Book Notes #2: The Chronicles of Narnia, Books 3-5

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Prince Caspian

The Pevensie children are called back to Narnia a year after they come back through the wardrobe. This time they are at a train station on their way to boarding school when suddenly they feel a familiar physical pull and find themselves on a deserted island they soon realize is Cair Paravel where they ruled Narnia as kings and queens. They have been summoned to help Prince Caspian regain his rightful place as King of Narnia.

There is a lot of magic in this one and some beautiful passages that describe the reawakening of the talking animals and trees of Old Narnia who were silenced when Prince Caspian’s ancestors, the Telmars, conquered the land.

Another intriguing aspect of this book is that air and breath take on magical properties. The air makes the children appear to be older, says the narrator, “I think I have explained before how Narnia was altering them. Even Lucy was by now…only one third of a little girl going to boarding school the first time, and two-thirds of Queen Lucy of Narnia.” And Aslan breathes into Edmund before he is sent into enemy territory and “a kind of greatness hung about him.” This reminds me of Genesis when God brought Adam to life through His breath.

While I liked many passages in this book and I liked the book overall compared to The Horse and his Boy, the thought occurred to me after I finished it if all the Narnia books have this same basic theme: a threatened Narnia and someone(s) to the rescue? That sounds tedious.

The Voyage of the Dawn Treader

But I am pressing on and in the middle of The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, which happily has a different theme. Prince Caspian sets out on a sea voyage (add to your ‘sea cruise’ series, Lizzie?!!) to discover the fate and where possible, avenge the seven lords that were banished from Narnia by the Prince’s evil uncle with the help of King Edmund and Queen Lucy and their tiresome cousin Eustace. During a sequence of events though, Eustace becomes a dragon and that section right there completely captured my imagination! But what is that about? Is there an explanation further along? I hope so.

So far, I am finding that these books alternate between the childish and the profound; sometimes I feel like I am reading passages my 10 year-old self would have loved and then come upon a section with images so deep I want to pause and reflect.

The Horse and His Boy

Just a note on The Horse and his Boy. I am not sure this book has aged well. I found much of the writing uncomfortably racist in its portrayal of the Calormen, who are easily seen as Middle Eastern, because Lewis has portrayed them through a very stereotyped lens. I am purposely not reading any reviews or criticism of the Narnia books until after I finish the series, so I don’t know if this reaction is an obvious one for others and whether Lewis has been criticized for it.

Having said that, I feel very strongly, in general, about historical context when it comes to criticizing points of view that are no longer acceptable. While the racism (homophobia, sexism, etc.) should be called out that does not mean the author, the book—or whatever medium—should be banned or thrown out only because during the time it was written people held these points of view; unless, of course, the whole premise or tone of the book is destructive, which is another matter.

At this time in human history, we are sensitive to the way our words heal or destroy and that is a good thing. But it makes our relationship with the past a bit tricky.

Reading Chronologically vs. by Publication Date

As an aside, when I reviewed The Magician and his Nephew, I did not like it very much; I don’t think I quite understood it. I should not have read it first, but in my series of books published by HarperCollins all the books are published chronologically and not by original publishing date. I keep thinking about this book and realize I like it more and more. I think it will make more sense in the context of publication, so I am going to reread when it’s ‘turn’ comes up.

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BookNotes are short reviews of books that have made an impression, but time constraints do not allow a full record of the titles.

19 thoughts on “Book Notes #2: The Chronicles of Narnia, Books 3-5

  1. Publication order all the way! Particularly in the case of The Magician’s Nephew. In it, Lewis came up with explanations for things even he didn’t know about when he wrote The Lion … that’s why it works better as a prequel, I believe.

    I think the Calormenes are stereotypical Arab-type people derived more from literature than from life. Lewis probably knew few if any actual people of Arab descent, while he was very well versed in Medieval literature and its image of the Muslim world, and that’s what he drew on for his writing. Such thoughtless stereotyping is certainly an element of racism and is not harmless. However, if we had to throw out all the books from the past that contain such elements there would not be much left. Education to help young people put such things in context is the most important, I think.

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    • Yes, to your last sentence. I believe this, too.

      Along with racial stereotyping, classic literature in the UK and US is permeated with anti-semitic and and anti-Jewish remarks and stereotyping. Some of my favorite authors are guilty, but historical context is everything and not worth “throwing the baby out with the bath water.” (And that is too graphic a saying I think I need to stop using)!

