Fifty years ago today (November 22, 1963) C. S. Lewis died. In the week leading up to this anniversary, I’ve written a series of posts related to what I consider (if I may be permitted to characterize sevenvolumes as a single work) his magnum opus, the inimitable Chronicles of Narnia. In these seven posts, I have commemorated his life and work.
The final volume in Lewis’s stories for children, The Last Battle, begins in the land of Narnia with two characters. The first one Lewis introduces is Shift, an ape who disavows his species, insisting instead: “I’m a Man.”
Shift’s “friend” (who was “more like Shift’s servant”) is a dull but well-meaning donkey named Puzzle. The author’s choice in naming these two characters portends the ominous shift occurring in Narnia itself, a shift that confounds (puzzles) true Narnians. Continue reading “Coming Home At Last”→
Typically, writers disclose tidbits of information about themselves in everything they write. In The Magician’s Nephew, sixth volume in the Chronicles of Narnia, C. S. Lewis provides some of the most poignant clues about his life. He draws on his early life as the basis for the book’s main character, a boy named Digory Kirke.
[Yes, the dictionary.com entry uses prequel as one definition for backstory, but I consider prequel unsatisfactory in this instance. My opinion.]
The action in The Magician’s Nephew begins in London about 1900. The setting and time are familiar to C. S. Lewis (who was born in Belfast in 1898). The lonely child Digory is not unlike Shasta (in The Horse and His Boy). Digory bemoans his current awful circumstances − being displaced from country to city, being brought to live in the “beastly Hole” of London, and worst of all, bereft of his father (who’s in India) and desperately afraid his mother is dying. Digory would agree with Shasta: “I am the unluckiest person in the whole world.” (Yesterday’s post here.)
Don’t get me wrong. I can understand that children sometimes feel the weight of the world on their shoulders; uncertainty related to one’s parents must surely create unbearable angst at a time when children are least able to understand and manage it. My mother was only six when her daddy died, and like C. S. Lewis, she was packed off to boarding school six weeks later. I can’t imagine how hard that must have been for her, but I believe it built into her a depth of character and courage that marks her life today. Continue reading “The Lion Sings”→
Book five in the Chronicles of Narnia is titled The Horse and His Boy. This volume presents the reader with a vastly different adventure from the previous four books. Action takes place only in the Narnian world, no coming or going back to England. The Pevensies (having appeared in the four previous books) play a minor role here, while the first major character is a child named Shasta.
Three more major characters emerge quickly. First is Bree, a talking war-horse, Aravis, a young girl with status in Calormen, and Hwin, another talking horse (a mare). Almost immediately, one notices a symmetry to the main characters. Shasta rides on Bree and Aravis rides on Hwin. Such two-by-two symmetry persists at every turn.
The book begins with longing. “To Narnia and the North” is an oft-repeated refrain. While doing his chores, Shasta observes that “no one ever went north,” but that’s where he longs to go. Though he can’t articulate it, he has this irrepressible yearning in his soul for the north country. When Shasta meets Bree, (who was Narnian and had been horse-napped to Calormen as a foal) the war-horse reveals his plan to return north. Bree also suggests Shasta’s longing for the north is because the fair-skinned boy (so different from the dark-skinned people of Calormen) has the blood of “true northern stock.”
The unlikely pair make their escape and head north. Later in the tale, when someone accuses Shasta of having stolen a soldier’s horse, Bree claims it is more accurate to say he who has stolen the boy. Hence the title, The Horse and His Boy.
Another example of symmetry that carries throughout the book is the contrast of two peoples, the Narnians and the Calormenes. The descriptions of Calormen lands and people evoke images of a middle-eastern culture: the men wear turbans and wield scimitars, they rely on disposable slaves for labor, their speech is flowery and amply sprinkled with aphorisms from “the poet” and other purported wise men, and when they speak of their ruler (Tisroc), they add “may he live forever.” The proud Calormenes consider the Narnian people barbarians whose deity (they believe) is “a demon of hideous aspect and irresistible maleficence who appears in the shape of a Lion.” Continue reading “Listen For the Lion”→
As The Voyage of the Dawn Treader concludes (see previous post), Lucy, Edmund and Eustace catch a view of a range of mountains so high, they recognize immediately they’re seeing into “Aslan’s country.” When the fourth volume of the Chronicles of Narnia begins, Aslan has summoned Eustace Clarence Scrubb and his schoolmate, Jill Pole, back to a precipice on the edge of those mountains … and into the Lion’s presence. Eustace is only on the mountain momentarily; Jill (who hasn’t previously been to Narnia) must first be instructed by Aslan before she is transported into Narnia.
The Silver Chair introduces us to a Narnian world many years later than when Eustace reluctantly (kicking and screaming actually) joined the sea voyage of the Dawn Treader. Eustace’s initial travels in Narnia have stood him in good stead; though he still has an occasional lapse into self-absorption, even Jill acknowledges Scrubb is “different” than last term. His encounter with the Lion has been transformative.
Once more, Lewis brings his characters in The Silver Chair to a quest, singular and quite specific: rescuing Prince Rilian, son of Caspian X who has grown quite old since he and Eustace parted in Dawn Treader. Rilian has been missing ten years and all efforts to find him have been for naught. With Caspian’s impending demise, Aslan tasks Eustace and Jill to bring the young prince home. Continue reading “Few Return to Sunlit Lands”→
Next Friday, November 22, 2013, will mark 50 years since C. S. Lewis died. As a way to commemorate his life, my posts of the next seven days will address one of the seven volumes comprising the Chronicles of Narnia. (This won’t simply be a summary of the books; if you haven’t already read them, please read them for yourself.) Like opening the door of a wardrobe, each volume will serve as my starting point.
Before I begin, however, anyone who has studied or is more than casually interested in Narnia and the Lewis vision for his stories should also read Planet Narnia by Dr. Michael Ward. The book is subtitled: The Seven Heavens in the Imagination of C. S. Lewis.
There’s no set rule about the Chronicles of Narnia. The individual books may be read separately and enjoyed as stand-alone tales. But reading the seven volumes as a single unit adds a second, broader layer to one’s reading pleasure.
Professor Ward argues there’s a third layer, a “deeper magic” if you will, wherein Lewis laid out his seven chronicles by a purposefully hidden structure. Ward makes the compelling case that each volume’s thematic elements connect logically with one of seven planetary objects: Jupiter, Mars, the Sun, the Moon, Mercury, Venus and Saturn. It’s a fascinating thesis and I find Dr. Ward’s presentation makes a lot of sense.
Lewis dedicates his first volume of Narniato his goddaughter, Lucy Barfield. The cover page for The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe includes the subtitle: A Story for Children. In his dedication, Lewis observes Lucy has already grown “too old for fairy tales” but he also predicts the day will come when she’s “old enough to start reading fairy tales again.” In typical understatement, Lewis laments the commonly accepted fallacy that fairy tales are meant only for children. He believed (as I do) that the adult imagination also thrives when brought under the enchantment of fairy tales. Continue reading “Not a Tame Lion . . . But He’s Good”→