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18 August 2010

Book Review: The Chronicles of Narnia

In what order should these be read?  Publication? Composition?  Chronological?

This review is listed in the Chronological-by-Narnia-events order in which they are now published.  I read them in a slightly different order;  I'll call it the "Krista-is-confused-and-grumpy-that-she-has-to-research-so-much-crap-to-discover-how-to-read-seven-damn-books" Order;  The Magician's Nephew, The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, Prince Caspian, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, The Silver Chair, The Horse and His Boy, The Last Battle.

The Magician's Nephew
I didn't enjoy the Chronicles of Narnia as a child. At all. 

Ergo, I never read The Magician's Nephew because, back in the olden days, it was the sixth book in the series and I never made it that far, petering out halfway through Dawn Treader. 

Now, of course, it is the first. So I read it first on this mid-life journey through these well-loved books that I've never loved, let alone well. 

However, I did enjoy this book more than I expected to, having preconceived notions and fears about the mannered clunkydom and inconsistent narrative prevalent in the rest of the series. 

It was mannered as heck, to be sure. And I despised it for a good long time. But I did have a surprising amount of joy in finding the answers to why the lamp post is there. And why the Professor was so sure Lucy was truthful. And why Narnia came to be. 

And, truth be told, the creation myth of Narnia is one of the more beautifully woven myths I've ever read.

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe
I may be sought out and lynched once this review hits the interwebs but, for me, there's not much to this book worth recommending. And it's not just because I've lost my whimsey as I've aged. I didn't find it engaging as a child, either. Even then, at the tender age of eight or nine, I remember thinking, "Did anyone else read this before he published it?" I had the same thoughts during this read-through; a disjunct tapestry, at moments beautifully woven with fine silk and at other moments slapped together loosely with rough-hewn yarn. The author's voice wanders about, trying out styles like they are hors d'oeuvres at a fancy party at which you feel self-conscious about ingesting too much of anything for fear of being thought a glutton.

There are clever bits, to be sure. And I won't even bother to discourse about the Christian symbolism and allegory about which even C.S. Lewis was of two minds as to whether they were purposefully written or not.

But it didn't captivate me. Certainly it has its place as an inspiration to countless other writers and storytellers. That isn't something to sneeze at.

The dedication was endearing as hell and I found myself wishing the book lived up to the voice Lewis used to write it.

And I wonder if anyone anywhere has done a count as to the number of times C.S. Lewis uses the phrase "ten to one" in this book. If they haven't, they should.

The Horse and His Boy
My favorite Narnia book so far! I loved the descriptions and the fully-rendered story. The characters were also much more likable than in previous books.

And perhaps I am simply growing used to the Lewis style, but I thought the mannerism and stiffness of the prose was less stringent in this book than in the others.

The moral of the story of this one, ignoring the Christian context, seems to be "... if you do a good deed your reward usually is to be set to do another and harder and better one."

And I laughed out loud at the following (which contains a spoiler, incidentally)

"Aravis also had many quarrels (and, I'm afraid, even fights) with Cor, but they always made it up again: so that years later, when they were grown up, they were so used to quarreling and making up again that they got married so as to go on doing it more conveniently." 

Prince Caspian
I found this book to be strong from a story-telling point of view but only in the portions where Prince Caspian's story was told in flashback; once the story returned to the Pevensie children, it lost me again in a whitewash of too much plot told in too few words leaving too many holes and too many questions. Which is perhaps the point?

There's something about these books that only hints at epic; perhaps it becomes epic when one has read them enough times to fill in the holes for oneself but, on first reading, it seems only a draft sketch rather than a full-fledged chronicle.

I did enjoy two quotes immensely;

When the children are discussing that they, like genies, can be summoned at any time, Edmund says, "Golly! It's a bit uncomfortable to know that we can be whistled for like that. It's worse than what Father says about living at the mercy of the telephone." Imagine what poor Edmund's father would be thinking in our current world.

