What is Narnia? For many children and a great many adults the question needs no answer. The popularity of the seven Narnia tales makes that land better known than the real country of Upper Volta.

“The happy land of Narnia—Narnia of the heathery mountains and the thymy downs, Narnia of the many rivers, the plashing glens, the mossy caverns and the deep forests ringing with the hammers of the Dwarfs. Oh the sweet air of Narnia!” That sensuous description of what I consider C. S. Lewis’s richest imaginative country occurs in the fifth book in the series, The Horse and His Boy (Macmillan, 1972; all subsequent quotations from the seven books will be from this edition). Bree, the horse of the title, captures the love all Narnians, inside and outside the tales, feel for the land. Both children and adults read and reread the Narnia stories, and a million copies are sold each year.

The stories collectively entitled “The Chronicles of Narnia” were published one a year from 1950 to 1956 in this order: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Prince Caspian, The Voyage of the “Dawn Treader,” The Silver Chair, The Horse and His Boy, The Magician’s Nephew, and The Last Battle. According to Lewis, though, the proper order in which to read them is Nephew, Lion, Horse, Caspian, Voyage, Chair, and Battle. The year after Lion was published, Lewis in a letter commented on its sale: “A number of mothers, and still more, school mistresses, have decided that it is likely to frighten children, so it is not selling very well. But the real children like it, and I am astonished how some very young ones seem to understand it. I think it frightens some adults, but very few children” (Letters of C.S. Lewis).

Lewis must have anticipated such a problem. Near the end of Lion in a passage describing some evil creatures he speaks of “ogres with monstrous teeth, and wolves, and bull-headed men; spirits of evil trees and poisonous plants; and other creatures whom I won’t describe because if I did the grown-ups would probably not let you read this book.” According to Lewis’s secretary, Walter Hooper, “these seven fairy stories were an instant success with children, for whom they were ostensibly written. Parents read them to find out what all the ‘fuss’ was about, became converted, and pressed them on their friends” (preface to The Lion of Judah in Never-Never Land).

As stories for children the seven chronicles have received much praise. The New Yorker reviewed Lion in 1950: “It is, in turn, beautiful, frightening, wise, and nonsensical.” The Last Battle won the Carnegie Medal for the best children’s book published in 1955. Kathleen Raine in “From a Poet” says she has “given away many sets of these to children, who accept Narnia with a passion that testifies to its truth to some world of imagination we all share. I delight in them myself, and never find that they pall in however many readings children may demand.”

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Why are the tales so popular? Hooper gives the simplest explanation: “Lewis was a master story-teller with an uncanny visual imagination.” A brief overview of the main story ideas will give a glimpse of the sheer delightfulness of the narrative, though it will leave out much of the detail that gives the stories their extraordinary concreteness.

The seven chronicles tell the history of Narnia from its creation to its end. In The Magician’s Nephew two children, Digory Kirke and Polly Plummer, along with Digory’s Uncle Andrew, a witch, and a cab driver and his horse, stumble into Narnia at its creation. Aslan, a lion who is the son of the Emperor-Beyond-the-Sea, sings Narnia into existence and gives the gift of speech to two members of each animal species. The witch, whose evil power over Narnia is held in check for hundreds of years by the “Tree of Protection,” finally overcomes Narnia and makes the land always winter, but never Christmas.

Narnia’s release from the witch’s spell is told in Lion, where the four Pevensie children, Peter, Edmund, Susan, and Lucy, enter Narnia through a wardrobe in Professor Kirke’s (Digory’s) house. The wardrobe is made of wood from a tree, the seed of which came from Narnia’s Tree of Protection. Aslan reappears in Narnia to crown Peter as High King and to give the children the four thrones in the castle of Cair Paravel. Edmund in the course of the story betrays his sisters and brother to the White Witch; his life is forfeit. In order to save him, Aslan offers himself as sacrifice. The witch kills Aslan, but, since he was a willing substitute for another’s life, death works backward, and Aslan is soon alive again.

