Today's book review is The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe by C. S. Lewis.
I have read this book before, but it's been 30ish years. At Capricon I watched part of the film, and some of what I saw in the film didn't seem right, but my memory of the book was very fuzzy, so I decided to reread it. This series was part of what got me started on fantasy, and I was curious how it would hold up in my more worldly (hopefully not too jaded) adult eyes.
This is a good story. The writing is at the level where children who are just getting into real novels can handle it, but for an adult who's willing to suspend disbelief to a fairy tale level, it's still a very solid story. It doesn't stand up to deep questions of things like how they could manage to survive the weather in the enchanted winter or how young children who have never even handled real weapons can survive in a fight, but it's not written in a way that really makes me feel like I should be trying to nitpick at that level. There's a definite moral message, but again, it feels like it belongs there. The characters are pretty weak, but I find that I form a personal attachment to Narnia itself that makes up for my lack of connection with the protagonists.
One other issue for me is that long after I read the books as a child, I started hearing people viciously ripping into them for being nothing but Christian tracts. I was not raised in a church-going way; I didn't go to Sunday school and I didn't study the Bible, and I didn't notice a Christian message when I read the books as a child. But I was wondering how much of that message I would find now that I'd been sensitized to it, and my conclusion is that the atheists who seem to want to burn these books the way the fundies want to burn Harry Potter need to get a life. (Supposedly The Last Battle is the "worst" of the series, so maybe I need to reread it to fully put these claims to rest. I remember it even less than I remembered this volume.) Aslan certainly *can* be interpreted as a Christ figure -- but he makes plenty of sense in his own right. The idea that there is great power in a willing sacrifice is not proprietary to Christianity. It may even be true that Lewis intended these books as some sort of Christian propaganda -- but if one isn't already indoctrinated, the parallels are not only not compelling, they're not even obvious unless you're really looking for them. It's easy to come away from The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe thinking that Aslan is a really nice guy, but I don't think you need the example of Aslan to get the idea that Jesus as he's described in the Bible is a really nice guy, and I don't think the fact that you come away from The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe wishing that Aslan were a real person you could meet is really going to do much to make you believe that Jesus is real and present today. In fact, if the reader sees Aslan as a deity and as a sympathetic character, it would tend to make them less willing to surrender their critical thinking to the idea that you have to believe in Jesus because he's all there is.
The writing and the characters are a bit weak, but the story and the world of Narnia are wonderful. This book deserves to be part of popular culture. 9 out of 10.
**** PLOT SUMMARY -- MASSIVE SPOILERS ****
Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy are four children sent to the country for safety during World War II. They are sent to a huge country house belonging to a mysterious Professor (who I assume is meant to represent Clive Staples himself but I don't actually know). Lucy looks into a wardrobe, and passes through rows of fur coats into a snowy wood. She meets a faun called Mr. Tumnus who invites her to tea and explains that she has come to a land called Narnia which is under the thumb of an evil White Witch who has put it under a spell so that it is always winter and never Christmas. After hours, Lucy returns to the wardrobe. No time seems to have passed in this world and none of the others believe her story when they open the wardrobe and it has a perfectly ordinary back. A few days later, Lucy goes into the wardrobe again and Edmund follows her. Lucy visits Mr. Tumnus again, but Edmund meets the witch, who gives him Turkish Delight ((when I read this as a child, I had no idea what Turkish Delight was; it was much more convincing then than it is now that I know that the stuff is -- he should have used fudge)) enchanted with a spell that makes him want more of it more than anything else. She gets Edmund to promise to deliver the other children to her. Then Edmund and Lucy both return to our world, and Edmund claims that he was just playing a pretend game with her. Another few days later, the children are trying to avoid a tour of visitors to the house and duck into the wardrobe again and find themselves in Narnia. Edmund slips and reveals that he's been there before, causing the older children to be very angry at him for being so mean to Lucy. The children discover that Mr. Tumnus has been taken prisoner. Then they encounter a pair of talking beavers who treat them to a meal and tell them that Aslan, the mysterious lion king of Narnia, is coming and will meet at a place called the Stone Table. Edmund slips away during this and goes to tell the Witch about the arrival of Aslan. The Witch is not pleased and instead of rewarding Edmund with more Turkish Delight, beats him and takes him along as she rushes off to the Stone Table. The other three children head off on their own, just ahead of the Witch's pursuit. They encounter Father Christmas ((who is described in the book as looking pretty much a normal American Santa Claus -- unlike the movie where he didn't seem much like Santa)), whose presence is a sign that the Witch's spell is weaking and whose presents are a sword and shield for Peter, a bow and a horn which summons help for Susan, and a vial of magical cordial which can heal the most grievous wounds for Lucy. As the three children and two beavers make for the Stone Table, spring comes; this causes the Witch's sleigh to founder. The three arrive and meet Aslan, who is described as being both wonderful and terrible, so that he is hard to look at. The witch is about to sacrifice Edmund when some of Aslan's army rescue him. Then the Witch shows up to parlay with Aslan, and invokes an old prophecy that since Edmund is a traitor, his life belongs to her. Aslan makes a deal with her that makes her renounce her claim, but doesn't explain what he did. The army moves away from the Stone Table. That night, Susan and Lucy can't sleep; they go for a walk and encounter Aslan, who is slowly making his way to the Table. The girls watch as Aslan surrenders himself to the Witch, who has him tied up and kills him. But according to an older magic, which Aslan knew of but the Witch did not, if a willing victim with no treachery is sacrificed, the Stone Table and the Witch's power will break. The Table cracks, and Alsan appears, vigorous and happy again. He takes the girls to the Witch's castle and breathes on all of the statues that were people the Witch turned to stone, and they come back to life. Peter and Edmund were losing the battle; though Edmund had, with great bravery, broken the Witch's wand, the bad guys had a big advantage of numbers. But when Aslan comes with his un-stoned reinforcements and pounces on and kills the Witch, the bad army is vanquished. The four children are crowned the kings and queens of Narnia and rule for many years at Caer Paravel, until they are chasing the White Stag (who grants wishes if you catch him), who leads them back to the woods where they first arrived in Narnia, which they have somehow forgotten about. They come out of the wardrobe and they're children again.