The Chronicles of Narnia Books are not as Fantastical as I Remembered

Over the summer I decided to reread The Chronicles of Narnia. I had basically zero recollection of the books beyond my childhood favourite, The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe (henceforth, LWW) and boy, was I disappointed. But I powered through it and it took enough of my time to earn itself this BUMPER blog post that nobody asked for. But Netflix are adapting this so here is a summary of the stories and some thoughts, so this might be more relevant someday!

Spoilers ahead, but genuinely think it’s a better experience to read a summary than actually reading the book series.

(I read them in the ‘internal chronology of Narnia’ order as that is the order my box set was in, but I’m aware that this doesn’t reflect the order the stories were written in.)

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The Magician’s Nephew – A Prequel Just to Set Things Up

Very little happens in this book, and the magician barely features. It follows two children, Polly and Diggory as they travel, using magical rings, across different lands. They accidentally wake up the White Witch in a dying land, bring her to London and then, in an attempt to send her back, take her to a brand-new Narnia. We meet Aslan, the lion who is to play a Christ-like figure for the remainder of the series, just as he has sung Narnia to life. (This isn’t a metaphor, he literally sings Narnia into existence and breathes on animals to make them Talking Animals.)

To atone for their sin, the pair go on a mini-quest (via winged horse) to find an apple from a gated garden. Diggory specifically goes to the garden, and here, the White Witch tries to tempt him to eat an apple. However, he refuses and is rewarded with an apple by Aslan to save his terminally ill mother. The White Witch is barred from Narnia for 100 years due to a tree that Aslan grows. Who knows why it’s only 100 years, and no, this tree is never mentioned again.

There are a couple of fun easter eggs for LWW – the seeds of Diggory’s apple grow into a tree, he grows up to be Professor Kirke and eventually uses the wood to create the magical wardrobe. The lampost we see in LWW is originally from our world which is fun.

However, this book is pretty bland and feels like an afterthought. The Christian imagery is heavy handed and the White Witch, an otherwise scary villain, is made to look ridiculous. There is a chapter where she climbs on top of the roof a carriage, rides around Victorian London in an attempt to take over London and doesn’t seem as threatening.

The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe – The Best Book in the Series

This book follows the four Pevensie children (Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy), who are evacuated during WWII. During a game of hide and seek, Lucy finds her way to Narnia through a magical wardrobe. Soon, all four children are there and an adventure begins. In Narnia eternal winter reigns under the rule of the evil White Witch, and though they don’t know it, they are prophesised to end her rule.

This book has so much going for it; fairly distinct characters, immediate conflict between Edmund and his siblings as he is tempted by the White Witch (in a much more nuanced way than in TMN). The Witch is a genuine threat and Aslan is a genuine source of wonder, mystery and heroism (which he lacks in later books). There is a build up to a big battle at the end, all of which makes it really exciting.

The only thing that felt odd rereading it was the ending. The Pevensies fulfill their destiny and stay to rule Narnia for many years, forgetting about Earth but accidentally go back through the wardrobe and return to their original ages. I’ll accept the magic of this ending, but it’s weird to think they have gone through puberty and are then reset back to childhood and the other books never address it.

I love this book, it has a strong plot, lots of cool fairy tale elements and though there is quite a bit of Christ imagery, it’s more symbolic and doesn’t distract from the main story.

The Horse and His Boy – So Much Orientalism and Racism

Set in the country of Calormene, this book follows Chastor and a talking Horse as they journey to Narnia. Along the way they meet a Calormene girl, Aravis, and her talking horse who joins them. Between them they stumble upon the Calormene Prince Rabadash’s plans to invade Narnia. Of course, they save the day. Our favourite Pevensies make a cameo – the Prince is invading as Queen Susan refuses to marry him.

This book is one of my least favourites due to Lewis’ heavy biases and Orientalism. Calormene is a clear analogue of a Middle Eastern country and Chastor, a Narnian, stands out as a fair-skinned, blonde outsider, in a land of savages, slave owners and forced marriages. There is a particular scene where Chastor finally makes it to Narnia and he eats bacon, eggs and mushrooms for the first time. He says it is the best thing he has ever smelled/tasted and my eyes were rolling out of my skull. As someone who had never smelled bacon until I was 18 years old, I can assure you it is not appealing and I would rather eat an Arab meal any day.

Aslan acts like a wild animal, chasing the main characters across the desert and even attacks one of them – because they were falling behind on their quest and this is supposed to be a positive thing that the characters just don’t understand at the time. It does not read positively and only builds on a negative feeling towards Aslan

The only silver lining is that this book features a cool, badass, brown female character in Aravis. She refuses an arranged marriage, she takes fate into her own hands and runs away. This feels like a bit of an accident as good female characters are a rarity in this series, and we only ever meet one other good person from Calormene.

