This story is about two British children, Polly and Digory, who go exploring in the attic and find far more than they expected. Digory’s mad and magical uncle hurls them into another world, from which they travel to the ancient and dying world of Charn, and bring back an ancient (and very entertaining) evil by accident, who plunges London into delightful chaos before they manage to get her out of our world and into a brand new one. . . Narnia.
I grew up reading a variety of classics (and other books which were simply old, because they were on my parents’ bookshelves) and the difference in writing style between then and now is often painfully obvious. Older books have long passages of description (scenery, technology, people, situations) and a slower pace. Most older books – including many that are great – would never be published today.
Which is why the quality of CS Lewis’ writing was such a welcome surprise. I’d read the books before, but I assumed that I had seen them through the rose-coloured glasses of youth and familiarity. But they are seriously well written. CS Lewis has a brilliant grasp on the small, realistic details that make everything from talking animals to magic rings not just believable but as real and vivid and three-dimensional as London itself.
His young characters always do act and speak like children – but simultaneously show true courage and goodness. And his worlds are brilliantly realised – totally original and never lacking in imaginative power. He’s also often funny.
The book is particularly enjoyable as a prequel to “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe” – all seven Narnia books stand alone in their own right, but have delightful connections to the rest. The series is also particularly enjoyable for Christians, who see layers of meaning beneath the adventures.
Free sample (The Magician, Uncle Andrew, has managed to convince himself that the talking animals can’t actually talk, and as a result there are certain communication difficulties as the animals attempt to figure out exactly what he is, and try their best to look after him):
The Donkey collected great piles of thistles and threw them in, but Uncle Andrew didn’t seem to care for them. The Squirrels bombarded him with volleys of nuts, but he only covered his head with his hands and tried to keep out of the way. Several birds flew back and forth diligently dropping worms on him. The Bear was especially kind. During the afternoon he found a wild bees’ nest and instead of eating it himself (which he would very much like to have done), this worthy creature brought it back to Uncle Andrew. But this was in fact the worst failure of all. The Bear lobbed the whole sticky mass over the top of the enclosure and unfortunately it hit Uncle Andrew slap in the face (not all the bees were dead). The Bear, who would not at all have minded being hit in the face by a honeycomb himself, could not understand why Uncle Andrew staggered back, slipped, and sat down. And it was sheer bad luck that he landed in the pile of thistles. . . . The cleverer ones were quite sure by now that some of the sounds which came out of his mouth had a meaning. They christened him Brandy because he made that noise so often.
Rating: PG. I’d call it absolutely G and safe for anyone, but one character is a close parallel to Jesus Christ (in one of the later books this character clearly states that he exists on Earth as well, is known by a different name there, and that the children have been brought into Narnia so that they can more easily recognise him on Earth), and some atheists have found that offensive. The books do focus on the adventures, rather than allegory about 95% of the time.
I'm of the school of thought that it's better to read the books in the order they were written rather than chronological order, ie. start with The Lion the Witch and The Wardrobe, go on from there and read this one last.
I'm looking forward to reading this series to my daughter, though I am waiting a bit because some of the themes in the later books, especially The Last Battle, are quite problematic. I have issue with what I've heard people call 'the problem of Susan' (the fact that she is apparently unable to enter Heaven and be with the rest of her family because she grew up and started to like wearing lipstick and talking to boys and stuff). There's a very cool Neil Gaiman story that is his response to it. And I suppose I could always follow up with the His Dark Materials books, which are sort of Pullman's response to Lewis.