A version of this review appeared in the January/February issue of Touchstone: A Journal of Mere Christianity. www.touchstonemag.com
With the release of a major motion picture version of C. S. Lewis's popular children's book The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe in December, 2005, we are predictably being inundated by products designed to seize the opportunity provided by what promises to be a cultural phenomenon second only to Peter Jackson's version of The Lord of the Rings. These three books by Evangelical scholars rise above the sea of commercial mediocrity to be deserving of our attention; they would make worthwhile reading even if no movie were coming out. None of them advances a new or original interpretation or has a particular thesis to argue. Rather, they are informal commentaries, distillations of some of the best scholarship on The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe which try to enhance the reading experience and understanding of normal readers, not scholars-while maintaining scholarly integrity. They differ not so much in their view of the work as in organization, emphasis, and focus.
Bruce Edwards, associate dean of the College of Arts and Sciences and professor of English at Bowling Green State University in Ohio, offers the shortest, simplest, and most devotional treatment of the three. I do not mean to damn him with faint praise, for these adjectives, all capable of denoting literary vices, are meant to stand for real virtues in this case. Short here does not mean insubstantial, nor does simple mean unintelligent, nor devotional shallow. Further Up and Further In has one of the best defenses (Ryken and Mead have another) of reading the Chronicles in original publication order, as opposed to the more recent chronological reordering by the publisher that tragically resulted from a misapplication of one of Lewis's offhand comments, that I have seen since Peter Schakel's "The 'Correct' Order for Reading the Chronicles of Narnia," (Mythlore 23:2, Spring 2001, pp. 4-14). Entering the story in medias res allows us to experience Narnia the way the Pevensy children do, and it preserves as surprises those events that were originally written as surprises. "The truth is, we do not really have reasons to care about the origins of Narnia (which are, indeed, revealed in The Magician's Nephew) until we have first been there to discover for ourselves what has happened; and then we will find ourselves curious about how things got that way, hungry for history and, perhaps, chronology" (Edwards xv).
One of the stumbling blocks to reading secondary work on Lewis is the interminable, dreary summaries of things Lewis already said better that one has to wade through in the process. Edwards has a rare knack for bringing his readers along with summaries of the story that they actually won't mind reading, interspersed with commentary that focuses mostly on the spiritual and moral dimensions of the work, and often does so very profitably. He is actually providing, almost unnoticed, what the experts would call "reader response criticism," subtly making sure by his retelling that we are not missing the spiritually instructive responses to the text that are actually embedded in the story. Each chapter ends with a section of more explicit spiritual and theological "reflecting on the journey so far" and "background notes." It is all ultimately there to elucidate the fact that "The testimony of many readers of Narnia is that C. S. Lewis has not just identified a longing or God-shaped vacuum already there; he has helped create the longing itself" (89). Edwards does a good job of explaining how and why.
Devin Brown is professor of English at Asbury College in Kentucky; Leland Ryken is professor of English at Wheaton College in Illinois, and Marjorie Lamp Mead is associate director of the Marion E. Wade Center at Wheaton, an internationally known collection of Inklings related material. Their books are more "academic" in feel than Edwards'. Once again a characterization that could be taken negatively is intended here as a compliment. Neither book is either hard to read or inaccessible to non specialists, but both are full of solid and useful information. Both books bill themselves as literary commentaries, but Brown's Inside Narnia is actually more of a general treatment, dealing with background, philology, theology, etc., while Ryken and Mead in A Reader's Guide Through the Wardrobe focus more on literary topics such as style and narrative technique, leaving background material for a separate section at the end. Ryken and Mead include a very useful and enlightening chapter on the reception history of the Narnia books. Both books take more explicit notice of previous scholarship than Edwards does. Brown integrates quotations from the best of earlier interpreters into his commentary, while Ryken and Mead distribute such quotations, along with questions for reflection or discussion, into boxes and sidebars which are so numerous as to become almost distracting.
As I indicated earlier, these books differ not so much in content-they all represent a solid ecumenical Christian consensus on the nature, meaning, and value of the Narnia books-as in approach. Ryken and Mead are almost like a teacher's guide, throwing out myriads of questions worth asking and sometimes only hinting about how to answer them, while Brown will address fewer questions but spend more time trying to wrestle out the answers. What Brown says about one of those questions represents well the message all three books are trying to convey. Why do the children have to leave Narnia? Because the readers do: when they finish the book they too are "returned to the place where they started." So the real question is, "What effect does the journey have on us?" Brown suggests three effects. We identify with the characters in their moral struggles, learning what they learn; we learn, in learning to trust Aslan, to trust Christ; and we find the everyday world to which we return re-enchanted itself in the process (250). No small gain, that.
Providentially, these three books complement one another very nicely. Each provides a useful and readable treatment of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe with surprisingly little overlap despite their overall agreement. All three include bibliographies, with Brown's being the most complete. Lewis aficionados may want to own all three, and people who desire only one book on LWW will find any of them profitable: Edwards might be the best choice for non-specialists, Brown for a general audience, Ryken and Mead for English majors or teachers. Together they go far toward explaining why, even as adults, we still want to be Friends of Narnia.
Updated Jan 15, 2006