This article serves as an overview (and not necessarily a review) of The Chronicles of Narnia, as well as an introduction to my reviews of the individual titles in the series.
The Chronicles of Narnia is a series of seven children’s fantasy novels set in a fantasy world of talking animals and mythical beasts. The series is the best known work of English author C. S. Lewis who published the books between 1950 and 1956. The books have sold over 100 million copies in 47 languages.
Apart from The Horse and His Boy, the books feature children from our world as protagonists. Children have special roles in the history of Narnia as they are often needed to save it from various evils. They are magically transported to Narnia by various means (such as through a wardrobe, magic rings, picture in a frame) but always initiated by Aslan the great Lion who is the Christ-like figure in Narnia.
Synopses by Publication Order
The following synopses are adapted from Wikipedia:
The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (1950)
The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, tells the story of four ordinary children: Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy Pevensie, who have been evacuated to the English countryside from London in 1940 following the outbreak of World War II. They discover a wardrobe in Professor Digory Kirke’s house that leads to the magical land of Narnia. The Pevensie children help Aslan, a talking lion, save Narnia from the evil White Witch, who has reigned over the land of Narnia for a century of perpetual winter with no Christmas. The children become kings and queens of this new-found land and establish the Golden Age of Narnia, leaving a legacy to be rediscovered in later books.
Prince Caspian: The Return to Narnia (1951)
Prince Caspian: The Return to Narnia tells the story of the Pevensie children’s second trip to Narnia. They are drawn back by the power of Susan’s horn, blown by Prince Caspian to summon help in his hour of need. Narnia, as they knew it, is no more, as 1,300 years have passed and their castle is in ruins, while all Narnians have retreated so far within themselves that only Aslan’s magic can wake them. Caspian has fled into the woods to escape his uncle, Miraz, who has usurped the throne. The children set out once again to save Narnia.
The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (1952)
The Voyage of the Dawn Treader sees Edmund and Lucy Pevensie, along with their priggish cousin, Eustace Scrubb, return to Narnia. Once there, they join Caspian’s voyage on the ship Dawn Treader to find the seven lords who were banished when Miraz took over the throne. This perilous journey brings them face to face with many wonders and dangers as they sail toward Aslan’s country at the edge of the world.
The Silver Chair (1953)
The Silver Chair is the first Narnia book not involving the Pevensie children, focusing instead on Eustace. Several months after The Voyage of the Dawn Treader Aslan calls Eustace back to Narnia along with his classmate Jill Pole. They are given four signs to aid them in the search for Prince Caspian’s son Rilian, who disappeared ten years earlier on a quest to avenge his mother’s death. Fifty years have passed in Narnia; Eustace is still a child, but Caspian, barely an adult in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, is now an old man. Eustace and Jill, with the help of Puddleglum the Marsh-wiggle, face danger and betrayal on their quest to find Rilian.
The Horse and His Boy (1954)
The Horse and His Boy takes place during the reign of the Pevensies in Narnia, an era which begins and ends in the last chapter of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. A young boy named Shasta and a talking horse named Bree, both of whom are in bondage in the country of Calormen, are the protagonists. By “chance”, they meet and plan their return to Narnia and freedom. Along the way they meet Aravis and her talking horse Hwin who are also fleeing to Narnia.
The Magician’s Nephew (1955)
The Magician’s Nephew brings the reader back to the origins of Narnia where we learn how Aslan created the world and how evil first entered it. Digory Kirke and his friend Polly Plummer stumble into different worlds by experimenting with magic rings made by Digory’s uncle. In the dying world of Charn they awaken Queen Jadis, and they witness the creation of Narnian world (where Jadis later becomes the White Witch). Many long-standing questions about the world are answered as a result. The story is set in 1900, when Digory was a 12-year-old boy. He is a middle-aged professor by the time he hosts the Pevensie children in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe 40 years later.
The Last Battle (1956)
The Last Battle chronicles the end of the world of Narnia. Jill and Eustace return to save Narnia from Shift, an ape, who tricks Puzzle, a donkey, into impersonating the lion Aslan, precipitating a showdown between the Calormenes and King Tirian. This leads to the end of Narnia, revealing the true Narnia to which Aslan brings them.
The current editions of the series number the book chronologically rather than in publication order. The differences between the two ordering of the series are based on The Magician’s Nephew and The Horse and His Boy which were published in between The Silver Chair and The Last Battle but the events that they describe take place earlier in the Narnian timeline. The Magician’s Nephew, in fact, describes the creation of Narnia while The Horse and His Boy describes events that took place during the Golden Age of Narnia (which took place in the last chapter of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.
Here are the books in reading order:
- The Magician’s Nephew
- The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe
- The Horse and His Boy
- Prince Caspian: The Return to Narnia
- The Voyage of the Dawn Treader
- The Silver Chair
- The Last Battle
Q: Which Order is Better?
Fans are divided as to which order you should read the book. One of the strongest cases for reading them in the original, publication order is the argument that C. S. Lewis intended Narnia to be seen through the eyes of Lucy Pevensie, so that when readers step through the wardrobe with her, they will see the same wonder that she does. However, to make the case for the chronological order, Lewis’s stepson, Douglas Gresham, quoted Lewis’s 1957 reply to a letter from an American fan who was having an argument with his mother about the order:
I think I agree with your [chronological] order for reading the books more than with your mother’s. The series was not planned beforehand as she thinks. When I wrote The Lion I did not know I was going to write any more. Then I wrote Prince Caspian as a sequel and still didn’t think there would be any more, and when I had done The Voyage I felt quite sure it would be the last, but I found I was wrong. So perhaps it does not matter very much in which order anyone read them. I’m not even sure that all the others were written in the same order in which they were published.
A: It Doesn’t Matter
Personally, I did not read the series in the publication or the reading order. I read them as I managed to acquire copies. We read three of them in class: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, The Horse and His Boy and The Last Battle in that order. And then I sought out the remaining four in my local library. Ultimately, like Lewis himself says, it does not matter which order you read the books. What is certain is that when you make the decision to read them, you’re in for a magical ride.
Other Frequently Asked Questions about Narnia
Why should I read the Chronicles of Narnia?
Because the series is considered as a classic and is generally regarded as one of the best children’s fantasy series.
Aren’t the books quite religious?
They can be, and there are obvious Christian allegories throughout. But the books can also be enjoyed as straightforward fantasy adventures, whatever your faith is.
Is it true C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien were very good friends?
Yes they were. They were contemporaries and knew each other very well. But their works are very different. The Narnia books and The Lord of the Rings, while both set in ficitional worlds and use Christian themes, differ in style and tone.
Is it true some elements of the books are sexist and racist?
There are some elements that some people regard as sexist and racist. These include Susan being denied entry to Narnia’s equivalent of heaven and people with dark skin being portrayed as cruel and barbaric. But Lewis also makes it clear that it is how we act, and not what we look like, that is important.
Do I have to read all the books to appreciate them?
No. All the books are self-contained and can be enjoyed on their own. Each book has a separate adventure that has a beginning, middle and end.