In What Order Should the Narnia Books Be Read?

By Andrew Rilstone

The internecine strife between Lewis aficionados about the order of the Narnia books shows no signs of abating. In principle, both devout Chronologists and sincere Publicationists both allow that people should read the books in whatever order they chose. Yet both groups, in their hearts, believe that their order is best. Fisticuffs can easily develop, and the first excommunications and crusades cannot be far away. In an attempt to resolve this very serious issue, I offer my own, definitive, take on the problem.

1: Chronology vs Publication
C.S Lewis’s famous series of children’s stories were published between 1950 and 1956, in the following order:

1. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (1950)
2. Prince Caspian(1951)
3. The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (1952)
4. The Silver Chair (1953)
5. The Horse and His Boy (1954)
6. The Magicians Nephew(1955)
7. The Last Battle (1956)

All current editions of the books, however, number them in a slightly different order:

1. The Magicians Nephew
2. The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe
3. The Horse and His Boy
4. Prince Caspian
5. The Voyage of the Dawn Treader
6. The Silver Chair
7. The Last Battle

This order reflects the chronological sequence of events in the books themselves.

Lewis expressed a mild preference for this second, chronological order. In a letter written in 1957 to an American boy named Laurence, he wrote the following:

‘I think I agree with your order {i.e. chronological} 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 P. 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 as 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.

Quoted in “Letters to Children”

On this last point, scholars who have written about Narnia agree: the books were not published in the order that they were written. The writing order appears to have been

1: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe
2: (Abandoned version of Magicians Nephew)
3: Prince Caspian
4: Voyage of the Dawn Treader
5: Horse and His Boy
6: Silver Chair
7: Magicians Nephew
8: Last Battle

The case for reading the books in chronological order is the self-evident one: it makes more sense, particularly for children, to read a series of stories in the order in which they happened.

The case for reading the books in published order includes the following:

1: The Lion is presented very much as the first of a series. It concludes with the words ‘That is the very end of the adventure of the wardrobe. But if the Professor was right, it was only the beginning of the adventures of Narnia.’ The ‘second’ book, Prince Caspian, is subtitled ‘The Return to Narnia.’

2: The narrator of The Lion says ‘None of the children knew who Aslan was, any more than you do.’ But if ‘you’ are supposed to have read The Magician’s Nephew, then you do know who Aslan was.

3: The charm of the opening of The Lion is spoiled if you already know, from Magician’s Nephew, that the wardrobe is magical; that the Professor has been to Narnia, and why there is a street lamp in Narnia. Similarly, the ‘shock of recognition’ in Magician’s Nephew is spoiled if you don’t know the significance of the wardrobe.

4: Why should The Horse and His Boy, which happens during the final chapter of The Lion, be set after it? Could an equally valid case not be made for saying that it should be set after The Silver Chair where it is presented as a story-within-a-story?

Given that most people read and re-read the books many times, does this sort of nit-picking matter? Almost certainly not. However, I believe that argument is not, in fact an argument about which order to read the books in, but about which order to think of the books in. The reason that the discussion occasionally becomes heated is that the camps are not merely arguing for a particular sequence, but for a particular interpretation.

2: From Work To Text.
Any book—any work of art—is to some extent the product of an interaction between the text and the reader. Remembrance of Things Past is only a lot of black marks on white paper until I bring my imagination to bear on it. This is not to say, as some literary theorists do, that any book can mean anything we want it to—Mein Kampf is a love story, Wuthering Heights a recipe for cheese. In fact, the better the book, the more successful the author, the more likely it is that the book which we create in our heads—the pictures we make out of the black marks on white paper—will be quite close to what the original writer intended.

However, the circumstances around a book—the form in which it is distributed, the things which are said about it—effect the way in which we read it: effect the types of mental pictures and impression we feel permitted to form. We read Hamlet subtly differently when we find it as part of a longer book called The Complete Works of William Shakespeare than we would if it were part of a browns-spined scholarly ‘Early English Text Society’ series, complete with footnotes and obsolete spelling. A rather good romantic lyric about Marilyn Monroe is changed forever when the author chooses to stick doggerel words to it and belt it out in Westminster Abbey: the original song simply no longer exists. We look at a piece of Victorian furniture differently if it placed in a Museum from the way you would if it was sitting in some rich fool’s house.

This is, of course, part of the point of the modernists who put bricks into art galleries. ‘What would happen if you were to look at a brick, or a toilet, or a picture of Marilyn Monroe as if it was a piece of art?’ And that’s a very good question, even if it doesn’t always yield very good answers.

