The Last Battle for Narnia

Last BattleI recently finished my voyage through Narnia on audiobook by listening to The Last Battle.  I began with an exciting narrator, Kenneth Branagh reading The Magician’s Nephew, and finished with another exciting one–Patrick Stewart!  And he was excellent, especially in some of the more exciting moments.

The Last Battle is a decidedly odd installment in the series.  It opens many generations after Caspian and Rillian of the previous book, with King Tirian, “the last king of Narnia.”  In the North, a crafty ape and misguided donkey set up a false Aslan to control the Narnians.  They form an alliance with the foreign Calormens, fell the trees and make plans to enslave Narnia’s people and talking animals.  Tirian tries to stand against them, and is soon joined by Eustace and Jill, sent from our world to help.

The book is much grimmer than the previous ones.  That’s not immediately apparent, but as the book goes on it becomes an increasingly desperate struggle against lengthening odds.  There is ultimately a victory, of a sort, but only on a cosmic level.

And that’s why I’m not sure how to feel about this one.  The end ultimately has a very positive feel to it…but it also renders the struggles of the first half of the book somewhat pointless.  The whole world of Narnia is highly symbolic, of course; I think this may be the one installment where Lewis’ symbolism overwhelmed the adventure aspect of the book.  I didn’t dislike the symbolic, cosmic-level side of the book, and Lewis actually did quite nicely with making eternity seem rather homey–and grand and immense at the same time.  All the same, it sits a little awkwardly next to the adventure side.

I am not entirely sure I’m making sense here, so on to other aspects!

The portrayal of the Calormen is a bit complicated here.  They weren’t exactly nice in The Horse and His Boy, but they somehow become worse here, maybe because there’s a new sense that they’re inherently villainous in some way.  Which is all well and good if Lewis wants inherently villainous Calormen; it becomes more troubling when you figure that, symbolically, Calormen are not really Calormen.  However–Lewis does something to redeem that aspect by giving us one Calormen soldier, who is a devoted servant of wicked Tash but still a good person and still comes into Aslan’s Country.  Aslan ends up telling him, essentially, that good is still good and evil is still evil, no matter whose name you’re doing it in.  It’s a simple message on a complex subject, but as a simple message it’s a nice, open-minded touch.

The question of Susan is another troubling one.  Even if she is a bit of a wet blanket, I’ve always felt bad for her in this book!  Here’s a case where Lewis’ symbolism is probably too vague; I find it hard to know exactly what barred Susan in the end (is it really a love of make-up, or is that symbolic?) so I don’t know quite how bothered to be.  I like to think, though, that the tragedy she experiences (rather off-stage) inspires some new depths of character, and that she eventually comes to Aslan’s Country too.

Enough deep and grim discussion, so I’ll wind up with three more amusing notes.

All the discussion of places within places in this book, many of them bigger on the inside, led me to wonder if Lewis’ wardrobe (a wooden box, you know) with an entire world inside of it might have been an inspiration for a police box that is also bigger on the inside.

I recently rewatched the Lord of the Rings trilogy, and that juxtaposition has made me want to mix things together a bit…and after all, who’s to say that the Undying Lands aren’t an offshoot of Aslan’s Country?  (Well, Tolkien and Lewis could say they aren’t, but I rather like the idea!)

And finally, my favorite moment from the very end of The Last Battle (a bit of a spoiler), is when all the long-dead characters of the series reunite (including my favorite, Mr. Tumnus!) and laugh over old jokes together.  Because really–what good is a heaven if you can’t enjoy old jokes there?

Having now finished the entire Narnia series, I can definitely say that The Magician’s Nephew and The Voyage of the Dawn Treader are my particular favorites, probably because they have the most appealing characters and visit the most interesting places.  All the books are good and the entire series is well-worth exploring.  Even if The Last Battle is more grim, it does serve to put a nice punctuation on the series.

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Classic Review: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe

This Classic Review might have made more sense a few months ago, when I was beginning my reread through Narnia…but as I approach the end (just The Last Battle to go!), it seems like a good time to re-post my review of the first (or chronologically, the second) book in the series…The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C. S. Lewis.


I know I read this one before, but I honestly couldn’t tell you how long ago it was.  Years and years, although the story is so familiar that in some ways it doesn’t feel that long.  For those who don’t know the story (sidenote–I once overheard a woman tell a librarian she’d never heard of the series, so it’s possible), it’s the story of four children who go through a wardrobe and find themselves in the magical country of Narnia.  There they meet the great Lion Aslan and fight an epic battle against the White Witch.

