Wednesday, June 4, 2008

The Chronicles of Narnia


What follows is not strictly a treatise against the masses at Booth and Noble. It is, rather, the articulation of a literary debate that I have been warring for a number of years now. Although, it does touch on traditional Booth and Noble issues. I would appreciate input into the matter.

In 1950 C. S. Lewis published The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. Each subsequent year, until the publication of The Last Battle, he published another in this famous series. I read the books when I was just a small lad (I read most of them in the bath, which is an image I'm sure you're all enjoying right now; me and my little Mr. Tumnus). I read them in that order: the publication order. For those who need a review, this order is as follows:

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (1950)
Prince Caspian: The Return to Narnia (1951)
The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (1952)
The Silver Chair (1953)
The Horse and His Boy (1954)
The Magician’s Nephew (1955)
The Last Battle (1956).

This is the order of the books in my set, as well.

In 1994, however, the American publishers of the book decided to change this order, ostensibly because Dr. Lewis preferred the new order. The order they changed it to follows not the publication date, but rather the chronological narrative structure of the series:

The Magician’s Nephew (1955)
The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (1950)
The Horse and His Boy (1954)
Prince Caspian: The Return to Narnia (1951)
The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (1952)
The Silver Chair (1953)
The Last Battle (1956)

According to the Wikipedia article about this rearrangement, the books were reordered because of a single letter Dr. Lewis wrote to a child:

“I think I agree with your order [i.e. chronological] for reading the books more than with your mother’s. The series was not planned beforehand as she thinks. When I wrote The Lion I did not know I was going to write any more. Then I wrote P. Caspian as a sequel and still didn't think there would be any more, and when I had done The Voyage I felt quite sure it would be the last, but I found I was wrong. So perhaps it does not matter very much in which order anyone read them. I’m not even sure that all the others were written in the same order in which they were published.”

Dr. Lewis's stepson spearheaded the rearrangment, also according to Wikipedia.

Although this probably offers too great a glance into my psyche, and consequently makes people uncomfortable, I have very strong feelings about this change, from a literary standpoint, from an authorial standpoint, and from a cultural standpoint. I don't want to overstate my case, but would it be too much to think that this change is not the result of the whining of a child, but rather the cause of the increasing lack of sophisticated reading habits of children and adults alike?

Let me state my case, first, from a literary standpoint:L

There is no good reason to re-order the books; in fact, there are nothing but bad reasons. Although the events may become chronological, the telling of those events is crucial to the gradual unfolding of the narrative. This highlights an important distinction in narrative theory: the difference between what is told and how it is told. At times, this has been called the difference between the "story" and the "discourse," or the "what" and the "way," or (specifically to film) the "fabula" and the "sjuzhet."

But it's easier to think of examples. Star Wars has an enormous "universe" created with characters and events as part of the universe that aren't in any movies, right? So, although we learn about this "universe" from the movies, the movies only tell one part of the story. It is one discourse that describes a larger story out there.

Anyway, we can think about Narnia as a world that exists, and each of Lewis's books are only seven discourses that tell seven specific stories that take place in that world.

If we order the books in their publication order, we are highlighting the discourse of Narnia - the telling of the tale becomes paramount. To order them chronologically, however, is to underscore the importance of the story of Narnia. On the face of it, this wouldn't seem to be bad thing. Learning about the story is important, and I don't want to deny this.

But what this does is take away the experience of the narrative.

Yes, when we first read The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe we don't know why the wardrobe takes the children to Narnia. We don't know why there's a lamppost there. And, perhaps most magnificently, we discover Aslan along with the children, complete with the awe and stunning power they feel. Read as the first book in the series, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe opens up questions about a world that don't get answered until the sixth book: The Magician's Nephew. When these questions are finally answered, when we learn, for instance, that the wardrobe was constructed from the wood of a tree grown from a seed taken from Narnia, we experience one of those once-in-a-lifetime shudders down our spines. When I first read that, it was a put-the-book-down-and-think moment. We get the same feeling in movies today: when we first watched Star Wars: Episode IV and learned that Darth Vader was Luke Skywalker's father, it was a shocking moment. If we watched the prequels first, however, we already knew that. It loses it's shock value, it's excitement. Instead of surprise, we experience suspense.

