I last read the Chronicles of Narnia when I was a kid. I’m pretty certain The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe is standard reading in school, or at least it was in the ’90s, but most people probably don’t get around to reading the entire series. It’s seven books long and to a kid that is a massive series to read. That’s how it feels in retrospect: epic. Not as much as an adult though.
I ordered the series a month ago as a cheap Christmas gift to myself. After a few weeks Amazon notified me that the USPS lost my books and offered to ship a new set to me, free of charge of course. Long story short, my Narnia books showed up a few weeks ago, long after I initially ordered them.
I opened the box and was surprised at how tiny the books and the series were. That was it? I leafed through the pages and the print was big, the books only had a few hundred pages to them (if that), and I had forgotten all about the cute little drawings at the beginnings of each chapter. And short they were. I timed myself and averaged about a page per minute. Given these books are about 200 pages long it’d take about three and a half hours to finish a single one. One night from 1 a.m. to 5 a.m. I plowed through The Silver Chair in one go. Maybe my math was a bit off but my point is these books are quite a bit shorter than the massive Wheel of Time books which take me about two weeks to read.
Since I’m plowing my way through a childhood adventure fantasy series that is basically a classic, I figured it’d be fun to rank them. Rankings are always fun, right? And while I’m at it I can bitch about some thing that irked me while praising a few other things about the books as I go. And at the end I’ll jerk myself off over how amazing The Voyage of the Dawn Treader is.
#7: Prince Caspian
Before making this list I read other peoples lists mostly as a way to confirmation-bias my way into knowing for a fact that Dawn Treader was the best book in the entire series. Surprisingly Prince Caspian was always near the top, usually #3 or #2, and this upset me greatly. I hated Prince Caspian. I don’t remember reading it as a kid but that’s kinda my point here; Prince Caspian is forgettable.
The kids come into Narnia, find their derelict castle and realize that thousands of years have passed. Enter some exposition from Trumpkin the Dwarf (despite the name he’s a cool guy) about Caspian being the true king and how he escaped his Evil Uncle™. Caspian meets the Narnian talking animals, the Pevensie kids save the day (again), end of story. I don’t see why Prince Caspian is held in such high regard. While the book did kinda suck, it was only bad in the context of the entire Narnia series. Anyways, fuck Prince Caspian.
#6: The Horse and His Boy
This is another relatively “meh” book in the series. Just like Prince Caspian I didn’t remember much of the book. But the story itself was good. It was nice to learn about the often-mention but never-elaborated-upon country of Calormen and a desert adventure was a nice change from all the “European” geography of the rest of the series.
But the plot is totally unrelated to Narnia at all. It’s like a side-story, a good story but with zero lasting effects on the series as a whole. The plot: Prince Cor comes back to Archenland and becomes king (eventually). Archenland, like Calormen, is another country in the grand world of Narnia, but doesn’t come into play much at all. In general the Horse and His Boy was a good book, but didn’t add much to the series as a whole. It’s just kinda there and anyone could skip without consequence. Sure you might not get a paragraph-long reference in The Silver Chair, but you won’t even notice that you missed it.
#5: The Last Battle
The last book in the series and the most depressing by far. The Narnia series itself is pretty uplifting; sure bad things happen but they’re always outweighed by good eventually. That isn’t the case in The Last Battle where everything shitty seems to happen. A ‘false Aslan’ comes to Narnia, promptly fucks everything up, and King Tirian, the last king of Narnia, tries his best to fix things. Tirian somehow manages to make every wrong choice possible and there are countless times in the book where one subtle change would’ve stopped Narnia from spiraling towards the end. He even mentions something like he’s ‘the unluckiest king ever.’
The book is depressing and the last half turns into some Christian fever-dream about the end of the world and heaven. Aslan eventually shows up in some parallel Narnia thought a stable door, and him and the kids from all the other books get to watch him bring an end to the world. The parallel Narnia turns out to be the real Narnia and, spoiler alert, the kids all died in a train wreck IRL so they’re basically in heaven! But even this Narnia has a deeper Narnia in it and this connects to England and apparently any other worlds in the universe. As a kid I had no fucking clue what was going on in the last quarter of the book but this time through it made slightly more sense.
