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One Of The Greatest Children's Fantasy Books Ever Written
on 26 October 2015
I've just read this aloud in instalments to my eight-year-old daughter. At first, I had to get past her laughter at the "I say, rather!" way the characters speak. ("How OLD is this book, Mummy?") But there was a little intake of breath when she realised this was a fantasy world where the characters could actually get killed. And then she was hooked. And she was reading extra chapters under the bedclothes after I'd left the room.
First published in 1950, this is one of the most classic portal fantasies ever written. Four children are sent from London to an old house in the country during the evacuations of World War II. Through a magic wardrobe, they enter the fantasy land of Narnia, which is a jumbled mixture of Greek mythology, Bible stories, and Arthurian romances, with a bit of Medieval Bestiaries thrown in and also a nod to George Macdonald. The White Witch has made herself Queen of Narnia, and put it under the spell of an ever-constant winter. With the arrival of the children and the lion Aslan, an old prophecy is met, spring comes to Narnia, and there is a major clash between the good and evil Narnians on who gets to dominate Narnia.
It is good writing to read aloud, and I can see why decades of schoolteachers have done so to their classes, including my own Year 3 teacher when I was a child. It's also a good silent read for children on the 8+years level. I had to explain the Adam and Eve story to my daughter, but otherwise the child doesn't need to already know the rich layers of references within it, which fed my own subsequent reading for years and years when I was a child - I wanted to know more about all the creatures C.S. Lewis had referred to! (Though I never did find out who the People of the Toadstools were.....)
Re-reading it again as an adult, what struck me was the influence of World War II. I have no idea how much C.S. Lewis followed the events of the war from his academic enclave, or how aware he was of the atrocities in Europe. But certain bits of the imagery - the wolf who was Chief of the Secret Police and visited victims in the night to trash their homes; the White Witch casually pointing her wand at a happy little family party at the side of the road and turning them to stone, in spite of Edmund's pleas - felt connected to it. And unlike the stone spells, deaths caused by gunfire can not be reversed.
My daughter hasn't got that far in her history lessons yet.