Prince Caspian – An Adventure, Mostly Narrated by a Dwarf

Following, LWW, the Pevensies are magicked back to Narnia with the call of Susan’s horn. 1300 years have passed and Narnia is now ruled by the Telmarines. Prince Caspian, heir to the throne, is being hunted by his Uncle Miraz, who murdered his father and now wants to steal the throne. It’s all a bit Shakespearean. Though the climax is a one-on-one battle between Miraz and the High King Peter, this is yet another tale about war which was becoming tiring at this point.

This is one of the stronger books by virtue of featuring familiar characters,  Edmund in particular has character which is satisfying to see as a reader.  However, most of the story is narrated to us by a Dwarf and the siblings spend way too much time just looking for Caspian which means it’s a fairly slow book.

Aslan is frustrating in this book. He purposely doesn’t appear to all of the children as some sort of test, and though he comes to rescue them from a battle they are losing, which parallels the end of LWW, he takes his time. He lets people die in order to test Lucy. And when the book ends, he tells Peter and Susan that they won’t be coming back to Narnia (this becomes important later).

Voyage of the Dawn Treader – A Series of Mini Adventures

Lucy and Edmund return to Narnia through a painting of a ship, taking their bratty cousin Eustace along with them. They board the Dawn Treader to discover that there is no crisis or war (finally!) but Narnia is at peace. Three years have passed in Narnia and Caspian, now King, is on a quest to return 7 lords loyal to his father to Narnia, and, discover more of their world. There are various islands that this book visits and mini adventures on each from a dragon to an Island of Darkness.

The mini adventures are creative, and quite fun however the central aim – finding the lords – is a bit dull and repetitive. There needed to be a better throughline to have me invested in the quest. The story ends with the characters going to the end of the world, which is a cool concept, but is held back by the old fashioned writing and there is a huge missed opportunity for conflict because of this too. Caspian says he wants to go to the end of the world but he’s told, as King, he can’t abandon his people. He goes to his cabin in a huff and Aslan, offscreen, tells him off and he reconsiders. Reepicheep, the brave mouse, goes in his stead. It’s resolved within a paragraph.

Aslan only makes a physical appearance right at the end when Reepicheep goes off the edge of the world to Aslan’s country (a.k.a heaven!). Lucy and Edmund are told that they will not return to Narnia either and that he has another form in our world. Their adventures in Narnia were a way to get to know Aslan here, so they might look for him on Earth. And here’s where the Christian elements are a bit much for your casual, non-Christian fantasy reader. 

This is definitely one of the better books but it’s slow and episodic. Fun fact: Narnia is a disc not a globe.

The Silver Chair – A Fun but Forgettable Quest

Eustace and his schoolmate Jill, cornered by bullies, call to Aslan for help and end up in Aslan’s country (temporarily). Jill talks to Aslan directly and he gives her instructions for a quest to rescue King Caspian’s son, Prince Rilian. Jill is given four signs to follow but they miss most of them and fall into the trap of the Lady of the Green Kirtle – a witch who can turn into a serpent (there is no such thing as subtley). However, they manage to rescue Prince Rilian and return him to the throne. The Silver Chair plays a relatively small but important role in the story.

It’s a fun adventure featuring a witch, giants and some interesting characters but one that was fairly forgettable. However, I have to highlight Puddleglum as the MVP of the story. He is a Marshwiggle (a humanoid creature with froglike arms and legs) who is consistently pessimestic but also really funny and brave too. He made the book a lot more fun to read.

Let’s talk female characters because this features two prominent ones; the witch and Jill. On the one hand the witch is a proper, decent villain which is lacking in some of these books. However it feels problematic to keep having beautiful temptresses as your strongest villains. Also, to have her turn into a serpent makes you wonder whether Lewis even liked women.

Jill, not wanting an adventure is painted as a little bit annoying at first but she does get a chance to shine. At one point, they are stuck in a giant’s castle and need to escape. She spends the whole day sucking up to everyone to try and glean info. It was a stroke of brilliance to use her perceived childlike appearance against the giants who want to eat them. But I’m not calling this a win by any means for female characters.

The Last Battle – This One is About the Anti-Christ

I have a LOT of thoughts on this one, so buckle up folks. This was easily the worst book in the series, not a lot happens and it is so mired with Christian messaging that any fantasy children’s plot is lost completely.

In this book, we explore the anti-Christ. An ape convinces a dumb donkey, Puzzle, to dress up and pretend to be Aslan for their own gain. Meanwhile King Tirian, the last King of Narnia, is captured. He discovers the ruse but when he exposes Puzzle, the Narnians are only convinced that Aslan doesn’t exist at all.