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  2. “So far, I am finding that these books alternate between the childish and the profound;”

    You are so right, Laurie. Lewis weaves in Platonic thought, the Greek myths and more! It’s quite a fascinating approach. I’m not sure if there are any children’s books to compare. Even Tolkien didn’t go as deep in quite this way. But then again, Tolkien didn’t care for these books so perhaps it’s not surprising. 😂

    Did you find The Horse and His Boy racist? I don’t remember having that reaction. Can you say why? Just because “the bad guys” so to speak, had dark skin? I don’t think Lewis was making a point, it just happened that he portrayed them this way. The way Lewis describes it, Calormen is reminiscent of an Arabian city, and the people are perceptive, knowledgeable, wealthy and courteous, yet a ruthlessness runs through their ancient blood. They are also respected storytellers, able to weave elaborately fabulous tales. I received the impression that if Lewis criticized anything it was character and not the people themselves. In any case, I’m interested in your view on it.

    The second time I read the series I read it in published order and boy, what a difference it made! I appreciated both The Magician’s Nephew and The Horse and His Boy much more that way!

    Great review, Laura, and I’m looking forward to the next!

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    • In the notes I took as I was reading I called this accidental racism, which I think is a product of Lewis’s time and don’t fault him for it. I am not reading criticism of the series until after I finish (which is how I read all classic literature), because I want the experience of reading to be my interpretation and not a scholar’s at that point. However, I did glance at some commentary on this book when I finished to see if I was overreacting and found I am not alone in my discomfort with the stereotypes. And I am sure there are plenty who would disagree.

      When I read classic literature, because this is not for school (yay!!), I write about my reactions to the text and/or how the book affected me. Like a journal. I may read the scholarly introduction to the edition after I finish, but more for historical information on the book and author than in what it ‘means.’

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  3. Sorry, I know it is a bit late for you, but I would always recommend reading this series in publication order first, because the stories make much more sense in the order that Lewis wrote them. And I think that Lewis meant for you find ‘passages my 10 year-old self would have loved and then come upon a section with images so deep I want to pause and reflect.’ I read once that he said he wanted to get theology and the deeper, darker stuff through to children, who are usually shielded from it, like creeping past a sleeping dragon 🙂

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    • Thank you for your perspective here, Jessica. I didn’t know about the controversy of the reading order when I started reading last winter. This is my first pass with the Narnia series and The Magician’s Nephew is the first in the Harper editions. I am going to read the Magician’s Nephew again in it’s proper publication order and I already know I will like it better.

      I finished The Voyage of the Dawn Treader a few days ago and very much enjoyed it. And, I believe I found my inner 10-year old in some of the scenes 🙂

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      • The Voyage of the Dawn Treader is one of my favourites 🙂 And yeah, in my set of The Chronicles of Narnia the first book is The Magicians Nephew, but fortunately the first time I read the series, I was a child borrowing them from the library and read them in publication order just because that what’s you did. It seems to be later published sets/editions that have put them into chronological order.

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  4. I am definitely in favor of pub date; you didn’t have the background you needed when you read Magician’s Nephew.

    I read them many times as a kid, so I completely missed the allegorizing until I got to college and somebody mentioned it. I’ve never been all that good at literary analysis…

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  5. I read the books as an adult in chronological order, though next time it may be in publication order. I’m hoping not to be as irritated this time round as I was by its often blatant allegorising (is that a word?) and instead enjoy it purely as storytelling. A study by Michael Ward, Planet Narnia (reviewed here https://wp.me/s2oNj1-narniad) gave me a good many insights into what Lewis was trying to aim at in the Narniad by outlining his overall rationale.

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  6. If I had time for all the water-themed books that have been written, Laurie, I’d consider adding Lewis’s series (and then Lev Grossman’s adult take on Lewis). Mixing adventure with allegory is a tough challenge to pull off, but Lewis often gets it right. However, when he gets it wrong — well, you’ve noted one example here. Other well-known authors have the same failing (Laura Ingalls Wilder and Arthur Ransome are two who come to mind), but I think their collected works redeem them.

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  7. Great commentary on these books. I need to give them a reading again.

    In terms of some of these older books being bigoted or otherwise conveying odious ideas, I agree with you. I am against all censorship. I also think that it makes no sense refraining from reading them. However we must call this stuff out.

    Going in publication date makes sense. The same issue is popping up these days with all the television and film franchises that are generating prequels.

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