When my son and I sat down to go through Narnia together, perhaps when he was 7 and 8, I had no doubt that we would read them as C.S. Lewis wrote them–the Published Order. That means starting with The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe—even though The Magician’s Nephew is a prequel. Now Nicolas is beginning to go through the Focus on the Family Radio dramatization of the series as he does his drawing. Because they are reading The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe at school, he wanted to read them in a different order. Without blinking, I suggested he go through the CDs in the order of Internal Chronology, staring with The Magician’s Nephew.
This decision-making process made me realize that it’s time for me to come out of the wardrobe on what I think is the real reading order for Narnia.
And to warn you, it is neither of the ones listed above.
In thinking about the whole issue I went back to Jennifer Neyhart’s blog on Narnia order from last year. She pretty much stole my thunder last year with this great blog, so you should consider her argument for reading the books in the order Lewis wrote them as nearly authoritative.
Although Lewis wrote the books pretty quickly, between 1949 and 1953, the original publication was delayed for a yearly summer release. This is the Published Order that Jennifer Neyhart and most Narnian fans would suggest:
- The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (1950)
- Prince Caspian (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)
There is, though, an “Internal Chronology.” The books follow English time better than Narnian time, but Lewis came up with a kind of napkin sketch of Narnian history. It is included in Walter Hooper’s Past Watchful Dragons, and Devin Brown uses it in his Inside Narnia. Roughly, the order looks like this (Narnia Time/Earth Time):
- The Magician’s Nephew (1/1900)
- The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (1000-1015/1940)
- The Horse and His Boy (1014/1940)
- Prince Caspian (2290-2304/1941)
- The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (2306-2310/1942)
- The Silver Chair (2356/1942)
- The Last Battle (2555/1949)
Jennifer argues—and she is right—that any reader picking up Lion will know that she is reading the beginning of a series. Aslan slides in as one unknown, first haunting the world in prophecy and then exploding into reality. But if one begins in The Magician’s Nephew, Aslan is already known. So we should go by Published Order rather than Internal Chronology.
However, it is often quoted that Lewis disagreed. Here is part of a letter C.S. Lewis wrote to a committed reader in 1957. This quote is used to suggest that Narnia should be best read by Internal Chronology–the argument that American publishers use for publishing numbers 1 through 7 on the book ends.
I think I agree with your [Internal Chronology] order for reading the books more than with your mother’s [Published Order].
There are three weaknesses with this argument. The first and second are in the rest of the quotation:
The series was not planned beforehand as she [your mother] 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 reads them. I’m not even sure that all the others were written in the same order in which they were published. I never keep notes of that sort of thing and never remember dates
First, Lewis couldn’t remember what order exactly he wrote them in. We have this pretty well worked out for us in the literature, but he was unclear at the time. So he isn’t perhaps the best judge of chronology.
Second, Lewis admits that it probably doesn’t matter what order the books are read in. I’m going to pick up on that point below.
Third—and this point will be a bit controversial—Lewis cannot tell us what order they should be best read in because he was not a reader of Narnia.
At first blush, that sounds absurd. He read them several times, no doubt. But Lewis is not like you or I or Nicolas. He is not a new reader to the world of Narnia, but a subcreator of it. Actually, in the “voice” of the narrator of Narnia, Lewis is most truly the chronicler. And as chronicler, he has access to a framework of the world, its timeline, rulers, and main events, as well as the stories and myths that matter most to him as chronicler.
But he is not a reader.
A reader needs something different. And the first-time reader needs what she gets from The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe at the beginning of a series. She doesn’t get that from The Magician’s Nephew.
So far it looks like I am favouring the Published Order. I am. But I need to make two adjustments:
- Reading for the first time is different than re-reading.
- The Internal Chronology is not as easy as we might think at first.
There’s also probably a third consideration:
- It probably makes a difference when a reader has already seen the movies, enjoyed the artwork, or heard the dramatized version. This is a discussion for another day.
Reading books for the first time really is different. I’ve made a good case, I think, that a person should read the books in the Published Order the first time. But I think that when one goes back to the books, reading them in Internal Chronology is a brilliant way to see the books from another angle. Since as re-readers we know about Aslan, his introduction in The Magician’s Nephew fits perfectly. We also see some beauty in the reordering, such as the role of the Lampost, and Aslan as redeeming that which he first created. We see how Sin enters Narnia, and all the ways that Aslan guides Narnians and Humans in dealing with Sin.
So I think Jennifer and the Published Order crowd are right on the first reader of Narnia. I think, though, that the second (and third, and twelfth) reader of Narnia can go by either chronology.
However, Internal Chronology is not perfectly simple. Most obvious, The Horse and His Boy occurs entirely on p. 166 of my copy of The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe. Really, the reader should stop reading, tell the tale of Shasta, and then finish Lion.
Even more than that, take The Silver Chair. Who knows what Marshwiggle stories of Narnia were told on the road to the Giant’s castle? Or what tales were told at the Parliament of Owls? Shouldn’t all of The Voyage of the Dawn Treader be simply a part of Prince Caspian?
It would be tempting for me to set down a specific order. That’s how bloggers establish their cleverness or firm up their turf.
Instead, I am going to pass down what I think to be a good Lifelong Reading Way, a Third Way order for Narnia. After the first reading, I think that the order of the events below can come in most any way. Here’s how you should read Narnia.
- Have Narnia read to you in the Published Order either:
- With mugs of hot chocolate beside a fire on a warm lap; or
- In the crook of a parent’s arm in bed just before the light goes out.
- Explore Narnia yourself, going in the Published Order as you seal in the story and characters.
- Try reading Narnia according to Internal Chronology. This is a fun way to see the whole world of Narnia in a new light.
- Find old attic or yard sale copies of Narnia so you can keep copies in your jacket, your backpack, or the backseat of the car. These are occasional adventures where you disappear for bits at a time. These can be read in any order.
- Convince your parents or traveling buddies that the unabridged Narnia makes a good travel soundtrack. The Horse and His Boy and The Silver Chair are especially good travel stories. If you are, like me, on an island and can only travel elsewhere by boat or bridge, then The Voyage of the Dawn Treader can be added to that travel list.
- Read the books around your watching of the films:
- First, watch the hilarious BBC production. Awesome and mournful both.
- Second, watch the lame but quite exciting Hollywood versions of the films. The Silver Chair should come out next year or the year after.
- Listen to the Focus on the Family dramatizations of Narnia in either order.
- Find Hooper’s Past Watchful Dragons and read some of the bits that Lewis wrote but never got into Narnia.
- Finally, when the time has come, do one of the following:
- Read Narnia in the Published Order with your child in the crook of a your arm, in bed, just before the light goes out;
- Read Narnia in the Published Order to your niece or nephew or grandchildren or neighbour’s kids or Sunday School kids with mugs of hot chocolate, beside a warm fire; or
- Find someone else to read Narnia to, in the Published Order. This might include after-school clubs, reading clubs, school classes, children’s hospitals, library groups, or the digital friends you’ve collected over the decades.
No, it is not a very elegant list. It isn’t easy to remember, and it doesn’t fit well into the old categories. Most of all, it doesn’t curve out my turf or whatever. But this is my argument for the way we should read Narnia.
The astute reader will see that I am saying that the best way to read Narnia is to re-read Narnia.