This time of year, with school just letting out and the hot weather started, always reminds me of curling up under a tree with a stack of books. As a kid, I was always of the opinion that summer vacation really only meant hours of uninterrupted reading time, and some of the most well-worn books of my childhood collection were undoubtedly The Chronicles of Narnia series by C.S. Lewis.
The seven novels, published between 1950 and 1956, are probably the ultimate classic of the children’s high fantasy genre. They might be a little bit dry and a little bit British when compared with a lot of today’s young adult literature, but perhaps the success of the Harry Potter books proves that that’s what we expect in the fantasy genre. Of the top five bestselling fantasy authors of all time, four are British, and on that list, C.S. Lewis comes third behind only such big names as J.K. Rowling and J.R.R. Tolkien.
And by every other measure, Lewis’s books are among the most successful, having been translated into multiple languages and adapted for television, stage, radio and movies, as recently as the 2010 Hollywood version of The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader.
Lewis’s book followed in the same straightforward high fantasy tradition of Tolkien’s The Hobbit, which was published in 1937. This is perhaps only natural, given the close relationship between the two fantasy titans, who taught at the University of Oxford and were key members of the “Inklings” literary discussion group that was associated with the school.
However, The Chronicles of Narnia have something in the way of readability that Tolkien tends to lack in his epic fantasy masterwork The Lord of the Rings, perhaps because they were intended for children. Actually, the first published book of the series, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe was written for one particular child, Lewis’s goddaughter Lucy Barfield.
That book had such an impact on the children who read it that they continued to send letters to Lucy through Lewis’ publisher for more than 30 years following the publication. That could be in part because Lewis named one of the best loved characters for his goddaughter. Though the series focuses on many different characters- some human, and some wonderfully less so- Lucy Pevensie, the girl who first opened the wardrobe door and brought the reader to Narnia, is a character you can’t help but love.
And yet, just as with the books themselves, it’s a bit hard to point exactly what is so wonderful about the admittedly typical character. Looking at the plot structure, the character arches, the themes, and well, virtually every aspect of the series, it’s hard to find anything that is unique to Lewis’s fantasy realm.
That’s often the case in novels of that genre, though. Fantasy may be all about strange and bizarre creatures and events, but it all borrows heavily from a long tradition that dictates what those mythical aspects are. For example, though Lewis’s Mr. Tumnus may be far and away the most famous faun in literature, he is by no means the only one. Fauns populated Roman mythology, growing out of stories about the similar Greek creatures, Satyrs, who were the companions of the forest god Pan.
Lewis borrows from myths about other Greek gods, referring to Bacchus by name, and also pulls, like nearly all high fantasy writers, from Norse mythology (primarily in the idea of the eternal winter that the eponymous Witch causes in the first novel) and many other classical sources, including the Christian Bible. Though I never noticed as a child, despite repeated readings, the main plot of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is an allegorical retelling of the crucifixion with Aslan the Lion as a Christ figure.
All fantasy tends to owe a debt to the past and past works; now the tendency is to compare works of fantasy to The Lord of the Rings, but Tolkien was probably more aware of the sources he drew on than a lot of modern writers.
After all, it’s hard to imagine Stephenie Meyer digging deep into the roots of vampiric lore to produce Edward Cullen and his bevy of sparkling vegetarian foster-siblings. Tolkien, on the other hand, like Lewis, was an English and linguistics professor; his interpretation of the epic poem Beowulf shapes the way it is read and understood to this day. Interestingly, the idea of rings as symbols of power is prominent in that text, thought to be recorded somewhere between the 8th and 11th century A.D., making Beowulf a likely inspiration for Tolkien’s best known works.
Some might see this seeming lack of original content as a detriment to the genre, but really it opens up greater opportunities for creativity. Writers like Lewis and Tolkien are able to use this accumulation of stock plots, characters and themes to easily establish intricate worlds that are understood by readers on an almost automatic level.
In little more than two paragraphs in the Magician’s Nephew, the first book chronologically but the sixth published volume, Lewis establishes a whole world separate from Narnia and our world. Charn is a land of ancient traditions, a city ruined by decadence, and the hometown of Jadis, who becomes Narnia’s White Witch. Lewis mentions the history of Charn only briefly, and gives maybe half a chapter over to describing the city’s palace, but the reader understands the progression to devastation through overindulgence because it’s a familiar pattern to readers who have a passing knowledge of the fate of biblical cities like Nineveh, or Sodom and Gomorrah, or even with ideas about Atlantis or Tolkien’s allegorical land of Numenor.
As for The Chronicles of Narnia, it may not be a case of Lewis blazing a new trail, but more a matter of being the one who did it best. At least as far as children’s literature is concerned, Narnia has always been the classic tale of high fantasy. It accesses one of the most persistent desires of children, the desire to access a magical world, by allowing ‘ordinary’ protagonists to find the magic of Narnia and make it their own. In The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, the four Pevensie children are among the hundreds of kids shipped out of London, England to avoid World War II air raids before Lucy stumbles on the portal to a new realm in the back of a closet, but by the end of the story they are the four Kings and Queensof Narnia.
The rest of Lewis’s Narnia books feature similar heroes, be it Sasha the slave boy in The Horse and his Boy or Caspian, who is forced to flee and assemble an army in order to ascend his rightful spot on the throne of Narnia in Prince Caspian. What Lewis does is make the traditions of fantasy accessible in a way more intimidating tomes like The Lord of the Rings cannot.
I’m an avid reader of fantasy, but I can admit that the 600-plus pages of a George R. R. Martin book could be intimidating to someone who isn’t totally devoted to the genre. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia might be a great place for someone looking to work their way up to the more complicated classics of the genre to start. But even if you never get around to meeting Bilbo or the Lord of Winterfell, you won’t regret spending a summer afternoon doing battle against the White Witch with Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy in Aslan’s name.