Now, we may look at the Venus De Milo differently in the Louvre than we would if it was, say, in a church, or in a restaurant. But it is still pretty much a fixed object with a fixed shape. You can’t change the thing itself. But books are more complicated. You can—you expect people to—change the cover, the typeface or the binding from time to time. We don’t blame editors for updating spellings in very old books. We certainly expect them to take hand-written MSS and correct spelling mistakes, punctuation errors, minor inconsistencies—to turn The Thing The Author Wrote into A Book.

When we sit down to read a book, somewhere, in our minds, we have an idea of ‘what kind of a book this is’, and that affects our reading of it. Our answer is partly conditioned by the decisions that editor has made.

3: Like a Virgin
Let us imagine two innocent readers, sitting down to approach ‘Narnia’ for the first time.

One takes down from the shelf a big, leather bound edition, with illuminated capitals and line numbers. The big red book is entitled The Chronicles of Narnia. There is a contents page listing ‘Vol. 1: The Magicians Nephew, Vol.: 2 The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe’ and so on. On hardback pages, the book would be shorter than Lord of the Rings or David Copperfield. Our reader would be quite clear that what he was embarking on was one long story, telling the story of an imaginary world from beginning to end.

Another virgin reader goes to a second hand bookshop and picks up a cheap paperback edition of Prince Caspian. There is an appalling, lurid fantasy picture on the cover, by someone who has obviously never read the book. The opening pages imply that it is a sequel of some kind, but he happily finds that it is quite self-contained. He goes back to the bookshop, and finds another book, a hardback, in a non-uniform edition. This is The Silver Chair. He comes away with the impression that Lewis wrote a number (he does not know how many, maybe thousands) of fairy stories, all nominally in a linked world and with a recurrent motif (Aslan) but otherwise, not very closely related. He gradually, and out of order, reads the whole lot—although he himself does not know that he is finished because he does not know what Lewis wrote.

It seems to me that these two people have had different reading experiences. They will be inclined to interpret the books in different ways.

Now, to my mind, every attempt to say ‘you should read the books in this order, you should read them in that order’ is an attempt to hierarchise the types of reading-experience, and thus to encourage a particular interpretation.

If you start out peering through the wardrobe into the snow, and are led across Narnia by the wonderfully anachronistic Mr Tumnus; if you first learn of Aslan from Mr and Mrs Beaver over high-tea and a warm fire, then you are likely to think of Narnia as ‘that place that started out as a slightly whimsical fairy tale and gathered more and more religious significance as it went on’. If you first learn of Narnia during its creation, and first see Aslan when he is singing the world into being, you are more likely to think of it as a primarily theological, mythological narrative.

The very project of calling it The Chronicles of Narnia is bringing something outside of the text to bear on our readings. ‘Read this,’ it seems to say ‘as the history of an imaginary world, not as a collection of fairy tales with a linked background.’

I do not say that the version of Narnia implied by The Chronicles and the sequential numbering is wrong: I say only that it is not neutral; it presupposes a theory about what Narnia is.

My own opinion? One of the things that Narnia ‘is’ is Lewis’s own internal never-never land. He sends child-versions of himself into a landscape (not really a ‘world’ in Tolkein’s sense) which is full of every image, every theme, every thing, he ever loved as a child: dressed animals and mythology and knights in armour and sea voyages and ‘joy’ and the hatred of school and a slight undercurrent of cruelty and hovering at the edges, working his way in, and finally becoming the central, unifying motif, Jesus Christ. To read it as strict allegory loses that. To read it as imaginary history, looses that. I think that what the ‘Publicationists’ are saying is that you should allow yourself to read the books in that way—that is part of their charm. I think that what the ‘Chronologists’ are saying is that you should it as history and allegory—that is part of their charm.

And they are both right. The ‘publicationist’ tends to make the books more arbitrary, more contradictory, less ‘sub-creationist’ than they actually are. The ‘chronologist’ makes them more unified, more consistent, and more strictly allegorical than they really are.

Indeed, there is a similar problem with applying the word ‘allegory’ to Narnia in the first place. Saying ‘Aslan is Jesus’ misses the point of the books: Aslan works precisely because he is not Jesus—because there are no stained glass windows and teachers and stupid hymns telling us we ought to love him. Saying ‘Aslan is not Jesus, its just a story, just a fantasy, just entertainment’ (as one contributer to the C.S Lewis usenet group did) misses the point in just the opposite way. Aslan both is and is not Jesus; the books both do an do not have order.

Books—all books—are complicated things, muttering at us in different contradictory voices, refusing to stay the same when we go back to them. Tying them down too much robs of them of the magic.