A couple of years ago, I started a series of “Story Studies” that covered some of the most influential childhood stories that shaped my writing. In the process of writing that series, I came to realize something: I don’t remember a lot of the books I would consider my “all-time favorites” and “major influences.” Because of this realization, I ended up not publishing or just not writing certain posts I had originally planned to for that series. How could I honestly evaluate a story that I hadn’t read in years and couldn’t remember super well, despite how I felt about the memory of it? That realization also made me want to reread the stories I had cherished as a kid.
However, I rarely reread books due to a TBR list of new books that’s often many miles long, as school and work tend to dominate my time. Well, perhaps thanks to the events of 2020, I’ve managed to read a lot more for fun, and even though I do have a few new books on my shelf I have yet to read, I thought it was about time I start rereading my childhood classics.
My adventure began with The Chronicles of Narnia by C. S. Lewis. I believe I’ve only read the whole series in its entirety once, at least ten (or more!) years ago. Now, I do have the strongest memory of the earliest books and could probably recite the whole story of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe without needing to even skim through the pages of the book. My memories deteriorated the further into the series I went, though, as I had barely remembered The Horse and His Boy, The Silver Chair, and The Last Battle. And what I did remember about The Last Battle stuck with me simply because it had unsettled me as a kid.
I read the whole series in just under three weeks and wanted to share my thoughts as an adult reader of the series. I’ve also ranked the books from least favorite to favorite (though I am genuinely a fan of all of them).
- The Magician’s Nephew
I may have read this one more than any others, because (controversially) I read the Narnia books chronologically. After reading the whole series again though, I finally see why it’s best to read them in publication order. This one doesn’t provide a strong introduction into Narnia, in my opinion. For starters, the first half is very slow. That, or it’s lost some of its appeal to me over the years. Also, the plot convenience, particularly in the beginning, seemed more apparent and sloppy compared to the other books. I also noticed some inconsistencies between the events of this book and the lore in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, which maybe I wouldn’t have noticed if I had read the books in release order. Lewis’s Narnian world was definitely a work-in-worldbuilding-progress, which is one of my biggest critiques of the series and notably clear when jumping between The Magician’s Nephew and The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.
Despite the technical flaws of this book, the Creation scene is truly one of the most beautiful chapters in the entire series. I also find the explanations for the Lamppost and the Wardrobe’s origins unexpected, which I like. Digory is also a well-written character in terms of how his motivation for many of his actions and emotions centers on his concern for his mom.
- Prince Caspian
To be honest, I had a hard time ranking this one above The Magician’s Nephew, but the reason it’s not in the bottom spot is because I think this one is objectively a better-crafted adventure. My biggest sore spot with this book is that though its premise of 1000+ years passing in Narnia since the Pevensies were last there and opening scene are awesome, the book is awkwardly written in multiple places. In particular, the four-chapter backstory of Caspian, though needed, fills up a lot of the book in place of driving the plot forward. Also, the final battle is a little confusing because of the POV switches and figuring out the timing of concurrent events near the end. It’s hard to follow what’s going on when.
Also—perhaps more controversial than me reading the books chronologically—the 2008 movie does something thematically brilliant that is absent in the books. It’s one of those rare movie-changes that I wish was in the original (which I do not say often). In the 2008 film, there’s a segment in which Peter and the others seek to take matters into their own hands instead of waiting for Aslan, and ultimately fail in their mission to storm the Telmarine castle. The crux of Prince Caspian’s theme is trusting in the Lord and waiting on His timing and strength, so I think the added scene from the movie is great and doesn’t detract from the heart of the story. (As a side note, though, I do think that the movie downplayed some of the thematic conversations between Lucy and Aslan from the book, so maybe these two things cancel each other out…). I bring the movie into this because, perhaps unfairly, I find the film a little more compelling than the book, which is truly rare. However, comparing a book to its film adaptation is not a good judge of story character, which is probably another reason why I rank this book above The Magician’s Nephew.
