Goodreads: The Great Divorce
Summary: Finding himself in a grey town full of quarrelsome characters, one man boards a bus and embarks on a journey to heaven. The country there seems to him pleasant and desirable, but the pride and self-love of his fellow passengers prevent many of them from choosing to continue on.
Review: In The Great Divorce, Lewis envisions a heaven and a hell that, while not meant to be taken as literal representations of what might occur after death, explain some very thorny and some very nuanced theological questions. From the types of choices that can keep a man or a woman from entering heaven to the reason why a loving God could permit hell in the first place, Lewis posits answers in the form of an allegory that seems startlingly new even as it draws inspiration from a long tradition of Christian writers.
Although The Great Divorce may lack some of the subtlety found in the allegory of his more popular Narnia books, the ideas raised in it prove interesting enough to keep readers engaged even without a plot. Intriguing descriptions of a heaven where the grass is hard enough to injure and the leaves too heavy to lift mix are interlaced with the reactions of souls encountering heaven and the reality of their lives for the first time. The combination beautifully illustrates Lewis’s theme that heaven is real, earth the “Shadowlands”; heaven will give this life meaning and make even pain and suffering significant.
Lewis thus holds out to readers the promise of everlasting joy, if only they choose God. However, the obvious question raised is: what does choosing God mean? If readers hoped that no outright violations of the Ten Commandments would constitute a good life, Lewis quickly begs to differ. Through various characters, he illustrates a host of sins that may prove obstacles to getting to know God—not “big” sins like robbing a bank but the “smaller” ones so much more familiar to us all. Many of take the form of selfishness or pride: controlling someone’s life because one needs to feel needed, exaggerating the pain or suffering one has experienced so as to seem special, refusing to forgive someone who has done wrong. Reading The Great Divorce, readers may feel uncomfortably reminded of themselves.
To say that Lewis was pointing fingers or saw the world and its people in a negative light would, however, be a mistake. Lewis clearly counted himself among the sinners: his reflections on the nature of intellectual pride and the proper purpose of art suggests problems with which he himself would have struggled. But he does not leave humankind without hope. In a beautiful passage in which a soul dies to his sin, Lewis shows the sin transformed—the lust that controlled the man during his lifetime proves a small, sad thing compared to the virile thing that emerges when the desire is oriented properly. Lewis’s book is an opportunity for readers to examine their lives and redirect them.
Although Lewis clearly wrote The Great Divorce for a Christian audience, the ideas underlying it reach across religions, exploring timeless topics such as the nature of love, the meaning of life, and the definition of morality. It furthermore provides an illumination look at the philosophy that drives his perhaps more popular Narnia books. Christians, philosophers, fans of Lewis–The Great Divorce appeals to a broader audience than it might at first appear.
Goodreads: The Magician’s Nephew
Series: The Chronicles of Narnia #1
Summary: When Digory’s magician uncle trick him and his friend Polly into wearing his magic rings, the children find themselves in place they believe is the gateway to a number of new worlds. Wonder turns into worry, however, when they visit a dying world and unwittingly release an ancient evil that will follow them home to their world and then to the newly created Narnia.
When I first read The Magician’s Nephew in fourth grade, I was not impressed. After the excitement of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, this book seemed pretty tame. The main character was, first of all, a boy (Polly has always seemed a bit ancillary to me) and a lot less happens, in terms of action. Digory and Polly accidentally release a crazy sorceress and then, what? Watch a world get born. Half the time, the crazy sorceress is not even around; she is off ruining the lives of people who are not the main characters.
Re-reading has slowly changed my opinion. In the first place, I have grown to believe that watching a world come into being is interesting after all. There is the obvious enjoyment that readers learn a few fun facts from this book, such as where the lamppost and the White Witch in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe originate, but there is also a more subtle pleasure to be had in watching Aslan bring Narnia to life. The connections between Aslan and God are fairly obvious here; he is the Creator, he is both terrifying and wonderful, and he knows everything about you. Watching Lewis’s imagining of how a Creator might operate is fascinating. The Magician’s Nephew, then, is a bit more about the experience of art and creation than about an exciting plot.
Nonetheless, the book does have entertaining moments. Digory’s Uncle Andrew is a schemer with no backbone to support his plans, and it gets him into some hilarious situations when he must interact with people of stronger personalities. Likewise, the Talking Animals Aslan creates get into lots of scrapes while exploring the new world around them. And, yes, there is the rampaging evil Sorceress. While these moments have never struck me as comprising the bulk of the book, they do add lots of life and fun.
