Once upon a time . . .


`Once there were four children whose names were Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy. This story is about something that happened to them when they were sent away from London during the war because of air raids." The Chronicles of Narnia seem to have a natural beginning in The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe (1950), which was written first. Once a reader enters that old wardrobe and steps out the other side on to the soft snow of Narnia, an entire world with its heroes, myths, history and political problems such as Unending Winter without Christmas, beckons.

Admittedly Lucy does have some difficulty convincing her brothers and sister to enter, but soon they are all involved. The various adventures test their strength of character as well as their courage; indeed Edmund, having succumbed to the evil charms of the White Witch, finds himself in the unhappy position of being a traitor. It is a world where animals talk, trees have spirits and the children are greeted as the "sons of Adam" and "daughters of Eve". Eventually the children become royal personages and use their position wisely. By far the most important presence is that of the beautiful lion Aslan, god-like and majestic, who constantly reminds the children that we can only find out what will happen, not what could have happened. He endures his variation of Gethsemane, and though killed by the Witch, defies death. The children return to discover no time has passed. Interestingly, however, Lewis intended The Magician's Nephew (1955) - the book which was written second last - to be read first. In fact his reading order does not tally with the publication dates. The Magician's Nephew introduces Narnia, but there is no wardrobe; instead it is the devious magic of Uncle Andrew which brings the unsuspecting Digory and his new pal Polly there. That volume is dominated by the mad antics of The White Witch, who takes London by storm.

In The Horse and His Boy (1954), dedicated to his stepsons, and intended as the third in reading sequence, Lewis tells the story of Shasta, a young boy whose unhappy existence is dramatically changed for the better. He meets Aravis, a girl fleeing marriage to a old man, and the pair - mounted on talking horses - set off on various adventures. In the next book, Prince Caspian (1951), the Pevensie children are summoned back to Narnia and discover that the happy kingdom they once ruled has been devastated by Civil War. Bewildered by the destruction, they rescue a Dwarf, who explains the situation. By now the children have also realised the complexities of Narnian time. As Edmund points out, "why shouldn't hundreds of years have gone past in Narnia while only one year has passed for us in England?" After more battles, peace is restored and Prince Caspian assumes power. But it is also time for Peter and Susan to say farewell to Narnia as Aslan informs them they are too old to return. The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (1955) sees Lucy and Edmund now in the company of their obnoxious cousin Eustace, drawn back to Narnian adventure through a painting of a ship. Abroad Prince Caspian's tiny vessel they go on a quest, hoping to locate seven missing lords.

At the end of the adventure - during which the dreadful Eustace is briefly transformed into a dragon and then rehabilitated by Aslan - Lucy and Edmund learn that they, too, have outgrown Narnia. The religious symbolism of the close prepares us for the eventual conclusion of the chronicle. But first comes The Silver Chair, (1953) in which Eustace and his classmate Jill are recruited by Aslan to find Prince (now King) Caspian's son, Rilian, who has disappeared while attempting to avenge his murdered mother, another victim of the evil White Witch. War and upheaval also dominate The Last Battle (1956); Peter, Edmund and Lucy return to Narnia and in this melancholy final volume it becomes clear that Aslan's Narnia is Heaven and perhaps - while exploring loyalty, courage, justice and belief - Lewis's central theme is really life eternal.