The Horse and His Boy, a tale within a tale, occurs during the golden reign of the High King Peter and his brother and two sisters. The talking horse Bree and his boy Shasta escape from Narnia’s southern neighbor Calormen. Along the way the two join another talking horse, the mare Hwin and her girl Aravis. Aslan appears to the travelers in several guises to help the four save Narnia and her ally Archenland. Shasta learns near the end of the tale that he is a prince of Archenland, that his real name is Cor, and that he has a twin brother, Prince Corin. Cor eventually becomes king of Archenland.

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While hunting the White Stag, the Pevensie children stumble back into England, ending their golden reign of Narnia (this concludes Lion). They discover that no time passed in England while they ruled Narnia. The four children return a year later, by English time, but hundreds of years later by Narnian time, to help Prince Caspian, the rightful king of Narnia, regain the throne from his Uncle Miraz, under whose reign the Old Narnians (the talking animals, dwarfs, fauns, satyrs, centaurs, and giants) have gone into hiding. In this story, too, Aslan returns to help the children to victory. At the end of Prince Caspian, Peter and Susan learn that their days of visiting Narnia are over; they are now too old.

Edmund and Lucy return with their cousin, Eustace Clarence Scrubb (“he almost deserved” his name, says Lewis), during King Caspian X’s reign. This time the children never actually visit the land itself but fall through a painting on Eustace’s wall to a ship’s deck traveling to the east and the end of the world. During the voyage Scrubb becomes a dragon, learns humility, and subsequently returns to human form (the boy, because of bad training at home and school, needed much changing). At the end of Voyage Lucy and Edmund find they have seen the last of Narnia.

Aslan calls Scrubb back into Narnia, along with Scrubb’s schoolmate, Jill Pole. Caspian’s son, Prince Rilian, must be found and released from the Green Witch’s captivity. To help the children with the task Aslan gives them certain signs to look for, all of which the children miss—except the last one. Scrubb’s and Pole’s quest-companion, a Marsh-wiggle named Puddleglum, provides the common sense the children lack. A Marsh-wiggle is tall and thin, with webbed feet, and takes a very serious view of life. Puddleglum is Lewis’s best Narnian creation. And The Silver Chair is the most amusing, entertaining, and perhaps philosophical of all the tales. The companions complete their task of freeing Rilian and return to Narnia just in time for the death of Rilian’s father, King Caspian.

Once more Aslan calls Scrubb and Pole to Narnia, this time not to save the country but to fight in its last battle. King Tirian and his companions die along with Narnia. But at death they find themselves in a land of bright sunshine, green grass, and blue sky. They also find Lucy, Edmund, Peter, the Professor, Polly, and Narnia’s first king and queen, Frank and Helen, in the land. As Aslan explains to them, “There was a real railway accident. Your father and mother and all of you are—as you used to call it in the Shadow-Lands—dead.” All the characters of the Narnia tales except Susan, who stopped believing in Narnia when she became an adult, are reunited in the Narnia that never ends, which is in these stories a type of Heaven.

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Lewis labeled Narnia “for children.” What did he say about the art of writing “juveniles”? How does he accomplish this in Narnia? And what does Narnia offer children? I must emphasize, as Lewis does, that his books were written for adults as well as children. Perhaps it would be better to say that Lewis wrote Narnia for the childlike. Not all children will like Narnia, since not all like fairy tales or fantasies. Some people, like Lewis himself or Tolkien or me, may gravitate to fantasy in adulthood. Lewis understood that there were as many different types of child readers as adult readers.

I think parents should read fairy tales to their children. That genre requires, at least initially, oral, rather than silent, reading. The excitement comes from hearing the story, as though it were happening at that instant. Also, the author must touch something within a child, so that the two separate personalities understand one another. Lewis described it this way in “On Three Ways of Writing For Children”: “Once in a hotel dining-room I said, rather too loudly, ‘I loathe prunes.’ ‘So do I,’ came an unexpected six-year-old voice from another table. Sympathy was instantaneous. Neither of us thought it was funny. We both knew that prunes are far too nasty to be funny. That is the proper meeting between man and child as independent personalities.… [An author] is a freeman and an equal, like the postman, the butcher, and the dog next door.”

