Subscribe to The Horn Book

News From Narnia

By Lillian H. Smith

“Listen,” said the Doctor. “All you have heard about Old Narnia is true. It is not the land of men. It is the country of Aslan, the country of the Waking Trees and Visible Naiads, of Fauns and Satyrs, of Dwarfs and Giants, of the gods and the Centaurs, of Talking Beasts.”

The world called Narnia is the world that C. S. Lewis has created in seven stories for children; each story has a beginning, a middle, and an end, and each may be read independently of the others. Yet in these seven books, taken as a whole, we see a complete story with a beginning, a middle, and an end, in much the same way that we see, first, single stars in the sky, and then see them as a constellation which takes on a pattern our eyes can follow and recognize.

Narnia is not in our world nor in our universe. Narnia has its own sun and moon and stars, its own time. Yet the landscape is a familiar one, a green and pleasant land of woods and glades, valleys and mountains, rivers and sea. The trees, shrubs, and flowers, many birds and animals, are those we know in our own world. Even the unfamiliar, the strange and fabulous ones, are in old stories we have heard and read.

Narnia’s history is brief, as we reckon time in our world, though in Narnian time it covers many thousands of years. It began when “Sherlock Holmes was still living in Baker Street and the Bastables were looking for treasure in the Lewisham Road.” In London, too, lived Polly and Digory, who were looking for adventure. It was Digory’s Uncle Andrew, a dabbler in magic, who sent Polly and Digory out of our world and into a world of darkness, which was Narnia waiting to be born.

Digory was “the sort of person who wants to know everything” and his curiosity brought great trouble to Narnia later on. For the children had visited a dying world before coming to Narnia, and because Digory could not resist the desire to know what would happen, he broke the spell that bound an evil witch to the dying world of Charn. When the children are drawn into a new world, the witch, though against their will, comes too. And so evil enters Narnia before it is five hours old.

As the children stand in the nothingness of this new, dark and empty world, they hear a voice singing, and with the song suddenly there were stars overhead. Soon, the sky on the eastern horizon turned from dark to gray, then from pink to gold, and just as the voice swelled to the mightiest and most glorious sound, the sun arose and the Singer himself stood facing the rising sun. “It was a Lion.”

The Lion’s song of creation changes as he paces the waste land, and, as Polly said, “when you listened to his song you heard the things he was making up: when you looked round you, you saw them” — “all things bright and beautiful, all creatures great and small.” Narnia is born.

But, since evil has already entered Narnia through the curiosity of two human children, the Lion, who is called Aslan, decrees that “As Adam’s race has done the harm, Adam’s race shall help to heal it.”

Digory and Polly are sent, over the Western Wild and mountains of ice, to a walled garden with gates of gold. Here, Aslan tells them, must be gathered the apple whose seeds will be Narnia’s safeguard against the witch in the years ahead. And this was the first of the comings and goings between Narnia and our own world as it is told in The Magician’s Nephew.

All our news of Narnia comes from the various human children who find themselves there whenever evil times fall on the land. Centuries of peace and plenty pass unrecorded until four other children, in the story of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, find all of Narnia wrapped in a blanket of snow and ice. Under the witch’s spell, it is “always winter and never Christmas.” The children and the Narnians are pitted against the witch, who calls to her aid all the “abominations”: Ghouls, Boggles, Ogres, Minotaurs, Cruels, Hags, and Spectres. But Aslan, the Lion, has been seen in Narnia, and with his coming the spell of evil over the land weakens, and signs of spring are followed by budding trees and rushing brooks as the children, with the talking beaver as their guide, journey to meet Aslan at the great Stone Table where the battle against the witch will be decided.

Although not the first story in Narnian chronology, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe was the first to be published, and is, I think, the first for children themselves to read. For, from the moment Lucy opens the wardrobe, steps inside to explore, and is suddenly standing in the middle of a winter forest with snow crunching underfoot, the adventure is a magnet that draws the reader deeper and deeper into the life of Narnia and into concern for all that happens there. At the same time, the reader is aware that there is more to the story than what meets the eye, phrases that set young minds and hearts pondering, overtones that set up rhythms heard not only in this book, but in all the stories as they appeared year after year until the last two, The Magician’s Nephew and The Last Battle. In these the children’s questions are answered and the full harmony is heard and intuitively grasped at last.

