Florida governor Jeb Bush has chosen The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe as the centerpiece of his “Just Read, Florida!” program, and he’s already coming under left-wing fire. “Some are concerned that the selection is an attempt to Christianize the students of Florida,” complains blogger Michael Schaub.
And so it begins: The controversy over whether impressionable schoolchildren should be exposed to the nefarious influence of C.S. Lewis. It will only grow louder as we approach December, when the big-budget movie version of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe reaches theaters.
But in the meantime, you may have a more basic question. Perhaps you’ve seen the super-cool trailer for the upcoming film, and you’ve decided to read the book beforehand. You go to the bookstore, look up C.S. Lewis titles, and locate the seven volumes in The Chronicles of Narnia. But the label on The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe says it’s the second book in the series. The first one is called The Magician’s Nephew. That’s not how you remember it. Aslan moves in mysterious ways, but something doesn’t seem quite right.
So which comes first: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe or The Magician’s Nephew?
The short answer is this: Jeb is right.
The long answer is this: Lewis wrote The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe before any of the other Narnia books, and traditionally it has been considered the first in the series. For years, its publisher marketed it that way. Then, about a decade ago, Narnia became a piece of real estate in the HarperCollins empire. The renumbering took place “in compliance with the original wishes of the author,” as a small-print statement on the copyright page of the new editions says.
The decision was based in large part upon a 1957 comment in which Lewis expressed a mild preference for the books to be read not in the order of their publication, but based upon their internal chronology. It also involved the input from Douglas Gresham, Lewis’s son-in-law. “I don’t think people should feel enslaved by the numbers on the books,” he says. “But I recommend starting with The Magician’s Nephew and going from there.”
Unfortunately, this wasn’t the best advice. The irony is that Lewis himself probably would agree that readers shouldn’t look to him for much guidance on the subject. And I’m fairly certain that if Lewis were still around–he died on the day JFK was shot–I could buy him a drink at the pub and persuade him he was wrong.
Just for the record, here are the seven titles in The Chronicles of Narnia, listed in the order of their publication: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (1950); Prince Caspian (1951); The Voyage of the “Dawn Treader” (1952); The Silver Chair (1953); The Horse and His Boy (1954); The Magician’s Nephew (1955); and The Last Battle (1956).
Here’s the order HarperCollins now gives to the series (with their traditional numbering in parentheses): The Magician’s Nephew (6); The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (1); The Horse and His Boy (5); Prince Caspian (2); The Voyage of the “Dawn Treader” (3); The Silver Chair (4); and The Last Battle (7).
Yet the case for reading The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe first rather than second is overwhelming. Most important is the fact that the book introduces the world of Narnia to its readers far better than The Magician’s Nephew, or any of the other books in the Chronicles. Lucy’s initial encounter with Aslan’s domain is one of the great moments in whole series, as she passes through the wardrobe, hears the “crunch-crunch” of snow beneath her feet, and walks toward a light in the distance.
The device of the portal, which transports readers from our world to another, is crucial. For starters, it’s a traditional feature of fantasy literature for children–see, for instance, the rabbit hole in Alice in Wonderland or that railroad platform in Harry Potter. The portal described in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe is more detailed and compelling than the ones found in subsequent books, which employ portals but don’t dwell on their significance. (With the exception of The Horse and His Boy, each of the Narnia books has a portal.) The early chapters of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe focus on the important question of whether there can even be portals. “But do you really mean, Sir,” asks Peter, “that there could be other worlds–all over the place, just around the corner–like that?” Replies the professor: “Nothing is more probable.” This is a meaningful conversation on many levels, and not least because it confirms the reality of Narnia in the space of the story.
What’s more, when Lewis began writing The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, he did not even conceive of writing the other books at all. As a result, he presents Narnia with a freshness that won’t be found elsewhere in the series. You might compare it to the freshness of the crunching snow beneath Lucy’s feet. Not only does Lewis lead his readers into a new world, but he’s looking upon it for the first time himself, and it shows.
There’s no such freshness in The Magician’s Nephew, which begins this workmanlike way: “This is a story about something that happened long ago when your grandfather was a child. It is a very important story because it shows how all the comings and goings between our own world and the land of Narnia first began.” These opening words assume readers will know there’s a place called Narnia and that there are comings and goings between it and our world. In other words, the passage takes for granted a familiarity with tales Lewis already has told.
