Before I had children, I had this notion that I would read The Chronicles of Narnia to them one day. I don't know why exactly. I had no personal attachment to the series. A librarian read the first chapter of The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe to our second grade class. Later, in the sixth grade, our class read a selection of The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. Because of my absurdly long “rat tail,” I was nicknamed Reepicheep, a moniker it took more than a decade to escape despite the fact my hair was cut the following year. I saw the recent rash of Narnia films. Though I appreciated a great many Narnian moments, none of these life events really inspired a great fondness for the story. So why I thought I needed to read these stories to my children, I have no idea. It was just something I wanted to do.
After my first son was born, I bought the hefty and beautiful The Complete Chronicles of Narnia with full color illustrations and maps. It was a gorgeous volume and it looked great on my shelf where it sat for the next ten years. Timing was everything. I was only reading the volume once, so I had to wait until my youngest was old enough to grasp the story and hopefully remember it years later, and for my eldests to not find the juvenile tale boring. Three years ago, as the Christmas season was upon us, I began reading The Magician's Nephew. We made it through the first couple tales rather quickly (given our busy and often conflicting schedules), but then it started to become a chore to read. Slowly we pushed through A Horse and His Boy and Prince Caspian and then, feeling over the hump, we picked up steam. Altogether, it took three years and four months to make it through these seven stories. Here are a few thoughts on each.
The Magician's Nephew - This is easily one of the best stories in the series. It lacks the strong connection to the rest of the series as it was meant to be a prequel, an explanation of the origins of Narnia. Because of this, however, it is really the only story here that can stand on its own. It's a simple story with a complete cycle, but it still holds all the magic that makes Narnia special.
The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe - This is the story everyone familiar with Narnia knows and for good reason. It was the first glimpse at the characters and into the world that would become a classic. There are so many wonderfully drawn scenes here, but the one that always stands out to me is the light post in the snowy forest. I love this image. This, to me, is the image of Narnia.
A Horse and His Boy - Uggghh. Terrible. After writing the first four books in the Narnia series, C.S. Lewis went back and filled in the time between his original two stories with this gem. Is there anyone who's happy about this? Not only does the story seem alien to the Narnian story, it is horribly offensive with its blatantly obvious “Jesus is good, Allah is bad” routine. He could've at least tried to mask his obvious disdain.
Prince Caspian - Chapters upon chapters of backstory. Not much really happens here except a huge battle at the end. Now if you've watched the 2008 film, you may disagree. That's because they took the skeleton of this book, added considerable flesh to it, and actually made it into a decent story. While not the worst story in the series, it is the most disappointing.
The Voyage of the Dawn Treader - ...Dawn Treader is really the last good moment of this series. Even though the scope is limited and out of place to the Narnia the reader has come to expect, it has enough excitement and character building to sustain itself. The final moments in this novel really should have been the conclusion to the series. There are moments sprinkled throughout the following two books that are strong, but overall they lack to bring this series to a satisfying conclusion.
The Silver Chair - A decent story with some wonderful moments, but overall the action and story were a little dry. There's a darkness to The Silver Chair (much of the story takes place underground), that makes the magic seem less impressive and certainly less breathtaking.
The Last Battle - And it all ends here. Aslan is mad with the world. The battle between Christian and Muslim comes to a fart of a battle. Girls who are interested in makeup are not invited to the after world. And it all comes to a fiery end. It seems C.S. Lewis may have intended an epic ending, but it felt more like one big “piss off” to me.
Overall, this is how I'd rank the stories:
The Good (4 Stars)
The Magician's Nephew
The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe
The Voyage of the Dawn Treader
The Mediocre (3 Stars)
The Silver Chair
The Bad (2 Stars)
The Final Battle
And The Horribly Ugly (1 Star)
A Horse and His Boy