202 pp., $14. In The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, C.S. Lewis’ third novel in his seven-book Chronicles of Narnia series, the great lion Aslan tells the child Lucy that she will not get to return to Narnia, but that she will get to meet him in our world, by another name.
“This was the very reason why you were brought to Narnia,” Aslan tells her, “that by knowing me here for a little, you may know me better there.”
For Peter Schakel, “what Aslan says to the children, Lewis offers to readers as a brilliant explanation of his ultimate goal in writing the Chronicles.” And Shackel’s third book about the chronicles, The Way Into Narnia: A Reader’s Guide, provides in its turn a brilliant bridge for translating the hold they have had on so many hearts, while avoiding the twin traps of either academic dryness or simplistic “this-means-that” analysis.
Well-steeped in Lewis’ life and influences, Schakel provides significant insight into the question: “How did a middle-aged professor with no children come to write books that have become classics of children’s literature?”
He also provides a lengthy (72-page) annotation for all the books explaining terms (“wireless -- an early term for radio”) and possible references (“Narnia -- a small medieval town in Italy, halfway between Rome and Assisi ... chosen probably because Lewis liked the sound of the word.”) But the heart of The Way Into Narnia is a book-by-book exploration of the seven stories. And his primary point is that readers are to take them on their own as fairy tales, while at the same time understanding that, for Lewis and his close friend and author of Lord of The Rings J.R.R. Tolkien, fairy tales were the way into deep truth.
Our desire for enchanted other-worlds is a reflection of “a desire for our own far-off country,” said Lewis. “In longing for elves, dragons and the realm of Faerie,” echoes Schakel, “we are actually longing for God and the heavenly realm.”
Schakel’s subheads for each chapter provide a quick clue to the themes he sees in each: Magic and Meaning in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe; Believing and Seeing in Prince Caspian; Longing and Learning in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader; Freedom and Obedience in The Silver Chair; Place and Personal Identify in The Horse and His Boy; Endings and Beginnings in The Magician’s Nephew and Endings and Transcendings in The Last Battle.
Unlike so many other “what-they-really-meant” books, one has the sense that The Way Into Narnia won’t get in the way of an honest reading, but only enhance one’s enjoyment of the wonderful chronicles.
REVIEWED BY Leonard Freeman, rector of St. Martin’s-by-the-Lake, Minnetonka Beach, Minn., a longtime film and media review contributor for Episcopal Life.