Book Review: The Way into Narnia

This may be the first time I have ever reviewed a book before I finished it. (Update: Finished 7/29/13 after finishing The Last Battle.) I didn’t set it aside because I disliked it: in fact, I liked it very much. But there is a chapter on each book in the Chronicles of Narnia series in The Way into Narnia: A Reader’s Guide by Peter Schakel, and I didn’t want to read the chapters covering the books I hadn’t reread yet. I’ll save the rest for Carrie‘s next Narnia challenge next year. But I didn’t want to wait a whole year to talk about this book!

The book first came to my attention when I looked up the Chronicles online at the local library and this book kept popping up in every search. I bristled at the title a little bit at first: it kind of rubbed me the wrong way that someone seemed to claim to have “the” right interpretation of the books (though that is not what he is claiming). But I decided to give it a try, and I am so glad I did.

Dr. Schakel had previously written or edited five books about C. S. Lewis with this being his third book on the Chronicles of Narnia, so he brings a familiarity and expertise with the subject matter to his writing. He begins with a very brief biography of Lewis recounting the influences that contributed to his writing the Chronicles, and then he gives a chapter to discussing  reading order and different texts. I knew there was a controversy about whether the books should be read in publication order or story order, but I hadn’t realized there Lewis had revised some of the text and yet current publishers publish the original rather than the revised (and improved, many believe) versions. Schakel then discusses storytelling in fairy tales, fantasy, and myth and then devotes one chapter to each of the Narnian books, discussing the plot, symbolism, etc.

This may sound a bit too much like English class for some…but I always liked English, myself. 🙂 Seriously, this is a very readable book, and Schakel brought out many insights that I had not considered or noticed.

For instance, I knew the first book took place during WWII, but it didn’t register how that time setting would have influenced reader’s feelings toward a tyrant like the white witch or a traitor like Edmund. And the tea with Mr. Tumnus, dinner with the Beavers, and various feasts must have sounded wonderful to people living with food rationing.

I also didn’t know that Lewis’s friend and colleague, J. R. R. Tolkien, didn’t like the eclecticism of Lewis’s including elements from all different kinds of mythological backgrounds (from Father Christmas to Greek and Norse myths) not because of the differing religiosity but just because he felt they didn’t “go” together.

I had read elsewhere that Lewis “came to regard pagan religions not as false but as incomplete, precursors to Christianity rather than contrary to it” (p. 9) and that explains his inclusion of some elements puzzling to some Christians. But I don’t understand how he came to that conclusion when many pagan religions worship someone or something other than the God of Judaism and Christianity. I would disagree with Lewis on that point but understanding his thinking does help in reading the books.

One of my favorite sections of the book was the discussion of fairy tales as literature. I included these quotes in another post, but wanted to share them here as well:

Fairy stories appeal to some adults and some children because the escape gained through fairy stories enables them to recover, or regain, a clear view of life, and to recover realities not recognized by those who limit reality to material objects…Tolkien says that spending time in an Other-world enables us as we return to see the everyday world renewed, noticing new mystery and complexity in creatures and objects we were taking for granted. (p. 29).

A fairy story is not “untrue”: “the peculiar quality of the joy in successful Fantasy can thus be explained as a sudden glimpse of the underlying reality or truth” on which the fairy story is constructed. It shows us “a far-off gleam or echo of evangelium” in an imaginary world and helps us recover that gleam in the everyday world we inhabit (p. 30). (Quoting a Tolkien lecture “On Fairy Stories” that Lewis edited for print.)

That just perfectly encapsulated for me the appeal of fairy tales.

Schakel also makes a compelling argument for reading the books in publication order rather than story order, going through first impressions and mentions of things in the first book of each order (The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe is the first in publication order and The Magician’s Nephew is the first in the chronology of the story) and comparing them. Reading LWW first seems to me to enhance the imagination and mystery and gradual discovery of the series.

I enjoyed reading the sections on each book as well. The chapter on Prince Caspian in particular brought out insights I had missed in the book. I had noted the place where Lucy was called to follow Aslan whether anyone else saw him or followed, but I had overlooked multiple references to believing vs. seeing — King Miraz suppressing the truth of Old Narnia to the point where the dwarves and other thought them mere myths, Caspian’s nanny and tutor believing and sharing, the discovery of relics that helped prove Old Narnia and the High Kings and Queens existed (and some, like Trumpkin, needing even further evidence before believing.) Schakel writes, “In Lewis’s thinking, the old adage must be reversed: Believing is seeing. Those who believe are able to see; those who do not believe cannot see” (p. 55). And, “In a story whose theme has been belief and trust, the decisive incidents, ironically, proceed through a series of violations of trust: the insubordination and rebellion of Nikabrik, the treachery of Glozelle and Sopespian in goading Miraz to fight and in attacking the Narnians before the combat has ended, and the infidelity of Glozelle in stabbing the fallen Miraz in the back” (p. 57). “The theme of this story, the quality that gives the book its distinctive flavor, is not that of heroism, the reliance on human efforts, but that of trust, of handing everything over and relying on Another” (p. 59). Caspian had been my least favorite of the first three books, but this discussion of it gave me a new appreciation for it.

Although the Chronicles of Narnia are highly enjoyable in themselves, this book enhanced by enjoyment and understanding of them even more. I can’t wait to read the rest of the series and this book next year. Yes, I know I could go ahead and read them all now, but having devoted most of one month to Narnia, I need to move on to other things, and I’ll wait to devote another month to the rest of the series. And like Lucy and Edmund at the beginning of Voyage of the Dawn-Treader, I’ll occasionally cast my eyes on things that remind me of Narnia and long for the day when I can return.

(This review will also be linked to Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books.)

10 thoughts on “Book Review: The Way into Narnia

  1. I thought I owned this book but a quick perusal of my bookshelves indicates that is not the case! I think I picked this one up from the library last year but never got a chance to get into it. (I picked up another that I read this year and disliked. Can’t decide whether or not to talk about it or not.) I’m glad to know that THIS one is so worthwhile. You mentioned some things I knew and several things I didn’t, so now I want to run out and snatch up a copy! =D I’m so glad you decided to talk about it this year.

    I love the way you concluded the post, of course. My son asked to read more Narnia yesterday and I decided to hold off. I’m not sure if I should continue to press on with him – especially since HE ASKED – or save our time. I’m just not sure.

  2. Oh, this sounds like a wonderful book! I enjoyed English too–unless the English-y folk get too wrapped up criticizing one another rather than focusing on the book they’re addressing (my complaint with C.S. Lewis: Writer, Dreamer, and Mentor, one of the books I read during this year’s challenge).

    And I absolutely *love* Tolkien and Lewis’s “theology of fairy-tales”. I appreciate the way types found in fairy tales can give clear our minds of the detritus of this physical world that so often obstructs our awareness of the spiritual world in which we also live.

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