At the weekend I finished reading The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe to my kids – audience L (almost 6) and D (3 1/2) liked it, or maybe they like the ritual of bedtime stories and found it tolerable content to fill said ritual, I dunno. My Dad thoughts follow.
This was never my favourite Narnia book as a kid – some of which was budding contrarianism and some of which was that it’s all over the place in terms of pace, plot, mood, you name it. Lewis has three stories here: the one he wants to tell, the one he insists on telling, and the one he fakes the reader out into thinking he’s telling.
The one he wants to tell – or at least, he’s best at telling – is Edmund’s failure and redemption. As a kid I disliked this element and squirmed at Edmund’s dickishness, as a parent of two boys I liked it more. “Awful Boys Who Stop Being Awful” is a story Lewis is generally drawn to – he tells it with Edmund, Eustace, Shasta and to some extent Digory (Digory can’t be as much of a knob as the others because he’s also the main protagonist and his redemption isn’t the point of the story, but he has his moments).
As a theme this isn’t without issues – “why is it always boys?” being one* – but Edmund’s version of it is the best, I think, because Lewis is very careful to lead the reader through Ed’s motivation and emotions every time he goes wrong. As a reader aloud I rather like Lewis authorial voice – friendly, conspiratorial, careless of the fourth wall – and it does a good job here of keeping the moral stakes in the story real, and less arbitrary**.
Unfortunately, of course, Edmund’s story crashes straight into the second story, the one Lewis is writing the book to tell: Aslan AKA Jesus Lion. Aslan is less passive-agressive here than in any other book, but at the expense of completely taking over the action from the supposed protagonists. It’s hard to think of a meaningful choice Peter makes anywhere in the book, for instance, which is one reason he’s so annoying. His death and resurrection, taken on its own terms, reads as a desperate plot fumble no good writer would ever go near.
Which is, of course, exactly why it works for kid listeners. It’s pure, glorious playground logic. The Witch: “I use Deep Magic From The Dawn Of Time”. The Lion: “I use Deeper Magic From BEFORE The Dawn Of Time.”. The Witch: “Whaaaat?” It’s pretty much game over in the “Is Aslan A Dick?” stakes though – his resurrection is a matter of superior legal preparation, not faith, so he surely knows he’s going to come back, and it’s dreadful to put Lucy and Susan through the agony (and personal risk) of watching the process – but at least he’s also being a dick to the villain.
A big problem with the Aslan story is that it exposes the third story – the one Lewis makes like he’s telling – as a con job. This is the story of four kids exploring and saving a magic land that you get to through a wardrobe. As mentioned, the protagonists all get sidelined by Aslan, but also the exploring ends as soon as the sides are clearly drawn, and even the central conflict is dispatched with a shrug – the Witch’s “death scene” is perhaps the least satisfying in all kid-lit***.
Does this matter for small listeners? Not really – the Witch’s death scene did disappoint, actually, because they’re already so used to three-act Hollywood storytelling. But they know a superhero when they see one, and that’s what Aslan is being here. And Lewis’ two great strengths – his lively, sensual descriptions (the book is packed with food porn, a big draw in rationing-era Britain I’d guess) and his gift for set-pieces and ideas (the wardrobe itself, the courtyard of statues, “always winter but never Christmas”) – bring them through. From memory, the more he plays down plot and theology for set-pieces, the better the Narnia books get. This one was well-received enough that I will likely get to find out.
*Susan is the second-best characterised of the kids, perhaps the best (her risk-averse sensible-ness is more subtly drawn than Edmund’s treachery) but she’s still given very little to do.
**There’s an odd bit at the end, quite unforeshadowed, where “that school” is blamed for Edmund’s problems, but intra-sibling tension explains them better.
***What DID they teach editors in those days? etc.