One of the things that's made The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe such a successful book is C.S. Lewis's ability to balance his didactic message about the Christian faith with a lighthearted tone. Although the book often has clear moral messages to convey—and Lewis isn't about to let anybody miss them—it's often amusing and sometimes silly.
At times, the description of pleasant things (such as tasty meals or beautiful natural scenes) takes on a life of its own, going on and on, making the reader positively long to have tea with Lucy and Mr. Tumnus, or walk through the summery Narnian countryside. With these beautiful evocations of the senses, the reader probably is more willing to think about the morals and ethics that Lewis is pushing.
The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe is recognized around the world as classic children's literature. C.S. Lewis wrote it for a child audience and dedicated it to his goddaughter, Lucy Barfield. It's written in simple, straightforward prose appropriate for children, and, just in case you still weren't sure, the subtitle is A Story for Children.
In addition to being a children's book, it's a rollicking adventure story in which our heroes set out on a quest to recover their kidnapped friend and end up ruling the land. It's also clearly a fantasy novel—the presence of mythical creatures like fauns, dwarves, and talking animals might have tipped you off to that one.
As titles go, this one follows the same formula as that classic Western, The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.
We've got the good: the Lion, Aslan, who stands for truth, beauty, compassion, and everything that's right in the world.
We've got the bad: the Witch, who stands for evil, lies, treachery, and everlasting winter.
And we have the ugly: that wardrobe is more heinous than anything you can find at IKEA. Burn it, please.
Okay, we lied. The wardrobe is a classy piece of hardwood furniture...and it's also the gateway to the book's magical world, in which good and evil are clear-cut and myth mixes seamlessly with religion. But the wardrobe can also stand in for the real world of 1940's England, which existed in the moral gray area of reality.
The interesting thing about this title is that, unlike The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, the meaning of the different terms isn't obvious just from hearing or reading the title.
In order to know that the Lion is a personification (or would that be a lion-ification?) of all that's good in the world, or that the Witch is his enemy, or that the wardrobe is a gateway to another world, you have to read the book.
So the title does several things: it sets up the great battle between Good and Evil that structures the story, but it does so in an undercover way that requires decoding. This is the same pattern that we'll see throughout the book: the values of the world of Narnia are extremely straightforward, but they're under a veneer of mythology and fantasy.
There are really two parts to the ending of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. The first is the unsurprising one: Good triumphs over Evil and everything works out for the best. Although we find this exciting, we're not shocked. The narrator's insistence in the extent of Aslan's power and the book's address to child readers both strongly suggest that the good guys are going to win this one.
It's the second part of the ending that we find more surprising: after becoming kings and queens, growing up, and ruling Narnia for many years, Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy are suddenly transported back to England, where they become children again.
We can just about accept that, when time passes in Narnia, it doesn't pass in "our" world where England is located, but how can we accept that the four children go through the entire process of puberty and maturation, only to have all its effects reversed as they go back to being kids again? It's especially hard to believe this when the children still retain memories of their time in Narnia. Could it really be possible to remember growing up and how you thought and felt when you were doing it, but at the same time to lose that maturity and go back to being a child? We don't really think so, but the book asks us to suspend our disbelief and go with it.
As an ending, we find this whole "and then they were kids again" thing unsatisfactory, right up there with the "it was all a dream" and "we went back in time and changed things so it never happened" endings.
Here's the only excuse we can make: if you keep reading the other Chronicles of Narnia, you'll notice that C.S. Lewis isn't really all that interested in puberty, maturity, or adulthood. He's interested in the forces of Good and the innocent power of childhood. Whenever Lewis's child characters start to grow up or mature, they get tossed out of his books and he invents new children to be the new protagonists. So, in a fictional world where adulthood disqualifies you from participating, it actually makes sense that Lewis would keep turning his characters back into the children they were at the beginning. He wants us to see that their souls, not their bodies, grow up.
Most of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe takes place in the fantastic land of Narnia, which Lucy and her siblings reach through—you got it—a magical wardrobe.
Narnia is everything we've come to expect from a fantasy novel, largely because this book (along with J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings trilogy) helped to set the standard for what we think of as a typical fantasy world. It's a vaguely medieval place in which people live close to the land, fight using bows and arrows and swords, and are ruled by kings and queens who live in palaces. Mythical creatures populate it – not only the stock characters of today's fantasy world like centaurs and dwarves, but more Greco-Roman-feeling characters too, like minotaurs and dryads.
Interestingly, Narnia has no human population, but prophecy states that it needs to be ruled by four human beings, two male and two female—two "sons of Adam" and two "daughters of Eve," as the characters are constantly reminding us.
