Ranking Narnia: C.S. Lewis’ Highs and Lows (Part 2)
Each of the seven books has its fans, but they’re not all masterpieces.
See also: Part 1
If the Odyssey-like journey east in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (see Part 1) is the finest achievement of mythic worldbuilding in the Narnia stories, the second finest is in the descent into the underworld in The Silver Chair.
Not only are Underworld itself and the Earthmen splendid creations, Lewis gestures evocatively toward greater wonders still in the land of Bism in the true depths of the Narnian world.
For a moment Prince Rilian’s imagination is captured by the thought of matching his father’s voyage to the world’s end by journeying himself to its foundations. Had such a sojourn been more than a tantalizing possibility, The Silver Chair might rank ahead of The Voyage of the Dawn Treader.
We also glimpse the sleeping monsters of chaos that will awaken at Narnia’s Ragnarok, and the giant Time whose awakening will herald the dawn of eternity. Lewis is already laying the foundations for The Last Battle.
There’s a lot of great stuff going on in The Silver Chair, starting with Jill’s arrival in Aslan’s country and her unnerving first encounter with the mysterious Lion — with no assurance here that he’s good even if he isn’t safe! — who swallows up girls and boys and cities and realms. This is Aslan at his most unnerving and least reassuring.
Riding on Aslan’s breath! It’s even better than riding on his back, or riding Fledge the winged horse in The Magician’s Nephew.
Puddleglum, the stalwart pessimist, whose gloomy disposition belies the truest and wisest of hearts, is one of Narnia’s most justly beloved characters.
Above all, Puddleglum’s magnificent defiance of the Queen of Underland — his heroic stamping out of the bewitching fire and his ringing existential declaration of loyalty to Aslan, Lewis’ final rebuttal of materialistic reductionism — is among the most beloved passages in all of Lewis’ writings. I believe it’s largely for the sake of this single page that The Silver Chair ranks first in many personal rankings.
There are also sticking points. The murder of Rilian’s mother completes the disservice done to a character whose exotic origin — the daughter of a fallen star! — should have made her worthy at least of a name, if not a more substantial role.
Then there’s the heroes’ encounter with the Lady of the Green Kirtle. Almost every child hearing this story for the first time knows immediately that the Lady is the beautiful woman in green that Drinian saw bewitching Rilian. Most easily guess that her silent companion in full plate armor, his face hidden by his helmet, is Rilian himself.
Jill was clever enough to postulate at the owl parliament that the woman in green who bewitched Rilian was the same as the green serpent who killed his mother, which seems like quite a leap for a Narnian first-timer.
Yet now literally the first person the heroes meet on their journey to search for Rilian is a beautiful woman in a dazzling green dress — and none of them wonders if this too might not be the same green-clad woman/serpent? Not even Puddleglum, who suspects she might be up to no good?
Most glaringly, granted that Aslan tasks Jill with memorizing the four Signs, it’s absurd that Eustace and Puddleglum simply rely on her to keep track of them on her own rather than committing them to memory themselves and taking equal responsibility for them. There’s just no reason they shouldn’t all be thinking as they walk along “The next sign is writing on a stone in the ruined giant city.”
I understand Lewis wants to make a point about the children being distracted from their task by hopes of hot baths, but Puddleglum seems unnecessarily vague (“Oh, that was next, was it? Now I wonder, are you right? Got ’em mixed, I shouldn’t wonder”).
As The Magician’s Nephew gives Narnia its Genesis story, The Last Battle builds to a resounding Apocalypse. For those who love this book best, its great achievement is the final act, and especially the last page — according to which all the 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 read: which goes on for ever: in which every chapter is better than the one before.
As many times as I’ve read these books aloud to my kids, I can’t read those final lines without choking up — and I’m certainly not alone in that. The whole last act (“Farther up and farther in!”) is transcendent.
Even more than the wardrobe door, the stable door between the worlds shaped my thinking from childhood. (It is one of two images from books of my childhood, the other being Madeline L’Engle’s explanation of a tesseract in A Wrinkle in Time, that helped me to begin to understand the Real Presence of Jesus’ body and blood in the Holy Eucharist.)
