C.S. Lewis was many things - a popular theologian (almost a contradiction in terms today), an engaging academic (see above qualification, as it applies here, too), and an expert storyteller, the craft of which came from his careful blending and imaginative use of the previous two. The Chronicles of Narnia stand up favourable to the work of Lewis' longtime friend and contemporary academic and storyteller, Tolkien (of Lord of the Rings fame). Narnia, however, does not go off into the same fantastic realms of Tolkien, but rather charts a different path, in that while Tolkien strives to use fantasy and mythic elements to tell more general philosophy, Lewis in the Narnia tales deliberately crafts the imagery to fit a Christian framework, and a fairly Anglo-catholic one at that.
Narnia is series of adventures for children, but like the best of such stories, continues to hold power for adults who read them as well. Resurgence in popularity of late has occurred because of the film, 'The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe', second in the series (depending upon which chronology one follows), but the whole series is a charmer. In 'The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe', the story focuses upon Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy, four exiles from war-time London in the English countryside who discover the portal to Narnia in the back of a mysterious wardrobe. The king of Narnia, Aslan the lion (whose imagery fits both Christian and English mythic lore) is battling the icy witch, who styles herself as Queen of Narnia. Through a classic struggle of good and evil in epic battle format, the pure-hearted children and the graceful king Aslan win the day, but eventually the children must return to their own world, even after such adventures.
'Prince Caspian' takes place long after (in Narnia time - one discovers the passage of time from one world to the next is variable), as Caspian befriends many of the creatures of Narnia, both natural and fantastic. The four children, enthroned as kings and queens of Narnia at the end of the first adventure, must return to help Caspian, whose main desire is to live in old Narnia, forbidden tales of which he has heard.
'Voyage of the Dawn' sees Edmund and Lucy drawn back into Narnia through a painting, together with their horrid cousin Eustace Scrubb. Caspian is now king, on a knightly quest to discover lost knights of old, and also to seek the end of the world (in a literal sense). Sea voyages and other journeys take them far and wide, until Aslan again appears to return the children home. Eustace becomes a better person for his Narnia adventures, much as Edmund had transformed during his first major Narnia experience.
Eustace returns in the 'The Silver Chair', this time from his school, with fellow student Jill, who is also less than popular. Jill, like the earlier Edmund, must find redemption, and seeks to save Rilian (son of the now-dying Caspian). Here we encounter the Parliament of Owls as well as the bottom of the world - once again, Aslan helps to save the day, despite the nay-saying of Puddleglum.
Shasta is the boy and Bree is the horse in 'The Horse and His Boy'. Shasta is about to be sold into slavery when he escapes with Bree, and they meet Aravis and Hwin, another escaping duo, on their way to Narnia. They uncover a plot against Narnia, and must work to save the kingdom of their dreams.
'The Magician's Nephew' is often considered the first of the series, with events that preceed 'The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe'. It gives background and insight into the overall workings of Narnia. Polly and Digory discover the portal to the Woods between the Worlds, and there is a greater mix of worlds here than in any other story. However, this is also the beginning of the other stories, with Aslan providing the same kind of guidance he would throughout the series.
'The Last Battle' is, as the title suggests, the last of the series. Narnia falls into the final conflict of good and evil, with a false Aslan (a false messiah figure) appearing and humans destroying all things around, particularly the natural environment. Old Narnia must pass away, but a new Narnia is held in promise as the real Aslan returns to lead the faithful.
While many of Lewis' original readers were occasionally disturbed by the Christian overall (and indeed, at Lewis' interpretation of Christian lore), in fact the state of biblical illiteracy is such today that most will miss much of the Christian allegory unless it is specially spelled out. Narnia can stand on its own merits as a story independent of its underpinnings, but just as most mythological and even biblical stories can achieve, this one becomes stronger the deeper one explores the symbolic meanings.
Lewis is very much a creature of his culture - this is very post-Victorian (read, more Victorian than the Victorians) in style and morals, even in the 1950s (a time so many in our present culture look back to as a high point in moral culture) he was looking back to a better time - perhaps it is no surprise that instead of finding it in the past, he found it in Narnia?
This is a series that is wonderful for children of all ages, and for adults - the tales bear repeating over and over, and many editions of these texts come with wonderful artwork. This particular one has illustrations by Pauline Baynes, the original illustrator for the series, and they are wonderful indeed.