When I got my first job after college, it was in the early 1960s. I became a reporter for Grit, the national newspaper. Now that I had a steady income, I began to buy books through the mail, thus acquiring at last The Lord of the Rings, and I also bought the seven volumes of C. S. Lewis’s The Narnia Chronicles.
Mostly I enjoyed them, though a friend warned me about what he called “hit you over the head Christianity.” Which is a bit exaggerated – I found that the heaviest doses of religious didacticism are only in three books: the first, the third, and the seventh. Aslan, of course, is clearly meant to be Jesus, and in the initial Narnia adventure he even dies and is resurrected. In the third, he appears at the close of the story in another guise, that of a lamb, which I thought heavy-handed symbolism, though I didn’t mind it because the third book was, and still is, my favorite. In the same way I tolerated the religiosity in the first book because otherwise it is a splendid fantasy.
The seventh book was the only one I did not like, or at least I found the ending quite annoying (I won’t spoil it, though, for anyone who has not yet read it).
I’ve read four other Lewis works, half of which are free from his churchly leanings. I am referring, first of all, to his science fiction trilogy, Out of the Silent Planet, Perelandra, and That Hideous Strength. “Planet” takes the protagonist to Mars where he must deal with a pair of villains who he met earlier on Earth. This book is a grand SF adventure that I did not find at all dated; I can’t recall any sermonizing in it. But Perelandra is a dreary reworking of aspects of Genesis. I thought it quite tedious and do not recommend wasting time on it. The concluding volume is somewhat better, though.
I’d heard that it was rather frightening, but I did not find it so. A college professor battles mysterious forces that mean to take over the campus; it is a battle of good against evil, and it is mildly interesting, though it was much better done by Fritz Leiber in his shivery novel, Conjure Wife, which was made into an excellent film, Burn, Witch, Burn (1962).
The last Lewis work that I’ve read is The Screwtape Letters (and one edition also includes a short item, Screwtape Proposes a Toast). “Screwtape” is a demon and the book consists of many letters that he sends to a young nephew, an imp just learning how to do Hell’s work on Earth. Religion is, of course, vital here, but the sardonic tone makes the book quite funny and slyly accurate.
You may have noticed above that when I spoke of the Narnia books, I did not mention their titles. That is because when I recently acquired a single fat tome with all of the stories in it, I learned that C. S. Lewis thought that the “Chronicles” should be read chronologically, not in the order that they were first published. I read them the latter way the first time: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Prince Caspian, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, The Silver Chair, The Horse and His Boy, The Magician’s Nephew and The Last Battle.
This time I took the author’s advice and read them chronologically. Thus, the prologue or prequel to the entire series is The Magician’s Nephew, followed by The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, The Horse and His Boy, Prince Caspian, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, The Silver Chair and The Last Battle.
The reason that I decided to read them again – and I remembered very little of them after an interval of some fifty years – is because I recently watched the films of The Lion, Prince Caspian and Dawn Treader. The movies are quite good and I noticed that the filmmakers soft-pedaled the religious aspects, which was welcome to me.
Well, I just finished rereading them and am pleased – and surprised! – to find that the religious parts did not bother me at all this time, not even at the end of The Last Battle. I particularly enjoyed The Magician’s Nephew and its revelation of how Narnia began. The Horse and His Boy was quite engrossing, and “Lion” still retains its magic. Three of the others were also quite enjoyable, but my favorite is still The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. It is a nautical adventure, of course, and I also love tales of the sea (just reread Treasure Island and found new things to admire about it). The Dawn Treader and its sailors are on a mighty quest, but when it is done they continue to sail to the end of their world, hoping to see what they call Aslan’s country. Along the way, we especially enjoy the valiant swashbuckling mouse Reepicheep, and the trials of a “son of Adam,” who begins as a pest and minor ne’er-do’ well, but becomes a hero. He is introduced in the opening sentence of the book, and it is too good to miss: “There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it.”
So welcome back to Narnia, and I hope they will make the fourth film soon!
Speaking of new movies, I highly recommend The Maze Runner. Most of the critics did not think all that much of it, so I almost skipped it, but then I saw a trailer for it and it fascinated me. It reminded me slightly of the late William Sleator’s House of Stairs, and there is some thematic similarity.
I found the film gripping, quite a mystery to work out – and one lengthy sequence is one of the most frightening chases I’ve ever seen. I immediately bought the book and found it impossible to put down. The movie is quite faithful to it, and the few changes are innocuous. One makes sense because it changes the map room in what is called the Glade to hold a scale model of the mysterious maze, whereas the book only has it filled with paper maps. However, one change surprised me. The film omitted the very brief epilogue, in which the situation is suddenly and shockingly flip-flopped!
There are four books in the series: The Maze Runner, The Scorch Trials, The Death Cure and The Kill Order, all of them written by James Dashner, a young and very talented storyteller – a plotting genius. The fourth book is a prequel to the other trio. I recommend reading them in the order I chose: The Maze Runner, The Kill Order, The Scorch Trials and The Death Cure.