Chronological “Snubbery”: On the Proper Reading Order for The Chronicles of Narnia
Those who purchase a book set of The Chronicles of Narnia today might assume the content of the series is in the same format as it was when C. S. Lewis first wrote it. That assumption, while understandable, is inaccurate.
For the length of C. S. Lewis’s life (and decades beyond), his seven books from the world of Narnia were arranged so that readers would go through them in the order in which they were published. In 1994, however, the books were reordered and renumbered.
The seven separate installments, as they were originally written and released, progressively develop the world of Narnia. As such, the rearranged book set unfolds the overarching narrative in a jumbled fashion. It ends up revealing information to the first-time reader in a slapdash manner. At several key narrative points, the current book order tips its hand to the reader before it even makes its play (so to speak).
The argument in favor of this new arrangement is that the books are now in a more chronological order (from the standpoint of the world of Narnia itself): readers start first with The Magician’s Nephew (which shows Narnia’s origins) and move through Narnian time in a (largely) linear fashion. Such an argument, however, fails to acknowledge the difference between a true origins story and a prequel. An origins story starts at the beginning, building from the ground up (as it were). A prequel, on the other hand, builds on a story that already exists, assuming the reader is familiar with that existing story. True to its name, a prequel is a functional sequel—albeit, one that takes place earlier in the narrative’s timeline. With these distinctions in mind, The Magician’s Nephew is a prequel, and should be treated as such.
There are debates, of course, about what C. S. Lewis himself would think, and there are quotations (and misinterpretations) of what he actually did say about the proper reading order for The Chronicles of Narnia. The current consensus among publishing houses is that the seven books are best read in the order in which they take place within the world of Narnia. However, as Paul Ford writes in his Companion to Narnia, “most scholars disagree with [the chronological ordering] and find it the least faithful to Lewis’s deepest intentions” (24).
Some might ask, “Does it really matter?” My answer is yes, and I give three main reasons why in my newest piece for Crosswalk. Here’s a brief snippet:
C. S. Lewis didn’t initially set out to write an entire series of books. As he himself said, “When I wrote The Lion I did not know I was going to write any more.” As such, Lewis uses [The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe] as the official introduction to the world of Narnia. The Pevensies are a stand-in for the reader: your experience is designed to imitate theirs and your knowledge of Narnia to grow alongside theirs. That’s why The Lion says at one point, “None of the [Pevensie] children knew who Aslan was any more than you do.” It is assumed the reader has no prior knowledge of the king of Narnia. . . .
[Lewis is] not presuming you already know how Narnia was created, or why a lamp exists in the middle of a forest, or how a wardrobe can transport the Pevensies from one realm to another. On the contrary, he’s expecting you to not know these things. The mystery and discovery in which the Pevensies are engulfed are designed to engulf the first-time reader as well.
The article discusses a lot of elements, including dramatic irony, linear storytelling, authorial intent—and even Star Wars (trust me, there’s a good reason for it).
The ultimate purpose of this article is not to be divisive or judgmental, but to encourage first-time readers to enjoy The Chronicles of Narnia in the best way possible. You can read the entire article and decide for yourself.