The short version is: These are an example of the type of books to which I compare both fantasy and religious works.
For those who’ve never heard of them: it’s a seven book series about a magical mystical land, Narnia to which several English children go by a variety of routes–a wardrobe, a horn, a picture and so on. The series begins when the four Pevensie children are sent out of London to escape the Blitz to the home of one Professor Kirke. Left to their own devices, one rainy day they play a game of hide and seek during which the youngest, Lucy, finds a magical wardrobe through which she, and later her siblings also, travel to Narnia. They break the eternal winter enforced by the White Witch, with the aid of the symbolic lion Aslan, and rule there for some years. The book ends with the Pevensies’ return back through the wardrobe to England and their own youth, at the very moment they left on their adventures.
Prince Caspian begins a year later in the ‘real world’, as the four Pevensies are returning to school after the holidays. They are drawn from the train platform by an unknown force to a strange land which they slowly realize must be their beloved Narnia, though in ruins. They discover later that in that year in England, a thousand have passed in Narnia, and a foreign invader, the Telmarines, have taken over Narnia, crushing the original society. Caspian, despite being a Telmarine himself, believes that original society must be restored, but cannot muster enough support to do so, hence he has sounded Susan’s horn.
In Voyage of the Dawn Treader only Edmund and Lucy return to Narnia along with their horrid cousin Eustace, as Peter and Susan are too old to return to Narnia. Caspian, now king of Narnia, has stabilized his country to the point that he can leave it for a period of several weeks; he is sailing east in search of seven lords banished under the reign of his uncle Miraz, and in the course of his travels explore regions forgotten under Telmarine rule, as they feared the sea. East has a significance in Narnian religion, as that is the direction from which Aslan comes, and the location of his father’s residence, so there is a hope at the back of everyone’s mind that they will discover Aslan’s country. This is left until the next book.
The Silver Chair brings the now reformed Eustace and a new girl, Jill Pole, to Narnia to search for Caspian’s son, Rilian, who has been abducted by a witch and held hostage as she lays plans to invade Narnia. The Horse and his Boy is set “during” the events of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe while the Pevensies rule Narnia. Shasta, who believes himself to be the son of a Calormene fisherman, escapes what he believes to be his native land and travels to Narnia in the company of a talking horse, Bree, and a Calormene noblewoman and her talking horse. The last two books published bracket Narnia’s history–The Magicians Nephew centers on Aslan’s creation of the world in which Narnia lies and The Last Battle about the end of that world, or rather the end of what readers would consider the real world, and the resulting translation of the “saved” characters into the real Narnia2, where they will reside forever. Interestingly, The Magician’s Nephew was the last completed of the books, though the sixth published and the first chronologically; this makes sense to me from a literary standpoint as, while it’s concerns the genesis of the Narnian melieu, it ties up a number of questions about how the Narnia we know in The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe came to be, ranging from the White Witch’s vendetta to how there came to be a ‘modern’ London lamp post in the middle of a Narnian wood.
I’m not sure what I can say about the Narnia books that hasn’t been said more eloquently and at far greater length and with much more authority elsewhere1, even down to “Should they be read in publication order or chronological order?” An argument can be made for reading them either way, though I prefer publication order, as Lewis tweaked the world order as he progressed through his own creative process. Reading them according to internal chronological order leaves several plot points hanging in midair.
All I can really think of is there are very few books written so long ago which are still worth reading today. To the naysayers (and they do have some legitimate points) all I can say is what every one keeps insisting to me about teen books: they’re children’s books–you can’t judge them by the standards of adult literature. To compound the issue, they were written sixty years ago. In addition to the changes in writing style, there have been more than a few social and religious changes in the intervening decades. What impresses me about them even to this day is that I had to be told they were Christian allegory, though I was told this nearly 40 years ago now.
I’m not going to touch the liturgical and theological changes within Anglicanism in the intervening decades, because I’m not up enough on the differences between what was held in Lewis’ time and modern doctrine to explain said differences. For much the same reasons, I’m also not going to touch his attitude towards Islam and Middle Eastern culture, except to say that I think the presentation of rural/small town England as the ideal was a theme common to other writers of the time; today, it just seems bucolic and quaint. No, just the feminism aspect: Yes, Lewis was a bit condescending towards girls in the first three books–in The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe, Aslan himself says that war is ugly when girls/women fight, in Prince Caspian, Peter says they’re unable to keep maps in their heads, while in Voyage of the Dawn Treader, Caspian gives Lucy his own cabin, the best on the ship, because she’s a girl. Lewis doesn’t help his case with those of us with modern sensibilities by putting our thoughts on the case in the mouth of the (at the time) vile Eustace. This does start changing with the later books: certainly Polly, while still girlish in the old model, has a firm character of her own, Aravis is both tough and independent and Jill can hold her own in woodscraft with even Tirian in The Last Battle, when the difference in ages is taken into account.
The series is undeniably Christian allegory, but they’re worth reading simply as children’s fantasy, just as Lewis’ Space Trilogy can be read as science fiction. I am going to say again what I said at the beginning: they’re children’s books. They’re not intended to be subtle. They’re not intended to be complex. Just imagine that your favorite uncle has you on his knee and is telling you a fairy tale before bedtime.
1More rudely put: they’ve been talked to death elsewhere. We’re talking stuff that people write honors theses about.
2the Rapture, if you’re into that sort of thing, or Heaven/Paradise, if you’re not