The ape also orchestrates an invasion by the Calormenes. Lewis doubles down on his Orientalist, racist depiction of these people and anything that was subtext previously is purely text now.

  • There is a side adventure where Jill, Eustace and Tirian put on blackface to pretend to be some Calormenes.
  • The Calormene god, Tash, appears in this book as a monstrous, eagle-headed four-armed beast who devours his followers
  • Narnia, now totally corrupted, is destroyed and all of the good Narnians go to heaven. One, single, Calormene gets into heaven so only 99% of them are evil.

Apart from the main story being quite dull, the ending is super grim, because, it is revealed in the last pages, that everyone we have ever known to visit Narnia has died. King Tirian, captured and looking for help, appears before the humans who have travelled to Narnia. They get together to rescue him but the only sure way to get to Narnia from our world is through Diggory/Professor Kirke’s magical rings. They track the rings down to give to Eustace and Jill, who are on a train to meet with the rest of the group. However the pair just appear in Narnia and can’t figure out why. The reason is, their train crashed and they died.

‘You do not yet look so happy as I mean you to be.’
Lucy said, ‘We’re so afraid of being sent away Aslan, and you have sent us back to our own world so often.’
‘No fear of that, have you not guessed?’
Their hearts leaped and wild hope rose within them.
‘There was a real railway accident,’ said Aslan softly, ‘your father and mother and all of your are, as you used to call it in the shadowlands, dead. The term is over, the holidays have begun, the dream has ended, this is the morning.’

And the book ends this as a ‘happily ever after’ ending. I understand that as a Christian, you might be happy that you ended up in heaven, but I have no words.

I said everyone dies, not quite, Susan does not, and in turn does not make it to heaven. She is said to no longer be ‘a friend of Narnia’ and treats it as a childhood fantasy. All of the human characters spend half a page having a go at her.

‘Oh Susan,’ said Jill, ‘she’s interested in nothing nowadays except nylons and lipsticks and invitations. She always a jolly sight too keen on being grown up.’
‘Grown up indeed,’ said the Lady Polly, ‘I wish she would grow up. She wasted all her school time wanting to be the age she is now and she’ll waste all the rest of her life trying to stay that age. Her whole idea is to race onto the silliest time of one’s life as quick as she can and then stop there as long as she can.’
‘Well, don’t let’s talk about that now,’ said Peter, ‘Look, here are some lovely fruit trees, let us taste them.’

So basically Susan doesn’t get into heaven because she’s interested in her appearance and being young. There is some indication that her faith isn’t as strong in earlier books but to lose out on the ‘happy ending’ in heaven feels like Lewis was going for a metaphor but essentially punished a character. I’ve read arguments that her crime is ‘trying to be grown up’ rather than actually growing up, but the text makes it come across as vanity and shallowness. The nylons, the lipsticks, wanting to enjoy being young. This is especially frustrating as, within the text and the mythology of the series, Aslan tells Susan that she can’t come back to Narnia. So, arguably, she isn’t dwelling on a land that she will never be allowed to visit.

So Susan ends the series, with all of her family dying. Sure, maybe she goes to heaven later but what a grim way to end your final book.

I did not enjoy this book at all.

So, while my reread of The Hunger Games reignited my love for the series, this did not make me fall in love with Narnia. In fact, I definitely will not be reading anything bar The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe ever again. There’s just so much Christian imagery and messaging that ultimately I thought it detracted from a lot of the storytelling. Some of the lack of enjoyment was just the old fashioned writing which is a bit too slow and overly explains things to a modern audience. But I liked parts of it, and there are definitely storylines that have a lot of potential and elements that can be expanded upon. That’s why, though I’m not interested in reading the books, I would be interested in an adaptation that could tell the story in a more accessible manner. I have thoughts on what that should entail too but I’ll save that for another post as this is already miles long.

Have you read The Chronicles of Narnia? What do you think? Are you looking forward to an adaptation?

3 thoughts on “The Chronicles of Narnia Books are not as Fantastical as I Remembered

  1. I tried to read the Chronicles of Narnia for the first time over the summer. I used the publication order and made it halfway through The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. It was so dull to me that I couldn’t bring myself to power through the last 70 pages or so. I have no interest in trying it again or in watching an adaptation.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Honestly, it was one my stubborn reads because I had bought the box set plus I had a friend who did remember reading it so I had someone to discuss it with but I’m not surprised you gave up!

      The Pevensie stories are the best anyway so if you found those dull the rest would not have been better.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I loved this series as a kid, but honestly I’ve come to have the same opinion of it as you do now that I’m an adult. It’s a shame, really.


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