"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.
What might Lewis have said about Walden's decision to move the story up? Given that fact that Lewis died in 1963, we can only offer a conjecture based on the way the books would have been read in his day.
The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe was published in October 1950. The Magician's Nephew came out in May 1955. Readers living during Lewis's time would have had to wait about four and a half years between the two installments. Once both books were available, however, someone who started the series with The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and continued reading in order would have gotten to The Magician's Nephew much sooner.
So what? For The Magician's Nephew to resonate the way Lewis intended, its audience must have the elements from The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe still firmly in mind.
Walden's film adaptation of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe released in December 2005; The Magician's Nephew is tentatively slated for December 2013. That's an 8-year gap. How long can cinematic memory be expected to last? Had Walden kept The Magician Nephew as sixth in the series and released it sometime around 2018, there would have been a 13-year gap—and a whole new generation of theatergoers would see it without having seen The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe in the theater.
That is why it can be argued that Lewis would agree with Walden's decision to make The Magician's Nephew next. The audience needs to still strongly remember Wardrobe for Nephew to work best.
If cinematic resonance is a reason for moving The Magician's Nephew up, one reason not to move it would be if it told the origins for any elements from the fourth and fifth books—The Silver Chair and The Horse and His Boy—something which it does not do.
Another major reason Walden is moving forward with The Magician's Nephew is that many more people have read this book than The Silver Chair, because the new numbering in 1980 put The Magician's Nephew first and The Silver Chair sixth, meaning a good number of readers never got that far.
What is a best-case scenario that Narnia fans might hope for?
My wish would be that The Magicians Nephew is released in 2013 to great acclaim, producing demand for more. With the series then reinvigorated, I suggest that the producers then do The Silver Chair for Narnia 5 in 2015, and then The Horse and His Boy as Narnia 6 in 2018. But as Lewis might have said, perhaps it does not matter very much in which order anyone makes these two particular installments.
There's no debate that The Last Battle should be the final film. Look for it in 2020, on the fifteenth anniversary of the first film's release—and seventy years after the original publication of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. To have stories that will still speak to people after seven decades—people young and old from all over the world—well, that is also saying a lot.
Devin Brown is an English professor at Asbury University where he teaches a class on C. S. Lewis. He is author of Inside Narnia, Inside Prince Caspian, and Inside The Voyage of the Dawn Treader.
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