Ranking Narnia: C.S. Lewis’ Highs and Lows (Part 1)
Opinions about the best and worst Narnia stories are all over the map.
Read more: Part 2
Earlier this week Notre Dame’s Patrick Deneen tweeted his own personal ranking of C.S. Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia — and Catholic Twitter exploded.
Deneen’s “Don’t @ me” was not honored, to say the least, but responses ranged far beyond replies and mentions. A sampling:
I could go on to list other takes ranking literally every book in the series first — or last.
Doing a little unofficial number-crunching, it looks to me like the clear favorite among a random sampling of Twitter lists I surveyed is The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and the least popular is Prince Caspian. Everything else is clustered in the middle, too close to call.
This makes sense to me, although I don’t entirely agree.
The popularity of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is easy to understand. It’s the iconic foundation of the whole series (and the only correct place to begin reading the series; the so-called “chronological order” foisted by publishers on unsuspecting young readers for decades is an abomination). Its retelling of the story of sin and redemption, death and resurrection provides the context for all the stories that follow.
Among the book’s many memorable elements:
- A wonderful, mysterious opening act in the Professor’s vast country home
- The winsome young heroine, Lucy Pevensie
- The unpredictable childhood magic of the wardrobe (an image that for children enchants all other cupboards and closet doors, even if they don’t work, because they might next time),
- The seemingly inexplicable image of a single lamppost in the midst of a snowy wood
- Delightful Mr. Tumnus, the character who introduced most of us to fauns and probably dryads and naiads
- “Always winter and never Christmas”
- The iconic evil of the White Witch, and the haunting power of the image of bad magical Turkish delight
- Dinner with the Beavers
- “’Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.”
- Edmund’s hair-raising arrival in the White Witch’s statue-filled courtyard
- Solemn but joyful Father Christmas
- The overwhelming first appearance of Aslan
- Peter’s battle with the wolf (Maugrim or Fenris Ulf, depending on your edition)
- The transition from winter to spring over the course of a few hours (Lewis spends pages and pages on this; I can never forgive the Walden movie for glossing over it as quickly s possible)
- The ritual near-sacrifice of Edmund, the rescue, and the magic disguise of the Witch and her dwarf
- The riveting parley between Aslan and the Witch
- Sad, lonely, stumbling Aslan’s via dolorosa to the Stone Table, accompanied by the girls (the other most unforgivable fail in the Walden movie, to me)
- The horror of the mob scene around Aslan’s death, a never-ending nightmare when you’re young
- The girls’ vigil over Aslan’s body, and the work of the mice
- “Yes! It is more magic!”
- The romp and the racing ride on Aslan’s back, followed by the unforgettable reanimation of the statues in the Witch’s courtyard (I always take the kids outside and light a newspaper on fire when we read this)
There are also some limitations and weaknesses.
The flimsiness of Lewis’ practical worldbuilding has never bothered me. His eclectic influences here include Beatrix Potter, Kenneth Grahame, and Lewis Carroll.
Yes, it makes no sense that, say, the Beavers have cream and toast with butter and sardines and so forth in the midst of a hundred-year winter (what are the cows eating to make the cream and butter? for that matter, how are there still fish under the ice in Mr. Beaver’s pond?).
But Lewis is as blithely uninterested in such questions as, for example, Beatrix Potter was where Peter Rabbit’s mother got the brass buttons for Peter’s jacket that got caught in Mr. McGregor’s gooseberry net. Not everything has to be Middle-earth, bolstered by appendices and a vast legendarium.
On the other hand, the amount of mythological heavy lifting carried out via exposition in that dinner at the Beavers does strike me as an issue. Too much is simply given, and too much plot preordained, by Mr. Beaver’s old rhymes and sayings. (Lewis does much better in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader with the prophecy given by a dryad to Reepicheep as a baby; the words are evocative rather than dispositive.)
Why does the Witch take so long to decide to kill Edmund? Why bother to try to lure and capture the other children? As she later notes, if only three thrones in Cair Paravel are filled, that would not fulfill the prophecy.
Why does Lucy return to visit Mr. Tumnus in broad daylight after the fearful nocturnal flight through the forest on her last visit? She knows the woods are full of the Witch’s spies, that even some of the trees are on her side. Doesn’t it occur to her that she might be endangering Mr. Tumnus, not to mention herself?
Despite these and other issues, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is deep magic, deserving of its place at the top of many people’s personal rankings of the Narnia stories.
It’s not the only one of the seven for which a first-place ranking can credibly be claimed. The most credible rivals, in my opinion, are The Voyage of the Dawn Treader and The Magician’s Nephew.
The Voyage of the Dawn Treader is a special book to me for many reasons (not least because as a child I attended a Christian school in Paterson, NJ named Dawn Treader). Among its virtues:
- The best opening sentence of any of the Narnia stories: “There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it.” The opening pages are gleeful satire, and Eustace’s hapless queries about the British Consul and Plumptree’s Vitaminized Nerve Food and such are Lewis at his funniest.
