The Real Order to Read Narnia: A Third Way

NarniaWhen 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.

The Lion Witch Wardrobe (1stEd) LewisAnd 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:

  1. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (1950)
  2. Prince Caspian (1951)
  3. The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (1952)
  4. The Silver Chair (1953)
  5. The Horse and His Boy (1954)
  6. The Magician’s Nephew (1955)
  7. The Last Battle (1956)

The Magician's Nephew 1st edThere 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):

  1. The Magician’s Nephew (1/1900)
  2. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (1000-1015/1940)
  3. The Horse and His Boy (1014/1940)
  4. Prince Caspian (2290-2304/1941)
  5. The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (2306-2310/1942)
  6. The Silver Chair (2356/1942)
  7. 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.

magician's nephew appleHowever, 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

The Last Battle by CS LewisFirst, 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.

Lion Witch Wardrobe by CS LewisA 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:

  1. Reading for the first time is different than re-reading.
  2. The Internal Chronology is not as easy as we might think at first.

There’s also probably a third consideration:

  1. 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.

magician's nephew appleReading 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.

silverchairEven 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.

  1. Have Narnia read to you in the Published Order either:
    1. With mugs of hot chocolate beside a fire on a warm lap; or
    2. In the crook of a parent’s arm in bed just before the light goes out.
  2. Explore Narnia yourself, going in the Published Order as you seal in the story and characters.
  3. Try reading Narnia according to Internal Chronology. This is a fun way to see the whole world of Narnia in a new light.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. The Magician's NephewRead the books around your watching of the films:
    1. First, watch the hilarious BBC production. Awesome and mournful both.
    2. Second, watch the lame but quite exciting Hollywood versions of the films. The Silver Chair should come out next year or the year after.
  7. Listen to the Focus on the Family dramatizations of Narnia in either order.
  8. Find Hooper’s Past Watchful Dragons and read some of the bits that Lewis wrote but never got into Narnia.
  9. Finally, when the time has come, do one of the following:
    1. Read Narnia in the Published Order with your child in the crook of a your arm, in bed, just before the light goes out;
    2. 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
    3. 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.

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About Brenton Dickieson

“A Pilgrim in Narnia” is a blog project in reading and talking about the work of C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and the worlds they touched. As a "Faith, Fantasy, and Fiction" blog, we cover topics like children’s literature, apologetics and philosophy, myths and mythology, fantasy, theology, cultural critique, art and writing. This blog includes my thoughts as I read through Lewis and Tolkien and reflect on my own life and culture. In this sense, I am a Pilgrim in Narnia--or Middle Earth, or Fairyland. I am often peeking inside of wardrobes, looking for magic bricks in urban alleys, or rooting through yard sale boxes for old rings. If something here captures your imagination, leave a comment, “like” a post, share with your friends, or sign up to receive Narnian Pilgrim posts in your email box. Brenton Dickieson is a father, husband, friend, university lecturer, and freelance writer from Prince Edward Island, Canada. You can follow him on Twitter, @BrentonDana.
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57 Responses to The Real Order to Read Narnia: A Third Way

  1. dcstrad says:

    I think The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe has to be read first. It would be weird reading The Magician’s Nephew first even though it is a prequel; otherwise, there is nothing surprising or shocking about the Professor’s behavior in LWW (and I think a first-time reader should be surprised, as the Pevensie children are!). Prince Caspian, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, The Silver Chair, and The Last Battle should be read in order as well (because of the order in which characters are introduced), but I think The Magician’s Nephew and The Horse and His Boy can be read at any point (as long as they’re read after LWW and before TLB).

    My experience was unusual. I read The Voyage of the Dawn Treader first; we read it in class in the fourth grade (I had an unusual teacher – we also read The Hobbit).

    Liked by 1 person

    • Were you forever ruined by reading out of turn? I love that book even better than either Lion or Magician’s Nephew.

      Like

      • Peregrinator says:

        No, of course not 🙂 and I think by the time that I read “Lion” I barely remembered “Dawn Treader.” Of course that was many (33?) years ago so I could be mistaken. Reading “Dawn Treader” was more like finding an old friend by the time I started from the beginning (which, at the time, was still “Lion”) and read them all.

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    • Steve says:

      Yes, I agree with your order for a first reading. The Magician’s Nephew and The horse and his boy can come anywhere in the middle, but the others should be read in published order.

