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The Order of the Narnia Books

What order should you read the Narnia books in? That is, what order would you recommend to the first-time reader—if you're familiar with them it's much more of a personal preference. The books were written in the order

  1. The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe
  2. Prince Caspian
  3. The Voyage of the Dawn Treader
  4. The Silver Chair
  5. The Horse and his Boy
  6. The Magician's Nephew
  7. The Last Battle

and originally that was taken as the order. However, later the publisher rearranged them in chronological order according to the events in the stories:

  1. The Magician's Nephew
  2. The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe
  3. The Horse and his Boy
  4. Prince Caspian
  5. The Voyage of the Dawn Treader
  6. The Silver Chair
  7. The Last Battle

This was said to be C. S. Lewis's preference: this is based on a comment by Lewis in a letter to a child, in favour of the order of events, though he evidently didn't think it mattered very much. It's also not clear to me from the accounts I have seen whether the enquiry was about reading them for the first time, which is the crucial question: the fact that the enquirer was already aware of the difference seems to suggest otherwise.

The reason this is interesting is because it shows something about the nature of stories, and why it is often a mistake to try to treat fiction as a coherent world.

Let's think about the historical situation in the books if we go through them in publication order.

  1. The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe

    Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy are children arriving in a magic world apparently inhabited entirely by talking animals, fauns, etc., though they're waiting for human beings to come. Tumnus the faun has a book "Is Man a Myth?" In this non-human world it is easy for the children to take on adult roles without complications. The villain is the White Witch, whose origins are not explained. We meet the mysterious Aslan for the first time, with explanations of who he is. There is a reference at the end to Susan (now grown up in Narnia) being courted by princes in other lands, implying human beings exist somewhere, but this is a throwaway comment. Frankly Lewis has a throw-in-the-kitchen-sink approach in this book and consistency isn't big. The book's power comes from the images: passing through the wardrobe, the snowy forest with the lamp-post, the White Witch turning her victims to stone.... Those are the things that stick with you.

  2. Prince Caspian

    A very long time, at least a thousand years, has passed in Narnia, and Narnia now has a human population as well, the Telmarines (including Prince Caspian). By the way, although Caspian is generally depicted as white, the Telmarines (who originally came from our world) are actually of mixed European-Polynesian descent. This adult world poses a question about the scope for child heroes, which is raised early in the book and answered rather unconvincingly. (It might have been better to have just ignored it.) There is at least one other human country, Archenland.

  3. The Voyage of the Dawn Treader

    Three years later and we are off to sea. There are apparently a number of other countries, none of which have talking animals and so on like Narnia. We meet some people from Calormen, a nasty place which keeps slaves. Evidently there is a largish human world outside Narnia.

  4. The Silver Chair

    Caspian is very old and his son needs to be rescued from the wild lands of the north. The ages don't really add up, but that's not important just now. This trip takes us away from the previous locations. There are giants to the north, and there used to be a giant city. The prince is being held captive by a Green Lady, who is apparently another witch from the north aiming to take over Narnia.

  5. The Horse and his Boy

    A flashback to the Lion/Witch/Wardrobe time! The children, now Kings and Queens of Narnia, are grown up. The story is about an escape from Calormen to the north. We now learn that Calormen is not just nasty but huge, much bigger than Narnia. It has a complex society and polytheistic religion, and (whatever else you say about it) receives praise for teaching story-telling instead of essay-writing. Narnia, which is allied with Archenland (a nice place), has some human inhabitants, along with all the talking animals.

  6. The Magician's Nephew

    Prequel! We start in Victorian London, with new characters. Two children travel first to Charn, a dead world that was absolutely awful, and then (with the awakened Queen of Charn) to a blank world where Aslan creates Narnia. Aslan creates the talking animals and so on, and makes a London cab-driver, who came by accident, the King. We learn why there is a lamp-post in Narnia! We learn where the White Witch came from!

  7. The Last Battle

    Back to the future: Telmarine times, some generations after Caspian. Calormen invades and the world ends. Plato, theology, etc.

OK, that all follows. What happens if we change to event-order?

  1. The Magician's Nephew

    The Narnian world is created. When Aslan appears you seem to be expected to know who he is, but never mind that. The world has talking animals etc., but is given a human king. The book has various forward references explaining things like the lamp-post in the forest, the wardrobe, etc., for no clear reason.

  2. The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe

    The human royal line, and any other humans in Narnia, seem to have gone extinct. The villain is the White Witch: we know she is the Queen of Charn from the previous book because her name is mentioned.

  3. The Horse and his Boy

    A few years later, with the children now grown-up kings and queens of Narnia. There are human beings all over the place, lots of other countries, and a world in which Narnia is a minor player. There are even Narnian humans. What the heck happened?

  4. Prince Caspian

    Much later, with those Telmarines. Other countries seem to exist but it's not clear where they fit in.

  5. The Voyage of the Dawn Treader

    Off to sea, no problems of consistency with Prince Caspian.

  6. The Silver Chair

    North, no problems, except that the Green Lady is now a bit of a mystery, since she must have a quite different history from the White Witch.

  7. The Last Battle

    End of the world, no problems.

The point is that the historical settings have some jarring changes if you try to follow chronological order. If you follow publication order, then the change from the non-human Narnian world to the human world with a little Narnia takes place gradually: you just have to adjust your picture of things a bit each time, in effect following the modifications Lewis made as went along. You could no doubt invent some explanation for these changes, though Lewis doesn't really try. But going from Lion/Witch/Wardrobe to Horse is a complete shock.

This only matters if it's the first time you're reading the stories. After that you know the basics anyway and you just take things as they come.

The point is that Lewis was not, in the Narnian books, engaged in world-building in the way Tolkien was. Systematic consistency is found not only in fantasy and SF but in many ordinary novel series. An example is C.P. Snow's Strangers and Brothers series, where the events and characters are all carefully kept consistent. It doesn't follow that you should read or watch the prequels first, though. Another example would be the Harry Potter series, in which apparent loose ends often appear as significant later. (It's not coincidental that J.K. Rowling went on to write detective stories.) But Lewis's Narnia was started as fairy tale, not myth. In the preface Lewis himself describes The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe as a fairy tale, and he analysed the concept of myth both in literary and religious contexts. Tolkien was dissatisfied with The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe partly because it ignored world-building. Lewis threw in everything, including the kitchen sink and Father Christmas. In the later books, as the material grew, there are more consistent connections, but it was never important in the way it was for Tolkien.

Part of the fun of The Magician's Nephew is precisely that it's a prequel. Lewis imagines a backstory for Lion/Witch/Wardrobe, with explanations for both a major question (where does the White Witch come from?) and trivia (what's with that lamp-post?). In some ways this book does represent a move to systematization. It's fun, though one may note that the explanation of the White Witch weakens one of the mythological elements. In the original vision of Narnia, the Witch is a sort of force of nature who is just there.

Fitting everything together has its own appeal, which explains the lure of "canon" in Star Trek, though even there complete consistency has not really been achieved. In some cases authors have deliberately used consistency as a source of creativity. (An example would be the way Isaac Asimov created links between the robot stories, the Galactic Empire, and the Foundation series. For what it's worth, Asimov apparently advised reading them in order of the events, starting with I, Robot.) But attempting to force it on fiction constructed without such an aim is a snare and a delusion.


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