Perhaps more interesting than the fantasy land of Narnia is the world that the Pevensie children escape from for their adventure. At the beginning of the book, Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy have just been evacuated from London to live in a house in the country. The book doesn't use the name "World War II," but that's exactly what they've been sent away from the city to avoid.
Thousands of English children were sent away from London because of bombings and air-raids during the 1940s, often to live with strangers who volunteered to take them in. So these four children escape from one cataclysmic, world-changing battle only to find themselves in the midst of another.
Maybe Narnia isn't that much different from the "real" world after all...though Good and Evil may be more obvious there.
The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe is a pretty straightforward book to read. The prose itself is relatively easy, with short sentences and simple vocabulary...although there might be a few unusual (or unusually British) words or literary references here or there that you need to look up.
The difficulty comes in the interpretive process. The main thing that you need to get is that the book is not only a great adventure story, but an enormous allegory for the central idea of Christianity: Christ's sacrifice to redeem the sins of others.
In general, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe is written in simple, plain language that many child readers can understand. (It makes a great "early chapter book" for developing readers.)
Yet its brilliant construction enables readers of all ages and backgrounds to enjoy the world that the book creates. You can think of C.S. Lewis as the Hemingway of children's literature—at least in terms of the simple, accessible prose with deeper meaning behind it and beautiful, stark construction.
Mood-wise, however, Lewis and Hemingway are miles apart—C.S. Lewis has characters binge on Turkish delight, and Hemingway prefers his characters to binge on booze and bullfighting.
There's lots of magic in Narnia, but there are two bits of magic that are particularly important for the plot: the Deep Magic from the Dawn of Time and the Deeper Magic from Before the Dawn of Time. The Deep Magic from the Dawn of Time is basically an eye-for-an-eye, tooth-for-a-tooth moral law. As the White Witch explains:
"[…] every traitor belongs to me as my lawful prey and […] for every treachery I have a right to a kill." (13.41)
Although at first glance this might seem like a law that's all about the Witch, it's really about the treachery that a person commits. When somebody commits a great crime, the way that Edmund does when he betrays his family, then they have to face the moral consequences of that crime. To put it in religious terms (as Lewis was probably thinking about it), they have to atone for their sins. In this sense, the Witch is just a mechanical function built into the world to carry out this moral law, the way that Satan is supposed to punish sinners. Or, to use the symbolism from a different religion, the way karma brings the consequences of your actions back to you. We can think of the Deep Magic as similar to the laws and rules laid down in the Torah, the first five books of the Hebrew Bible, which Christians call the Old Testament.
Still, in Narnia, just like in Christianity, there's a major loophole in this law: the Deeper Magic from Before the Dawn of Time. Aslan explains:
"[…] when a willing victim who had committed no treachery was killed in a traitor's stead […] Death itself would start working backwards." (15.38)
This is the amazing thing about Aslan's sacrifice: by taking Edmund's place, Aslan is able to save Edmund, but also to save himself and everyone else. There's a special power he can access by being a willing and innocent victim. Allegorically, Aslan's sacrifice represents Christ's crucifixion – the great act of sacrifice by which Jesus is supposed to take on the sins of the world. We can think of the Deeper Magic as symbolic of the grace, mercy, and sacrifice emphasized in the Christian New Testament.
Of course, there are differences between Aslan's sacrifice and Christ's crucifixion. Aslan sacrifices himself for Edmund, while Christ sacrifices himself for everyone in the world. Christ, unlike Aslan, is not a giant talking lion (just thought we'd point that out). You know, those sorts of things. Yet there are also a lot of parallels in the way the sacrifice happens. Like Jesus, Aslan knows what he has to do and is depressed about it. Like Jesus, Aslan is tormented and humiliated before being killed. Also, like Jesus, Aslan appears first after his resurrection to some of his faithful female followers.
If you want to think about some other aspects of the Christian allegory underlying The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, consider comparing Susan and Lucy to Mary and Martha, or Edmund to Judas. We've got more on these ideas in the "Characters" section, so check those out too!