- Eustace’s journal and his cutting remarks represent the series’ most sustained, engaging mutual cross-examination of Narnian values and dull modern sensibilities.
- The magnificent episode in which Eustace is transformed by greed into a dragon. Lewis’s vivid first-person evocation of Eustace’s self-discovery is brilliant, and the pathos of Dragon Eustace — trying for the first time to be helpful; fearing being left behind — is some of the Narnia books’ best character work. His transformative encounter with Aslan is an inspired blend of baptismal and death imagery. The whole sequence marks what Lewis carefully makes only the beginning of an imperfect process of change, carrying over into the next book — the best moral character arc in the series.
- Reepicheep. A semi-comic supporting character in his first appearance in Prince Caspian, he becomes here a truly noble and swashbuckling figure of romance, honor, and the heroic tradition — one of Lewis’ most justly loved creations. (Among many inspired touches, Lewis reveals that, although a good chess player, Reep sometimes made mistakes by playing his pieces as he would act in a real battle, since “his mind was full of forlorn hopes, death-or-glory charges, and last stands.”)
- The Odyssey-style mythic voyage structure. In his tweet above Alexi Sargeant objected to Dawn Treader’s lack of a compelling plot throughline. I say this is the book’s great strength. The serial adventure linking increasingly fantastic islands and dangers — Deathwater; Dragon Island; the sea serpent; the Magician and the Dufflepuds; Dark Island; Ramandu’s Island, with its perpetually renewed feast and enchanted sleepers — all on a voyage to the utter east, to the dawn and the world’s end, with sweet seawater, ever-increasing brightness, the white sea of lilies and finally the wall of water with the otherworldly mountains of Aslan’s country looming beyond: this is the Narnia books’ finest achievement of classical-style mythic worldbuilding. (I can’t forgive the Walden Dawn Treader for failing to include a single shot of the ship sailing into the dawn, or for that matter away from the sunset.)
It’s not without weaknesses. Probably the most notable is the utterly perfunctory romantic linking of Caspian and Ramandu’s daughter, who isn’t even given a name. (Adding insult to injury, she dies tragically in the next book, The Silver Chair, leading to the long enchanted imprisonment of her son Rilian.)
For years I’ve considered The Voyage of the Dawn Treader my favorite Narnia book. Writing these posts, though, I’ve found that I might esteem The Magician’s Nephew more.
- The best opening act — yes, better even than The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe — with its vivid setting of row homes linked by the shared crawl space where Polly has her Cave.
- In particular, Digory’s crisis: living in fear of a creepy, reclusive uncle and the looming death of his mother. This has a specificity and immediate emotional power far beyond generic bullying classmates. (Lewis’ mother died when he was a boy, and Digory — who grows up to be the professor of the first book — has more of Lewis in him than perhaps any other character in the Narnia stories, if not all of Lewis’ fiction.)
- The timeless magic of the Wood Between the Worlds.
- Two terrific antagonists! Uncle Andrew is possibly the single most fascinating and textured character in the series; he is a dangerous and repellent fool, but also a not entirely unsympathetic character. For all that, he’s overshadowed by the origin story of Jadis, the White Witch, who is if anything even more terrifying here than in her first appearance.
- The most dramatic incursion of otherworldly magic into our world, most dramatically in Jadis’ rampage through London, offering a unique blend of high excitement and humor. (Lewis also weaves specific mythological threads into the fabric of our world — Atlantis, King Arthur, fairy godmothers — for the first time.)
- Aslan singing Narnia into being at the dawn of time, with the origin of the talking beasts and the nascent, fertile magic of the Narnian soil.
- The elegant, seemingly effortless tying up of loose threads. Not only does Lewis weave the White Witch’s origin story into the creation of Narnia, he also ties in the origin of the magic wardrobe and its link to Narnia (along with the professor who owns it) and even the presence of the lamppost in the wood. It’s all so natural and organic one could believe Lewis planned it that way all along, though of course he didn’t.
- The hilarious, humiliating comeuppance of Uncle Andrew by the talking beasts (echoing the humiliation of Weston in Out of the Silent Planet).
- The elevation of a Cockney cabbie and his wife to the first king and queen of Narnia — and their horse to the first winged horse! (“By the making of Pegasus horses were ennobled,” Tolkien once wrote about the revealing power of mythic imagination, and in the same way King Frank and Queen Helen celebrate the royal dignity of every decent, hardworking man or woman of any class or station in life.)
- The terrible temptation of Digory in the enclosed garden, with Jadis as both Lucifer and Lilith.
- The healing of Digory’s mother, a poignant image of redemption and faith from an author whose boyhood prayers for his mother’s life were not answered as he hoped.
Are there any weaknesses? I’m not sure I can think of any.
Read more: Part 2