Finally, this is Narnia and it is Christian allegory, so of course there are moral lessons. However, Lewis manages to incorporate them into the plot; it is Digory learning the lessons, and then the reader tangentially, so it never sounds preachy. As a child, I never felt Lewis was talking down to me or purposely trying to instruct me from his vantage as a wise adult, and I never get that sense from re-reading.
The Magician’s Nephew is a quieter book than some of the other Chronicles, but it is imaginative and ultimately charming. It also helps complete the circle of Narnia’s existence by presenting its origin, and I think portraying a world from start to finish is a beautiful concept for a series.
To start off our event, here are some discussion questions for The Chronicles of Narnia series in general. Feel free to post your answers on your own blog at any time or comment below!
- Do you think The Chronicles of Narnia should first be read chronologically or by date of publication?
- What do you think the Christian elements add or detract from the series?
- Do you think it is important for children’s books to have more humor than this series?
- Who are your favorite characters from the series and why?
1. Do you think The Chronicles of Narnia should first be read chronologically or by date of publication?
I was first introduced to the series when my third grade teacher read The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe to my class. I fell in love and obsessively read and reread the series for at least the following year. I may be biased because of that, but I have since concluded that beginning with The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe does make sense. It is a more immediately gripping and interesting story than The Magician’s Nephew in my (and many readers’ opinions) and therefore a better tactic for getting new readers to like the series. The Magician’s Nephew is also more interesting in retrospect, as readers can see details like the origins of the infamous lamppost and think, “Oh, so that’s how that got there!”
2. What do you think the Christian elements add or detract from the series?
When I initially read the series as a child, I did not notice the books were Christian allegory—and this certainly was not due to an ignorance of Christian teaching on my part—so I can personally see no argument that the Christianity takes something away from the books. They’re good, adventurous stories.
In defense of the allegory, however, I do think it is worth something that C. S. Lewis was invested in putting what he saw as truth into his books. Great books are always something in which the authors truly believe, and they contain things the authors think are important. Lewis’s commitment to Christianity, I think, is part of what gives Narnia lots of heart. And, to be honest, Christianity is full of great stories, even if one is a non-believer, so they are interesting reworked into fantasy, as well.
3. Do you think it is important for children’s books to have more humor than this series?
It never even occurred to me that The Chronicles of Narnia were not funny until I read a few pieces of literary criticism that took a huge issue with its lack. Apparently, children are just not drawn into books that are funny, or books that do not crack jokes are too serious for them to handle. Either way, I do not think Narnia is suffering from its lack of humor; I loved the books as a child and continue to do so now. Also, books that try intentionally and often to be funny run the risk of alienating readers who have different senses of humor from the author.
4. Who are your favorite characters from The Chronicles of Narnia and why?
I was always a fan of Lucy as a child. She’s the youngest, the underdog who is generally right and generally good, but no one believes it of her. What child wouldn’t identify with that?
I also love Reepicheep, however, for being a fantastic combination of bravery, nobility, and cuteness. He has some of the most quotable lines, as well.
Summary: Shasta has grown up in Calormen believing an old fisherman to be his father. One night, however, he overhears a nobleman offering to buy him as a slave and learns that the fisherman found him in a boat, a survivor of a shipwreck. Realizing that he comes from the North, Shasta resolves to escape. With him journeys Bree, a Talking Horse enslaved in youth and also determined to return home. Their journey will set into motion a series of events which will decide the fate of both Archenland and Narnia.
(Note that the review assumes that you have read the book and works more as an analysis than as a review. If you don’t wish to be spoiled, don’t read on!)
Review: Though set in a land of cruelty where the people do not know Aslan, The Horse and His Boy proves one of the most beautiful books in the Chronicles of Narnia. Its beauty stems from our gradual realization that Aslan himself is the Author of the story. He has been with Shasta and the others from the beginning, turning the evils in their lives into good, and prodding them into the right direction when they begin to stray from their purpose. Even when the other characters fear him out of ignorance or try to drive him away, he never abandons them. And, incredibly, they ultimately discover that their wills and Aslan’s overlap, that what Aslan wants for them is what will truly make them happy.