Lucy and her brothers and sister enter Narnia through a magic wardrobe – a piece of furniture intended to be used as a closet in rooms that don't have built-in closets. (If you're interested in where this particular wardrobe came from and why it's magic, we suggest you read The Magician's Nephew.) Lucy is drawn into the wardrobe because she wants to feel the fur coats that are hanging in it. Instead of having a normal back, though, the wardrobe opens out into the woods in the west of Narnia:
Next moment she found that what was rubbing against her face and hands was no longer soft fur but something hard and rough and prickly. "Why, it is just like branches of trees!" exclaimed Lucy. And then she saw that there was a light ahead of her; not a few inches away where the back of the wardrobe ought to have been, but a long way off. Something cold and soft was falling on her. A moment later she found that she was standing in the middle of a wood at night-time with snow under her feet and snowflakes falling through the air. (1.24)
We notice that, instead of going out into the world of Narnia, Lucy goes further and further inward. After all, she is only exploring the Professor's house because it's raining outside and so she can't go outside to explore the country. In the depths of the house she finds a spare room, and in the spare room she finds the wardrobe, and in the wardrobe she finds all of Narnia. OK, we know, if you read the other books, it becomes obvious that the wardrobe is a door and that Narnia isn't actually all contained in the wardrobe, but symbolically it kind of feels that way, in this book, at least. We might also think of Narnia as "inward" in a more abstract sense – to find her adventure and her destiny, Lucy, along with her siblings, goes deeper and deeper into herself.
The other interesting thing about the wardrobe is that it doesn't work all the time. After Lucy's first trip to Narnia, she tries to show the others, only to discover that now the wardrobe has a normal wooden back. The next time she tries, it is once again a magical gateway, and this time Edmund gets through too – but again it switches back to cupboard form when Peter and Susan come in. Peter and Susan feel that, if something is real, it must be real all the time, but the Professor suggests reality might be more complicated than that.
Oh, one last thing about the wardrobe – C.S. Lewis wasn't the first person to write a fantasy story for kids in which the protagonists get to the magical world through a wardrobe. To find out who was, check out the "Trivia" section!
The first thing Lucy sees in the snowy woods of Narnia is a lamppost. (If you're wondering how the lamppost got there, well, you'll have to read The Magician's Nephew…we know it's kind of irritating that we keep mentioning it, but it is the prequel, so it answers all sorts of questions.) In The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, the lamppost functions as a beacon, showing the children the way to Narnia when the come into it from our world, and showing them the way back when they need to leave.
The lamppost is also a halfway-thing, not quite a real Narnian item (since Narnia seems a bit more pseudo-medieval than that – fighting with swords doesn't quite jive with having lampposts), but not quite something out of the Pevensies' England, either (it's too old-fashioned – it actually has a flame burning in it, not an electric bulb, which means it is from several decades earlier than the 1940s). At the end of the adventure, it is the lamppost which leads the way home for the children, triggering their memories of their old lives in England.
If all these things didn't make it important enough, the lamppost also causes Edmund to slip up and prove to Peter and Susan that he lied about his first trip to Narnia – the fact that he knows which way to go to find it proves he has been there before.
The Stone Table is an ancient Narnian monument – a slab of stone held up on pillars and covered in mysterious writing. The White Witch and her Dwarf discuss the Stone Table as the proper place for traitors to be executed and sacrifices made. When Aslan agrees to let himself be sacrificed in Edmund's place, the Witch binds him to the Stone Table and kills him there. When Aslan is miraculously resurrected, though, thanks to the Deeper Magic from Before the Dawn of Time, the Stone Table cracks. Aslan explains that this, too, was part of a prophecy. We can think of the Stone Table as symbolizing the normal laws of the universe – but Aslan's sacrifice is so special that it breaks the Table in half forever. If you're really into Christian symbolism, the cracking of the Stone Table reminds us of the veil in the temple tearing in half during Jesus' crucifixion and resurrection.
Cair Paravel is a palace on the eastern coast of Narnia, described as the true capital of the land and the place where the four Pevensie children will reign as Kings and Queens of Narnia. Cair Paravel is as far east as you can get and still be in the land of Narnia instead of in the ocean. This seems to be important, because the east is somewhat holy – Aslan's father, the Emperor, is supposed to be Beyond-the-Sea, so Cair Paravel is made to commune with him. Cair Paravel also represents a juncture between the natural world and the man-made one; although it is a palace, with a throne room and a court, the eastern door opens right onto the sea and mermaids and mermen are able to swim close enough to the castle steps for their singing to be heard within.
Usually, third-person omniscient narration is pretty straightforward. Our storyteller has a bird's-eye view of everything that's happening in the story and can dive down into any character's thoughts at any given time.
In The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, our narrator makes extensive use of this omniscience. Sometimes we focus exclusively on Lucy, like when she makes her first trip alone into the wardrobe. Sometimes we focus entirely on Edmund, such as when he first encounters the White Witch. Sometimes we leave both of the younger children behind so that we can observe conversations between Peter, Susan, and the Professor.
