How should one read the Chronicles of Narnia? As originally published, or in chronological order?
That is hard to say, because C. S. Lewis wrote the books in neither. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe was completed in early 1949 and published roughly 18 months later in October 1950. Hot on its heels Lewis wrote Prince Caspian, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, and The Horse and His Boy. The agreement with the publisher, Geoffrey Bles, was that the books would come out one a year, from 1950 onward. Horse was ready in July 1950 so Lewis had plenty of wiggle room.
By the time Prince Caspian was released under the agreement in 1951 Lewis had already finished another book, The Silver Chair. It was slated to follow The Voyage of the Dawn Treader even though The Horse and His Boy had been finished first. It’s easy to see why. The series was following the adventures of the Pevensie kids, their cousin, and his friend Jill, and to suddenly go backward in time would have been a major jar. With The Silver Chair as the fourth book, the saga of the Earth kids comes to a clean end (or so we think.)
Concurrent with the four books above, Lewis was working on The Magician’s Nephew, picking it up and putting it down in the way that writers do.
Next to be published, in 1954, was The Horse and His Boy, which explored the Arabian Nights setting of the Empire of Calormen, Narnia’s nemesis and downfall. It’s the most baroque of Lewis’s settings, and in retrospect, it’s natural that he would have written it after The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, where it had been introduced in the Lone Islands chapters. (Although I don’t recall anything in Voyage that let the reader know Edmund had interacted with the Calormenes before.)
Lewis considered The Magician’s Nephew complete when he began The Last Battle, but went back to it after Battle was finished for some finessing. So it’s actually the last book written. The Silver Chair was just being published as The Magician’s Nephew was completed, so again there was no rush.
||As I read them
I’ll call the publication order the classic order, and it’s at the far left of the chart. When the books began to be released in the United States, this was the order in which they were numbered, and how they appeared in boxed sets, libraries, and book catalogs.
The original British editions were not numbered. When they moved to different publishers and began to be put in a sequence, the chronological order was used.
In 2005, Harper Collins, which was then publishing the books in the U.S., began to use the chronological order, which caused some confusion. Lewis himself had never thought of his books as “The Chronicles.” That was a title put on them by someone else.
I myself prefer the classic order. It’s the one I grew up with, so of course I am prejudiced. But it also shows Lewis’s progression as a writer and conveyer of complex ideas. A child could start reading the series with The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe at age 7 or 8, and actually grow up with the books to age 13 or 14, assuming they read one a year. And I do think there is merit in how gradually the land of Narnia itself is opened up and refined, old elements discarded by not being mentioned again (like that sewing machine in LWW) while new ones take their place (the mountains of Aslan’s country in The Silver Chair) with all the elements building on each other to make the world wider and wilder. In LWW we have a kingdom of talking animals with a witch-queen, a sacred lion and four kids, but at the end there are hints of it in the line “And they [the Pevensie kings and queens] entered into friendship and alliance with countries beyond the sea and paid them visits of state and received visits of state from them.” ** In Prince Caspian and The Voyage of the Dawn Treader we are introduced to it. Telmar is mostly discarded as a plot element, but Calormen, the various islands, and star-people become part of the canon and enter in later.
Then, there is the order that I-the-writer read them.
I read, or rather heard, LWW first, read to my sixth-grade class by an exceptionally hip, creative nun. After that, I think she started on Prince Caspian, but left off at the point where the Pevensies are lost in the woods and Lucy starts to cry because her siblings won’t believe she saw Aslan and talked to him. I really wanted to hear the rest of it, but someone else in my class had beat me to it and checked out the book from the school’s library. So I hopped ahead to The Last Battle. I had no idea the books were a continuing story, figuring they were like the Mary Poppins series or Hugh Lofting’s Dr. Doolittle books in that it didn’t matter what order you read them in.
I was more than a little confused by Battle, not knowing who Jill and Eustace were, or why so much fuss was being made about a stable. I’m not sure I finished it.
The next book, I’m sure, was The Silver Chair because it had the coolest title. Finally I got to read the story of Jill and how she came to Narnia. To this day I think it’s the most perfect of the Narnian books. If you have to read just one, this should be that one.
After that came I think The Magician’s Nephew, which I also enjoyed, and then The Voyage of the Dawn Treader and The Horse and His Boy. When I think “Narnia” I think of these four, the pinnacles of the series. (It’s not that I don’t like The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe; it just doesn’t hold up that well as an adult book.)
After that, I read The Last Battle again, and felt let down and confused, as I’m sure many young readers were. But even so I was entranced by some of the imagery.
I stopped for a while after that, maybe a year, then read Prince Caspian like I had originally wanted to. I was not impressed. To this day I consider it the most dreary of all the Narnia books, and after The Last Battle, that’s really saying something.
Could Lewis have written more of Narnia? I’m sure he could have, if he wanted. Unlike Middle Earth, Narnia was not a closed world with a set history and geography. Lewis himself gave hints of other adventures, other places, in the text.
The copyright on Narnia will expire in 2034. Where will it go from there?
** In Voyage of the Dawn Treader, these are revealed to be Galma, Terabinthia, and The Seven Isles. Though they are “in” the sea rather than being “beyond the sea” as Aslan’s country was. It’s likely that in this point in the writing Lewis had the mental map of Narnia as being like England with the unnamed foreign countries being stand-ins for France, Spain, Hungary, etc.