Narnia Business
by Rusty W. Spell


Who cares anymore, right? It’s all been argued before elsewhere, probably better, but with no resolution, right? We’re just wasting space and breath now. Sure, but you know the old "If I can save just one kid..." idea, so here we are.

The Sordid History

It went down like this. C.S. Lewis wrote the books that came to be known as The Chronicles of Narnia (a name he didn’t come up with). They were published – beginning with The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe – from 1950 to 1956, one a year. They were also written in that order, with the exception of The Horse and His Boy and The Silver Chair, which were flip-flopped. When publishers began boxing them all up together and numbering them, they put them in the order of publication, which is to say:

1. The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (1950). 2. Prince Caspian (1951). 3. The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (1952). 4. The Silver Chair (1953). 5. The Horse and His Boy (1954). 6. The Magician’s Nephew (1955). 7. The Last Battle (1956).

These books take place over a long period of fictional Narnia time, and the order in which they were written and published does not correspond with the Narnian chronological order. For example, The Magician’s Nephew (the sixth book) details the creation of Narnia, and The Horse and His Boy (the fifth book) takes place during the age of the first book.

Because of this, some kid decided that he might like reading the books in "Narnia time" order, and wrote a letter to C.S. Lewis explaining that he liked this order even better than the original one. Lewis wrote back and said "I think I agree with your order" and "Perhaps it does not matter very much in which order anyone read them."

Because of this casual remark, publishers eventually boxed them and numbered them this way:

1. The Magician’s Nephew 2. The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe 3. The Horse and His Boy 4. Prince Caspian 5. The Voyage of the Dawn Treader 6. The Silver Chair 7. The Last Battle.

A stupid thing to do, even beyond the reasons which probably seem obvious to those who’ve never heard of Narnia and are reading this information for the first time.

Why It’s So Stupid

"I think I agree with your order" written in response to a children’s fan letter wasn’t C.S. Lewis’s way of saying, "This is the order that I prefer. I want all publication of the old way to stop and for this matter to be corrected. Thank you." So when people say this is Lewis’s "preferred order," they are being ridiculous. Furthermore, Lewis and the kid were discussing different ways to read the books after being familiar with the original order, in which case the order certainly "does not matter very much." I can read acts II and IV of Hamlet before reading I, III, and V if I like, but only after reading it the way it was written first.

The idea that chronological order for any piece of fiction is the "logical" or "best" order is absurd. I might re-edit a copy of Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction so that it runs in chronological order, and I might even write Tarantino a letter saying that I’ve done so and that I enjoyed watching it that way, and he might even say, "That’s a good idea. I think I’d like that too." But that doesn’t mean that when people put out a new edition of the DVD after he dies that they should take this letter as proof that he messed up the first time and would really prefer this new version. Hell, if Tarantino today stood up and said "I’ve decided Pulp Fiction is better in chronological order, and I am going to re-edit the movie accordingly," he would be wrong and my hope is that someone would stop that madman.

The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe is an introduction book. It was written to be read first. It speaks of Aslan as if we don’t know who he is, which of course we would if we had already read The Magician’s Nephew (a book which, by the way, speaks of Aslan as if we do know who he is, which of course we wouldn’t if we are reading it first). The entire tone of the book sounds like a first book (whereas the tone of The Magician’s Nephew sounds like a book well into the series).

The Magician’s Nephew’s charm, in part, is from the revelations it provides (as book six of seven) about the entire series, especially about book one. In The Magician’s Nephew, we find out where the wardrobe and the lamp post came from, who the professor is, how the White Witch came to be, etc. etc. etc. If readers were to read The Magician’s Nephew first, they (a) wouldn’t care as much about the characters and events in the book as much, since they only fully work fully as revelations, and (b) would constantly say – while reading The Lion, the Witch, and The Wardrobe – "Yeah, yeah, we know this already."

If you’re really wanting to read chronologically, technically you’d have to put down The Lion, the Witch, and The Wardrobe in the middle of the last chapter, read The Horse and His Boy, and then read the remainder of the chapter. Silly, yes? There’s also a reference to The Horse and His Boy in The Silver Chair which (again) loses its impact if you’ve already read the book. Besides, The Horse and His Boy (the weakest of all the Narnia books, certainly the only one that might be considered "bad") isn’t of interest to anyone except readers who are well into the series, so it’s better to have it near the end.

The publication order works as a narrative unto itself. We begin with a perfect intro to Aslan and Narnia in its Golden Age, expand the world and the time with the next three books, take a break (which seems to serve as the large passage of time needed before we hit the last book), and end the series with a double whammy of a creation story followed by an apocalyptic one. The contrast is wonderful, and only works in this order. Beyond narrative, the entire tone and breadth of the series expands almost with each book (even the Pauline Baynes illustrations get more complex), and each new one informs and strengthens the previous.

And Finally...

The thing is, I can read them in any order I want, so why do I care? The answer is: It’s not me, it’s the kiddies.

Some ten-year-old (or forty-year-old) picking up a library book with a big number "1" on the spine of The Magician’s Nephew is going to get dicked out of the best reading experience. My brother and I, before all of this controversy began, used to make fun of people who’d read the books out of order, or would say they were "wasting" them. But those people knew better, and these don’t.

I mean, jeez, what if you had to watch The Phantom Menace before you watched Star Wars? What if someone put Harold Pinter’s play Betrayal in chronological order? What about The Odyssey? What about Kubrick’s The Killing? What ever happened to en media res? Flashbacks? Anyone? Have we all gone insane?

Okay, and maybe it is me, because I can’t bring myself to buy the new editions of the books. I don’t want to have to rearrange my box and have the numbers on the spine read "2, 4, 5, 6, 3, 1, 7." Maybe they should just quit numbering the bastards and print two suggested orders on the side of the box. A compromise. It’s the insistence on the incorrect that kills me.

So, right, I’m just whining now and there’s nothing I or you can do about it. But like I said, if I can save just one kid from getting screwed, it was worth writing this otherwise-hopeless article.

1. The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe
2. Prince Caspian
3. The Voyage of the Dawn Treader
4. The Silver Chair
5. The Horse and His Boy
6. The Magician's Nephew
7. The Last Battle

Copyright 16 Mar 2003 We Like Media.
You may email Rusty W. Spell.