Also, for much of the book, we skip back and forth between Edmund's treacherous journey to the White Witch and his siblings' trip with the Beavers to see Aslan. Sometimes we even see into the Witch's mind, such as when the narrator tells us that she knows the spring thaw means that Aslan is back in Narnia.
In fact, just about the only thing our narrator doesn't take time to describe is the final battle between Good and Evil; we only catch the end of that one.
A note of caution: although the narration here is generally third-person, sometimes that pesky first-person "I" does crop up in the narrator's voice. For example, when describing Susan and Lucy weeping over Aslan, the narrator writes,
I hope no one who reads this book has been quite as miserable as Susan and Lucy were that night. (15.8)
Even though there are some first-person moments like this one, the narrator of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe doesn't really have a name or a personality. We like to think of it as a third-person omniscient narrative that stole some first-person pronouns that don't quite belong to it.
Alternatively, you could think of these as moments when C.S. Lewis, as he's writing, lets himself peek through the edges of the story and offer some commentary.
The "fall" into the other world happens in stages in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. First Lucy finds her way through the wardrobe and meets Mr. Tumnus. When she tries to show Peter, Susan, and Edmund the way to Narnia, though, it has disappeared. Some time later, Lucy and Edmund both get there, but again the gateway has disappeared by the time Peter and Susan are there to check it out. Finally all four children are transported together, and the adventure can really begin.
At first, the children seem to be having little mini-adventures, meeting a mythical creature here and an impressive Queen there. This world has talking animals, sentient trees, and an everlasting winter. It's weird and wonderful.
When the White Witch hears about their presence, the four children are suddenly in grave danger. They are thrust right into the center of prophecy and politics, becoming figures of hope for the people of Narnia – but their lives are in peril!
Although all four children can tell that something is going terribly wrong, they don't know that Aslan is planning to give his own life in place of Edmund's. When Lucy and Susan witness Aslan's death, it seems like everything is lost.
Unlike other "Voyage and Return" stories, this one doesn't mix the "Thrilling Escape" with the "Return." The Pevensie children are able to triumph over evil without running away back to their own world. Instead, they enjoy a long period of happiness and prosperity in Narnia, before one day finding themselves back in England. They have lived whole lifetimes in Narnia, growing up and becoming adults, and now they are suddenly children again. Have they really changed during their experience? Well, you'll have to read the next book, Prince Caspian, to find out!
This is where it all begins: Lucy's curiosity leads her to the amazing discovery that an old wardrobe, in a spare room in the house where she and her family are staying, is actually a doorway into another world. With this discovery, we can tell that we're being set up to witness all kinds of adventures and shenanigans!
Although there are other conflicts in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, such as the arrest of Mr. Tumnus, the central issue is really the Witch's animosity toward the Pevensie children. The Witch has heard a prophecy that, when four human beings, two male and two female – "two sons of Adam and two daughters of Eve" – sit in the four thrones of Cair Paravel, her reign will end and she will be killed. In order to prevent this, she has standing orders to kidnap any humans who stray into her dominions. As soon as Lucy and her siblings enter Narnia, this peril is waiting for them.
As though an angry Witch weren't enough, Edmund makes everything worse by spying for her and telling her exactly where she can find his brother and sisters. The complication caused by Edmund's betrayal quickly becomes more important than the original conflict, the Witch's hostility.
Just when it seems as though the Witch's claim to Edmund is going to disrupt the whole four-humans-crowned-at-Cair-Paravel thing, Aslan steps in to take Edmund's place as a sacrifice. Lucy and Susan watch as Aslan is humiliated, beaten, and the White Witch raises the knife to kill him!
It seems like everything is lost: Aslan can't help them anymore, the Witch's army leaves the Stone Table to attack Peter's army at the Fords of Beruna, and Susan and Lucy feel like nothing will ever happen again. "Is this the way it's going to end?" we ask ourselves.
Whew! It's all going to be OK. Aslan is back from the dead, bigger, stronger, and better than ever. He's going to restore everyone who was turned into a statue, kill the Witch, and make sure that Good triumphs over Evil.
Everything works out. The children become kings and queens, all the baddies are vanquished, and everyone rejoices and feasts a lot. The end…or is it?
Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy arrive in Narnia, discover that their friend Mr. Tumnus has been arrested, and decide that they must rescue him.
Edmund betrays his brother and sisters to the evil White Witch. The Witch lays claim to Edmund's blood and Aslan is forced to sacrifice himself in Edmund's place.
Aslan is miraculously resurrected, the battle against the Witch is won, and the four children are crowned Kings and Queens of Narnia.