None of this, of course, presents itself to us immediately. We may even find the portrayal of Aslan in this book sterner than in the others. He brings mercy, but also justice. He personally swipes his claw across the back of Aravis, so that she knows the harm she inflicted upon her stepmother’s slave. When Rabadash refuses to accept the mercy of the kings, Aslan turns him into a donkey. Still, I have never heard that anyone found Aslan truly frightening or even unfair. We recognize that both Aravis and Rabadash brought their fates on themselves. Aravis, however, accepts her punishment and repents; Rabadash does not. Aslan desperately desires to save both from harm, but both have free will. He chastises only with reluctance and we know that he does so only because the punishment helps his children turn back to him. Rabadash’s first rejection of love means that something greater is needed to prod him in the right direction. His transformation into a donkey makes him one of the most peaceful kings ever to rule Calormen; we hope this helps reduce his pride.
Since Lewis presents pride as one of the central themes of the story, it is worthwhile for us to investigate its presence in the book more closely. Aravis, Bree, and Rabadash all exhibit pride. Aravis refuses to travel with or speak to a social inferior, Bree fears Horses in Narnia will think him silly, and Rabadash cannot stand for others to laugh at him. Their pride threatens their relationship with God as well as with others. In Mere Christianity, Lewis explains why. He notes: “In God you come up against something which is in every respect immeasurably superior to yourself. Unless you know God as that—and, therefore, now yourself as nothing in comparison—you do not know God at all.” Since we are all members of the Body of Christ, it is also difficult for us to be in a right relationship with each other if we do not know God. Lewis, however, gives us hope. Aslan forgives those who have harmed him and welcomes them back to himself with joy.
Lewis will continue to explore the nature of forgiveness and the road back to God in The Magician’s Nephew and The Last Battle. It has appeared as a running theme throughout the series, beginning with the treachery of Edmund, but everything culminates in the Great Story without end. The Horse and His Boy offers us a glimpse of that joy on earth when we humbly present ourselves before God and act in accordance with His will.
You Might Also Enjoy:
Summary: Aslan calls Eustace Scrubb and his friend Jill into Narnia to restore the lost Prince Rilian to his father. He gives them signs to guide them on their journey, but warns the signs will not appear as the children might expect. A Marsh-wiggle named Puddleglum travels with them as their guide, but as the journey becomes more difficult, Eustace and Jill begin to lose sight of their goal and to turn on one another, jeopardizing the success of their mission.
(The review below is actually more of an analysis/reflection, so be forewarned that I assume you’ve read the book. Don’t read it if you don’t wish to be spoiled!)
Review: In The Silver Chair, C. S. Lewis focuses on our perception of reality. The entire book is full of mistaken appearances. Rilian believes the green lady his friend, Jill assumes Aslan an ordinary lion, Eustace questions the loyalty of the Owls because they meet at night, both Jill and Eustace repeatedly miss the signs given to them, and so on. The story climaxes with the ultimate questions about the nature of our world and our understanding of it. And, incredibly, at this crucial moment, the children, Rilian, and Puddleglum all fail to provide a reasonable answer to the Witch’s assertions that their world does not exist. Instead Puddleglum concedes that the Witch may be right—but then “the made-up things seem a good deal more important than the real ones.” Furthermore, he’s willing to spend his life searching for the truth of these “made-up things,” even though he recognizes the attempt may cost him his life. Our logical minds may revolt against this defense, but at the same time we recognize it as true and right. After all, Narnia exists! So what is Lewis doing here?
I believe Lewis is appealing to our innate sense that something exists that is higher than the reality we perceive with our physical senses. In the book, the Witch contends that the Underland exists, but the Overland does not. If the Witch were in our world, she would contend that everything we see around us exists, including the trees, the sun, and the neighborhood, but heaven does not. She would try to persuade us that heaven is merely a dream we made up because we find the idea pleasant. If we believe this, Lewis answers that we do so only because we’re looking at the world backwards. The end of the book when Eustace and Jill return to school illustrates this position. Aslan sits in the gap in the wall so that the bullies see only his back. I never thought much about this as a child, but now it strikes me as a bit odd to include this bit in the story. Why should Aslan send his servants out to fight and then travel to the fight himself only to face in the opposite in the direction and not watch any of it? Well, fortunately G. K. Chesterton came to the rescue and explained it all to me!
In The Man Who Was Thursday, Chesterton writes about a poet named Gabriel Syme who offers this observation about another character: “But when I saw him from behind I was certain he was an animal, and when I saw him in front I knew he was a god.” Sound familiar? The bullies see the back of Aslan and think him a wild beast; Jill and Eustace have seen his face and know him as God. Since Lewis read Chesterton, I’m convinced he had this passage in mind when he wrote The Silver Chair. Chesterton helpfully continues to expand upon the theme for us. Syme says: “Shall I tell you the secret of the whole world? It is that we have known only the back of the world…. That is not a tree, but the back of a tree. That is not the cloud, but the back of a cloud.”