Lewis wrote for children because he had a story to tell. It seemed to him that most of the adult reading population was more interested in psychological characterization than in a ripping good tale, while children still were able to enjoy a story. He outlined three ways to write for children: write a story giving children what you think they want or need, write a story from a story told extemporaneously to a particular child, or write a children’s story because that is the form best suited to what you have to say. He used the latter way, and in “On Juvenile Tastes” deplored the former: “The wrong sort [of writers for children] believe that children are ‘a distinct race.’ They carefully ‘make up’ the tastes of these odd creatures—like an anthropologist observing the habits of a savage tribe—or even the tastes of a clearly defined age-group within a particular social class within the ‘distinct race.’ They dish up not what they like themselves but what that race is supposed to like. Educational and moral, as well as commercial, motives may come in.”

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It is interesting that Lewis was hard on those who write to teach children “morals.” The Narnia tales have been criticized for just that reason. Since Lewis was an outspoken Christian, and since his children’s stories contain a great deal of, at times, thinly veiled Christianity and what are now considered old-fashioned moral virtues, people assume that he wrote his stories to teach certain things. “This,” he says, “is all pure moonshine. I couldn’t write in that way at all. Everything began with images; a faun carrying an umbrella, a queen on a sledge, a magnificent lion. At first there wasn’t even anything Christian about them; that element pushed itself in of its own accord” (“Sometimes Fairy Stories May Say Best What’s to Be Said”). The author in him fell in love with the form of a child’s fairy tale.

Writing for children brings necessary restrictions on vocabulary, reflective passages, digressions, and descriptions of erotic love. And Lewis tried to write chapters of equal length for convenience in reading aloud. Those limitations paradoxically provided Lewis the right amount of freedom to create a world that the reader can see and smell and almost touch. There are no wasted words or chapters or ideas. Form and content meld into a compact, artistic unity.

After the author in him began to boil, he says the man in him “began to have his turn”:

I thought I saw how stories of this kind could steal past a certain inhibition which had paralysed much of my own religion in childhood. Why did one find it so hard to feel as one was told one ought to feel about God or about the sufferings of Christ? I thought the chief reason was that one was told one ought to. An obligation can freeze feelings. And reverence itself did harm … But supposing that by casting all these things into an imaginary world, stripping them of their stained-glass and Sunday school associations, one could make them for the first time appear in their real potency? Could one not thus steal past those watchful dragons? I thought one could [“Sometimes Fairy Stories May Say Best What’s to Be Said,” in Of Other Worlds, Harcourt, 1966, p. 37].
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Lewis did not think it wrong for a story to contain a moral; all his do. But he did think it wrong to put in morals as medicine. If a writer wants a moral in his story, he should include one he needs. That gives some immediacy. Even so, Lewis thought starting with didacticism was sure to produce a bad moral as well as a bad story.

In letters and essays Lewis wrote much about the requirements of good writing, no matter what the form. Write for the ear, not the eye. Use simple, straightforward language. Describe a situation or an emotion. Make the reader feel or see what you are presenting; don’t rely heavily on adjectives or adverbs. Read as many good books as possible, but avoid nearly all magazines (the one the reader now has in hand is, of course, an exception). And always write about what interests you. Following the last suggestion an author will never write down to anyone but will find those universal interests (or dislikes, as with prunes) that bridge the gap between the author, the printed page, and the reader. That is particularly important when the author is an adult and the reader a child.

Lewis certainly follows his own advice in the Narnia tales. Though the simple vocabulary under less talented hands would sound stilted, he manages to explain situations and describe scenes clearly and vividly. Even when the scene is utterly fantastic—such as entering another country through a wardrobe—touches of what Lewis calls “presentational realism” (a technique he learned from medieval romance) brings the scene immediately before the mind’s eye.

The four children are exploring the professor’s house on a rainy day when they discover the room with the wardrobe. “There was nothing else in the room at all except a dead blue-bottle on the window-sill,” says Lewis. That small detail is a contact point between the reader and the writer. Each of us remembers rainy days and dead bugs, and that simple sentence conveys well how empty the room is. Lewis uses the technique repeatedly. Lucy opens the wardrobe and two mothballs drop out. After a long march the children are tired and “Susan had a slight blister on one heel.” Similar touches are found in paragraph after paragraph.

