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The story of The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe has a weird beginning.
And we're not talking about the line, "Once there were four children whose names were Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy." Because that's about as un-weird as first lines get...except for the inclusion of the name "Edmund" (which isn't so much "weird" as it is "more British than Michael Caine eating scones with the Queen.")
We're talking about the origin story of this classic work of kid's lit.
When C.S. Lewis was sixteen, he had a vision. It wasn't a spiritual vision or a great artistic vision or some kind of prophecy. It was just a mental picture—a picture of a Faun, a mythical half-man half-goat, carrying an armload of packages and sheltering himself with an umbrella as he walked through a snowy wood.
This strange image would stay with Lewis for decades until his chance encounter with some children who had been evacuated from London during World War II. Lewis was interested in the evacuees and what it might be like for children to be uprooted from their homes and sent into a strange, unknown world. (He himself had been sent away to several boarding schools as a child and an adolescent, and his memories of them were a more than a wee bit unpleasant.)
At that point, Lewis was already an experienced and prolific writer who had published numerous books, including a science fiction trilogy, a scholarly book about medieval allegory, a book of poetry, and some works on religion and faith. He decided to try writing a book for children, using his meeting with the evacuees and the picture of the Faun that had kept floating around in his mind.
The writing was difficult at first but eventually he started to see some other pictures. Lewis said the lion Aslan, "came bounding in" and the pages started to fly by.
And—voila!—The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe was born.
After he finished writing, Lewis excitedly read his new book aloud to his friend and fellow author J.R.R. Tolkien—you know, the guy who turned the world of children's lit upside down with books like The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings trilogy.
Lewis and Tolkien were members of a small, informal literary club at Oxford called The Inklings, which met to discuss members' work-in-progress and other literature-related topics. In the past, Tolkien had read his worksto Lewis and the other Inklings, who gave him useful feedback and support. Lewis expected Tolkien to provide the same kind of encouragement and constructive criticism.
But, as Lewis's biographer George Sayer records, Tolkien thought The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe was terrible. Tolkien argued that no book should have so many different types of characters and genres jumbled together.
And J.R.R. had a point: the story starts with a family of evacuee children during WWII (so: realism) discovering a wardrobe that doubles as a portal to the land of Narnia (so: fantasy). There they meet a faun—hello, Greek mythology—who works for a witch that definitely resembles the Snow Queen of Hans Christian Anderson fame. The Snow Queen likes to freeze people into ice sculptures (shade of Sodom and Gomorrah, there) and has banished...Santa Claus.
But it doesn't stop there. This book also throws in some aspects of Arthurian legend, a Christ figure, and a bunch of talking animals. C.S. Lewis essentially put a half-dozen mythologies and belief systems together in a blender.
Then again, other wonderful things like Indian cuisine and the collected works of The Beatles also prove that throwing seemingly-conflicting things together can be the key to everlasting greatness.
Luckily for us, some of Lewis's other friends loved the book, and so he published it in 1950, two years after writing it. (Take that, J.R.R.)
After finishing the first book, Lewis discovered that new stories were unfolding in his mind to explain some of the strange aspects of this imaginary country called Narnia, and he started work on a sequel. Eventually The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe was just the first of the seven Chronicles of Narnia. As the books progressed, they continued to present Lewis's Christian faith and morality in an allegorical form to child readers. Each book drew on a combination of Lewis's religious enthusiasm (he had experienced a powerful re-conversion to Christianity) and his academic background (he was a Fellow at Oxford University specializing in Medieval and Renaissance literature and philology).
Although The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe wasn't an immediate bestseller, it slowly and steadily became popular on the cutting edge of a new literary movement in favor of fantasy stories for children.
Over the last sixty years, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe has been adapted as a major motion picture, an animated TV movie, a live-action TV serial, and a play. The book has become a cultural phenomenon and the characters have become household names. Today it would be surprising—if not impossible—to find a bookstore that didn't carry The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe and the other Chronicles of Narnia.
C.S. Lewis's work has also been the object of interest by literary scholars and professional critics. The Narnia books are sure to live on, both as the beloved reading of children and adults, and as essential texts in the history of fantasy literature.
You like apples, J.R.R. Tolkien? How do you like them apples?
Why should you care? Because we bet you've been tempted to sell out your nearest and dearest for a box of Turkish delight.
