Many decades ago, two drinking buddies wrote vastly different fantasy series, which set the groundwork for the fantasy genre. One was J.R.R. Tolkien, author of the classic "Lord of the Rings" and "The Hobbit." And the other was C.S. Lewis, the author of the philosophical "Space Trilogy." Before these two, fantasy was only a few books by a small number of obscure authors.
Many years later, C.S. Lewis is still a classic, much-read author, and his books are about to hit the big screen -- "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe" will debut in December, following the footsteps of Tolkien's movie adaptations. So, dust off the Narnia Chronicles and reacquaint yourself with these fantasy stories.
"The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe" opens as four children (Lucy, Edmund, Susan and Peter) are being shipped to a country mansion to avoid German bombings. While exploring the house, Lucy accidently ventures into a winter-locked world called Narnia, ruled over by the evil White Witch. The god-king Aslan is about to return to destroy the Witch -- but she has a hold on Edmund....
"Prince Caspian" takes place long after the events of the first book. Young Prince Caspian escapes his uncle's castle when his life is threatened, and he finds refuge with the hidden races of Narnia -- dwarves, talking animals, dryads, centaurs and many others. And to help Caspian regain the throne, the two kings and two queens of Narnia are called back...
"Voyage of the Dawn Treader" begins when Edmund, Lucy and their obnoxious cousin Eustace are sucked through a painting into Narnia, where their pal Caspian is now king of Narnia (not to mention fully grown). Caspian is heading toward the end of the world to find several knights who were banished, and vanished into the perilous islands along the sea. But the Dawn Treader's voyage will literally take them where no one has gone before... and returned to tell about it.
"The Silver Chair" heads into slightly darker territory when Eustace returns to boarding school. He and outcast girl Jill Pole are drawn into Narnia, where Jill must perform a task to redeem herself for a stupid stunt. She must find Caspian's missing son Rilian. This search will send the two children across Narnia with the pessimistic Puddleglum, where they will encounter carnivorous Giants, creepy underground creatures, and an enemy worse than they could have imagined...
"Horse and His Boy" shoots back in time to the middle of the first book. Shasta lives with the man he thinks to be his father in a hovel by the sea, but when he learns that he was a foundling, he escapes with a talking horse, Bree. During his escape, he meets the escaping noblewoman Aravis (who also has a talking horse). The two plan to escape to Narnia. But in the capital city, there is a conspiracy brewing against the visiting Narnian kings and queens, and Shasta and Aravis are drawn into it.
"Magician's Nephew" clears up many of the questions about Narnia, Aslan and the White Witch. Digory and Polly end up in very serious trouble when they encounter Digory's weird, slightly nutty uncle, a magician who has created magical rings that send the user to other worlds. They accidently set loose the evil Queen Jadis, who goes on a rampage through London -- until they pull her out of our world, and into the newborn world of Narnia.
"The Last Battle" is definitely the end of the series, where Narnia has decayed into violence and hatred, as a prelude to the final battle between good and evil. Humans are destroying the trees and killing the dryads, and a false Aslan is appearing to mislead the fearful inhabitants of Narnia. Old and new friends -- some from other worlds -- will band together as the true Aslan prepares to lead them to a new land.
Anyone who dislikes allegory -- religious or otherwise -- should steer clear of the Chronicles. While Lewis' beliefs are presented in a more complex and subtle manner in his other books, like the Space Trilogy, the parallels to Christian belief are very obvious here. Even Tolkien, who was Lewis' longtime friend, found that annoying.
But as a fantasy, this series is a fantastic read, and was also the first of the kids-get-swept-into-other-worlds novels. Lewis reshapes typical mythical elements like dwarves, nymphs, talking animals, centaurs and wicked witches into shape in his invented world. Moreover, his land of Narnia is a complex and very inviting place. It's not always fun, but Lewis always leaves you with the feeling that the good guys will come out on top.
Like many other British authors writing for kids, Lewis' writing can get a bit precious. But he includes loads of detail, mystery and cultural intrigure in his stories -- and not just for Narnia either. For example, Calormene is a sort of generic Middle-Eastern land, very Arabian Nights. It's full of culture and beauty, but also with good guys and bad guys.
What's more, readers can appreciate the mysteries and questions that Lewis sprinkles through the book, and which are explained as the story goes on. Where did the lamppost come from, for example? Why are there humans in Narnia? Where did Reepicheep go? Most of these are answered at one point or another.
The Chronicles of Narnia are a longstanding classic, fun and dramatic and action-packed. For a bit more insight into the forthcoming movie -- and the history of fantasy -- check out "The Chronicles of Narnia."