Getting to the stable door, though, is a bit of a slog.
The book opens on a strangely circumstantial note, with the discovery of a lion skin by the foolish donkey Puzzle and the wicked ape Shift — Lewis’s apocalyptic Beast and his False Prophet — and Shift’s spontaneous plot to create a false Aslan.
In marked contrast to The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, there’s no sense here of a world in expectation, ripe for some cataclysmic, world-changing event. It seems as if life in Narnia is proceeding quite uneventfully, perhaps even idyllically, until a nasty ape came out of nowhere and turned everything upside down.
Yes, Roonwit the centaur reports seeing apocalyptic signs in the sky, but dramatically it feels out of nowhere. This is not good mythopoeia or fairy-tale logic. Someone might try to defend it theologically by appealing to Jesus’ life-goes-on remarks about “eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage,” but that’s certainly not the feel you get from the Book of Revelation.
I submit that the Narnian world should feel at the start of this book somehow old and exhausted — not in the same way as Charn in The Magician’s Nephew, but in its own way. Events long in motion should create an opening for Shift to strike.
Tirian, the last king of Narnia, is pretty generic. There are no new characters here to compare with Reepicheep or Puddleglum, Shasta or Aravis. Puzzle is amiable enough, but Shift turns out to have a small, mean mind, and neither he nor Rishda Tarkaan makes for a notable villain. (Ginger the cat has more personality than both of them.)
The hellish syncretism of “Tashlan” is one of the books’ most inspired conceits, and Aslan’s welcome of the Calormene Emeth (whose name is Hebrew for “Truth”) — by implication, Lewis’s affirmation of the hope of salvation of non-Christians — has moved and encouraged countless readers.
The manifestation of Tash himself as a terrifying demonic presence is a fascinating twist, though his existence and place in the Narnian world is left entirely unexplained.
Still, the appearance of Tash has the effect of literally demonizing the whole Calormene culture, also here allied with the Beast and the False Prophet as well as with the devil. Lewis draws here on a patristic tradition going back to St. Paul that idolaters worship demons — but this deepens issues first raised by The Horse and His Boy.
Unique among the Narnian stories, The Horse and His Boy is the only one of the seven that doesn’t follow children from our world into the Narnian world, and the only one to extensively develop a cultural setting in the Narnian world outside Narnia itself.
This differentness is both the book’s strength and its weakness, the basis for its claim to be one of the best books in the series and its vulnerability to criticism.
On the one hand, it’s got a terrific main ensemble: Shasta, Aravis, Bree, and Hwin. In particular, The Horse and His Boy has more notable female characters than any other Narnia book: not just Aravis and Hwin but also Lasaraleen, Susan, and Lucy.
No great villain, to be sure. Perhaps that’s not much of a problem, though; perhaps this Narnian story doesn’t need a villain.
There are other strengths, including Tashbaan, one of the most vivid locations in the Narnian world.
Yet to contemporary eyes Lewis’ depiction of the Calormenes, and especially the contrasts between Narnia and Calormen, raise difficult issues.
To some critics, the contrast between the light-skinned Narnians and the dark-skinned Calormenes smacks of racism. I agree with Lewis’s defenders that this charge is somewhat overblown — it would be fair to say that the Narnian stories are antiracist in a number of ways — but certainly it’s a sticking point that the northern European Narnians are collectively the good guys and superior in every way to the Middle-eastern Calormenes, who in some ways evoke Muslims, yet are idolaters rather than monotheists. (This concern deepens in connection with The Lord of the Rings, which Lewis greatly esteemed and which follows the same pattern.)
Then there’s Lewis’ characterization of Larasaleen. As he puts it:
Lasaraleen had always been like that, interested in clothes and parties and gossip. Aravis had always been more interested in bows and arrows and horses and dogs and swimming. You will guess that each thought the other silly.
