Should you read the Chronicles of Narnia in publication order?

Mari Ness says yes. She says it humorously, like so:

I tend to be a bit agnostic on the question of “what order should I read/watch these in?” With three exceptions:

Legends of Tomorrow, which everyone, without exception, should start in the second season, only tackling the first season much, much later after getting a chance to realize that these characters can actually be fun.

Blackadder, which everyone, without exception, should also start in the second season, only in this case, never return to the first season at all.

And The Chronicles of Narnia, which everyone, without exception, should read in publication order.

I’ve never watched Legends of Tomorrow or Blackadder. Is she right?

Of course I’ve totally read The Chronicles of Narnia; who hasn’t? (Anyone?) Is she right there as well?

She asserts that Prince Caspian and The Magician’s Nephew are both weakish, whereas The Silver Chair is the strongest book of the lot. How about that? Right or wrong? 

I read this series a long, long time ago, in publication order (I’m pretty sure). I know I liked Prince Caspian much better than The Silver Chair, but objective artistic quality was not something I was capable of judging (or interested in) when I was about, I don’t know, eight or ten or whatever.

The Last Battle was such a downer I hardly got through it to the happy ending. Even when I reached the ending, I wasn’t super, super, super keen on the grim story by which we got to the ending. I don’t believe I ever read the entire story again, just sort of skimmed through it to the ending.

Now, what this actually all reminds me of is a different book: Planet Narnia: The Seven Heavens in the Imagination of CS Lewis, by Michael Ward.

For over half a century, scholars have laboured to show that C. S. Lewis’s famed but apparently disorganised Chronicles of Narnia have an underlying symbolic coherence, pointing to such possible unifying themes as the seven sacraments, the seven deadly sins, and the seven books of Spenser’s Faerie Queene. None of these explanations has won general acceptance and the structure of Narnia’s symbolism has remained a mystery.

Michael Ward has finally solved the enigma. In Planet Narnia he demonstrates that medieval cosmology, a subject which fascinated Lewis throughout his life, provides the imaginative key to the seven novels. … Ward reveals how the Narnia stories were designed to express the characteristics of the seven medieval planets – – Jupiter, Mars, Sol, Luna, Mercury, Venus, and Saturn – – planets which Lewis described as “spiritual symbols of permanent value” and “especially worthwhile in our own generation”. Using these seven symbols, Lewis secretly constructed the Chronicles so that in each book the plot-line, the ornamental details, and, most important, the portrayal of the Christ-figure of Aslan, all serve to communicate the governing planetary personality. The cosmological theme of each Chronicle is what Lewis called ‘the kappa element in romance’, the atmospheric essence of a story, everywhere present but nowhere explicit. The reader inhabits this atmosphere and thus imaginatively gains connaître knowledge of the spiritual character which the tale was created to embody.

Fascinating book, and pretty convincing.

What ought to happen is, Ward or someone interested in this subject ought to select a few dozen readers, present them with the characteristics of the seven medieval planets, and suggest they read the books and peg each one to a planet. Would everybody decide on the same pairings? Wouldn’t that be interesting?

Secondary topic: What other series ought to be read in publication order, even though that differs substantially from internal chronological order? I have one:

Vlad Taltos series by Steven Brust. I am pretty casual about reading series out of order, but for these, publication order is definitely the way to go. No question. Brust changes and grows as an author over the long period during which he’s been writing these, so trying to read this series in internal chronological order would be awkward, even jarring at times.

Any others?

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11 thoughts on “Should you read the Chronicles of Narnia in publication order?”

  1. The 4 series of Blackadder are independent of each other, so it doesn’t really matter which one you start with.

    In my opinion, series 2 and 3 are the funniest. I’d watch either first. 4 is very good, though perhaps not quite as funny. 1 is perhaps an acquired taste. And I’ve never managed to acquire it. I’ve seen it once, and that was enough. 2 & 3 I’ve seen repeatedly.

    When you asked about series to read in publication order, I immediately thought of Vlad Taltos before I even read your next paragraph.