The dialogue, too, flows naturally. The children get tired and cranky, and the older ones lord it over the younger ones. Here’s an example that occurs early in Lion:

“I think he’s an old dear,” said Susan [about the professor], “Oh, come off it!” said Edmund, who was tired and pretending not to be tired, which always made him bad-tempered. “Don’t go on talking like that.” “Like what?” said Susan; “and anyway, it’s time you were in bed.” “Trying to talk like Mother,” said Edmund. “And who are you to say when I’m to go to bed? Go to bed yourself’ [p. 2].
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Lewis spends a lot of time talking about such basics as food and drink. Narnians celebrate victories with sumptuous feasts. But during wars, food and water are scarce. Eating and drinking are universals Lewis shares with his readers; they are also part of common grace. Aslan in creating Narnia provided plenty of good things to be enjoyed as gifts of the Creator and not for themselves alone. The simple description of the first tea Lucy has in Narnia makes the reader hungry: “And really it was a wonderful tea. There was a nice brown egg, lightly boiled … and then sardines on toast, and then buttered toast, and then toast with honey, and then a sugar-topped cake.” The reader who doesn’t like boiled eggs or sardines is likely to feel that there must be something about them that he has been missing.

Lewis in different ways throughout all seven books presents the potency of Christianity. A good example is found in The Magician’s Nephew:

Both children were looking up into the Lion’s face.… And all at once (they never knew exactly how it happened) the face seemed to be a sea of tossing gold in which they were floating, and such a sweetness and power rolled about them and over them and entered into them that they felt they had never really been happy or wise or good, or even alive and awake, before. And the memory of that moment stayed with them always, so that as long as they both lived, if ever they were sad or afraid or angry, the thought of all that golden goodness, and the feeling that it was still there, quite close, just around some corner or behind some door, would come back and make them sure, deep down inside, that all was well [p. 160].

Paul describes it as peace passing understanding, and theologians explain it as the work of the Holy Spirit. Lewis brings it to us in beautiful, evocative language that appeals to our senses as well as our minds.

Lewis offers children, then, a vivid story filled with familiar details and extraordinary events. He also presents to them logic, differing concepts of time, loyalty, how to tell whether someone is telling the truth or lying, common sense, love, sacrifice, evil and goodness, war and violence, death, and the importance of the imagination. Children learn what pride is, how difficult obedience can be, and how temptation works. In short, Lewis introduces them to reality, both physical and spiritual.

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Another scene from The Magician’s Nephew explains love and temptation and obedience in a striking, real way. Aslan sends Digory to get an apple from a faraway garden to plant in Narnia as the tree of protection. One bite of the fruit brings health and youth, and Digory’s mother is dying. The witch tempts him to steal an apple for his mother. She says, “ ‘All will be well again. Your home will be happy again. You will be like other boys.’ ‘Oh!’ gasped Digory as if he had been hurt, and put his hand to his head. For he now knew that the most terrible choice lay before him” (p. 145). But promises—he had promised Aslan—and loyalty—the witch suggests he leave his friend Polly behind—help Digory see how “false and hollow” are the witch’s suggestions. He learns that real love for his mother means acting as she would expect him to, not saving her life at any price. He also finds out what it means to obey Aslan. Such a passage gives children a better understanding of Christ’s statement that loving and following him make our relationships with parents seem like hate. And for those children who read the book and have no knowledge of Christ, hearing about him in later life could trigger a memory of that passage: “Oh, yes. I remember reading something like that years ago. I see what the Bible means.” Of course what follows in the story—Aslan gives Digory an apple for his mother, who does recover—shows that for God’s children all events work for good.

In Voyage Eustace Scrubb learns the price of pride the hard way. After he turns into a dragon his superiority gives way to humility and helpfulness. Aslan rips off the dragonskin to make him a new boy—human for the first time. Eustace explains it to Edmund: “The only thing that made me able to bear it was just the pleasure of feeling the stuff peel off. You know—if you’ve picked the scab of a sore place. It hurts like billy-oh but it is such fun to see it coming away” (p. 89).

