In class at school, in 1971, I sat next to a girl I’d never spoken to and had no real intention of getting to know. During a reading period, I scarcely paid any attention to what she was reading. Glancing over her arm, I saw what looked like a ‘girl’s book’, called Prince Caspian, with a picture of a boy riding a horse on the cover. But then she turned the page and I glimpsed the sub-title: ‘or The Return to Narnia’. I almost snatched the book from her hands.
The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe was one of my favourite books, if not the favourite at the time. Captivated at the age of about seven by the whole idea of doors that led into other worlds (as had been millions of others, though I didn’t know it at the time), I had sought similar books ever since, to little avail. The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett (now a favourite) had seriously upset me as a child by leading me to believe that the door to the garden was another such entrance to different world. When this proved not to be the case I almost threw the book away. Seeing Prince Caspian or The Return to Narnia in my neighbour’s hands told me for the first time that there were other books in the Narnia series, something I had not suspected. I rapidly obtained and read them avidly and they have fascinated me ever since.
I studied them in much greater depth twelve years later and saw in the sequence of The Chronicles of Narnia many patterns, not the least of which was a thread of awareness of creating the world itself in the mind of the author. In other words, you could tell, if you looked closely, how Narnia itself had evolved in lewis’s imagination.
The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe was clearly the first book Lewis wrote in the Narnia series because of its primitive structure. It’s basically divided into four parts: entrance to Narnia, chase, Aslan’s sacrifice and the battle. (Each part is 'bridged' on either side, with the children’s arrival at the house, the dinner with the Beavers, meeting Aslan, freeing the statues and, at the end, returning to England, but that’s another story.) Lewis himself describes how the story appeared to him through a series of separate images, some of them in dreams, which came suddenly and remarkably together as soon as he ‘imagined’ Aslan, but the story itself is very simple.
Just as this is the children’s first entrance into Narnia, so it is Lewis’s, and we find him tentatively exploring the landscape he has created in much the same way as Lucy and then the rest of the children. Soon, though, the power of the basic ‘chase’ plot pulls the characters, the readers and Lewis himself to the story’s resolution in a linear fashion. We are also pulled further into the meaning of the story by the non-linear significance of what happens with Aslan before, during and after his sacrifice. You could also argue that, when the children stay in this other world and grow up to be Kings and Queens, Lewis was also ‘lingering’ in Narnia and not really wanting to come ‘home’ to the world outside the story.
Lewis had given himself some advice in the book when it comes to trying to return to Narnia through Professor Kirke:
“But don't go trying to use the same route twice. Indeed, don't try to get there at all. It'll happen when you're not looking for it. And don't talk too much about it even among yourselves. And don't mention it to anyone else unless you find that they've had adventures of the same sort themselves. What's that? How will you know? Oh, you'll know all right. Odd things, they say-even their looks-will let the secret out. Keep your eyes open.”
But the next book he wrote in the series, Prince Caspian, seems to show a degree of impatience with this idea. Lewis has the children 'sucked' back into Narnia from a railway platform - the sensation we get as readers is very mechanical and even awkward compared to the enchanting wardrobe of the first story. Lewis explains elsewhere that he wanted to tell the story of a magical intervention from the ' other side' -what if you were the magical power being summoned? How would that feel from your point of view? This is all very well, but it’s possible to argue that, on a different level, Lewis himself was 'sucked' into Narnia by the unexpected power (and popularity) of the first story -it exerted a 'pull' on his imagination in the same way that Susan’s horn, blown by Caspian in Narnia, exerts a pull on the children. But it seems that he hadn’t ‘kept his eyes open’ and waited for the magic to come to him. The book feels a little forced.
Lewis finds himself as an author in the land of Narnia again, at a bit of a loss as to why he is there, like the children, and, through the children, he attempts to find an explanation. Just as the dwarf appears and tells them the story of Caspian’s escape from his uncle Miraz, so Lewis develops the internal narrative which backs up why he is there himself: something has happened to Narnia, it has degenerated into a darker place and must be 'redeemed' or rescued. The process of trying to find Aslan, so painful in the book, is also Lewis’s search for the original 'key' -Aslan- that helped Lewis pull it together in the first place.
Prince Caspian finishes, many think, unsatisfactorily -Aslan eventually appears, creates a doorway in the air and returns the Telmarines whence they came, which some readers might question: Why didn’t he do that earlier and save everyone some grief? Lewis is still struggling here with the mechanics of inventing Narnia and his uncertainty about connecting his profoundly held beliefs and his story shows in this way. For Narnia to be a stronger creation, he needs to get to the bottom of the creative and spiritual impulses which started it and made it such a success.
In the next book he wrote in the series, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, he explores his own creation with characters in exactly the way he needed to as its author. The children are 'drawn in' through a painting in a way reminiscent of the first entrance through the wardrobe (and more satisfactory), and the quest to reach the end of the world parallels Lewis’s own quest to explore the limits of his creation. He does this successfully, interweaving the 'realistic' elements of the invented world with the more magical and religious elements, particularly in his treatment of Eustace: transforming the boy into a dragon and then having him redeemed and restored is a perfect analogy for the character growth which we know must occur.
It would be nice and fairly nearly true, to say that 'from that time forth, Eustace was a different boy.' To be strictly accurate, he began to be a different boy. He had relapses. There were still many days when he could be very tiresome. But most of those I shall not notice. The cure had begun.