      For re-reading, there is no order. I pick up any one of the books and re-read it whenever I want to, and don’t necessarily re-read all of them. For instance, I re-read The voyage of the Dawn Treader before seeing the film, and again afterwards — see here Voyage of the Dawn Treader: film (and book) review | Khanya.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Yes, well done. My point was to sort of tweak this ongoing conversation about “order”–how do we read Narnia? We read it by rereading it.
        I am this time going through as Lewis wrote them. I don’t think he actually finished “The Magician’s Nephew” in final form until after “The Last Battle.” I’ll see if that changes the nuance for me.

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  2. robstroud says:

    I agree that The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe must be read first–that’s the proper introduction to Aslan. After that, I’m quite flexible.

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  3. KokkieH says:

    I read Narnia the first time (after seeing the first film (Hollywood version)) in chronological order. That’s the way my box set was numbered (apparently it was imported from America 😉 ) and to my linear mind it has never occurred to read them any other way. You’ve just opened up a whole new world of adventure and possibility for me with this post 😀

    P.S. I think for my children (when they come) I’ll read it in published order…

    Like

  4. WriteFitz says:

    Love this! In the end . . . make sure you consume large doses of Narnia, much like good coffee!

    Like

  5. I love this to pieces. I try to keep my Narnia series in published order, but because I’ve read them so many times, it hardly matters. Also, I now suddenly have an urge to read them all again!

    Like

  6. traildustfotm says:

    Spoken like a true CS Lewis fan. I love it!

    Like

    • I’m easy to spot.
      It’s funny, though, I don’t think Narnia is Lewis’ best. I just think they are very good children’s stories in an era before anyone knew how to make stories like that. He is an accidental master.

      Like

  7. traildustfotm says:

    PS: Have you noticed how perfectly this blog is suited to the WordPress Twenty Ten Theme? It’s as if it were designed as a finished theme just for A Pilgrim in Narnia. You could easily imagine some of the Inklings walking down that dirt road, or Dr. Elwin Ransom.

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    • Thanks! I actually picked that picture on purpose. I know it is time to freshen up the image, but I’m loathe to let it go! It is very “Pilgrim in Narnia” ish. Inkling ish. Magdalen walk ish. Ransom ish. Hobbit ish.

      Like

  8. Sue Archer says:

    Love this, Brenton. I first read the series at eight or nine. My father got me a copy of Lion, and then I got the set and read them in chronological order. I’m glad I read Lion first because then Magician made more sense to me, but reading the rest in chronological order must have worked for me, because this was my favourite set of books to re-read for several years. The Silver Chair is my favourite (Puddleglum!). I had trouble with The Last Battle as a nine-year-old, I hated what happened to Susan. So I would read the other six and avoid that one.

    Like

  9. Reblogged this on Stories & Soliloquies and commented:
    People often debate about the reading order of CS Lewis’ Narnia series, some arguing that we should read them in the order they were published, while modern publishers issue them according to the stories internal chronology (loosely speaking). Really, Brenton Dickieson gives us the only real way to read the Narnia series: that is, to re-read them, in various orders, learning something different each time, with one caveat: the first time you pick up the series, start with The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardobe, and I would add, end with The Last Battle. Everything in between is up for debate, but those two are proper bookends.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. wiseblooding says:

    An excellent distillation with the only fitting conclusion: read and then re-read repeatedly! The first time should be (in my view) in order, but after that? Whichever order strikes one’s fancy. Then think about reading them alongside Michael Ward’s incisive volume, Planet Narnia.

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  11. Mary says:

    I was introduced to Narnia by the BBC Lion, Witch and Wardrobe movie. I loved it growing up but I could never get into the books. I think maybe I tried to read them too late, picked up on Lewis’ slightly patronizing tone and couldn’t enjoy it. But I’ve read them several times as an adult (the first time as I found them, then in published order, then in chronological order). I think The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe is the strongest of the series and should probably be read first whatever order the series is continued in, but I’m not strongly tied to any particular order. I’ve recently cemented a friendship after reading aloud the entire Narnia series (chronological order) to a friend after several years of long drives together to church retreats. I lost my voice a couple of times but it was worth it!