- The Horse and His Boy
I’ll be brief with this one. I definitely think this story is a fun adventure with good themes and some pleasant twists that I remember loving when I was a kid. In fact, this book used to be my favorite of the Narnia stories when I was younger. As an adult, I still find it a well-written book and a well-told story, but I rank it lower on the list because I don’t think it’s as standout as the other books in the series. It’s a little simple and not as thematically strong as the others.
- The Silver Chair
Like The Horse and His Boy, The Silver Chair is a well-crafted adventure story, only with a more poignant theme. What makes the theme so strong in this one is that it’s weaved in with the entirety of the story. The metaphor may feel heavy-handed to some, but I personally thought it married quite well with the plot and characters of the story. I thought all aspects of the adventure worked together to tell a cohesive narrative with unique and important messages about the Christian life that are rarely explored in other modern-era books.
That being said, I can’t stand Jill in most of this book, which is unfortunate since she is the main character. I found her annoying and unnecessarily mean, particularly at the beginning, so to have her as the primary point-of-view character during the story just frustrated and tainted my reading experience.
- Voyage of the Dawn Treader
Ah, now we’re getting to the best-of-the-best, the ones I had a hard time distinguishing from one another. Voyage of the Dawn Treader might actually be my favorite Narnia story and definitely has some of my favorite scenes from the entire series. It’s also the funniest book right from the start because of the descriptions of Eustace and his journal entries. Reepicheep’s exuberant, brave spirit makes me laugh as well.
So, if I love this book so much, why is it #3? Partly because of a lack of thematic cohesion when compared to #2 & #1 on this list. There are a lot of small lessons learned along the journey, but the narrative as a whole doesn’t seem to be tied together by a single theme. Though the pursuit of Aslan’s Country is prevalent throughout, it feels more like a plot anchor than a thematic one, except for a moment in the beginning as well as in the closing scenes.
Still, I am most likely to pick up this book first when I’m in the mood to read a Narnia book.
- The Last Battle
I read this book in a single day, and it felt like I was reading it for the first time. I had remembered how it ended, but I had forgotten so much of the story. It is a well-told narrative with lots of suspense throughout, which made it hard to put down. I also loved how the book recalled all the past adventures from the series as a whole in different parts and brought the series full circle in a satisfying way. For me, callbacks and references from the entire series are an important criteria of what makes a strong ending, and I was pleasantly surprised to see The Last Battle nail that.
Also, in a reversal of my childhood when the ending of this book startled me, I loved the final chapters and actually teared up on the last page. I think Lewis paints a beautiful picture into the New Creation to come in a way that stirs longing for Christ to come again and restore what is fallen in the world.
- The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe
If you think this one is number one on my list because of nostalgia blindness…you’re partly right.
My nostalgia levels are highest with The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe more than any other in the Narnia series, and I do think that affects my reading to some degree. This one is probably first in my mind when I think of classic modern fantasy stories (second to The Lord of the Rings, perhaps) and definitely inspired a lot of my own imagination and role playing games with friends when I was younger. It still gives me joy to dive into this book and hasn’t lost its charm over all these years, despite the number of times I’ve read it.
But, being as objective as I can, I do think The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe is a great story that stands on its own. I think the allegory is poignant, too, and thematically, it is simple, yet beautifully woven into the narrative of the story. Yes, I think I will always love this Narnia book the most.
In closing, I think one of the reasons why this series still resonates me is that it truly points to the Gospel clearly and prompts me to reflect on Christ and His character more. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that the Narnia books can be spiritually restorative in a way that most other fictional books can’t be. Nothing is a replacement for Scripture, of course, but when I think about fictional works that proclaim Christ, The Chronicles of Narnia tops that list.
Now that I’ve reread The Chronicles of Narnia, I’m off to reread Madeleine L’Engle’s Time Quintet (which includes A Wrinkle in Time and its sequels) and many other books that impacted my young life and my desire to write my own stories.