(Fair warning: While this blog discusses the concept of spoilers for the Chronicles of Narnia, it also contains them in a major and overt way. I would never want to ruin such a fantastic set of books for someone who hasn’t read them; indeed, the entire thrust of the article is precisely that. So if you haven’t read the Chronicles- even if you never intend to- please read no further! You never know what the future will bring, and you can only discover a story for the first time once!)
It’s a timeless, magical, ethereal setting- the otherworldly realm of a classic fairytale. It suggests Christmas, and childhood, and wonder, all at the same time- evocative and mysterious and cozy. An unknown somewhere, yet an utterly familiar everywhere. In the middle of a snowy forest, a lit lamppost sits- and beneath it, a fawn with an umbrella and an armful of parcels.
It suggests so very much. This is not merely an ordinary occurrence, for it is a street-corner implement in a wilderness setting. Yet we are not in some overgrown city, or viewing an abandoned relic- for it is kept lit.
It captures the interest and attention with its striking dichotomy immediately, yet it carries with it a sense of universality and comfort. It is a friendly setting, with icons of the familiar juxtaposed in a non-threatening, cheery way. Two things that never before went together now do- yet they don’t conflict in their unfamiliar mixture. It evokes alienness, and yet, touches of home at the same time… otherworldly, and yet reminiscent of the enshrined wistfulness of yesteryear, and Victorian Christmas, and wonderful, age-old traditions that warm the heart.
And it raises a plethora of questions. Where are we? What is this world? Who lights the lampost? Why is it here?
Well, that’s easy- it’s a turn-of-the-century (of the 20th century; boy, that term just doesn’t mean what it used to!) London lampost crossbar, broken off by the fearsome empress Jadis, last of the rulers of the desolate universe/realm of Charn- a dead, nuclear-winter-esque world orbiting a cooling, swollen red giant. Brought to this world through an interdimensional crossroads- itself accessible only via magical rings crafted from the ancient dust-remnants of Atlantis, and passed on to a mad scientist by his deceased, half-fairy aunt- this Empress seized upon the improvised weapon to begin her handsome-cab-mounted conquest of the late-Victorian world. The subjugation was pre-empted only when the Empress and her weapon were magically shanghaied to another realm in the Genesis of its creation- an empty world being sung into life by a talking, sovereign lion, son of the Emperor-Over-The-Sea and inaugurator of all creation. After a failed attack against him with the lampost bar, the instrument is embedded into the ground and- subject to the creative magic of the lion’s song- sprouts into a full, tree-like, perpetually-lit lampost during the very foundation of this other-dimensional world.
Pure simplicity itself.
…This account, of course, does not come across so timelessly or intimately. It is not the simple, mysterious, instinctively-cozy setting of a children’s story- rather, it is more of a sci-fi/fantasy epic. Wondrous, expansive, and intricate, full of rich detail and intriguing hypothetical concepts. It is broad, and incredible, taking the simple iconography of the intimate setting and expanding it into a dimension-crossing epic of worlds at their wax and wane. There’s only one problem with the whole, amazing tale, really…
Some people think that you should read it first.
You can, most certainly. With the latter scenario serving as a later-written prequel, a strict chronological reading would most certainly put this grand origin story first. This is even- in a sad evidence that even the greatest of men can still fall prey to moments of senility- author-endorsed as a method for reading the books.
Well, I don’t disagree with CS Lewis often… but reading the Magician’s Nephew as the first book of the Chronicles of Narnia is about the worst way you can go about it.
Picture this- you go to a magic show. (Or ‘illusionist show,’ if you’re a theological hard-liner). While there, seated in the audience, you’re dazzled by the amazing spectacle. A woman seems to levitate. A twelve-foot-tall statue disappears. A man steps into a cabinet, twenty swords are shoved through it, and he returns unharmed. An orange tree seems to blossom before your very eyes.
