By Dr. Charlie W. Starr
One of the great schisms of our time goes mostly unnoticed by the press, but it threatens the very foundation of the order of things—at least Narnian things. OK, it’s not threatening at all, and probably not very important, except to C. S. Lewis nerds like me.
Nevertheless, I’m asked frequently about the right order in which to read the Narnia books. It’s not an earth-shattering issue, but for fans of Lewis and his Narnian world, especially those who wish to share the joy of the Narnia books with their children and students, I can offer some information that might be helpful.
C. S. Lewis wrote the Narnia books over a period of four to five years, starting with The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. This book was published first, and Lewis was not at all certain he would write any more. Eventually, seven books were completed. After all seven books were released, the British publisher asked Lewis what would be the best order for publishing the books in future editions. Lewis suggested that chronological order might be the easiest way to read the books. Thereafter, British editions of the books were numbered chronologically. In America, however, the books continued to be released in their original publication order. For three decades, then, you could get the books in editions numbered in two ways.
Original or Chronological?
The order of the books as written by Lewis is: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe; Prince Caspian; The Voyage of the Dawn Treader; The Silver Chair; The Horse and His Boy; The Magician’s Nephew; and The Last Battle
In chronological order, the list is: The Magician’s Nephew; The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe; The Horse and His Boy; Prince Caspian; The Voyage of the Dawn Treader; The Silver Chair; and The Last Battle.
In 1995, a new publisher began releasing the Narnia books, abandoning the American order for the English.
The Right Order
Lewis scholars almost universally agree that Lewis made a mistake. C. S. Lewis was not the kind of person to focus on himself, and though he remembered everything he ever read almost word for word, he seldom remembered anything he actually wrote. He was truly selfless not only in his actions toward others, but in his constant practice of ignoring himself in order to make God, not Lewis, the center of his life.
I’m not convinced Lewis was thinking about his books and their content when he responded to the publisher about the best order in which to read them. He was probably thinking about what might be easiest for children to understand.
That said, I want to offer the following reasons for reading the Narnia books in their original published order:
1. Nephew doesn’t captivate new readers as well as Wardrobe does. I’ve heard stories of people reading Nephew and abandoning the rest of the series! Wardrobe is more powerful on a first reading.
2. Some bits in Wardrobe don’t make sense if you read Nephew first. Lines like, “None of the children knew who Aslan was anymore than you do,” make no sense to readers of Nephew, and Aslan’s introduction in Wardrobe loses some of its mystery and power.
3. Reading Horse fifth saves the book’s major theme: providence. The first four books all contain quests that are defined fairly early in the story. When we come to Horse, we suddenly encounter a story that has no clear quest at the beginning. Nor do we encounter familiar characters or places in the beginning of the book as we do in Caspian, Treader, and Chair. We feel as lost as Shasta does. There’s an “otherness” to Horse, a strong contrast to the previous books—all this lends to the main point of the book: that though real life looks meaningless, purposeless, quest-less, and confusing, God is operating behind the scenes toward amazing ends. Horse is most like the common experience of life in this (our) world, but it loses a lot of that quality if read second or third.
4. Nephew gains mythic power by coming later. By itself, Nephew is good, but what makes it wonderful is that we read about a world we’ve already fallen in love with (by reading the other books first). We meet the Aslan we’ve grown to love so dearly, the old professor as a boy (who will then reappear immediately in Battle so that we feel there the freshness of his presence—as well as Polly’s). We delight in learning where the wardrobe that started all the adventures comes from (but the wardrobe will mean nothing to the first time reader of Nephew who begins with that book). The power in Nephew is born out of its status as a true prequel. Its meaning is made deeper, more wonderful, because of the tales we’ve encountered before.
Dr. Charlie W. Starr teaches English, humanities, and film at Kentucky Christian University in Grayson, Kentucky.