So my father (pictured at left) corresponded with C.S. Lewis as a child, over a disagreement he and his mother (my grandmother) were having over which order the books should be read in, as well as other matters. My father remained a life-long fan, and I remember knowing the books well enough by second grade to know when my teacher was abridging the text in her classroom reading. As a result, I’ve been feeling a bit guilty for not reading them to my son earlier – I read The Magician’s Nephew to him last year, but decided that I should save my precious reading-aloud time with him for books that we can’t get on audio. Bonus, though – my daughter is much more interested in having this on in the car than most of the books he’s been listening to lately, partly because it’s not as scary and partly because there is a character with her name.
Everyone knows the plot here, right? Four children in World War II England stumble through a wardrobe into a land of perpetual winter, held thus by a witch whose power they are prophesied to break. There is betrayal, adventure, magical animals, mythical fauns living very British-seeming lifestyles, a visit from Father Christmas, and of course, a retelling of the Christ story.
The awkward part for me is that I am no longer so orthodox in my personal theology as I was as a child, and I was unsure how I would feel going back to this. I know many adults who’ve found this particular series gone flat on them when they returned to it as adults. In this book, I felt that the theology fit in just fine for me. My son hadn’t recognized the story in this context, though he is familiar with it, and seemed to enjoy it both before and after me telling him about it.
What I noticed especially here was that C.S. Lewis, much more than most authors, seemed to be writing with reading aloud in mind. The narrator makes fairly frequent comments to the reader, which might seem out of place when reading silently, but which felt pretty natural (if still old-fashioned) to me as an adult aside to the child listener in the book. The chapters are mostly 15 minutes, which fit nicely into our car time, but also work very well for bedtime reading, and the pacing is beautiful. I was glad that the chunks mostly worked smoothly with our travel time, as the audio book is of the variety that very unhelpfully has tracks only once a chapter, and my car audio system doesn’t allow for fast-forwarding. Michael York does a perfectly passable, but not stellar, reading – but here I am spoiled rotten. My father, who read these books aloud to us nearly annually, is both a really great reader himself and based his accent in the readings on recordings of C.S. Lewis. I really wish that I could convince him to record them for us now!
Moving on in the series – here is one that wasn’t one of my favorites growing up, and which feels racist to me as an adult. Winning combo, right? I was happily surprised to find myself quickly absorbed in the story anyway. Calormen is pretty clearly an amalgam of Near Eastern and Indian culture, so that criticisms of Calormen come across as criticisms of Arabic culture in general. I felt on this re-listening that what Lewis was really trying to criticize was cultures that always value age and tradition over youth and freedom – in any case, the book is making a strong case for young people being allowed to control their own destiny. In counterpoint to the Calormene poetry, which is all dull maxims, compared to exciting Narnian epics, he also praises Calormen for training young people in story-telling over English training in essay-writing. Sadly, I can’t discount some level of actual anti-Arab sentiment on Lewis’s part, but I think it was a small enough part of the actual plot that I could discuss it with my children as a kind of thinking that used to be common and acceptable and no longer is. I hope, anyway.
At any rate, the boy and I enjoyed following Shasta and Bree, Aravis and Hwin, in their escape from Calormen and the foiling of the Dastardly Plot against Narnia. He especially loved the revelation that Shasta and Prince Corin were brothers, and was very disappointed to learn when we started Prince Caspian that there would be no more stories of Cor and Corin.
I found myself more trouble by the religious aspects of this book than The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. To wit: near the end, there is a big spiritual climax where Shasta is walking in the mountains in the dark, and finds that he is walking with Aslan, who explains to Shasta that Aslan was responsible for so many things in his life, all leading him to the point where Shasta would be in the right place at the right time to deliver the message to King Lune and thus save Archenland. This works very nicely if you’re thinking of Aslan as a metaphor for Christ. I thought it failed miserably, though, in the context of Narnia. Lewis goes to great lengths to show that, unlike Christ in our world today, Aslan is physically present – so why can’t he just deliver the message to King Lune himself, and save Shasta all the heartache of being raised in servitude, etc.?
Different book, different narrator – but I had much the same feelings about this one as the last one: passable, but not outstanding. Pronunciation differences irritated me slightly, as well as Jennings’ Bree sounding more kingly than Edmund. The chapters here are about 5 minutes longer than in Lion, which put them just out of phase with our driving. We frequently had to listen to the first 10 minutes of a chapter twice, and a few times I finished them up myself, reading aloud, when I could tell we were stopping just a few pages shy of a chapter break.
I still wouldn’t go back to this book for stand-alone reading, but I’m glad we listened to it as part of the series. The boy really enjoyed it, and I did as well, much more than I was expecting to given my concerns. Now we’re on to Prince Caspian, which was always one of my favorites.