Each story has its own landscape — or seascape. For C. S. Lewis, the face of nature, its changing moods and seasons whether seen in windswept wastes or in a small mossy glade where hawthorn is in bloom, has its part in his developing theme, in shaping the sequence of events and in giving reality to the reader’s imaginings as he accompanies the characters of the story on their adventures in the magical land of Narnia.

The characters themselves, apart from the human children who come there as visitors, reflect the author’s mature and scholarly interest in mythology and medieval romances. They reflect and communicate his abiding love for the Old Things which belong, perhaps, to a golden age, backwards in time, when men and birds and beasts spoke to each other in a common language, a fabulous age which, it may be, lived on in myth and fairy tale as a kind of race memory of another, more innocent, world.

It is Trufflehunter, the badger, whose sense of race hints at the prehistoric antiquity of animal traits, the unchanging persistent tenacity with which they pursue their own ends. “You Dwarfs,” says Trufflehunter, “are as forgetful and changeable as the Humans themselves. I’m a beast, I am, and a Badger what’s more. We don’t change. We hold on.”

Among the other characters who live on in memory after we have closed the books is that valiant Chief Mouse, Reepicheep, whose code of chivalry would seem to have been learned at King Arthur’s Round Table, for “his mind was full of forlorn hopes, death or glory charges and last stands.” He is one of the company who sails in the Dawn Treader “towards Aslan’s land and the morning and the eastern end of the world,” and, after the last battle of all the battles, he is found at the open gates of Aslan’s country to bid his friends welcome.

And there is Puddleglum, the Marsh-wiggle, who takes so dim a view of every prospect, but who is the faithful, hardy guide in the children’s quest for the lost Prince Rilian. Says Puddleglum: “Now a job like this — a journey up north just as winter’s beginning, looking for a Prince that probably isn’t there, by way of a ruined city that no one has ever seen — will be just the thing. If that doesn’t steady a chap, I don’t know what will.” When the Prince is found, in the underworld of the witch, and when she uses her black arts to persuade the children that only the underworld exists and that Narnia is only a myth, it is Puddleglum who stamps out the flame whose evil fumes bewilder and confuse their minds and hearts. It is Puddleglum who throws the challenge to the witch: “Suppose we have only dreamed, or made up, all those things — trees and grass and sun and moon and stars and Aslan himself. Suppose we have. Then all I can say is that, in that case, the made-up things seem a good deal more important than the real ones. . . . I’m on Aslan’s side even if there isn’t any Aslan to lead it. I’m going to live as like a Narnian as I can even if there isn’t any Narnia.”

And so we come to Aslan, the Lion, who is the heart and the periphery of these stories and their reason for being: Aslan, whose pervasive influence is felt at all times, in all places, whether visible or invisible in the world of Narnia. He says to the children “remember, remember, remember the signs. . . . Here on the mountain I have spoken to you clearly: I will not often do so down in Narnia. Here on the mountain, the air is clear and your mind is clear; as you drop down into Narnia, the air will thicken. Take great care that it does not confuse your mind.”

We may call these books fairy tales or allegories or parables, but there is no mistake about the significance of what C. S. Lewis has to say to the trusting, believing, seeking heart of childhood. But C. S. Lewis knows well that if children are to hear what it is he has to say to them, they must first find delight in the story he tells. And so the fresh and vigorous winds of his imagination carry his readers exuberantly through strange and wild adventures, adventures that, half consciously, they come to recognize are those of a spiritual journey toward the heart of reality. This is the final quality, I think, of C. S. Lewis’ writing about the country of Narnia; that above and beneath and beyond the events of the story itself there is something to which the children can lay hold: belief in the essential truth of their own imaginings.

 

Lillian H. Smith was for many years head of children’s work in the public libraries of Toronto, Canada. She is the author of the book that is the outstanding critical approach to children’s literature, The Unreluctant Years (American Library Association).

From the October 1963 issue of The Horn Book Magazine

This article was reprinted from the Canadian Library Association Bulletin (July, 1958) with the kind permission of the author and publisher.

Share
Comment Policy:
  1. Be respectful, and do not attack the author, people mentioned in the article, or other commenters. Take on the idea, not the messenger.
  2. Don't use obscene, profane, or vulgar language.
  3. Stay on point. Comments that stray from the topic at hand may be deleted.

We are not able to monitor every comment that comes through (though some comments with links to multiple URLs are held for spam-check moderation by the system). If you see something objectionable, please let us know. Once a comment has been flagged, a staff member will investigate.

We accept clean XHTML in comments, but don't overdo it and please limit the number of links submitted in your comment. For more info, see the full Terms of Use.

Speak Your Mind

*