Over the last few weeks I’ve read LWW to my five-year-old daughter at bedtime, so I’ll be reviewing the book not only through my eyes and understanding of it, but also her reaction to it, seeing as she’s more the book’s target audience than I.
And it is, thoroughly predictably, fabulous.
Much has been written about the allegorical Christ figure of Aslan, and the Biblically symbolic notions of willing sacrifice in order to overturn the evils of the world. But these ideas do not feature in the minds of small children – or, at least, not fully formed, for even my five-year-old was able to fathom some deep and resonant significance when the Great Lion appeared after being so harrowingly killed, even though she couldn’t quite articulate why.
Rather, the appreciation from a child’s perspective is to be found in the typical sibling bickering which is eventually overcome by understanding what is important. Like Harry Potter, the fundamental message is unambiguous and easy to understand: stick by your friends (or brothers and sisters) through thick and thin.
The language is sophisticated, but never so much that the child lost the narrative thread or couldn’t understand what was happening in the plot, or between the characters. The plot itself moves quickly (not always the case in the Narnia books), especially in the book’s second half, which rattles along once Jadis’s grip of winter has been disturbed.
Talking of Jadis, it’s easy to view her with modern, adult, world-weary eyes as the villain of a thousand tropes. She cries out, “minions!” “Seize him!” and spouts lines such as “how could a common boy such as you understand the deep magic of the world” etc. But through the eyes of a child, Jadis is perfectly preserved for time immemorium, just as she was in The Magician’s Nephew, a terrifying and wondrous creature, invoking fear but also pity, a vicious and seductive villain that speaks to the very basic psychological sweet spots of children, offering Edmund petty treasures such as his favourite Turkish Delight sweets, and the chance to lord it over his father-like elder brother, Peter. But while these petty temptations reflect the limited minds of children, they also reflect the limited minds of adults, for we also recognise all human fallibility in Edmund. She is therefore a Satanic figure, to be sure, set as she is against Aslan’s Christ, but Lewis isn’t so foolish as to strip her of all sympathy; she is, like Lucifer himself, a fallen creature of sorts, whose fallibility is matched by her cruelty and narcissism.
The Pevensie children are, in turn, bratty and brave, squabbling and savvy, sometimes po-faced rather twee at other times, but it’s their pluck and resolve that ultimately make them attractive companions to a children’s mind, and my daughter certainly was able to pick up on the clearly telegraphed differences in character displayed by each of them.
But it is in the character of Aslan that something really sparks in the minds of children. Perhaps it is because even at very young ages they understand and recognise the magnificence of lions, and perhaps it is because he is intimated (by Beaver among others) long before we ever see him, but his very presence in the text brought gasps of hushed awe from my little girl, woe at his demise – which is a very dark and merciless scene for a children’s book, and all the better for it – and wonder at his rising.
It is, to be sure, a classic, but we all knew that. But it was wonderful to see its intended effects first hand; to instil and implant the power of wondrous fantasy adventures in the singular imagination of a child.