    I generally prefer to read a series in publication order since, like Taltos, it tracks the evolution of the author.

  2. Pub order. Always.

    By the time you’ve figured out that this is one where it doesn’t or does matter, it’s too late to go back if it does matter.

  3. Vorkosiverse? it bounces around a bit. And Bujold’s writing changes – for the better – as time passes. I tend to try to read in publication order if I can.

  4. I’m a firm subscriber to the “publication order” theory for Narnia, but for Vorkosiverse it’s “whatever you can get your hands on first.”

    I started with BARRAYAR at my high school library, found WARRIOR’s APPRENTICE next, and then BROTHERS IN ARMS. I didn’t get copies of SHARDS OF HONOR or THE VOR GAME until years later. There were some gaps I puzzled over, but Bujold’s writing and characterization are so strong that I was swept along anyway. Now when I reread, I just reach for whichever book suits my mood—which tends, lately, to be the lighter ones. I don’t know that I’ll be able to reread MIRROR DANCE until the world is in a better place…

  5. I really liked Prince Caspian, less of a fan of Silver Chair, although it grew on me a bit. My least-reread ones, though, were Horse and His Boy, and The Last Battle. Battle hardly seems like a story in and of itself- it’s just there to cap the series.

    In terms of reading out of order, I always say to start Discworld with something other than the first-published books. Mort, Small Gods, Guards! Guards!, or…hmm I’m forgetting what the best jumping in point for the witches is. Wikipedia probably knows.

    Also, when I first read the Dark is Rising I was told to start with book 2 and go back to over sea, under stone later. And, Buffy’s 1st season is rough so I often recommend skipping some early episodes until you’re hooked.

  6. I love, love, love Ward’s Planet Narnia. I started reading it as a firm skeptic, and ended a firm believer. It adds a deeper and richer element to the reading of the Chronicles, and I think it fits Lewis’s style in those stories to consider that there were layers upon layers–first you have the basic, simple, story-as-it-seems layer, then the deeper layer of Christianity within the story, then a deeper layer even beyond that of medieval cosmology. While we’re here living in England I hope to get over to Oxford sometime when Dr. Ward is speaking at the CS Lewis institute and listen to one of his lectures.

    As for the reading order–I do firmly believe that LWW ought to be read first, if only to maintain the sense of wonder and magic that comes with that book being one’s first introduction to Narnia, but after that, I don’t know that it necessarily matters that much.

  7. She’s probably right about Legends of Tomorrow. The first season took an incredibly promising premise (a conflict across time between a colorful band of heroes and one of DC’s epic villains) and made it dreary, focusing most on the least entertaining (and miscast) characters. Season two decided to lean into the crazy and worked a lot better.

    (I’m not liking S3 as much, though it has its moments.)

  8. Louise, I haven’t yet re-read the Narnia books since reading Ward’s book — but I will certainly have his theories in mind if and when I do.

  9. This is a topic of close personal interest to me! My father, as a boy, argued with his mother over the reading order and wrote C.S. Lewis to ask. He was so thrilled when Lewis wrote back agreeing with him that they should be read in order with the internal chronology, the way they are now published. (My father’s letter and Lewis’ response were published in C.S. Lewis’ Letters to Children.) I’d always read them in that order. That being said, I do love LWW more than the Magician’s Nephew, which makes me less firm on the order than my father is.

  10. Katy, that is so interesting! but I agree, LWW is a more magical, gosh-wow kind of story. More intense, too. I am committed to recommending that readers start there, though I don’t think it matters so much which book they read next.

  11. Hmm. I never finished Narnia, because I lost interest after 3 books. I personally would recommend skipping the two books that killed it for me. I will take other folks word on whether they are lesser books than later books in the series: I, with notably rare exceptions*, have had enough of series with more than 3 volumes

    * favorite Alan Greenspan phrase. Rather like ‘inferior comestibles’ in Kate Elliott’s sexy afterword to the Spiritwalker trilogy.

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