I am reading the Narnia books to my big girls for the first time at the moment. We've read 4 of the 7 books, having just finished The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (my personal favourite of the seven, and, it would appear, my 7-year-old's favourite so far, although the 5-year-old's heart belongs to The Magician's Nephew). Later today, I have no doubt, I'll be cajoled into starting The Silver Chair.
Both girls are eager to forge ahead to The Last Battle, as they are consumed by curiosity about "how it all ends", especially given the fact that I have let slip that a lot of the characters from the earlier books come back into the storyline in The Last Battle. The 5-year-old, who's sharp as a tack, pounced on that straight away.
"But Mummy, Aslan said that Peter and Lucy and Edmund wouldn't come back to Narnia!"
Me: "Ummm, yes, well, that's true, but they do."
She, suspiciously, "It's for a sad reason, isn't it? Do they all die?"
How to answer that without giving away the whole plot pivot of The Last Battle?
"How about we wait and see, love?"
Weak answer, and she knows it, but the 7-year-old jumps in at that point to wax lyrical about how much she loves Lucy. Lucy is her favourite character by some margin.
Being a lifelong devotee of not just Narnia but of C S Lewis generally, I have so, so loved introducing the girls to Narnia this summer. I know all the standard objections to Lewis, and I'm not even in disagreement with some of them. Yes, his muscular Christianity can be intrusive (it's not exactly concealed - my girls sussed the Aslan-Jesus tie-up about halfway through the first of the books we read, The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe). The old-school-tie glorification of a particular kind of physical valour, the traditional gender roles, the implicit racism (to wit - the Calormenes, anyone?), the classism, it's all there in spades.
These books are just incredibly engrossing, vividly written, wonderfully magical stories. They suck me in to their world so quickly and easily, and I find them a joy to read, even now, especially as I am sharing them with my kids. I have always contended that Lewis is one of the great writerly-writers of his era - if your measure is the ability to use language to evoke feeling and interest and engagement. He knew how to write a clear, meaningful sentence - not a characteristic of all writers by any means - and with the exception of Prince Caspian (my least favourite of the seven books), I think the Narnia books are a triumph of intelligent plotting and characterisation. As my 7-year-old put it, "they don't drag along, Mum. There's always something to be thinking about."
As for the moral / religious themes, well, they may not be to everyone's taste, but it would be hard to argue with Lewis's sincerity. He profoundly believed in his faith and all the concomitant values it implied, and that deeply felt and carefully argued belief breathes through all his work, not just the Narnia books. His was a formidable intellect and a deep commitment to Christianity. I know some would maintain that sincerity is not in itself a sufficient justification but to me, Lewis's lack of artifice is a vital element in what makes Narnia so real and so wonderful. This, you sense, is the world that Lewis would like to live in, with love and faith made manifest every day. It is a hugely attractive world.
And I am anticipating, with both eagerness and trepidation, my girls' reaction to the big denouement of The Last Battle, whereupon everyone (except Susan - poor Susan) does, in fact, die, and come to the Lewisian heaven, out of the Shadowlands and into the Eternal Real. I may snivel as I read that last paragraph aloud - it has always affected me, and I still think it is one of the great conclusions of all time.
"And as He spoke He no longer looked to them like a lion; but the things that began to happen after that were so great and beautiful that I cannot write them. And for us this is the end of all the stories, and we can most truly say that they lived happily ever after. But for them it was only the beginning of the real story. All their life in this world and all their adventures in Narnia had only been the cover and the title page; now at last they were beginning Chapter One of the Great Story which no one on earth has ever read: which goes on forever: in which every chapter is better than the one before."
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