‘Narnia’ is a word that conjures up wonder in my mind and in that of a lot of others. The imaginary land created by C.S. Lewis has enchanted multitudes of kids (and adults) over the years and has an appeal that is both timeless and topical. In a wide, cavernous library (which is what at the time it appeared to an eight-year-old me as) at my school in the port city of Jubail in Saudi Arabia, where I was in the formative years of my childhood, I came across the wonderfully clunky and large hardbound editions of each of Lewis’ works. The colours of each were different and the artwork was simple, yet beautiful, representing a style more suited to the pre-internet era of the ’80s and ’90s; both innocently naïve and yet not underestimating its young audience. Maybe it's just me, but I feel the current editions of these books (and other classic Children’s literature) tend to dumb down the artistry and type form of the book; almost as if not wanting to appear challenging to its main target audience.
Coming back to Narnia - the first one I read was probably the most popular of the lot, and the one which a lot of people get introduced to Narnia by. ‘The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe’ was utterly captivating for an eight-year-old just discovering the wonders of storytelling and literature. After this, there was no stopping me. I devoured the rest of the series and pretty much loved every one of them. It was obvious the writer was gifted beyond measure. Transporting a gawky kid from the dry desert lands of the Middle East to the snowbound otherworld of Narnia in a completely immersive experience attests to that. But for whatever reason, I never did recall reading the one book which was intended as a prequel to explain the origins of the whole pathway between our world and Narnia (and which was written by the author much later than the initial Narnia books).
Years later, after I started working, when I came across a compact paperback box set of all seven books in the series in the Crossword store near me, I knew I had to have it. At the time, it was just an attempt to recapture a magical time in life, a sense of the nostalgia associated with discovering something you loved for the first time. It was left unread for a long time in my bookshelves in the various places I dragged it around over the next decade and more, as I always seemed to have one or the other novel which I wanted to read first. Eventually, when a lot of the world was entering periods of lockdown owing to the COVID-19 situation, I found myself inside for an extended period of time. And since I hadn’t perused the Narnia books in a long time, out came ‘The Magician’s Nephew’. That gave me enough inspiration to realise that it was finally time to revisit Narnia.
And it was as magical as I remember, for the most part. Maybe mindful that this was a later prequel he was adding onto the series, Lewis indulges in a bit of over exposition at times, rather than letting the reader figure out the ways in which various elements from this book can be traced to the beginnings of the coming and going to and from Narnia in the other books. The book opens during wartime and two children in London. One, Polly, is from the city itself, while the other, Diggory, has been sent there to live with his uncle and aunt while his mom recovers from a grave illness which keeps her confined to the bed. Diggory’s uncle, Andrews, is the titular Magician but apart from his experiments, he isn’t a very likable individual. Diggory had been forbidden by his aunt from entering the part of the house used by his uncle for his experiments, and with good reason, but once the children find the place while exploring the connecting pathway between the attics of the houses on the streets, Uncle Andrews wastes no time in using them to validate his experiments. However, to his credit, he has figured out a way to traverse the different worlds, through the use of certain magical rings he has devised over years of labour and research. But once Polly tries one of these and vanishes, Diggory has no choice but to give in to his uncle’s devious scheme and go after her with the ring which will help her return from wherever she vanished into.
The place they find themselves in is an utterly peaceful, short-term memory loss inducing, a world that appears to be a sort of gateway between all the worlds. They decide to explore this dimension further and find themselves in the ruins of what once seemed to be a grand city. An unfortunate incident inadvertently causes Diggory to break a spell which raises a tall, grand-looking woman from a spell and results in her following him and Polly out of that world and into their own. After a few shenanigans in London, all of them, including Uncle Andrews and a couple of others, end up in a magical world which forms into a beauty right before their eyes, at the behest of a magnificent, talking lion. Erstwhile Narnia regulars would probably have realised by now of the world and the lion that I’m talking about, but for the newbies, it’s a great bit of adventure. But into this new world, they have brought the woman, who it is clear by now is a pretty wicked Queen who destroyed her old world just to feel powerful and safe. It is up to Diggory and Polly and their new friends (while Uncle Andrews closes himself off to the wonder of the creations and all the talking animals and generally makes a hilarious nuisance of himself) to make sure this world remains safe and also hope that the lion can help them get back safely to their own world.
Does it all hold up even now, both in terms of general contemporary fiction and for me as an adult re-entering a series that I last read decades ago? Well, yes and no. Yes, because the charm of Lewis’ characterisations and the real humanity and innocence, tinged with the grief and hardiness of being young during a difficult time for the world, that he infuses in his children characters hold up well here too. These kids are slightly different from the Pevensies and the others in the rest of the Narnia books, yet they resonate almost as well. It is also wonderful to read about Narnia’s creation and the talking animals, who get some uproariously funny scenes with Uncle Andrew, as well as about Queen Jadis. And there is a tender portrait of the grief Diggory carries within him for his mother, who is gradually wasting away. This was a part of the book which explored themes not much explored in the other books, where once an entry is made into Narnia, all else to do with the real world is usually forgotten.
But there are a few wrinkles, at least for me. For long now, I have heard of how Lewis, a devout Christian, intended these books as allegories to his religion and to the Bible. However, while reading as a child, none of these were evident to me. I was purely and simply fascinated by the wonder of the world his penmanship had created. And in retrospect, I think I would still say that about most of the Narnia books. But in this one, it can’t be ignored. There are some very obvious allusions in the creation of Narnia, and other events, to Creationist versions of our world, and similarly some of the characters, like Aslan and the evil queen, among others, are modeled quite obviously on biblical characters. This may not grate much on everyone, but I would have preferred the symbolism to be laid on a little less thick.
Lewis’s works are at times held up in comparison with the fantasy worlds created by other master wordsmiths like Tolkien and Philip Pullman, but for me, all these are very different beasts. The Narnia books don’t have the narrative complexity of ‘The Lord of the Rings’ trilogy, or, the brilliant mesh of ideas that the ‘His Dark Materials’ trilogy has and yet can be placed amongst those titans (and later works by J.K Rowling) as some of the most enduring classic children’s fiction which also have huge appeal to adults. This he does through the combination of some remarkably well-etched central characters and the mystical, enchanting world he created.
Ultimately, this is a charming story that gives an entryway into the further, more magnificent, adventures awaiting the reader in this kingdom and ideally, shouldn’t be missed for anyone wanting to acquaint themselves with the series.
Praveen Palakkazhi works in the Tech industry, though his primary interests lie in literature, world cinema, and a bit of health and fitness. He lives with his wife Ashwathy in Bengaluru.
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