War and other forms of violence play a great part in the stories of Narnia. They are always a direct result of evil, the tyrannical inflicting of one person’s wishes on a whole country. Lewis describes battles with realism, as when Peter fights the wolf captain to save Susan in Lion:

Peter did not feel very brave; indeed, he felt he was going to be sick. But that made no difference to what he had to do. He rushed straight up to the monster.… He had just time to duck down and plunge his sword, as hard as he could, between the brute’s forelegs into its heart. Then came a horrible, confused moment like something in a nightmare, He was tugging and pulling and the Wolf seemed neither alive nor dead, and its bared teeth knocked against his forehead, and everything was blood and heat and hair [p. 106].
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People have objected to the realism with which Lewis depicts war. The possibility of the death of the children, too, is always present in the story. During a duel in Prince Caspian Peter tells Edmund, “Give my love to … to everyone at home, Ed, if he gets me.… So long, old chap.” Lewis doesn’t pull back from the logical possibility that war in Narnia may result in the death of one or all of the children. But he thought that to avoid violence was “to give children a false impression and feed them on escapism in the bad sense”:

Since it is so likely that they will meet cruel enemies, let them at least have heard of brave knights and heroic courage. Otherwise you are making their destiny not brighter but darker.… Let there be wicked kings and beheadings, battles and dungeons, giants and dragons, and let villains be soundly killed at the end of the book [“On Three Ways of Writing For Children,” in Of Other Worlds, Harcourt, 1966, p. 31].

Narnia demands much of the children who enter there. No one can visit that land without undergoing some change. Edmund finds out he’s a traitor and must seek and receive forgiveness. Eustace needs to be converted. Digory must learn to obey. In each tale the children learn that courage, resourcefulness, and sheer hard work are necessary in their adventures. The presence of death is part of the atmosphere that teaches them these things. The Last Battle is the only children’s story know of in which everyone and everything dies. But after their deaths the children find light, not darkness; they have escaped from death into life. (But Lewis is not giving us universalism in fancy dress. Susan does not get into the final Narnia.)

Behind all these ideas stands imagination. Lewis constantly appeals to the reader’s imaginations: Have you heard it? Can you remember? Can you see it? Here is where he explains spiritual reality. The fact that we cannot see or touch something does not mean that it does not exist; empiricism cannot explain everything. The Green Witch in The Silver Chair tries to make the children doubt the reality of sun and sky and lions by saying they are made-up things, only products of the imagination. Naturally in Narnia such an argument fails, for using imagination helps us know reality. As the witch strums her mandolin she says, “Your sun is a dream; and there is nothing in that dream that was not copied from the lamp. The lamp is the real thing; the sun is but a tale, a children’s story. (A children’s story symbolizes spiritual reality for Lewis.) To too many people the supernatural is merely an imaginative—and therefore false—copy of the physical world. The witch equates her underworld with our world; the lamp in her world is the reality of which the sun is a mere image. She does the same thing with Aslan, calling him an enlarged version of cat: “And look how you can put nothing into your make-believe without copying it from the real world, this world of mine, which is the only world.

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Shelley in “A Defence of Poetry” says that “a man, to be greatly good, must imagine intensely and comprehensively; he must put himself in the place of another and of many others.… The great instrument of moral good is the imagination.… Poetry strengthens the faculty which is the organ of the moral nature of man, in the same manner as exercise strengthens a limb.” Christ’s command to love your neighbor as yourself is an appeal to imagination.

Lewis uses that idea in Narnia. He draws the reader into the tales by imagination, and stretches and exercises that faculty so that children will recognize good and evil (for instance) in the real world because they have with their imaginations experienced it in Narnia. Aslan uses that faculty to teach the children who he is in England. Lucy and Edmund find it hard to part with Aslan, knowing they are too old to return to Narnia:

“It isn’t Narnia, you know,” sobbed Lucy. “It’s you. We shan’t meet you there. And how can we live, never meeting you?”
“But you shall meet me, dear one,” said Aslan.
“Are—are you there too, Sir?” said Edmund.
“I am,” said Aslan. “But there I have another name. You must learn to know me by that name. This was the very reason why you were brought to Narnia, that by knowing me here for a little, you may know me better there [p. 209].

We can say of Lewis what he says of another fantasy writer in “William Morris”: “He seems to retire far from the real world and to build a world out of his wishes; but when he has finished the result stands out as a picture of experience ineluctably true.… There are many writers greater than [Lewis]. You can go on from him to all sorts of subtleties, delicacies, and sublimities which he lacks. But you can hardly go behind him.”

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