Book review: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, by C.S.Lewis, 1950

Many of the 24,000 reviewers of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe on Goodreads share a common memory: of being read this book by an adult when they were a child, being utterly bewitched by it, and so happy to find out that there were other adventures in Narnia to explore. I am sure you will be familiar with the story of the children’s wartime evacuation to a mysterious country house, their discovery of a portal to a magic land bewitched by a wicked witch to be always winter but never Christmas, and their adventures there. Lewis created so many memorably iconic characters and scenes in this wonderful novel which it was a pleasure to revisit. This is not one of those childhood novels that transform into something else when read as an adult. Yes the Christian allegory will be more obvious, but at this stage of the series it remains a gentle introduction to Christian ideas rather than the insistent sermon some find it.

The novel has aged surprisingly well, but of course the attitudes to women are hardly progressive. Even though Lucy has a leading role and is usually the figure whose judgment is to be trusted, the girls are given more caring, supportive roles – for example it is Susan’s idea to take the fur coats from the wardrobe when exploring Narnia (“They immediately carried out Susan’s very sensible plan.”) When giving them their special gifts, Father Christmas bluntly warns them not to get involved in the coming battle with the witch’s forces:

“Last of all he said, “Lucy, Eve’s Daughter,” and Lucy came forward. He gave her a little bottle of what looked like glass (but people said afterwards that it was made of diamond) and a small dagger. “In this bottle,” he said, “there is a cordial made of the juice of one of the fire-flowers that grow in the mountains of the sun. If you or any of your friends are hurt, a few drops of this will restore you. And the dagger is to defend yourself at great need. For you also are not to be in the battle.” “Why, Sir,” said Lucy. “I think—I don’t know—but I think I could be brave enough.” “That is not the point,” he said. “But battles are ugly when women fight.”

Some of the influences of the Narnia series on J K Rowling’s Harry Potter books became more obvious at this rereading. The way Harry gets onto the platform at Kings Cross has echoes of the way the Pevensie children travel to Narnia, where magic is real, creatures can talk, and evil has to be confronted. Harry is a strikingly obvious Christ-figure – he is born to be sacrificed, he dies and rises again – while Aslan’s death and resurrection to absolve Edmund’s sins are central to this novel. Each series seem to have been planned well in advance – Lewis published seven novels in seven years in rapid succession, and sows seeds of later books in the series as early on as The Lion, the most obvious example being his future plans for Susan (see below – the problem with Susan). I found it interesting that while fundamentalist Christians had some serious problems with the Harry Potter books on the basis that they were seen to promote witchcraft, they had no such problems with the Narnia novels in which a talking lion brings statues to life.

There’s a lot to enjoy in The Lion. The story is told with a breathless economy. We are in Narnia almost straight away, and from Aslan’s resurrection to the final battle and the return to the wardrobe is only a matter of pages. (From the death of the White Witch, the coronation at Cair Paravel, the tying up of loose ends and the return to England is all done in less than 2500 words). Superfluous description is stripped away, leaving the reader to imagine Narnia and the children for themselves, although I always enjoyed the wonderful illustrations by Pauline Baynes (see above). Lewis creates vividly memorable characters in the briefest of sketches. Mr Tumnus for example really only appears in chapter 2 (What Lucy Found There). He is mentioned in passing in chapter 4 (Turkish Delight) and reappears at the end of the novel when brought back to life by Aslan, where he gets precisely one line. And yet say the name Mr Tumnus to any adult of my generation and he will be brought vividly to life, with his mysterious parcels (where had he been shopping?) and guiltily nervous manner.

I like to think the mid-twentieth century equivalent of the Health and Safety Executive in some way got to Lewis and ensured that he didn’t encourage a generation of children to get trapped in wardrobes. The warnings to never close the door behind you if you do get into a wardrobe are repeated time after time, with an insistence that goes beyond paranoia. Forget about the dangerous creatures out to kill you in Narnia, just don’t shut that door!

I wanted to say a few words about what is now called “the problem with Susan”. In the final novel of the series, The Last Battle (spoilers – please don’t read on if you don’t want to know what happens) Susan is denied entry into Narnia because she has lost her faith and been seduced by earthly pleasures:

“My sister Susan,” answered Peter shortly and gravely, “is no longer a friend of Narnia.”

“Yes,” said Eustace, “and whenever you’ve tried to get her to come and talk about Narnia or do anything about Narnia, she says ‘What wonderful memories you have! Fancy your still thinking about all those funny games we used to play when we were children.'”

“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.”

This decision – to portray faith as being something essentially childlike, and loss of faith due to the distractions of the flesh – nylons and lipstick – seems to many readers to be a punishment of Susan for discovering her sexuality. As well it may be. Certainly Lewis’s version of heaven means nothing if everyone can enter irrespective of their behaviour or ideas. Someone had to be left behind. But what is interesting to me is how early Lewis seems to have been planning this sacrificial role for Susan. She is consistently shown even in this novel as the one whose faith is not as steadfast as the others. Early on, when the weather closes in and they are not sure where to go, she is the first to suggest going back:

“I—I wonder if there’s any point in going on,” said Susan. “I mean, it doesn’t seem particularly safe here and it looks as if it won’t be much fun either. And it’s getting colder every minute, and we’ve brought nothing to eat. What about just going home?

In the sequel, Prince Caspian, Susan is the last one of the Pevensie children to be able to see Aslan when he reappears in Narnia (Lucy is the first, of course). I am sure Lewis always had it in mind for Susan to be the one who doesn’t make it to Narnia in the end.

Finally, just a word on the question, why read children’s books? I’ve addressed this question in previous posts, so I don’t want to go over old ground too much, but the simple answer to this is “Why not?”. The longer answer is to reject the whole concept of children’s books, although to be fair Lewis doesn’t make this argument any easier by sub-titling this novel “A Story for Children“! Suffice to say this is a novel that can be enjoyed by all ages, and the nostalgia value alone made it a wonderful read.

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