Additionally, any foreshadowing put into the series of books by Lewis is lost in the re-ordering. In The Silver Chair the children are told a brief story about a boy named Shasta and a horse named Bree. This horse and boy are the protagonists in the book A Horse and His Boy. To hear this mention without having previously read A Horse and His Boy creates a nice surprise when we get to the book and learn what happened. We then remember back to The Silver Chair and understand the reference. Not only does this make the connections between the books more salient, but it also brings the reader into that connection: the reader must actively search for and connect the disparate parts. To have read A Horse and His Boy first, however, the reader then encounters the mention of the story in The Silver Chair and the connection is made for him/her. There is not the sense of discovery, or of activity, involved.

Other minor issues crop up. Why, as Wikipedia points out, would the The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe have written: "None of the children knew who Aslan was, any more than you do," if we have experienced Aslan twice before?

In sum, to move the emphasis of the narrative from the discourse to the story is to make clear the complex, and interesting, narrative elements present in a disjointed and multi-linear narrative.

This brings me, conveniently, to my second point: the authorial standpoint.

Simply put, although it might seem that change the order of the books subverts Lewis's authorship, in reality, it actually reinforces the author's role in the construction of this narrative world.

Let me explain what I mean. We commonly think of authors as people who construct worlds that readers passively experience. The ultimate authority on a piece of literature is the person that thought it up, right? Orson Welles is the director of Citizen Kane, therefore, we can state that he is the author of that film, and the person completely in charge of the meaning, the subtleties, and the subtexts.

Yet, this is not the case. Authors may scribe the words, but it is the audience who interprets them. Shakespeare is wildly considered one of the greatest authors the West has produced. Yet, his plays are performed in a multitude of ways with a multitude of different interpretations. Who is to say what Shakespear intended? All we know is what we think of the play, the book, the film. The audience writes the text anew each time it is experienced.

The same is true of Narnia. I read it the first time when I was a child, and was taken by the powerful story of good vs. evil. When I read it as a college student, I was interested by the Christian allegory. Now when I read them, I see how the characters represent a bygone time period. Each time I read the books differently, and I understand different stories: some of which Lewis may have intended and some of which he may not have.

To read the books in the published order, I experience these different readings in an independent and unique manner. I might make connections between parts of stories - oh, this fight with a monster is different from that fight with a monster - that Lewis may or may not have intended. To read them in the re-ordered, chronological order, however, is to asert Lewis's reading of the story. Here, we are told by the publisher, is the correct order. This immediately limits our interpretation of the story by silencing our readings. No matter what you think about The Silver Chair, including the fable told about the horse and his boy in that story, in a re-ordered reading, it will necessarily be tempered by what Lewis (and the publishers) have deemed to go before it, namely A Horse and His Boy.

This prescribed reading severely limits the creativity and exploration that comes with reading a book full of wonder and mystery. Imagine reading Harry Potter and starting with the scene where Voldemort kills Harry's parents. There would be no mystery, no build-up of suspense for when we finally get the scene, towards the end of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.

Which, at long last, brings me to my final point: the re-ordering of The Chronicles of Narnia is detrimental from a cultural standpoint.

For all the talk recently about the complexity of new television programs (Lost is unique because of the flashbacks and flashforwards!), it is really an old trend. The first novel, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, is told in fragments and narrative flashbacks. To read a book in this way, or to watch a narratively complex television show, is to experience narrative in a new way. Steven Johnson's wonderful Everything Bad is Good for You details how this complexity is creating readers who are more mature, more intelligent, and more capable of handling complex tasks. Thinking multi-chronologically frees us from "thinking inside the box." We get used to thinking from many different angles, looking at problems from different viewpoints.

To re-order the Narnia books is to limit these different viewpoints. It's not enough that the customers at the bookstore ask to find the shortest books for their children to read (I usually recommend The Postmodern Condition, as it is only about 80 pages long, minus footnotes). They also have to make the books less complex and easier to understand. Why? Why do we want our novels simplistic and spoonfed? I'm not saying we have to give our children Gravity's Rainbow or anything, but let them experience mystery, suspense, connection and interconnectedness. Let them read the books in a way that doesn't explain everything right away.

Culturally, when we dumb down our literature, water down the media our children - and we ourselves - experience, we tell them (and us) that it's ok to be passive, that it's ok to read unquestioningly. We should read The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe and wonder why the hell a lamppost is in the middle of the forest. It gets us thinking - critically. When we finally discover why (Jardis threw a portion of an English Lamppost into Narnia as it was being created by Aslan), we have already thought about the importance of this. Perhaps we foresaw why the lamppost was there - perhaps we disagree with how Lewis actuated this appearance. Either way, we are thinking .

