What Would Lewis Do?
"Perhaps it does not matter very much in which order anyone reads them," concluded C. S. Lewis in a letter—now famous among Lewis fans—dated April 23, 1957.
Lewis's correspondent was an 11-year old American boy named Lawrence Krieg who had written suggesting the seven Chronicles of Narnia should be read in their chronological order, with The Magician's Nephew first, rather than in their publication order as was indicated on the covers and the one Lawrence's mother preferred, with The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe first.
Lewis initially seemed inclined to possibly accept Lawrence's proposal, though with qualification, writing: "I think I agree with your order for reading the books more than with your mother's." But given his later statement, that perhaps the order did not matter very much, it seems more likely that he was simply being gracious to a young admirer.
What is known is that all during Lewis's lifetime and for seventeen years after his death, the Chronicles kept their original publication order numbers. Then in 1980, these numbers were changed to the chronological order they bear today. Anyone buying a copy of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe now will find a number two on its spine and the following statement inside: "The HarperCollins editions of The Chronicles of Narnia have been renumbered in compliance with the original wishes of the author, C. S. Lewis."
Lewis scholar Peter Schakel finds the use of the word "original" in this claim puzzling and asks: "Does 'original' mean from the time at which The Magician's Nephew was completed? If so, why did Lewis not request the Bodley Head [his publisher] to include this renumbering in the new book, or in The Last Battle the following year, or have Geoffrey Bles [his later publisher] change the order in later reprints of the other books? If it had been a matter of importance to Lewis, surely his publishers would have complied with his wishes, or included the renumbering in the paperback editions that appeared a few years later."
Despite Lewis's kindly words to Lawrence Krieg, Schakel maintains that the order the books are read in "matters a great deal" and argues that the original ordering is preferred by "a number" of Lewis scholars, an understatement that should read "most" or "nearly all."
Schakel's argument is founded on common sense. One need not be a Lewis scholar or an English professor to see that The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe must be read first if we want to walk with and not ahead of the four Pevensie children as they hide inside the Professor's strange wardrobe and enter an enchanted land called Narnia. Reading this story first is the only way we can share their wonder.
Reading this book first is also the only way internal statements suggesting it is the first book make any sense, statements like this one made after the first reference to Aslan: "None of the children knew who Aslan was any more than you do." Readers who have already finished The Magician's Nephew will find these words from Lewis's narrator baffling.
Correspondingly, The Magician's Nephew needs to be read later, only after we have encountered the magical wardrobe, the mysterious lamp-post, the evil Witch, and the oddly sympathetic Professor. After The Magician's Nephew gives us the story of their origins, we can say with satisfaction and delight, "So that's where they came from!"
After producing the first three Narnia films in their original publication order, Walden Media apparently intends to bring out The Magician's Nephew next, as the fourth film in the series. In their original order, this book was always listed as number six.