Magic, heroism and redemption: C.S. Lewis’ Narnia tales (Column: Bookends XXXIII)

By Vikas Datta (12:02)

Fantastic beings and worlds have always been key elements of literature and works containing them have always relished by readers across ages and cultures. But while these motifs are present in a broad gamut of cross-cultural myths, fables, and epics both sacred and profane, fantasy as a literary genre in itself emerged much more recently than we think. Not even a century has elapsed since the appearance of two of its most famous, path-breaking works – which further burnished their credentials by the standards of our spectacle-oriented society by successfully making the transition to the big screen – as well as inspiring a host of other writers like J.K. Rowling, Rick Riordan Philip Pullman, Lev Grossman and Neil Gaiman. These are the chronicles of the Middle Earth and of Narnia.

John Ronald Reuel Tolkien’s “The Hobbit” (published 1937) and “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy (1954-55) quickly became among the most best-selling novels, with more that 150 million copies sold. Apart from leading to a resurgence and popularity of the genre, it influenced his friend Clive Staples Lewis, whose own seven-volume “Chronicles of Narnia” appeared 1950-56, and sold over a 100 million copies itself.

The two series of works underscore the traits that permeate the genre of modern fantasy – the logic of the fantasy setting’s workings, its acknowledged fictitious nature, and the clear authorship of the narrative, rather than a folklore source. But while Tolkien’s tale, like traditional fantasy set in the past or a far off unknown place, is set between the “age of Faerie and the dominion of men” (as a reviewer then put it), Lewis remains true to a key facet of the genre by using a different reality.

This could either be a a fantasy world separated from ours, as he chooses, or a hidden fantasy side of our own world – as used in Rowling’s Harry Potter and Riordan’s Percy Jackson adventures.

The interplay of the real and fictional world is what gives the Narnia tales an edge, apart from Lewis’ eclecticism in incorporating creatures and myths from many different cultures and ages – Greek and Roman mythology as well as Germanic, old British and Irish fairy tales apart from adapting many traditional Christian themes – as against Tolkien’s reliance on contemporary British adventure stories as well as chiefly north European folk mythology.

The Narnia series, set in a realm of magic, mythical beasts, and talking animals, is about various children who play key roles in its history from its creation to eventual destruction. Apart from one installment, the protagonists are all from the real world, magically transported there for considerable time (but only a few minutes on their world), where they are called upon by a heroic lion Aslan to protect Narnia from evil.

It begins with “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe” (1950), where the four Pevensies – Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy, evacuated from the city during World War II and lodged with an elderly professor, stumble one by one into Narnia and help to free it from a terrible curse and its evil witch ruler. But an act of treachery from one of them demands a seemingly terrible act of redemption by the Christ-like lion.

“Prince Caspian” (1951) sees the Pevensies returning to find it has been centuries since their rule and reviving the spirit of Narnians who are now being ruled by an alien race, themselves divided among two contenders for power. At the end, the two eldest Pevensies are told they are too old to return. “The Voyage of the Dawn Treader” (1952) sees Edmund, Lucy and their (then unlikeable) cousin Eustace reach Narnia to accompany the now King Caspian on a search across uncharted seas for seven exiled noble supporters, while “The Silver Chair” (1953) sees Eustace and his schoolmate Jill return to search for the missing heir of a now elderly Caspian.

“The Horse and His Boy” (1954) is a tale of a boy escaping a cruel life in the Oriental-like despotism of Calormen along with a talking horse and actually takes place within the two final chapters of the first book, while “The Magician’s Nephew” (1955) is a prequel about how Narnia was created and how the Witch reached it and began here reign. One of the protagonists is now revealed to be the elderly professor of the first book.

“The Last Battle” (1956) brings all to a definitive, cataclysmic close – but a sort of paradise for the principal protagonists.

The series have attracted their share of criticism – for gender stereotyping and implicit racism, being an embodiment of Christian theological concepts while also being accused of promoting paganism and occultism. But Lewis himself denied he had set out to write a Christian allegory and termed the deemed aspects “suppositional”.

Avoid analysing the subtext and just enjoy it as a masterful, engrossing tale!

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