Top 100 Children's Novels #5: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis
#5 The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis (1950)
The book that made me a reader, by a writer whose pure enthusiasm for life and story carries you on a lion’s back through the best of adventures. – Susan Van Metre
I remember at my vast old age in 7th grade sadly concluding that I was too old for the Narnia books now. (I had already read them many times.) Then I took them up again in college and found new riches. I know I will never “outgrow” them again. No kid who reads this book will ever look at a closet door the same way again. – Sondra Eklund
The first series I read to myself, starting halfway through when I switched from listening to my mom read them aloud, to sneaking them off to my room to read ahead. I was convinced that someday I would meet the Pevensies and tell them that I knew about Narnia, too. Sadly, Turkish Delight did not live up to my expectations. – Jessalynn Gale
I still remember the day I finished this book, laying on my parent’s family room couch on a bright, sunny summer day. I would have been playing outside in the sprinkler had I been able to put it down. Instead I was SOBBING on the couch as Aslan died. I finished it and read it again. And again. I don’t always think the oldest, most classic version of a tale is the one that kids should keep rending. If someone else comes along and does the tale better, by all means, let’s read that one… but has anyone done this better? – Nicole Johnston Wroblewski
I remember a sense of magic while reading the Chronicles of Narnia as a child. And I’m not referring to the magic contained in the storylines. But rather the giddy awe of falling into the story. It was thrilling. It’s a very specific emotion, one I don’t think we have a word for, one I don’t think I’ve ever felt as an adult — but it’s an emotion that I remember perfectly. The characters and worlds seemed so alive. I think it’s one of the few times I really felt transported to another place through the pages of a book. And being the Chronicles of Narnia, that’s rather fitting. – Aaron Zenz
The synopsis from the publisher reads, “When Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy are sent to stay with a kind professor who lives in the country, they can hardly imagine the extraordinary adventure that awaits them. It all begins one rainy summer day when the children explore the Professor’s rambling old house. When they come across a room with an old wardrobe in the corner, Lucy immediately opens the door and gets inside. To her amazement, she suddenly finds herself standing in the clearing of a wood on a winter afternoon, with snowflakes falling through the air. Lucy has found Narnia, a magical land of Fauns and Centaurs, Nymphs and Talking Animals — and the beautiful but evil White Witch, who has held the country in eternal winter for a hundred years.”
According to 100 Best Books for Children by Anita Silvey (do you own your copy yet?) when Lewis was sixteen he envisioned a faun carrying an umbrella in a wood full of snow. “Then nine years later, a lion leapt into a story, and Lewis began working on a book entitled ‘The Lion’.” I was unaware that he was only twenty-five when he began the tale. He’d be fifty-two by the time it published, though. That’s what we call in the business a gestation period. He did show an early manuscript to one Roger Lancelyn Green, though, and Green helped him get his manuscript up to snuff. The book was originally meant to stand alone, which is part of the reason it bugs me when publishers release the books in the order of what happens in the series rather than the order of when the books were written.
Of course, he was buds with J.R.R. Tolkien (though perhaps “buds” is not the term they might choose to describe their friendship). Tolkien wasn’t a fan of the series though. Considering he was a fellow who spent ages constructing a history and a bloody language for his fantastical world, he found the whole Narnia thing a bit slapdash.
Now if you walk into the book as a kid and aren’t aware that you’re facing a great big gigantic Christian allegory, you probably won’t notice it anyway. For adults, it’s incredibly obvious. Still, as Anita Silvey says, “The books have endured not because of their philosophy, but because they bring to life a magical world that readers want to enter again and again.”
Philip Pullman? Not a fan. In an interview with surefish.com, for example, he says, “Narnia has always seemed to me to be marked by a hatred of the physical world. When I bring this up, people say, oh no, what nonsense! He loved his beer, loved laughter and smoking a pipe, and the companionship of his friends and so on. And so he might have done. But that didn’t prevent perhaps his unconscious mind from saying something quite different in the form of a story.”
I can’t even wade through the thousands of scholarly articles on this book, or even the BOOKS based on it. I will highlight one, though. In 2008 Little, Brown published Salon co-founder Laura Miller’s title The Magician’s Book: A Skeptic’s Adventures in Narnia. In it she records how, “My relationship to Narnia would turn out to be as rocky as any love affair, a story of enchantment, betrayal, estrangement, and reunion.” In fact Miller allowed a section from the Introduction of the book to be included in Anita Silvey’s Everything I Need to Know I Learned from a Children’s Book. She writes, “In one of the most vivid memories from my childhood, nothing happens. On a clear, sunny day, I’m standing near a curb in the quiet suburban California neighborhood where my family lives, and I’m wishing, with every bit of myself, for two things. First, I want a place I’ve read about in a book to really exist, and, second, I want to be able to go there. I want this so badly I’m pretty sure the misery of not getting it will kill me. For the rest of my life, I will never want anything quite so badly again.”
I’ve yet to find any statues of the characters from the book, but there is a statue of the wardrobe out there. In East Belfast, Northern Ireland you can see this figure of what some folks are calling Digory Kirke a.k.a. The Professor moving into the wardrobe.
Whether Digory was Lewis’s alter ego is up for contention.
Big names have a tendency to illustrate these covers. Chris Van Allsburg. David Wiesner. Folks you wouldn’t necessarily associate with jackets as a job. And in a surprising move the publisher released the book recently in its original jacket. This is a trend I approve of, though it only works for the true classics. Which is to say, most of the books on this list. Here are some covers:
Growing up, my personal favorite was the Michael Hague edition. Partly because it was fully illustrated in color.
And partly because he was seriously influenced by the greats:
In terms of film, as crummy as this looks I was rather fond of this old Wonderworks version of the story back in the day. I think I blocked out the poorly animated portions, though. Guh.
The most recent (and best) version. Some folks complained at the time that the movie was trying to be the next Lord of the Rings. I figure the only reason they even made it was because Lord of the Rings had proved you could make money off such a film.
Before the first Narnia movie produced by Walden Media came out they had a special screening for some of the kids at the Jefferson Market Branch of NYPL. They showed a long trailer for the kids that is now, I see, on YouTube. I present it to you now.
About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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