My boy and I finished listening to the Chronicles of Narnia together. The last two books:
Silver Chair by C.S. Lewis. Performed by Jeremy Northam. Harper Children’s Audio, 2004.
If all of Prince Caspian feels like a journey through glorious Narnian June, The Silver Chair is a cold and gray late November. This is the one where Eustace and Jill journey with Puddleglum the Marshwiggle to rescue Prince Rillian, Caspian’s only son who was lost ten years previously. The search leads them through the land of giants and underground caverns to a face-off with another evil enchantress.
I was reflecting on the role of the children in this book. They are of course sent by Aslan, but while he has Jill memorize the Four Signs to help them find their way, Puddleglum does the guiding and much of the heroic action. I wasn’t sure whether to love that the kids seem so ordinary in their constant “muffing” of the signs, or to wish that they had more agency. By this time in the series I really started to notice the gender imbalances in Narnia and Archenland – while the human children are nearly always evenly balanced in gender and usually pretty equally active, all the good queens die before the story starts, and we are left with good kings and evil enchantresses, which is frustrating even if the good kings need girls from Earth to rescue them. The whole thing feels like being frustrated with one’s own parents or grandparents – I can’t help still loving the books even as I wish some of the ideas were more up-to-date.
The Harper Children’s Audio production chose a different narrator for each of the Narnia books, perhaps because the series is less closely linked than modern series usually are. Jeremy Northam has a somewhat growly voice. I quite liked how his children sounded more like normal people and less like the very young children most of the other narrators voiced, but my son didn’t like his work as much. Northam also gives Puddleglum a rustic accent, which I thought worked well, though he didn’t put the Eeyore-like depression into his voice that I’m accustomed to, and which I therefore had to demonstrate to the boy.
The Last Battle by C.S. Lewis. Narrated by Patrick Stewart. Harper Children’s Audio, 2004. Print Macmillian, 1956.
The Last Battle covers the literal end of Narnia, and more than any of the other books, I was afraid (on re-listening) that the religious aspects might get in the way of the storytelling. It does get metaphysical and there is that jarring revelation regarding the friends of Narnia from Earth, but once past the dreadful beginning with Shift the ape bullying sweet Puzzle the donkey, there is still an awful lot of good story here. (I’ve never liked that beginning.) This is the only one of the stories told primarily from a Narnian point of view, even when there are people from Earth present – and Jill really is admirable here. Even after having read this countless times, and the sheer numbers of fantasy books that have come out since then, having a story where the end of the world is just midway through the book still feels novel.
Patrick Stewart narrates this volume, and I was torn about his narration. I felt like he did a great job on the regular Narnian and British – but when it came to the Calormenes, I was flummoxed. They are a very formal race, clearly modeled on the Middle East. My father always read them with a Middle Eastern accent, which works well with the words the way they’re written, but as the Calormenes are described as a proud and cruel race, this now feels racist – well, the racism is from Lewis. Stewart reads the Calormenes with a lower class city British accent, which I felt was less racist but which didn’t suit the flowery Calormene way of speaking at all. What is the right way of proceeding here? I really don’t know.
All in all, the boy and I very much enjoyed the adventures in Narnia – and they gave us fodder for several good conversations on gender stereotypes, race, and religion.