FSFH Book Review

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Abnett, Dan
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Gemmell, David A.
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Lewis, C. S.
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Tolkien, J.R.R.
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Reviewing Literature
The Books of C. S. Lewis

Clive Staples Lewis, known to his friends (for reasons that escape me) as Jack, was born in 1898 and went on to write some of the most enduringly popular children's fantasies of all time.  I have actually visited the pub (The Eagle and Child in Oxford) where Lewis used to meet his friend J. R. R. Tolkien and others (collectively known as the Inklings) to discuss story ideas.
Average Review Score: 3.9 out of 5 (7 books)

The Magician's Nephew
The prequel to the Chronicles of Narnia, Lewis always intended that this book be read ahead of the others (and so I have done).  The story begins as a fairly generic fairy tale adventure, as two children are forced by a wicked adult (aren't we all) to use magic rings to travel to another world.  Lewis then introduces my favourite concept of the book, the Wood between Worlds, a timeless place that links all worlds together.  Then, on the world of Charn, the two children awaken a cruel Queen who follows them back to our world.  It's soon apparent that this megalomaniacal woman is the Witch herself (as in 'The Lion...and the Wardrobe').  The children manage to drag the Witch out of London before she can cause any more mayhem and thankfully before Lewis can write much more awful dialogue in what's supposed to be cockney!  The fairy tale adventure then becomes a fantasy version of Creationism.  Lewis' famously religious overtones shine through clearly here as the world of Narnia is sung into existance by God, who's going by the alias of Aslan.  There is even a forbidden-fruit Garden of Eden moment in which the Witch does what the sign says not to (what is it with women and unleashing evil upon the world?  If it's not Eve or the Witch eating apples, it's Pandora failing to follow the simple instruction 'Don't open the box'!).  These religious overtones certainly detract from the actual story, but nonetheless do provide an interesting insight into the author's theology (I especially liked the fact that a human is literally responsible for bringing evil into the world).  The best elements of this book, however, are the foreshadowing of what is to come.  There's the Witch accidentally planting the lamp-post from 'The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe' and there's the Witch's origin itself.  Perhaps the best foreshadowing is that the boy, Digory, grows up to be the Professor and he plants a tree with a magic apple from Narnia.  When the tree falls down, Digory has the wood made into a certain familiar piece of clothes-storing furniture.  Overall, however, the mismtached combination of fairy tale, religion and Enid Blyton-ness makes this a far from perfect book.
3 out of 5
The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe
The second book, chronologically, of the Chronicles of Narnia, this was the first book of the series that Lewis wrote.  Four children (Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy), evacuated to a mysterious country house during World War Two, travel through an enchanted wardrobe and find themselves in the land of Narnia.  Lewis does an excellent job of conjuring up images of a shadowy woodland carpeted in perpetual winter, giving the story of the White Witch's hunt for the children an excellent backdrop.  Narnia's array of talking beavers (keep your mind out of the gutter!), fauns and cruel dwarves is more fairy tale than fantasy, but that didn't pose a problem for me.  Once again there are incredibly strong Christian metaphors here, particularly when Aslan sadly marches to his own execution to pay for the sins of the bully Edmund.  Then, in a genuinely heart-rending scene Aslan is bound, muzzled, shaved and, finally, murdered.  However, for those of you who've seen through the metaphor, you'll know that all is not lost.  This book is of far higher quality that 'The Magician's Nephew' and is one of those stories that will be an eternal classic (particularly since a new movie is about to introduce it to a new generation, much like what happened with LotR).  I was slightly disappointed by the ending of the book, however, which was a little rushed (particularly the battle sequence) and somewhat unsatisfying.  Also, once again, the Enid Blyton-ness of the writing style makes it a bit less accessible to a 21st century adult (I use the term 'adult' loosely when refering to myself, mind you!).
4 out of 5
The Horse And His Boy
The third Narnia book is actually set within the timeframe of the previous one, taking place whilst Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy are still the Kings and Queens of Narnia.  It's about two children and their talking horses who decide to escape their oppressed lives in the psuedo-Arabic south and travel north to the grass-is-greener land of Narnia.  It's fairly standard and familiar stuff; poor boy and rich girl who argue a lot and then, surprise surprise, the boy turns out to be a prince and everyone gets married and lives happily ever after.  What picks the book up out of the mundane is the fact that Lewis' blatant religious allegory has developed a certain charm for me.  I've started to enjoy picking out the Jesus references as the story goes along (the biggest here is where Aslan calls himself "myself, myself, myself" - a la the Holy Trinity).  Also amusing is the way that Lewis' archaic use of language adds another level to the book in regard to Susan and the prince, Rabadash, who's trying to court her.  The author refers to Rabadash being Susan's lover (clearly intending to mean some one in love) but the subplot about them being lovers and then Susan changing her mind and Rabadash being angry and confused is something most adult men can relate to.
3 out of 5
Prince Caspian