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  13. jubilare says:

    “Lewis cannot tell us what order they should be best read in because he was not a reader of Narnia.” Nope. Not absurd. I knew, instantly, what you meant. But then, I am also a writer. 😉

    Excellent advice. Especially the part about hot chocolate (or in my case, tea) and bedtime out-loud reading…

    Liked by 1 person

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  15. I got told off by my primary school teacher for reading The Silver Chair first and Magician’s Nephew second. But then she forgot to factor in that I had the whole narrative ingrained in my subconscious having watched the awesome/awful BBC productions as they played out episode by episode on a Sunday evening, one series a year when I was three/four/five respectively and then repeatedly replaying the videos until I was old enough to read the books, so I had had the whole introduction to Aslan, the world and its peoples, time, history etc.
    However I think if I were recommending it to a Narnia novice I would go for published order as I think the whole discovery of Narnia and Aslan works really well with LWW first. I particularly like your suggestion of having it read aloud accompanied by hot drinks. And biscuits, obvs.

    Like

    • Teachers can seem to make the streams very narrow sometimes. Must be tough: you are with students for 1000 hours, and they only remember these particular moments of joy, frustration, and “events.”
      I’ve come to like “The Silver Chair” the best, but not as a kid.
      If you mean “biscuits” as cookies, then my son would agree with you. If you mean the fluffy Canadian biscuits my grandmother used to make, with cheese or a bit of jam, I’m in.

      Like

      • Either/and/or both 🙂 On this side of the pond I think cookies=biscuits. (Although we do have cookies too, they tend to be thicker and softer and contain chocolate chips whereas biscuits are usually cripsier? Who knows.) I’ve never heard of those Canadian ones but if they involve consumption with cheese or jam I’m probably in too.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Ah, the science of cookies-biscuits.
          There must be an equivalent to the Canadian biscuit, which is awesome. Let me find out.

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          • jubilare says:

            Now I am wondering how similar/different, these Canadian biscuits are to southern (south of south, to you 😉 ) buttermilk biscuits! They are light and fluffy and are also lovely with cheese, or jam, or even gravy, whether it be sawmill, sausage, chicken or red-eye. ^_^

            My mother’s grandmother used to make beaten-biscuits, more dense and hard-wearing, a good staple for lunches out in the cotton fields (it’s true, my mother grew up pickin’ cotton). The culture of food is so fascinating! And places like Canada and the U.S. that are mixtures of different cultures have such interesting food-culture intersections and mixing! …and now I’ve made myself hungry. 😛

            Like

            • So, apparently, biscuits and scones are pretty close, but we don’t bake anything in biscuits. Perhaps the buttermilk ones are close!
              A life without biscuits like my grandmother’s is sad. But, to be fair, I still haven’t tried much Ukrainian or Ghanian food. So I may miss everything!

              Liked by 1 person

  16. Wondering what audio book recommendations you’d make for listening to them in the car – we do nice long drives up to Wales and they would be perfect

    Liked by 1 person

    • Good question.
      First, there is the Focus on the Family dramatizations. These are 2-3 hours each, or a bit longer perhaps. They are good–a pretty good interpretation to honour the originals. They are American in flavour and adaptation, but the actors are British.
      The audiobook is pretty good but the 7 books have 5 or 6 different readers. Perhaps that’s okay. The way you find them is at Audible.com, and then make sure it is “unabridged”–each will be 4-5 hours. These readers are more for children–actually all the editions have the young, eager voice in them.
      I have listened to both over the years… well not all of the Focus on the Family series. But I think you’ve got two good options.
      There’s also a full BBC dramatization of Narnia on Audible, but I don’t know it. They are usually pretty awesome.
      Sir Michael Hormden’s abridged readings are excellent, but they cut out way too much of story.

      Like

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  26. Janeil H. says:

    When I first heard about the series, it was “The Magician’s Nephew” via the Focus on the Family Radio Theatre. The Horse and His Boy was the 2nd book I read (and the first Narnia book I had read).

    I personally love the Magician’s Nephew very much, and it doesn’t bother me to read it first. 🙂

    Like

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  28. Kate says:

    I read The Magician’s Nephew first (it was the only one I had for a long time) and it remains my favourite, so I always feel slightly resentful at how adamant people are that it shouldn’t be read first. I thought it was a wonderful introduction.

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