An analytical part of your brain is wondering how it’s all done… but a freer, more-childlike part of you is simply carried away by the wonder; swept up in the masterful spectacle.
Afterward, you are invited backstage, and the magician reveals his secrets. You marvel at the incredible technical complexity needed to create these illusions. The wire-and-armature rig used to make the woman ‘float’ is a masterpiece of engineering. The multi-mirror setup that conceals the statue is elegant in its simplicity. The secret of the blooming orange tree astounds you, and probably has something to do with the crowned prince of Austria, or somesuch.
With the secrets revealed, you leave the theater with a whole new appreciation for all of the work and cleverness that went into the spectacle you just witnessed… which first thrilled you in child-like wonder, then impressed you with its intricate craftsmanship.
Now, imagine you did things the other way around- backstage first, then out to see the show.
Certainly, you’d still get the wonders of the backstage tour, just as above. And quite likely, you would still appreciate the illusionist show. Seeing the skill on display, the clever devices and contraptions at work, would fill you with a deep respect for the craft of the performer.
But that sense of wonder, of being carried along with the show; of mystery, and delight, and getting lost in the illusions? That half of the experience would be lost to you.
A similar scenario has been espoused by many Star Wars fans, who introduce their children or newcomers to the series by watching IV, V, I, II, III, and then VI, in order to preserve both the big reveal at the end of the Empire Strikes Back, and the surprise of the Emperor’s identity.* Prequels are often spoilerific by nature… sometimes with big reveals, and other times in simple matters of tone.
And that is my argument in the long standing Narnian chronological-vs-publication order debate. It is simple and yet, I believe, profound. ‘The Lion, The Witch, And The Wardrobe’ is filled with wonder and mystery- the distilled essence of childhood imagination, even to an adult reader. Numerous mysteries- from the aforementioned lampost to the slow-burn reveal of the mysterious Aslan’s nature- are key to the atmosphere of the narrative- a tone of discovery; learning about Narnia right alongside the Pevensie children.
To go backstage with the behind-the-scenes tour that is ‘The Magician’s Nephew’ beforehand ruins all of that- discarding the wonder for pragmatic, familiar fact. There is no mystery, no discovery… only a sequel that spends a bit too long navel-gazing about things that we already know.
CS Lewis was an insightful man. That he was seduced by the evil whiles of little Laurence from America is not to his shame- we are, all of us, human; well-capable of being deceived. That Lewis was manipulated to endorse this inherently-wrongheaded sequence is simple evidence that we can all make mistakes. But the choice in chronological vs. publication order is a clear one, and one which- to this author- bears only one obvious right answer. Enwrap a new reader in the wonder and mystery of a new land, and then later, the boon of appreciation and knowledge that comes from understanding where it all came from… or gift them mere knowledge at the start- albeit wrapped up in an epic and well-written tale, which I have no intention to besmirch- and take from them forever the wonder and discovery associated with that later, first-written tale. That’s no choice at all. Go see the magic show first- then delve behind the curtain.
*Personally, the idea of not only making a child wait after witnessing the cliffhanger of Episode V, but also subjecting them to the garbage produced by the Star Wars franchise from 1999-2005 in the process, is child cruelty! I am quite happy to show them in the order they were released, with the prequels as optional add-ons that end on a nostalgic note and recall the superior originals… but I digress.
About the Author: Andrew Gilbertson
Forged in the fires of internet message board debates on Nitcentral.com, professional video editor Andrew Gilbertson has always been a filmmaker and writer. At last count, he’s edited over 40 short film projects in a roughly 8-year period, all of which are showcased for free at www.nolinecinemas.com- along with short stories, audio dramas, and podcasts. But his primary effort at the present is the Heavens Declare series, a sci-fi novel saga that he hopes to have ready for Grail Quest Books within the next year or so. He currently shares a suburban home with Sarah Gilbertson, the love of his life, and a newly-minted third member of the family, in a town that he’s geekily gleeful about sharing the same name with the hometown of a Doctor Who companion…