Leland Ryken and Marjorie Lamp Mead make the point well in their new book, A Reader’s Guide Through the Wardrobe: “To read The Magician’s Nephew first would be to undercut the very fabric by which Lewis so carefully constructed his previous tale. Once readers know ‘all about’ Narnia, they can no longer experience the full strangeness of Lucy’s discovery of a mysterious world within the wardrobe,” they write. “If the reader first experiences Narnia by reading The Magician’s Nephew, all of this significant suspense is lost.”
Then there’s Aslan. He is of course as important to The Chronicles of Narnia as Jesus is to the gospels. And once again, Lewis brings him into the story with enormous care. His name first appears in chapter seven, when the Pevensie kids hear Mr. Beaver speak it: “They say Aslan is on the move–perhaps has already landed.” Next Lewis writes:
And now a very curious thing happened. None of the children knew who Aslan was any more than you do; but the moment the Beaver had spoken these words everyone felt quite different. Perhaps it has sometimes happened to you in a dream that someone says something which you don’t understand but in the dream it feels as if it had enormous meaning–either a terrifying one which turns the whole dream into a nightmare or else a lovely meaning too lovely to put into words, which makes the dream so beautiful that you remember it all your life and are always wishing you could get into that dream again. It was like that now.
This passage certainly belongs in the first book of the Chronicles. That’s especially true for the second sentence: “None of the children knew who Aslan was any more than you do.” This line could not be spoken to people who already have read other Narnia books. Moreover, the very final words of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe sound like the appropriate final words for the first book in a series: “It was only the beginning of the adventures of Narnia.”
There is nothing comparable to any of this in The Magician’s Nephew. (Final words: “But she was a dem fine woman, sir, a dem fine woman.”) No part of The Magician’s Nephew demands that it be read before The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. It is in fact a kind of prequel to the other six books in the series, but this is no more a problem in the overall narration of the Chronicles than a flashback scene is a problem on a television show.
The case for pushing The Magician’s Nephew to the forefront rests almost wholly on the apparent fact that Lewis himself believed it should be read first. He doesn’t seem to have held this opinion with great conviction. He expressed his view in a letter to a child in 1957, in a conversation with one of his biographers, and evidently nowhere else. He certainly didn’t order his publisher to take any special action. By the time HarperCollins rearranged the titles, Lewis had been dead for more than thirty years.
But even if Lewis had been a fervent believer in the primacy of The Magician’s Nephew–writing manifestos, screaming from rooftops, paying for TV ads during the Superbowl–his readers wouldn’t owe him any special consideration. And Lewis definitely was a fervent believer in this principle.
In the 1930s, when Lewis was a relatively unknown scholar at Oxford, he debated E.M.W. Tillyard over how to interpret John Milton. Tillyard maintained that it was important to understand what was on Milton’s mind as he wrote and that such an understanding would help reveal the true meaning of Paradise Lost. Lewis, by contrast, was frustrated to find many of his students more interested in authors’ lives than their works. And he thought Tillyard’s approach was pure balderdash. In an essay, he called it “The Personal Heresy.” He believed that readers should try to share a poet’s consciousness rather than study it. “I look with his eyes, not at him,” wrote Lewis. “The poet is not a man who asks me to look at him; he is a man who says ‘look at that’ and points; the more I follow the pointing of his finger the less I can possibly see of him.” Lewis put the matter more succinctly in a letter toward the end of his life: “An author doesn’t necessarily understand the meaning of his own story better than anyone else.”
Lewis of course understood the meaning of Narnia. But a wise expert is not the same thing as a final authority–and on the question of which Narnia book should come first, Lewis was utterly wrong. Thank goodness the people who are behind new movie version of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe–as well as Jeb Bush–got it right. You should, too, if you decide to explore Narnia not just on the silver screen but also on the printed page.
–John J. Miller is national political reporter for National Review and the co-author, most recently, of Our Oldest Enemy: A History of America’s Disastrous Relationship with France He is author of the upcoming A Gift of Freedom: How the John M. Olin Foundation Changed America..