Later, as if in answer to all the critics who would call him a sexist pig, Lewis puts these words in the mouths of babes;
"That's the worst of girls," said Edmund to Peter and the Dwarf. "They never carry a map in their heads."
"That's because our heads have something inside them," said Lucy.

The Voyage of the Dawn Treader
Still wishing the descriptions and adventures were more fleshed out. Lewis's AD/HD style of wanting to move on before really getting to the heart of the matter suits this book well, as it is, in a sense, a travel log of people who move on before they get to the heart of the matter.

I enjoyed the introduction of Eustace, one of those characters, found often in books aimed at children, built specifically to sketch moral lessons on how not to be (like Edmund in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and Susan in Prince Caspian). Unlike his handling of the children in the previous books, Lewis presents Eustace well; both his sin and his redemption are sketched without the level of preachy and tsk-y that one might expect. Instead, Lewis infuses him with laugh-out-loud ridiculousness right alongside his nastiness. The opening line of the book sets the tone for how Lewis will handle him; "There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it." Where you found yourself wanting to punish Edmund, quite severely, in the first (or second) book and slap whiny Susan in the third (or fifth) book, with Eustace you just want to laugh at his cheek and do a quick check of yourself to make sure you are free of traits like his. It's almost a shame when he reforms, really.

The Silver Chair
I'm sure it would be tiresome to mention that this book annoyed me in the same way that the final book of Pullman's His Dark Materials did but there it is. Don't beat me over the head with your depiction of the Underworld, Underlands or whatever you want to call it, and the powers of darkness. I get it.

And the children in this one were bleak and beastly; I didn't like either of them and it's hard to care about characters you don't really like. I grew to like Puddleglum but I wanted to throw the book out the window during the first 20 pages of his presence in it. Thank goodness it was 100 degrees outside and the windows were closed.

AND (yes, there's more) Lewis gets a little heavy handed with the hints that everyone who is not a Christian is worthless (particularly when describing the school the children attend, writing something about how the main problem with it is that no one there knows what the Bible is); nettlesome.

However, despite all of that, the adventure was readable and interesting. As always.

The Last Battle

Two things in this book surprised me. The first was the fact that it seemed complete; like Lewis actually took some time about crafting the story line and filling out the line with details that made it a story worth reading. At least until Aslan finally showed up; then it returned to the tried-and-true sketchy storytelling that seems par for the course in the series.

The second was a moment that almost smacked of religious pluralism ... almost. Good deeds done in anyone's name are good deeds done in God's name. Of course, God has to have a particular name but I do admit to raised eyebrows of gratified surprise that Lewis gives non-believers that free pass.

But then ... and here comes a big fat spoiler. Stop reading now if you don't know that ...

THEY ALL DIE IN A TRAIN CRASH? What the hell kind of ending is that? And how could Lewis have been so heartlessly cavalier and brief and matter-of-fact about his manner of presenting this great tragedy?

And what the hell is the meaning of leaving Susan out of eternal bliss simply because she's currently enamored with lipstick?

And I guess, for staunch Christians, eternal life is their highest aim. Of course it is. But to dismiss the value of life on earth, or in Narnia, because they are only "shadowlands" is, I think, a piss poor message for a book that claims to be for children. Give us a little more of the doing good deeds part and less about the fact that it all doesn't matter in the end, anyway, as long as you are a true believer. If you believe you can act any damn way you please and, by the way, dying ain't no big deal. So go ahead and don't be careful or anything. Deal?

And I guess I wouldn't be nearly as irked if that wasn't the very part and parcel of why Christianity, or any religion, really, gives me pause.

All of that said, it was the most "epic" of the Chronicle books and captivated me moreso than any other, save The Horse and His Boy

And now, having read the whole series, I look at the individual books differently. As I am supposed to, I guess. And the story arc displays craft in design if not always in full-fledged execution.

But the ending ... the ending. Wow, Jack. Were you on deadline? 

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