It’s a wonderful story on many levels.  It’s a lovely children’s fantasy with dashing heroes, not too much blood, magical creatures like Mr. Tumnus and Mr. and Mrs Badger, and several stern admonitions that it’s very foolish to shut oneself inside of a wardrobe (I honestly think Lewis was worried about this, he repeats it so many times).  On a symbolic level, there’s a clear Christ story being retold.  I feel it works on both levels, for however you want to take it.  I’ve always thought that was the mark of the best kind of book–a good story and a strong message where neither one gets in the way of the other.

I enjoyed Lewis’ style very much–things happen so quickly!  Lucy, the first child into Narnia, gets there by page six.  As the adventures continue, they go on at a tumblingly-quick rate.  There’s even a point where Lewis writes, of an unpleasant night journey by sledge, “This lasted longer than I could describe even if I wrote pages and pages about it.”  Thankfully, he doesn’t bother, concluding, “But I will skip on to the time when the snow had stopped and the morning had come and they were racing along in the daylight.”

C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien were in the same writing group, The Inklings.  I’ve heard that Tolkien spent 20 years on The Lord of the Rings, and Lewis wrote The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe in a matter of weeks (something that I’ve also heard annoyed Tolkien no end!)  I have to say, it shows for both of them.  Different viewpoints on writing could consider that a plus or a minus to either one, but my preference would have to be with Lewis…

He begins the book with a lovely dedication to his goddaughter, the real-life Lucy.  In somewhat contradiction to the story that he wrote the book in a few weeks, he says that he wrote it for her but she grew up faster than it did and she’s now too old for it, “but some day you will be old enough to start reading fairy tales again.”  Lewis clearly understood about the cross-age appeal of the best children’s stories.  We may go through an age where we think we’re too grown-up for “kids books,” but eventually we get old enough to realize we can come back to them too.  It seems you have to be a child to go to Narnia, but the books are lovely to visit for any age!

The Silver Chair

Silver ChairNext in line on my adventure through the Chronicles of Narnia on audiobook is The Silver Chair by C. S. Lewis, read by Jeremy Northam.  This one feels like a more direct sequel to The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, following most closely on those events and characters.

The Silver Chair begins in our world, at the very dreadful school, Experiment House.  Eustace Clarence Scrubb (much improved and no longer deserving his name) attends here, along with Jill Pole.  Fleeing from a pack of bullies, the two children find an open door in the school wall—and go through into Aslan’s Country.  Despite some mishaps, Aslan sends them to Narnia, charged with finding the missing Prince Rillian.  In Narnia, they learn that Rillian is the son of the aged King Caspian.  They set off into Giant Country in search of Rillian, guided by Puddleglum the Marshwiggle.

This is reminiscent of The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, as a journey story, but it has a much tighter focus on the quest.  Even when not immediately apparent, the various adventures (like being taken captive first by giants, and then by subterranean “earth men”) all lead towards the rescue of Prince Rillian.

Eustace and Jill are satisfying lead characters, not as noble as the Pevensies perhaps but good-hearted on the whole.  I enjoy characters who are good people trying to do the right thing, but who still descend to bickering and complaints when trudging through a snowstorm.  It’s very human, without making the characters unlikable.

My favorite character may be the non-human one, Puddleglum the Marshwiggle.  His name fits him perfectly, as he’s hopelessly doleful and apt to predict the worst.  Even though he seems like a wet blanket Eeyore at first, he comes through as courageous, sensible and dedicated.

My favorite scene is well along in the book, so spoilers beware!  After they find Rillian, there’s a confrontation with the witch who has been holding him captive.  It’s a wonderful, tense scene with an enemy who doesn’t swing a sword but uses words instead.  She uses magic, too, but the fascinating part is her mind-twisting arguments that the world above must not really exist.

This isn’t a new favorite of mine in the series (that’s still a toss-up between The Magician’s Nephew and The Voyage of the Dawn Treader).  It is a solid installment with a compelling plot and likable (but not too likable!) characters, and some nice creepy moments from truly dangerous villains.

Only the last book in the series left, the appropriately named The Last Battle.  Coming up soon (with a very exciting reader, by the way…)

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Voyaging Aboard the Dawn Treader

The-Voyage-of-the-Dawn-Treader-943021I made a quick jump from Prince Caspian to The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, Book 3 (or 5) in the Narnia series by C. S. Lewis.  I remembered this one fondly, and happily found my memory correct–this was absolutely excellent, from “There was a boy named Eustace Clarence Scrubb and he almost deserved it” all the way to the end.