Clearly Lewis’s sympathies are with Aravis — and this compounds an issue much debated in connection with Susan, whom we learn in The Last Battle is “no longer a friend of Narnia”:
“Oh Susan!” said Jill, “she’s interested in nothing now-a-days except nylons and lipstick and invitations. She always was a jolly sight too keen on being grown-up.”
“Grown-up, indeed,” said the Lady Polly. “I wish she would grow up. She wasted all her school time wanting to be the age she is now, and she’ll waste all the rest of her life trying to stay that age. Her whole idea is to race on to the silliest time of one’s life as quick as she can and then stop there as long as she can.”
Some critics contend that Susan falls from grace in Lewis’s eyes when she becomes sexualized. Again, I agree with Lewis’s defenders that this charge is at least something of a misreading (the last link above is helpful here as well).
Susan’s unfinished story reminds me of how, toward the end of That Hideous Strength, after Mark Studdock broke free of the evil N.I.C.E. and was on his way back to his wife Jane and the forces of good, he ran across a pulp adventure story he had abandoned as a boy because he was thought it too juvenile. He proceeded to read and enjoy the whole thing.
This had an autobiographical meaning for Lewis: “When I was ten I read fairy tales in secret,” Lewis wrote (“On Three Ways of Writing for Children,” On Stories), “and would have been ashamed to be caught doing so. Now that I am fifty I read them openly.”
This is Lewis’s central concern in the portrayal of Susan: the danger of growing up in the wrong way. Not so much that she does care about “nylons and lipstick and invitations,” but that she is “interested in nothing nowadays except” such things — in particular, that she has put Narnia out of her mind — is the problem.
That was Lewis’s intention … yet his disparaging attitude toward Lasaraleen with her clothes and parties and gossip (and even her frilly name) in contrast to Aravis with her bows and arrows and so forth lends at least some support to the thesis that the subtext here is something like (as a blogger put it) “girls are okay, but they’re even better when they act like boys.”
Even when Aravis and Shasta (or Cor) marry (an interracial marriage, mark), this is humorously presented in practical and antagonistic terms, with no textual hint of attraction or romance:
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 quarrelling and making it up again that they got married so as to go on doing it more conveniently.
Attraction and romantic or sexual fascination are major themes in many fairy tales, but in Narnia they tend to appear in a dim light: Rilian and the woman in green; Uncle Andrew and Jadis; Rabadash and Susan; Aravis and her unwanted suitor, Ahoshta Tarkaan; and Lasaraleen’s frivolous interest in the Narnian men and more generally in the trappings of romance. Only the perfunctory romance of Caspian and Ramandu’s unnamed daughter provides even the barest contrast.
Finally, the relative lack of esteem in which Prince Caspian is generally held is, alas, deserved. It is the slightest and the least essential of the Chronicles.
Lewis’ second foray into Narnia starts with an interesting puzzle, and the story of young Caspian’s upbringing and his discovery of the truth of the stories of the Old Narnians is powerful.
Trumpkin, like MacPhee in That Hideous Strength, is one of Lewis’s lovable, faithful skeptics. And the mythological riot at the end is a chaotic high point for one of Narnia’s diverse literary threads.
But too much time is taken up with the long march from Cair Paravel to Aslan’s Howe and the whole business of hide-and-seek Aslan. I appreciate the allegory, but it’s slow going narratively.
Miraz is the dullest antagonist in the series, without even the entertaining qualities of Rabadash. Nikabrik’s evil associates — the hag is wonderfully creepy — are too briefly involved.
Writing these posts has been a clarifying experience for me. Still, despite having read the books aloud more times than I can count, I won’t be sure of my new thoughts until I read them through again.
For now, though, my ranking is:
- The Magician’s Nephew
- The Voyage of the Dawn Treader
- The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe
- The Silver Chair
- The Last Battle
- The Horse and His Boy
- Prince Caspian
If I’m wrong, I hope at least I’ve made a thought-provoking case for my preferences. I’m happy to be disagreed with, but even happier to hear countervailing arguments. Whether critical opinions (mine or anyone else’s) are right or wrong is less interesting to me than how intriguing and illuminating the arguments are marshaled to support them.
What do you think?
See also: Part 1