The literature we read, or have read to us, as children helps shape who we are, and what we become. I have no doubt that my own philosophy on life has come from the books I read when I was little: The Phantom Tollbooth, Ender's Game, The Three Investigators, Ramona the Pest series, etc. If we start to make these stories less complex, less narratively interesting, what are we doing to the children that have yet to read the stories? What are we telling them: yes, there was a different way to read these, but you'll find it easier to read it this way. Oh, and why not just skip the big words. And next time, find a shorter book to read.

It's a slippery slope.

So the next time you're in the children's department of a bookstore and you see the Narnia books on the shelf (and you'll see a lot of them), I urge you to rearrange them. I doubt you'll find them in the "published" order, because the publishers generally agree to put them in the revised order.

Or, at least, buy a set and read them in the published order, like I did when I was 10: one chapter at a time, in the bath.


Anonymous said...

Hear hear!

book wench said...

Wow. I think you've inspired me to break down and read the whole series- in the bath, even.

Danny said...

I could not agree more. Thank you for putting it so eloquently.

In case you're curious, here is my own article making some of the same points:


ahtitan said...

I have two comments, one of them snarky. The first is that I agree with you wholeheartedly. You make excellent, well-thought-out points, and I commend you for the work you put into it. Very convincing, and I agree that we should really try, as a society, to make our children MORE capable of advanced thought and not less. One more reason to avoid "reality" TV, as well.

That said, I would recommend that, instead of Narnia, they read something good.

N8_the_Gr8 said...

Very well said, i too read the books in the order they were published.
Also, just as a general note, i just found your blog today, i find it hilarious at times and always well written. As a fellow bookseller, the stories hit close to home.

Booth&Noble said...

Thanks all, for the great comments. I'd be interested to hear what others have to think on this issue as well.

ahitan, I totally agree. :)

elia said...

Long comment, just so I don't forget before Booth and I get to have our actual conversation about this:

1. I'm a sucker for the original (published) order, too, as opposed to the "chronological" order. But I do think it's important to note that there's a fair amount of nostalgia here on my part, and probably yours too. That order is, in terms of the narnia-verse, just as arbitrary...with one possible exception. Cue point 2.

2. There IS a logical order to the original ordering, and it's all about characters. You meet the 4 Pevensie children. You meet their cousin Eustace. you meet Eustace's friend Jill. and i think part of the reason why The Horse and His Boy is so delightful is that you've almost given up on getting to see the Pevensies again (only Edmund and Lucy appear in Dawn Treader, and none of them in Silver Chair)...But then voila! there they are as adults (in Narnia), even if the "Earth" chronology is all twisted around. (That's more "realistic," anyway - Narnia does that to time.) If you're a child reading the books, the characters "grow up" with you. You understand that Susan has become an insufferable adult who only cares about make-up and boys on Earth, but isn't it delightful to go back to fantasy land when she used to be your cool older sister who was good at archery and horseback riding, and find that she's a very admirable queen?

3. You haven't actually supported the argument that changing the ordering of the Narnia books causes a lack of sophisticated reading habits. That's how you stated it, even if what you mean is "a general trend toward narrative/chronological simplification is causing reduced sophistication in reading habits" - since I'm pretty sure you don't mean to say that Narnia in particular has quite that much cultural cachet. Given that revised thesis statement:

- are you sure that reading habits are less sophisticated? I'm not. It's probable that they're quite different...but I expect the difference is a lot more complicated than "less sophisticated." Opp #1 for real research.

- "Sophisticated" is a vague word in any case...kind of like "society." Who is society?

- causality. ooooooh tough to find solid evidence for, let alone prove. Way too many conflicting variables here. Why not mutual causality in some sort of cycle? Less narrative complexity engenders simplistic preferences in reading engenders less narrative complexity...the argument is just as important, and it's much more likely that you'll find a "trigger" event for the cycle than that you'll find valid (in the technical sense) evidence of causality.

4. I think you're on to something with the authorial bit. Might have to reread some Barthes...not to mention Bakhtin and Kristeva. w00.

5. As for ahtitan's comment about Narnia not qualifying as "good"...whether it is or not (and I'll keep my own opinion nice and quiet, thanks), why shouldn't kids read things that are both bad and good? Why shouldn't they learn to recognize the difference, and figure out how to tell from Chapter 1 whether a book is "good" or not? At the very least, Lewis was articulate and widely read, crafted real characters with credible motivations, and put them in a universe that was interesting enough that we're still talking about it. That should be enough for a child of any age to take a look at it long enough to figure out why it might be good literature, or why it might be overrated. Just sayin'.