I’m putting this book so low because Narnia is all about adventure and unrelenting hope and The Last Battle just shits all over it. Sure it ends nicely because they’re all in heaven — the real Narnia — but that doesn’t change the fact that the ‘false Aslan’ was totally successful in fucking Narnia up so bad that Aslan decided to end the world. Like, fuck that is some bleak shit.
#4: The Magician’s Nephew
I read this second to last as it was written by Lewis. Think of watching Star Wars in the order it was released and not the chronological order of the films. I didn’t think this would benefit me much but surprisingly it did. By Lewis writing the “first” novel before the last one, you can see he was in the process of wrapping up the Narnia series. Before then it didn’t have a proper beginning to the world having started abruptly with The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe. I’d like to think this helped him prepare himself for the ending of the Narnia world with the next book The Last Battle.
The book was pretty good as I apparently love any sort of creation stories. While it’s not as mind-bending as the beginning of the world in The Silmarillion (due to following a Christianesque creation event because it’s C.S. Lewis for fucks sake) it’s still interesting to read. It gives the White Witch some back story which serves to make you despise/admire her even more and describes how the first King and Queen of Narnia got there. You also get to learn why all the damn animals are able to talk.
One gripe: since this book was written nearly last, some of the things in the story are unused. One guy, Uncle Andrew, drops some money which quickly grows into gold and silver trees. These don’t appear in any other stories (except the final story and only in passing) and you’d think that trees of literal gold and silver might be noteworthy in Narnia’s lore and history as time moves forward. The same is true for the magical, protective apple tree that Digory plants; it’s meant to protect Narnia from Jadis (The White Witch) but it isn’t mentioned at all in the “following” books. Did the long winter under her reign kill the
gold, silver, and apple tree s? Did she corrupt the trees? Were they cut down? Who knows, and I suppose this is a big problem when anyone tries to write prequels after you’ve written nearly the entire series.
#3: The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe
TLTWaTW (I’m not writing that all out each time), what can anyone say about it? It’s probably the first, maybe only book, that get people into the Narnian universe, so there isn’t much to say about it. It was pretty damn good, but by this time I know exactly what happens so most of the wonder is gone. Wardrobe takes you to Narnia, there’s an evil witch ruling the land, and Edmund is a piece of shit traitor. Aslan saves the day, sacrifices himself, and comes back to life because he’s Narnian Jesus and the witch doesn’t know that’s a thing. Peter and his kin and made kings and queens and they go back home. Oh, and Santa Claus brings them weapons to murder people with!
The Christian overtones are a bit obvious and heavy-handed at times, but it’s Narnia so you should be expecting this. I doubt any kid would notice this and would only see it as an adventure story. But I gotta say the story and the pacing is spot on here. The wonder as Lucy finds a new world inside a wardrobe, the character arc of Edmund from traitor to king is amazing, and the tension as he betrays his family out of spite is immense. The plot also gets pretty fucking dark as the witch murders Aslan as he’s bound right in front of Lucy and Susan. Like hell, it’s a kids book and it takes some grim turns along the way.
It’s a great story, but by this time it’s almost boring to read.
#2: The Silver Chair
Last time I read this I got the feeling that Lewis wasn’t much into writing the story. It seemed like it had large gaps where time jumps forward without much explanation. The moors to the north of Narnia seem huge on a map, but Eustace and Jill traverse them in a single chapter. The same happens after they cross the giant bridge into the mountains. What you assume would be an arduous adventure flashes by instantly. I didn’t get the feeling quite like before, but it was still there, at least initially.
Another gripe about the book: the Lady of the Green Kirtle. She’s the main antagonist and is a witch similar to The White Witch, but besides that we know nothing about her. She’s a good villain and a dangerously sly and seductive one, but she has zero back story. This late into the Narnian series you’d expect her to be mentioned somewhere earlier, being an evil witch living in the north for (assuming) quite a long time, so it’s like she just appears in this book, tries to fuck everything up, and is defeated. Who is she? Where did she come from? Why/how is she a snake? There are so many questions about her that aren’t answered at all.
