Eight Children in Narnia: The Making of a Children’s Story
I first read the Narnia tales when I was in college, after I had read Mere Christianity. I read them again a couple years later, after I had taken a class in Medieval Literature and had read Chaucer’s “Parlement of Foules.” When I came across the Parliament of Owls in my second reading of The Silver Chair, I was discouraged. Such a blatant allusion and I had missed it, because I had not yet read enough. How many more of these were there, that I was missing? I felt I could never read enough.
Forty years later, having just finished Jared Lobdell’s insightful book, Eight Children in Narnia, I feel much the same. I will never have read enough. Lobdell seems to have read everything C.S. Lewis wrote and everything C. S. Lewis read. I am reminded of the book, The Road to Xanadu by John Livingston Lowes, in which he attempted to read all the sources that Coleridge read when he was writing his poems in order to show how Coleridge’s imagination worked. This book seems to be written in much the same spirit.
It is this part of the book which is most remarkable. He traces the antecedents of the various children’s books that Lewis wrote, setting them in the context of the history of children’s literature and delineating the origins (and later development, as in Harry Potter) of fantasy.
Lewis claimed that The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe developed with pictures. Lobdell argues that this book is more imaginative, associational, non-linear, and dream-like than the others. That might explain why we have a faun carrying brown-paper parcels in a world that seems to have no shops. It explains Tolkien’s dislike for the illogic of the trappings of the story. The later tales were “constructs,” using forms that Lewis knew from his vast reading. Lobdell shows how Prince Caspian is an Edwardian adventure story like those of Edith Nesbit; The Voyage of the Dawn Treader is a Bildungsroman; The Silver Chair is a fairy-tale like those written in the 19th century; The Horse and His Boy is like one of the tales from the Arabian Nights. In a separate chapter, Lobdell discusses the book-ends of creation and apocalypse, The Magician’s Nephew and The Last Battle in the context of pageantry, pastoral, comedy, etc.
Lobdell also discusses the challenge of getting past the “watchful dragons” in order to tell an approximation of the Christian story, his belief that the children are not realistic but just types, and the reasons why the series has been so successful.
At times his arguments are dense and complicated, as when he applies Northrop Frye’s or Mikhail Bakhtin’s theories to Lewis’s work, but his knowledge of the literary criticism of Lewis is impressive and his application of it to the Narnia tales is enlightening and delightful. He causes one to see things one never knew; he causes one to see the obvious that was missed. For example, Lewis is such a literary giant and his logic and perceptions so respected, that some tend to accept his word uncritically. Not so with Jared Lobdell. Lewis says he chose to write fairy tales for several reasons, one of which is the “severe restraints on description”. Lobdell then proceeds to show us the superb description that Lewis writes until we must conclude with him that “when Lewis was speaking of the very limited amount of description in fairy-tales, he was not speaking of his own Narnian books” (p. 139). How did I miss that?
While this book is very much of an academic treatise, the writing style is conversational and memoir-like. The style is more like a professor teaching a relatively small class. We learn the author’s birthday, the year he was born, the order in which he read Lewis’s opus, and what happened to his copies of Lewis’s books and letters.
However, the book would have profited from better editing. There are many typographical/printing errors, and similarly, for a book, as academically oriented as this one, the bibliography is inadequate. There is a list of “Books Mentioned,” but the books are for the most part primary texts discussed in the literary history of the Narnia tales. Lobdell quotes from and refers to many other books and articles, which don’t make it into the bibliography. Sometimes some part of the citation makes it into the index, but not always.
Lobdell, like Lewis, leads one to an exponentially growing reading list. I can be reading for a long time, but then again, there is so much depth in this book, I am sure to have missed something. I could go back. Had I but world enough and time, I’d read this book a second time.
Betsy Susan Morgan is an English teacher and librarian.