Images © estates of C.S. Lewis and illustrator Pauline Baynes.
This time of year I like to reread an old favorite with a winter or Christmas theme or element to it, and this book has both. I can’t say how many times I’ve read it, but quite a few. I first discovered this and the six other books in the Chronicles of Narnia when I was about twelve, I think, in the Bedminster, NJ town library, across the street from my grade school. I loved them from the first page, though I always had a hard time with the final book, “The Last Battle,” which isn’t as much fun to read.
If you haven’t tried these, Narnia is a magical kingdom full of talking beasts of all kinds, including mythical ones like fauns and centaurs. In this book the country has been taken over by The White Witch, who has used her dark magic to make it always winter but never Christmas. She has gathered all the evil and cruel creatures she can find to her side, and enjoys persecuting the good-hearted beasts of the realm, turning any who oppose her to stone with her magic wand.
Into this setting stumbles Lucy, a young girl from World War Two England. She’s playing hide and seek with her older sister and two brothers in a large old house in the country where they’ve been sent to avoid the blitz of London. Hiding in an old wardrobe full of fur coats, Lucy finds a way into the frozen world of Narnia, where she soon meets a faun named Mr. Tumnus, who invites her home for tea.
When Lucy returns through the wardrobe, her siblings don’t believe her story, and the entrance to Narnia seems to have vanished. Later, her brother Edmund does find his way to Narnia, but has a much different adventure. He meets the evil White Witch, who enchants him and turns him against his family. Later again, when all four of them go through the wardrobe to Narnia the real story begins, and it’s a corker! Like England, Narnia is under a state of siege, but the White Witch’s power is weakening. The four children find friends in Narnia, but Edmund runs off to betray them to the Witch. Rumors are spreading of the return of Aslan, a godlike creature in the form of a giant lion. The beasts of Narnia, and the children, all look to him to lead a war on the White Witch and restore Narnia to its former warmth and glory.
When I first read the book, I may have noticed some parallels to Christian teachings from the Bible. Aslan, in particular, is a Christ-like figure who undergoes an ordeal somewhat like that of Jesus on the cross. If I did notice, it didn’t bother me as I’ve heard it often bothers other readers, perhaps because I did go to a Christian church as a child, though I didn’t stay with it in my teen years, and belong to no church now. I still feel the allegorical elements of the story are well integrated, and don’t disrupt the narrative or call much attention to the reader in an “instructive” sort of way. I see this and all the Narnia books as classic fantasy stories with an element of allegory, not the other way around, and I still love the story and the prose of Lewis. It’s very concisely written, no wasted words, and yet full of wonderful images and exciting events. The only thing that seems a bit off to me now, as an adult, is the stilted language Lewis gives the children at the end of their time in Narnia, after they’ve been there for many years. That reads as a bit phony and like they’re “acting.” Everything else about the book still charms me.
One thing I noticed this time was how crisp and clear the black and white illustrations by Pauline Baynes are in this 15th printing from 1968. The pictures are very detailed—Baynes has a miniaturist style—but every line and dot is there. This picture, for instance, is only about an inch and a half wide, but look at all the expressive features on the boy’s face, and in so few lines.
The first copy of these books I owned were Puffin paperbacks with lovely color paintings by Pauline Baynes on the covers, which also wrapped around to the backs. The inside illos were not as well printed on these, though, due to the much cheaper and coarser paper.
The Christmas connection in this book arrives when the children and their friends are fleeing through the snowy woods from the White Witch, and have stopped for the night in a cave. In the morning they hear sleigh bells, and assume it’s the Witch’s sleigh, but instead it’s Father Christmas with useful presents for everyone, and in very British fashion, even a pot of hot tea! It’s a lovely and heartwarming scene, showing how the Witch’s power is loosening: Christmas has arrived.
Favorite books are like comfort food, and this one was quite satisfying. Makes me want to read the others again, too.