The fourth Narnia book.  The story begins with the four Pevensey children sat at a railway station a year after they tumbled back out of the wardrobe.  They are soon pulled back into Narnia to discover that centuries or perhaps millennia have passed since they were kings and queens at Cair Paravel.  What I enjoyed about this book was that it was a classic tale of a brave group of rebels, led by Caspian, trying to overthrow a cruel and oppressive tyrant.  The supporting characters are written with a lot more depth here than in previous books, having their own motivations and hidden agendas.  I also really liked the brief scene where a black dwarf, a werewolf and a hag propose summoning the White Witch as a preferable alternative to the unknowable Aslan.  As always, there's some wholesome Christian messages; here it's about having faith even in the face of ridicule by your peers and there's also a bit about the dangers of choosing the seemingly easy path over the more difficult path blazed by Jesus, uh, I mean, Aslan.  My strongest criticism of this book is that scene where the trees go to war does not stand up when compared to Tolkien's last march of the Ents.
4 out of 5
The Voyage Of The Dawn Treader
The fifth book in the Chronicles of Narnia.  Peter and Susan are now too old to enter Narnia, but that doesn't prevent Edmund, Lucy and their irritating cousin Eustace from getting there.  They find themselves aboard the Dawn Treader, a ship which King Caspian is taking on an unprecedented journey of exploration across the sea to the east of Narnia.  This book is a classical story of a voyage to strange new lands, reminiscent of the voyages of the Argonauts, Odysseus and Sinbad.  Each chapter brings the main characters to some new wonder or danger as they move ever eastwards.  Their encounters range from the monopedal Dufflepuds who use their single foot as a sunshade (and who are based on creatures actually believed to exist in ye olden days) to a vast sea serpent bent on destroying the Dawn Treader.  Lewis' religious overtones are more subtle here, with the exception of the very end, and I found that more interesting to read than the more blatant approach of the previous books.  The author also manages to convey a powerful sense of wonder in this book, a fantasy essential which was sometimes lacking in the earlier books.  There is a genuine sense of discovery and awe to be experienced as you read about the darkness around the Island of Dreams, or about the Silver Sea, covered with lillies horizon to horizon.  I think I enjoyed this book more than I have any other Narnia book so far, but I can't help but mark it down for the inclusion of Reepicheep, the irritatingly belligerent mouse from 'Prince Caspian' (I kept thinking of Scrappy-Doo).
4 out of 5
The Silver Chair
The sixth book of the Chronicles of Narnia.  Here the Pevensey children are no longer present, having outgrown Narnia, and instead the children whisked off an adventure are Eustace, from the previous book, and a girl named Jill.  Entering that magical other world to escape bullies, the children are given a quest by Aslan; to find the lost son of King Caspian.  Their companion in this quest is a Marsh-Wiggle (awful name isn't it) called Puddleglum.  I thought that I would hate Puddleglum in a Jar Jar Binks sort of way, but I actually found his gloomy outlook and steadfast courage to be quite endearing (it didn't hurt to picture him as Tom Baker from the TV version I saw when I was really young).  Like all great quests, the one portrayed here takes the heroes out of the bounds of the known world and into strange unexplored realms, such as the land of the giants and a subterranean world.  There's also a strong antagonist in this story, a witch every bit as evil (and beautiful) as the White Witch.  This book was great fun to read and contained dark undertones, such as when the travellers realise they've been eating a Talking Stag.  Lewis' religious connotations are still there, this time being about faith in the word of God regardless of your own preconceptions, but they're muted and not direct parallels such as those seen in some of the earlier books.
4 out of 5
The Last Battle
The final book of the Chronicles of Narnia.  For the first time, here Lewis' religious metaphors were what kept me reading, rather than an annoying/amusing sublevel to the story.  He addresses the concept of people who corrupt faith for their own ends by having Shift the Talking Ape use a false Aslan to gain power over Narnia.  Hot on the heels of this, Lewis expresses his feelings about atheism.  When Narnia's dwarfs discover Shift's deception, they are so disenchanted that they then reject the entire concept of a real Aslan.  Although the characters in the story judge them harshly for it, I don't feel that Lewis intended to (having been an atheist himself for quite a while), but rather the author seems to pity them.  This particularly clear when the dwarfs' lack of faith completely blinds them to the wonders of Aslan's country.  Finally the issue of other religions is addressed when Aslan explains to a Calormene that despite the fact he worshipped Tash, his good actions and righteous heart meant he was really serving Aslan.  All the children of the previous books (with the exception of Susan, who apparently now only has time for nylons and lipstick), including Professor Digory and Polly, are reunited in Aslan's country, along with all their old friends.  Lewis then treats us to his interpretation of the beginning of the afterlife, told with a brilliantly child-like sense of wonder.  The book ends with the beautiful sentiment 'All their life in this world and all their adventures in Narnia had only been the cover and title page: now at last they were beginning Chapter One of the Great Story which no one on earth has read: which goes on forever: in which every chapter is better than the one before'.
5 out of 5

If you liked Lewis:
Then try the works of his good friend Professor Tolkien.

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