We're only half kidding. And we're kidding about the "Turkish delight" half—we're more partial to chocolate than nut-and-jelly confections—not the "selling out your nearest and dearest" part.
Maybe you haven't gone so far as to betray your favorite people or your ideals for an easy prize. And that's awesome. Still, however, we bet you've been tempted...and that if you haven't been tempted yet, you will eventually. Betrayal is a fundamental (and icky) part of being human. People cheat on each other. People steal from each other. People talk about each other behind each others' backs. People ice each other out in cruel ways. People lie to get ahead.
And the horrific thing is, that betrayal is easy and often immediately rewarding. Usually, betrayal occurs because it looks like the shortcut to happiness...not because the person doing the betraying is a callous monster.
When people cheat, it's usually in order to feel good/feel excited/feel more desirable. When people talk smack about each other, it's to feel powerful or impress someone. And when Edmund sells out his brother and sisters, he does so because someone is making him feel special, important, and worthy of love.
That Turkish delight? It's just a tasty, tasty bonus.
After all, Edmund's had a hard time of it. Not only does he have the dreaded middle child syndrome (too young to be in charge, to old to be taken care of) but he's been forced away from his family because of war. A vacation in the countryside is nice...but it's not so nice if the only reason you're there is because there's a very real possibility of you getting Blitzkrieg-ed to smithereens if you stay at home.
That kind of environment would make anyone act like a little twerp, and Edmund twerpiness (twerptitude?) increases throughout the first chapters of The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe. He goes from bossing his little sis around to telling outright lies to getting sulky and nasty with all his siblings.
And then, of course, he betrays them. Big time.
Okay, so Edmund's story isn't quite like Shawshank, but it still rates pretty high in the list of all-time greatest redemption stories.
Once he's realized what a mess of everything he's made (and once he realizes that he put the lives of his siblings in grave danger) the guy repents. He repents hard. And he's able to turn his life around.
Of course, he doesn't do it alone. He has the help of Aslan and the unconditional love and support of his brother and sisters. When he wants to shake off his betrayal and come back to the right side, though, everyone is ready to welcome him with open arms.
We're not saying it's easy. In fact, he almost dies. But he's able to be redeemed, even though he basically signed his family's death warrant so he could chow down on some lokum.
And that, right there, is the central message of The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe. C.S. Lewis was a devout Christian and had some definite thoughts about betrayal and redemption. And while the stories of the New Testament might not be your thing, Lewis makes the subjects of betrayal/ redemption accessible to people of all ages and faiths.
We think that's pretty awesome. Because if there's one certainty after death and taxes, it's that you'll encounter betrayal at some point in your life. And this slim kid's book can serve as a road map to redemption (if you've done the betraying) or a road map to helping someone redeem themselves (if you've been betrayed).
And that's even more delicious than Turkish delight.
The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (2005)
This recent big-budget feature film has satisfying, high-quality effects and fast pacing.
The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (1988)
This live action TV miniseries may seem cheesy to some viewers today, but it's an extremely faithful, often straight-out-of-the-book adaptation. Worth renting!
The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (1979)
This animated TV movie might be interesting for younger viewers.
The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (1967)
This black-and-white TV adaptation of the novel was the first screen version of the story, produced less than 20 years after the book was first published.
A biopic about C.S. Lewis, starring Anthony Hopkins.
The official trailer for the 2005 film.
Excerpt from the 1988 TV Adaptation
Watch the opening scenes of the BBC's live action TV miniseries version of the story.
Fan-Made Trailer for the 1979 Animated Film
Compiled using stills from the animated film.
A clip from a biopic about Lewis, starring Antony Hopkins. Here, Lewis talks about The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.
C.S. Lewis: A Biography by A. N. Wilson
Read this 1990 biography of Lewis (republished in 2002) on Google Books.
The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe Full Length New Dramatization by Joseph Robinette
A 1989 theatrical adaptation of Lewis's book.
C.S. Lewis 100th Anniversary
An NPR Talk of the Nation episode from 1998 on Lewis's 100th birthday.
Lewis and Tolkien
Learn more about these two masters of fantasy, and their relationship, from NPR.
Bringing Narnia to the Screen
An NPR Morning Edition episode from 2005 about the recent film.
1950 First Edition Cover
An image of the cover for the first edition of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, published in hardback in 1950.
Mr. Tumnus and Lucy by Pauline Baynes
One of the original pen-and-ink illustrations from the first edition.