The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe – the worst book I ever read?

Many years ago, as a small child, I read a strange book by a chap called CS Lewis. It was strange, but compelling, and I still remember it fondly today, though I have never read it. I might feel differently about it today, but it struck a chord with me at the time and I’m not sure I want to risk losing that sense of wonder by reading it again.

That book was The Magician’s Nephew. It’s possibly the only one of his Chronicles of Narnia series that I don’t think has ever been adapted for film or television. I remember it being remarkably sci-fi, with characters using rings to jump between worlds.

I also read the second and much more famous book in his series. As a child, it was entertaining – but there were no magic rings or jumping into pools that led to different worlds. Instead, it had four children who walked into a wardrobe and found themselves in a fantasy land of talking animals. I don’t recall feeling anything negative towards it at the time. There was a television adaptation as well, which was pretty faithful to the book and was likewise entertaining but nothing special to me.

I never read any others. I saw some of a later story that was also televised – Voyage of the Dawn Treader – but it never caught my attention and I never felt any urge to read more. I was much more interested in the rich world of The Lord of the Rings.

Many years later, as an adult, I found a copy of The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe and I read it again. It was not a pleasant experience.

What’s so bad about it?

Where to start? The characters are flimsy. The children annoyed me in particular; are we supposed to hate Edmund in particular for his “betrayal” of the others? Santa’s appearance is bizarre. But the weirdest of all is the White Witch – what does she even want? She turns people into statues (a state that appears to be reversible) but beyond that she doesn’t seem to be doing anything unusually cruel or tyrannical. We’re just told she’s evil.

And then Aslan turns up, and renders the whole story pointless. This is a magical lion whose mere presence is enough to reverse winter. Why does he even need an army? The witch is terrified of him. He could simply walk up and tell her to leave, and she’d have no choice in the matter. The children are immaterial – they turn up in the middle of the power struggle, then get installed as puppet leaders instead of Aslan himself. For doing pretty much nothing. All the animals submit to them because… they’re humans? It’s not like they’ve even SEEN any humans before these four kids turn up!

Magic Instead Of Plot

There’s one particularly baffling piece of bad writing in the middle of the book, however. The Witch has pulled off a clever little piece of legal trickery by subverting Edmund. In order to save him, Aslan submits himself for sacrifice. But it’s okay, because he comes back to life! “Magic and deeper magic”, indeed! What’s the point of the story if the rules are entirely arbitrary and the good guys win just because the author wants them to? The moment Aslan returns to life, all the drama is gone. There’s half a book left, and the Witch is already defeated.

Deus Ex Machina

What childhood me didn’t realise, but adult me knew perfectly well, is that this story is fundamentally dishonest. It’s not a proper story at all. It’s a sales pitch, trying to lay the groundwork for Christianity by reframing the story of the resurrection as a fantasy fable. Aslan is Jesus – he raises the dead (who just happen to be stone statues in this version, because death is too scary), he comes back to life after being sacrificed, he destroys evil.

The story doesn’t satisfy. You can’t have an omnipotent hero in your story – either they vanquish all evil without any challenge, in which case there’s no real story, or they fail to do so and are clearly not omnipotent. Good heroes are flawed, limited, struggling against the odds. We relate to them, because we’re constantly struggling to do the right thing ourselves.

We can’t relate to the children – they don’t really do anything. We can’t relate to Aslan, because he’s absurd. We can’t relate to the fawns and the talking animals, as they’re cardboard cutouts. And we can’t even relate to the White Witch, because she’s so vague and devoid of motivation.

Now, had the children actually incited events – had Aslan faced a real challenge – had the White Witch been looking to achieve something specific… we might have had something more substantial.

Maybe, in his efforts to convert children like me to Christianity, CS Lewis instead laid one of the bricks in the road that led to my atheism. Now that would be a story that failed on a completely different level.

 

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