my intro to fantasy literature. I didn't get around to Tolkien until late in High School!

    I think it still impacts how I look at D&D.


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