Booth&Noble said...


Thanks for your impassioned response! I want to make a few notes in comment to it, if I may:

1) Absolutely, nostalgia is playing a large part of this argument. And I think that's the point. Why am I (and you) nostalgic for this series? Not because, as ahtitan says, it's super good (a point I'll get to in a bit), but because I felt something special when I read it. I don't know if someone who reads the books in the revised order would feel that - they might (I don't want to disparage Lewis too much - each book is an interesting - if not always remarkable - story), but to me the true strength of Narnia is the interconnection between novels.

2)Totally agree. Another strength of the original order is the way the relationship between the characters develops. Or, for instance, how we find out all the way at the end of the series (in The Magician's Nephew) that Digory is the old man at the start of the series that builds the wardrobe - what a great circular cause/effect complexity How sad to see it ruined when the books are read in the revised order. I think it should also be mentioned, from Danny's blog, that if one were to put this series in absolutely "correct" chronological order, one would have to take out the last few pages of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe and add them to the end of A Horse and His Boy.

3) You bring up good criticisms here. I certainly don't mean to assign Narnia the importance of causing a lack of sophistication in reading habits. But, in terms of your observation that you're not sure reading habits are more complex - I agree, what a difficult thing to judge. I have no idea if reading habits were more/less sophisticated when I was a child, versus when my parents were children, etc. As with anything, there's a spectrum. However, what I do notice, especially working at Booth and Noble, is a general trend away from anything complicated and towards more simplistic. I'm not just talking children, either. You would be horrified and shocked, no doubt, to be faced almost daily with questions like "do you have any easier books, I don't want to have to make my daughter think too much" or, "I'm looking for something to give to someone who isn't very smart" or, "I need an easy book to read where I don't have to think." Of course, everyone likes to read books that don't require thought - everyone does it, because sometimes it's nice to veg out. (Hell, I watch crappy TV too just to kill time). The trouble, I think, starts when that's ALL you read/watch. And that's what I'm seeing happen at Booth and Noble.

On the positive side, a lot more readers are into Manga, much of which has very complicated and interesting plots. So perhaps my case is overstated. Regardless, I certainly didn't intend this entry as a scholarly piece; it was, quite purposefully, more of an informed opinion. But point taken - the issue cannot, and should not, be oversimplified (hey, it would be hypocritical of me to do so, no? :) ).

4) Anytime you get Barthes, Bakhtin and Kristeva in a room together, you know you're in for a rumble.

5) Ah, the trickiness of "good" and "bad." I both love and hate the various ways we construct these terms to mean something. I agree with you that it doesn't matter if it's "good" or "bad," but that it simply "is" and children should be able to find out for themselves if they like it or not. That being said, Narnia does get dated more and more as time passes (especially in terms of its sexism). Perhaps what will be especially interesting in later years will be Narnia as an historical document - this is classic literature from the 1950s, we'll tell our robot children - isn't it funny how everyone has to eat?

ahtitan said...
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ahtitan said...
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ahtitan said...

Elia, I kind of see your point. Sometimes it is beneficial to let a child, or teen, decide for themselves what is "good" and what is "crap." But if I'm going to suggest someone read something, it will certainly be something which I feel has some merit. If they discover something on their own, that's one thing. But I won't be responsible for foisting upon someone a book I think is subpar.

Regarding Narnia specifically, when I was a kid (in the...gulp...70's) there was an animated version of LWW on TV. I remember this very fondly, and loved it at the time. So when I was asked, as an adult, to design the stage combat for a children's theatre production of LWW, I was excited. I then read it, and was hit by two things: how obvious the Christian allegory was that I didn't pick up as a child, and how the writing just seemed to be kind of...not that great.

I am considering now, however, going back and reading them all in the published order. And they're STILL better than Eragon, so there's that.

Rory said...

I put them in chronological order when I first read them, which was some years before 1994. I was very much a nerd that way.

KatieBLutheran said...

I'm afraid I hated the Narnia books... the pointed Aslan/Jesus parallel felt like a betrayal of the creativity of the rest of LWW (when I was 9- now I agree with Philip Pullman about the demon-ization of adulthood in the books). This tends to surprise my classmates, though.

Anonymous said...

100% agreed. Late, but agreed. :) The magic is lost if you read it chronologically.