Lewis here masters the balance between the real and the fantastic and discovers or re-discovers the values upon which the success of the series depends.
As the Dawn Treader approaches the edge of the world, things get more and more mythic and when we finally glimpse Aslan’s country we can sense that Lewis himself also has fully worked out the relationship between his beliefs and his invented reality.
But between them and the foot of the sky there was something so white on the green grass that even with their eagles' eyes they could hardly look at it. They came on and saw that it was a Lamb.
“Come and have breakfast,” said the Lamb in its sweet milky voice.
Then they noticed for the first time that there was a fire lit on the grass and fish roasting on it. They sat down and ate the fish, hungry now for the first time for many days. And it was the most delicious food they had ever tasted.
“Please, Lamb,” said Lucy, “is this the way to Aslan's country?”
“Not for you,” said the Lamb. “For you the door into Aslan's country is from your own world.”
“What!” said Edmund. “Is there a way into Aslan's country from our world too?”
“There is a way into my country from all the worlds,” said the Lamb; but as he spoke his snowy white flushed into tawny gold and his size changed and he was Aslan himself, towering above them and scattering light from his mane.
This relationship is further explored in The Silver Chair, with Lewis literally establishing the roots of his world through the underground journey of the characters, a process which is successfully marked by the return to an original Narnian winter when the children emerge into the snow from the underground realm, echoing the first entrance into Narnia by Lucy, years before.
It is in The Silver Chair, too, that our impressions of Aslan as the god of this created universe are developed -we see that he has placed ' signs' throughout the Narnian plane to act as beacons and warnings for the narrative’s heroes, something which was not clear in earlier books in the series. The providential order required by Epic convention has appeared more fully. And Lewis is gaining certainty in his own creation, enough for him to have Puddleglum state the best philosophical argument of the series:
“One word, Ma’am,” he said, coming back from the fire; limping, because of the pain. “One word. All you’ve been saying is quite right, I shouldn’t wonder. I’m a chap who always liked to know the worst and then put the best face I can on it. So I won’t deny any of what you said. But there’s one thing more to be said, even so. Suppose we have only dreamed, or made up, all those things–trees and grass and sun and moon and stars and Aslan himself. Suppose we have. Then all I can say is that, in that case, the made-up things seem a good deal more important than the real ones. Suppose this black pit of a kingdom of yours is the only world. Well, it strikes me as a pretty poor one. And that’s a funny thing, when you come to think of it. We’re just babies making up a game, if you’re right. But four babies playing a game can make a play-world which licks your real world hollow. That’s why I’m going to stand by the play-world. I’m on Aslan’s side even if there isn’t any Aslan to lead it. I’m going to live as like a Narnian as I can even if there isn’t any Narnia. So, thanking you kindly for our supper, if these two gentlemen and the young lady are ready, we’re leaving your court at once and setting out in the dark to spend our lives looking for Overland. Not that our lives will be very long, I should think; but that’s a small loss if the world’s as dull a place as you say.”
The Horse and His Boy, the next book to be written, is a purely moral tale: Aslan, no longer a single lion, a personification of distinct religious experience, who only occasionally appears in Narnia, has now developed even more completely into a cosmic Providence who is everywhere, overseeing and guiding every detail and adopting many guises.
“I was the lion who forced you to join with Aravis. I was the cat who comforted you among the houses of the dead. I was the lion who drove the jackals from you while you slept. I was the lion who gave the horses the new strength of fear for the last mill so that you should reach King Lune in time. And I was the lion you do not remember who pushed the boat in which you lay, a child near death, so that it came to shore where a man sat, wakeful at midnight, to receive you.”
Then, just to make matters even more certain, Lewis goes back and successfully works out Narnia’s origins in creative terms in The Magician’s Nephew, which he does with aplomb -mysteries such as the lamppost in the middle of nowhere and the Witch are deftly explained without at all appearing mechanical or clumsy, like some of the events of Prince Caspian. Lewis is at the height of his confidence in creating Narnia:
In the darkness something was happening at last. A voice had begun to sing. It was very far away and Digory found it hard to decide from what direction it was coming. Sometimes it seemed to come from all directions at once. Sometimes he almost thought it was coming out of the earth beneath them. Its lower notes were deep enough to be the voice of the earth herself. There were no words. There was hardly even a tune. But it was, beyond comparison, the most beautiful noise he had ever heard. It was so beautiful he could hardly bear it.
In The Last Battle, Lewis then attempts to wrap things up. All fantasy writers have to terminate their creations in some way, either by walking away from them as in The Lord of the Rings -as parallelled by the Ringbearers ' leaving Middle earth forever' - or actually destroying them, as Lewis does in this final book. Few other books have attempted to transcend themselves like The Last Battle:
All their life in this world and all their adventures in Narnia had only been the cover and the title page: now at last they were beginning Chapter One of the Great Story which no one on earth has read: which goes on for ever: in which every chapter is better than the one before.
The fact that Lewis, acclaimed around the world as a great writer and one of the most popular authors of all time, can be seen to have visibly developed the Narnia series in this way should be encouraging to budding writers. It’s an example of a great author learning, consciously or otherwise, the secrets of constructing, developing and then transcending a fictional world.