The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, by C. S. Lewis

December 28, 2011 at 23:11 (Adventure, Book Reviews, Children's Books, Classic Literature, Fantasy, Fiction, Highly Rated Books) (, , , )

10/10

That C. S. Lewis wrote The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe as a private story for a young child is a fact that should impress itself on affectionate fans and cool critics alike. This was not intended to be high literature, or a clear and polished allegorical theological work, or even in the usual sense of things, a children’s book. It is important to know what to expect from this book, and equally important to realise that as an informal story, there are plenty of asides that serve little purpose to a serious story . All of the coming-and-going between our world and Narnia in the first several chapters for instance, might have been summed up elegantly and precisely by a more professional author in only a chapter or two. The time wasted chatting with Tumnus or with Father Christmas, or even the lengthy supper with the Beavers, might have been much more economically processed, leaving time for side-plots that would significantly advance the story rather than serve as waystations on an otherwise straightforward route.

“And then she saw that there was a light ahead of her–not a few inches away where the back of the wardrobe ought to have been, but a long way off. Something cold and soft was falling on her. A moment later she found that she was standing in the middle of a wood at night-time with snow under her feet and snowflakes falling through the air.”

-The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe

But Lewis was writing for a small girl, for whom the fantasy and the excitement of taking tea with a real faun was an end and a goal in itself. One need not fight ogres with a unicorn to know that a unicorn is a magical and fantastical beast. Lewis clearly decided early on in the process of writing this book that his was a story simple enough and with enough free space to gladly accomodate long and lazy asides; for him to feel comfortable in stopping the story altogether and exploring (with some deserved self-satisfaction) the world he had wrought. Any writer might see the wisdom for pausing the pace of an adventure to delve a little deeper into certain important characters (and indeed, this might be what is going on in the earlier chapters, in Professor Kirke’s home) but to have the confidence to dally–not just to provide exposition (which the Beavers admittedly do in spades)–but to go fishing, to cook a luxurious meal, to tour the Beavers’ home, or to spend an entire chapter breakfasting with a minor and very much uninvolved character such as Father Christmas; these lengthy pauses in the storyline demonstrate quite clearly that this book’s chief concern is the author’s (and the reader’s) glee and delight in a new world to explore, even more than the adventurous plot.

It is interesting also to see where Lewis’ attention goes, even when he remains on-track. The omission of most of the climactic battle in favour of a tender and tragic, and then ecstatic observation of Aslan’s death and resurrection, seems to speak volumes about what this book is really about: the air of indescribable mystery, of ancient and veiled power suddenly brought to bear dynamically and with apocalyptic results, the sudden and swiftly changing savours of tragedy and celebration, the impish joy and the solemn sadness and the grim satisfaction. And through it all, Lewis never loses track of his two most crucial characters: Lucy and Edmund, both richly symbolic and at the same time utterly believable as children; both sidelined and passed over by their fellow characters, but doggedly gripped by the author’s attention. That Lewis was able to tell his story so clearly, in spite of his deliberate pauses and his intentionally wayward focus, and yet keep his two most important and representative characters so firmly in the centre of the reader’s attention, continues to be marvellous.

Looking at The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe in the context of the rest of the Narnia series (or even in the context of the quick and shiny world of contemporary children’s fantasy), it is easy to criticise the book’s dullness and lack of diversity. The kids arrive, they meet the Lion and the Witch, the Witch loses. End of story. Oh, there is growth and there are moments of beautiful sweetness and Lewis’ consistently excellent dialogue, but the story is generally a straight line. But the question might be asked, whether that makes it weaker than a more complex story. Certainly The Magician’s Nephew, for instance, combines a vaster array of incredible locations, a much larger cast of vividly coloured characters and a half-dozen competing storylines, each of which any fantasy author might give his right hand to have come up with. But in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe Lewis makes simplicity an art, and through a straightforward and barely adorned storyline manages to convey complex truths and deeply mystical ideas in an unassuming and unparalleled way. He manages to write timeless villains and heroes with enough depth to captivate and enough left unsaid to be easily caught up around the central thrust of the story without hijacking it for their own purposes. And he has managed to create a book that can stand with its head held high above the clamour of criticism and the petty arguments that seek to assail it, and that will be a deserving classic for the next hundred years.

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6 Comments

  1. Rebecca said,

    Excellent review of one of my all time favorites. 🙂

  2. thiskidreviewsbooks said,

    I really love this series. My favorite is The Magician’s Nephew followed by Voyage of the Dawn Treader. I think people will be reading these books fo a long time too.

    • J. Holsworth Stevenson said,

      That’s one of my favourites, too. What makes it your favourite?

      • thiskidreviewsbooks said,

        I like the Magician’s Nephew because of the discovery of a new place and the story of how Narnia was created. I also like how they travel to different worlds. I like the adventure in Voyage of the Dawn Treader.

  3. David said,

    It has been many years since I have read it, but I appreciate your focus on Lewis’ motivation for writing it in the first place. When I reread Prince Caspian in 2008, I noticed how uneven and rushed many parts of it felt, compared to the typical fantasy novel structure we have come to expect. He skips past the battles and focuses on little moments and discussions, exploring his world and characters for their own sake and including the adventure almost as an afterthought. Such was my impression. I’ll have to think on this idea more when I return to the series. I’ve always loved it, but felt that, for all its brilliance, it was a tad unpolished. (Tolkien complained similarly, I think.) But it’s helpful to remember why Lewis wrote them in the first place, and what he was trying to achieve. Writing for a young child — and for a specific child — is much different from writing a “young adult” novel of the kind that is so mass-produced today.

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