This is the third (and last) book focused primarily on the Pevensie children, though in this case it’s only the younger ones, Edmund and Lucy.  They and their cousin Eustace are swept through a picture to find themselves on The Dawn Treader, King Caspian’s ship sailing into the far and mysterious East.  A few years have passed since their last trip to Narnia, and Caspian is ruling over a peaceful country.  He’s set out in search of seven lords who were friends of his father, and disappeared into the East years before.  Their journey takes them through a series of islands and adventures, searching for the lords–and, perhaps, Aslan’s Country.

Journey-focused stories can be engaging or aimless, and this is one of the good ones.  Interesting adventures are frequent, and though each island has little connection to each other, the ongoing quest keeps the story moving forward.  There are wonderful adventures, from Eustace’s transformation into a dragon to the hilarious Dufflepuds to the terrifying, darkness-enshrouded Island Where Dreams (nightmares) Come True.

The adventures are good and the characters are excellent.  Lucy and Edmund uphold the Pevensie banner just fine without Peter and Susan, and Caspian is splendid and noble while still able to be young at times too.  And there’s the boy named Eustace Clarence Scrubb…  For all that I like the plucky, capable Pevensies, I also enjoy a character who does not handle magical adventure well.  S/he among you who would not be upset by a lack of indoor plumbing, throw the first stone at Eustace.  And while too much of Eustace would have been, well, too much, Lewis begins his redemption process early, and so he grows throughout the book.

(A sidenote–you may recall my issues with The Magicians by Lev Grossman, mentioned in an earlier Narnia review.  Try to imagine traveling through Narnia with six Eustaces who never learn anything.  That’s kind of how The Magicians felt to me.)

Perhaps the best character of all, though?  Talking mouse Reepicheep, the bravest and noblest of them all, despite his diminutive size.  We met him in Prince Caspian, but we get much more of him here.  Reepicheep is fearless, unswervingly devoted to honor, and fierce as a lion.  Reepicheep is hugely comical even while being genuinely noble, an impressive blend.

All in all, an excellent installment in the series, and the first rival to The Magician’s Nephew for status as favorite.  Next up, The Silver Chair, which I also remember particularly fondly, so I’m looking forward to it!

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Back to Narnia with Prince Caspian

Prince CaspianRemember my re”reading” of the Narnia series via audiobook?  Today we’re on to Prince Caspian, book 2 (or 4, depending how you count it).  This is the second book focused primarily on the Pevensie children, Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy.  They make their second trip to Narnia, only to find that hundreds of years have passed during, for them, the intervening year.  They eventually join up with Prince Caspian, rightful heir to the throne, who has gathered an army of Old Narnians (fauns, talking animals, dwarfs and the like) to fight his wicked uncle, King Miraz.

This was an interesting one for getting to know the Pevensie characters better.  Peter had a bit of lordly leadership to him, but I wound up feeling pretty neutral on him, neither liking or disliking him much.  Susan was quite frankly a wet blanket.  Edmund and Lucy emerged as the most interesting and complex of the group.  Edmund has grown much more likable since his nastiness of the previous book, while that past history gives him…well, a history!  There’s still the sense that he has shadows to overcome, and that doing the right thing is, not a struggle, but perhaps a conscious choice.  Lucy of course is lovely, heart always in the right place and often having beautiful moments, but never too perfect either.

I think it was really Caspian that I liked best, or at least his story.  The Pevensies’ adventure was good, but I particularly enjoyed the flashback story of how Caspian learned the stories of Old Narnia, fled from his uncle, and met wonderful, magical creatures in the process.

I’m not quite sure how I feel about the Pevensies’ adventure in some ways…I enjoyed it, and it was thought-provoking, which is good–except that I don’t feel like Lewis explored a lot of those thoughts!  The children return to Narnia to find the crumbling, abandoned remains of the castle where they had once ruled as Kings and Queens, during the Golden Age.  They ruled for years and years, and for them all those memories are only a year ago.  To return and find that hundreds of years have gone by and the Golden Age has most decidedly past…well, it ought to prompt all kinds of sorrow about lost friends and lost times, and reflections on the meanings of our deeds, and the changes of the world.  I had some of those thoughts, but I would have liked to see the characters have more of them too!

All the same, there were some wonderful characters in here–and Aslan, of course, was a delight.  Big and solemn and immense, naturally, but we got to see him be a bit more playful now and then too. 🙂

Next on the list, Voyage of the Dawn Treader, which is one of my favorites!

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