But the book was great. I loved the entire last half where they’re underground with the creepy pale dudes. The fact that an entire civilization is living underground is terrifying, amazing, and disturbing all at the same time. If you’ve ever been in a cave you know how disturbingly wrong it feels being used to light, sound, and the sky, and imagining yourself along with the characters is jarring. And learning the creepy pale dudes came from an even deeper land called Bism, a land of lava and fire, just blew my mind.
There’s also a guy called Puddleglum, a Marsh-Wiggle who apparently has a minor drinking problem, and he’s one of my favorite dudes in the series (after Reepicheep of course). He’s fucking hilarious. If you read the book be on the lookout for this hilarious word: Respectowiggle. There’s also a part of the book where, after a night of heavy drinking, Eustace mentions that Puddleglum “Has a headache.” He’s also a relatively complex character as well. He’s hopelessly pessimistic when the kids first meet him but shows quite a bit of wisdom and courage when it counts most. Puddleglum is a cool motherfucker indeed.
#1: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader
While looking at other Narnia rankings I was upset (meaning angry) to find that Dawn Treader was consistently ranked #2 behind TLTWaTW. I mean that book is rather good and is usually anyone’s first, maybe only, adventure in the Narnian universe. But I swear that I will personally fight anyone who disagrees with me that Dawn Treader is the best fucking book in the whole series. TLTWaTW can go fuck right off being everyone’s #1.
The Dawn Treader is an adventure book. A shameless adventure book that doesn’t give a shit about antagonists or anything else. It’s all about Caspian wanting to sail to the end of the world because he fucking can: he’s the king! Sure there is the primary plot of saving the seven lords that were banished under his Evil Uncle’s™ reign, but this just feels like some half-assed excuse to sail to the end of the world. Caspian really didn’t care about the lords, he just wanted to fuck around on a boat in the ocean, and Lewis needed a reasonable excuse for him to do so.
There’s something fascinating about sailing to the end of the world, and apparently I have a soft spot for adventuring, especially on boats, that I don’t fully understand. Were my ancestors sailors or something? Because as a person who was born and grew up in Illinois, nearly as far away from the ocean as possible, I’ve never been on a real boat or been around the ocean for more than a few hours on vacation. But The Wind Waker, The Terror, The Mountains of Madness, Cast Away, and Moana all have that sense of a big ocean adventure that is so appealing to me that I can’t really explain. Sure adventures across land (ala Lord of the Rings) sound good, but a fucking boat sailing to unknown lands in strange latitudes and longitudes is amazing.
Dawn Treader fills this wonderfully. There are no unknown lands on Earth anymore. No grand adventures to sail on. There’s also no magic. As Caspian, Reepicheep, and company sail across the ocean you really get the feeling that they’re going off to strange and unknown lands where anything can happen. Narnia is a strange world full of magic, so you know the Eastern Ocean is going to have some weird shit in it. The book doesn’t disappoint. You’re introduced to islands that have all but forgotten their king, islands full of invisible and strange (and immensely stupid) creatures, get to meet a retired star, and be along with Lucy as she sees merpeople under the waves. A lake that turns things to gold and an island where your dreams (more like nightmares) come true? And dragons? Holy shit, sign me up! And finally the voyage to the end of the world, the literal end to it where Reepicheep sails into Aslan’s Country? Damn. If only we lived in a world where you could literally sail to heaven and never come back.
My only complaint about this book: Reepicheep the Mouse. It was the first and only book that Reepicheep was really a character in, and you hate to see the little fucker go. He’s probably my favorite Narnian character, what with his small size, inflated sense of valor and honor, and always wanting to charge into battle against dragons and sea serpents. Reepicheep does not give a fuck and I love it. His and Eustace’s friendship arc is also amazing as Eustace turns from a little annoying shit into a hero as Reep’s badassness rubs off on him. But Reepicheep, why’d he have to sail over the end of the world? Why did such a good character have to leave? I wish he was in more books and you can’t help but feel the loss as he sails over the waves to never return.
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