I interpret Syme’s statement two ways. 1.) If we could only see clearly, we would recognize immediately the hand of the Creator in everything around us and we would recognize parts of His nature. That is, we would know without question that He is good, creative, beautiful, etc. 2.) This world is, as Lewis will later say in The Last Battle, a shadow world, a reflection of the ultimate reality. (For those who are interested, he expands upon this concept in The Great Divorce, where those who journey into heaven become more substantial, rather than the airy spirits we tend to think of.) In that case, the Witch has it backwards. We are not projecting things from our reality (Underland) into heaven (Overland). Instead, the reality of heaven (Overland) has broken through into our world (Underland). We appreciate the sun because it says something to us about God: that He is the Light of the World, that he brings knowledge, etc. And so on with other things. The trick is to remember that we must never mistake the shadow item for the real one.
Readers should keep this point in mind as they continue through Narnia, for as the series progresses*, it increasingly points toward The Last Battle as the culmination of everything we’ve read. The Voyage of the Dawn Treader represents the journey of an individual toward God; I think the series itself can be considered this also. It begins with our recognition of Christ as our Saviour and then helps us understand different aspects of God in each book. Throughout the books, Lewis drops hints of our ultimate destination, from the story to refresh the spirit in Dawn Treader to Aslan’s reminder of Judgment Day in The Magician’s Nephew. I personally find Lewis has done a remarkable thing in constructing the series this way. He’s managed to illustrate that what awaits us in heaven is actually more wonderful than Narnia.
*I favor reading the Narnia books in order of publication and not in order of internal chronology because I believe the order of publication more accurately represents the growth and development of Narnia as Lewis conceived it, as well as the way in which Lewis meant his original audience to experience Narnia. Reading order has, of course, been a source of debate for a long time, so perhaps a further exploration of this topic can serve as a future post.
You Might Also Like:
Summary: Edmund and Lucy return to Narnia along with their disagreeable cousin Eustace to sail unknown seas with their old friend King Caspian. He searches for the seven lords his uncle Miraz exiled many years ago when he wished to dispose of those who would oppose his usurpation of the throne. To complete the quest, however, one of the voyagers will have to sacrifice everything and choose to remain at the World’s End.
Review: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader has always been my favorite book in the series. Its episodic nature means a lot happens, plus the storyline means that the reader gets to travel, for the first time (assuming one reads the Chronicles in order of publication—my preferred order), outside of Narnia. To lands no one else has seen (excepting those seven lords whom we tend not to count). Add Reepicheep, that endearingly martial, loyal, and irrepressible Mouse among all Mice, and you have a story that can’t fail (unless, of course you add some mysterious green mist that eats people—but who would do that?) Because this is Narnia, however, this is more than a adventure; it is a reflection or illustration of what Lewis would call the greatest adventure of all—that of the soul.
Reepicheep, determined to reach Aslan’s country and fulfill the destiny given to him at birth, most clearly represents this journey. He sets vision clearly on his goal and lets nothing deter him from it, not gold or power or pride or any other earthly thing that gives false promises of happiness. His strict adherence to the rules of honour does lead him to act rashly, endangering both himself and others, but it does not take his focus away from his objective. While Reepicheep represents a soul fairly on the straight and narrow, however, I’ve never heard a reader complain he was too good to be true. I think Lewis helps prevent readers from feeling this way by giving us key moments of temptation for Eustace, Edmund, Lucy, and Caspian. They each have a particular temptation they must overcome, but, together along with Reepicheep, they make up the full journey of an individual soul.
Dawn Treader reassures readers that the journey to God is really worth taking. Some things may look desirable at the moment, but no one wants to miss out on the beauty, wonder, and awe waiting for in Aslan’s country. Lewis, however, proves tricky. He gives us only a glimpse of this land, only a promise. We know it’s the greatest story ever told and that Lucy, who has read only a part of it in the Magician’s book, never wants it to end. However, to see more, we’ll have to return to Narnia again in The Last Battle.
Summary: Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy Pevensie return to Narnia only to find that hundreds of years have passed and all their old friends are dead. Foreigners have invaded, driving away the Talking Beasts and silencing the spirits of the trees and water. Prince Caspian, the true heir to the throne, desires to set things right, but his uncle Miraz has usurped the crown and now wages war against Caspian and his allies. The children hope to help the Narnians reclaim their land, but their doubt in Aslan threatens to undo them.
(Note that the review serves more as an analysis/reflection and thus contains spoilers.)
Review: I used to wonder a lot about Prince Caspian because it didn’t seem quite to fit with the other Narnia books. I recognized the clear Biblical connections of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe; The Magician’s Nephew; and The Last Battle, and I could pick out references and moral messages in all the other books—except Prince Caspian. To me, it was a story about a duel. Now I think Caspian’s fear that one day men will become beasts inside and no one will know the difference sums up the entire work.
The Telmarines immediately recommend themselves to us as examples as men turned into beasts. They are the ones, after all, who cut down the trees and drove the Old Narnians into hiding; their silencing of the wood spirits and the animals reflects their silencing of the voice of reason within themselves. As a result, they have become cruel, cunning, and greedy (note that Lewis will later associate these same qualities with the Calormenes, the perpetual enemies of Free Narnia). They are willing to kill a boy if he stands between them and their desires. However, the majority of Lewis’s readers probably know what qualities indicate a man who is no longer a man; Lewis, after all, does not give us ambiguous qualities, but things like willingness to murder or willingness to betray a friend. This suggests that Lewis does not wish us to focus so much on the attributes of a man gone wrong, but on the route he took to get there. Read the rest of this entry
Summary: By stepping through a wardrobe, four children enter the magical world of Narnia where for years the White Witch has ruled as queen, making it always winter but never Christmas. An old prophecy, however, promises that spring will return when two kings and two queens from the world of men sit on the thrones at Cair Paravel. The great lion Aslan, son of the Emperor-over-the Sea, arrives to help the Narnians reclaim their country, but they have a traitor in their midst.
Review: I first discovered the magic of Narnia in third grade when my teacher read The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe to my class. I did not know then that the world considered the book a classic, that generations of readers had fallen in love with it, that later I would marvel that no one else had told me of the existence of this wonderful, wonderful book. I went on to read all the Chronicles of Narnia and reread them many times over in the coming years. I was convinced then that Narnia existed and that if I pressed against my closet wall enough, I’d eventually get there, The Last Battle notwithstanding.
As I grew older, I began to think at one point that the stories were much simpler than I had remembered. They seemed so short; I had had the impression that much more had happened in the plot. Maybe, I considered, I had filled in the gaps with my own imagination. Maybe Lewis had expected children to do so, and thus had left much unsaid. Sadly, I began to think that I might finally have outgrown Narnia.
Rereading the series now, I think the idea of outgrowing Narnia a bit silly. I find the simplicity of the books their most striking—and perhaps deceptive—feature. Lewis is a highly visual writer and the books seem at times to be composed of a series of images, almost like a movie reel unrolling before the eyes of the reader. I realize that I have carried these images with me ever since third grade and have unconsciously assumed every person who has ever read Narnia does the same. To me, these images of words are iconic: Lucy meeting Mr. Tumnus at the lamppost, Edmund and the White Witch on her sleigh, the meeting with Father Christmas, Aslan at the Stone Table, and more. They formed the backdrop of my childhood and helped to form me. I began to understand God through Aslan. Even today when I think about spirituality I think in terms of Narnia.
Because I have come to appreciate the simplicity of Narnia, many of the changes made in the recent movies strike me as out of keeping with the spirit of the works. In The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, it seems imperative to me that the Stone Table should be just that—a table. The decision to stage the climatic scene in a picturesque, ruined temple destroyed the austerity of the moment. The simple table allows the audience to direct their undivided attention to Aslan, while also reflecting the humble death of Christ on a cross. It furthermore emphasizes one of Lewis’s great themes: the ability of the ordinary to become extraordinary. The magic of Narnia is the chance that anyone can open a door and find themselves in a place unexpected.
Narnia continues to appeal to readers, I suspect, largely because it is a celebration of life. It makes no apologies for finding joy all around and has no shame in its constant assertion that good will always triumph. It delights in everyday objects like food, a warm bed, and good friends. Readers want to go to Narnia not only because it has Talking Animals and magic and Aslan, but also because it’s just such a happy place. Interestingly enough, however, when the four Pevensie children return to their own world, they don’t seem to miss Narnia as much as we might expect them to. To me, their unhesitating acceptance of their return to what we might consider a mundane existence promises that life here is also worth living. That we can find joy here as well as in Narnia. It is that promise which keeps readers returning to Lewis. It helps us keep perspective in a mad world.