March 13, 2008


The Chronicles of Narnia. By C.S. Lewis. HarperEntertainment. $21.99.

Sword Quest. By Nancy Yi Fan. HarperCollins. $15.99.

Swordbird. By Nancy Yi Fan. HarperCollins. $6.99.

      The release of the movie The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe rekindled some people’s interest in the fantasy world of C.S. Lewis, whose seven Narnia books date from 1950 to 1956. A second film, based on Prince Caspian, is now in the works; hence the HarperEntertainment tie-in release of all seven Narnia novels in one really big paperback (766 oversize pages). Along with J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, which dates to the same time, Lewis’ Narnia novels defined heroic fantasy for several generations of readers; but their aim was very different. Tolkien sought an adult audience and created a world, Middle-Earth, that had some resemblances to our own but was caught up in its very own, very carefully developed history. Lewis’ books are more congenial for younger readers – ages 8-12 and up – than Tolkien’s, and have an avowedly Christian message underlying them (although it rarely takes precedence over the adventuring). Furthermore, Lewis insisted, rather awkwardly, on relating the time scheme of Narnia to that of Earth, having the worlds move at different and unpredictable paces relative to each other while remaining always connected. This let him move Earth characters into Narnia and out of it, but it made the books a bit of a cheat, since Lewis could control the relative pace of time in the worlds in any way he liked, and quite arbitrarily.

      The Narnia books are nevertheless an impressive sequence. They were not written in the order in which their events occur – Lewis wrote what he wished, then later filled in the backstory or pursued another line of fantasy in the same setting. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is the earliest book, from 1950, but stands second in the event sequence, after The Magician’s Nephew – written next-to-last, in 1955. The remaining books, in event order, are The Horse and His Boy (1954), Prince Caspian (1951), The Voyage of the “Dawn Treader” (1952), The Silver Chair (1953), and The Last Battle (1956). Lewis’ style remains essentially unchanged throughout, with even his descriptive passages (unlike Tolkien’s) being to the point and rarely discursive, as in The Horse and His Boy: “A whole detachment of very dangerous-looking Talking Beasts whom Shasta had not noticed before and who were mostly of the cat kind (leopards, panthers, and the like) went padding and growling to take up their positions on the left. The giants were ordered to the right, and before going there they all took off something they had been carrying on their backs and sat down for a moment. Then Shasta saw that what they had been carrying and were now putting on were pairs of boots: horrid, heavy, spiked boots which came up to their knees.” This is scarcely elegant style; but on the other hand, it is easy to follow and understand, and does not interfere with the action. This complete edition of the Narnia novels – which includes an insert showing the parallel timelines of Narnia and Earth – is a good one-stop shop for those just getting to know Lewis, whether because of the new films or not. It serves to showcase the grand scale on which Lewis thought and the reasons his work has remained influential for many later authors – certainly including, among many others, J.K. Rowling.

      One young author clearly influenced by Lewis, Tolkien and their successors is Nancy Yi Fan, who will be 15 this year and has already written two novels. For better or worse, these typify one major direction in which heroic fantasy has gone since the 1950s: toward simplicity. Like another very young fantasy author – Christopher Paolini, whose Eragon and Eldest proved popular with preteens and whose Brisingr will likely attract the same audience – Nancy Yi Fan knows that simple notions of good and evil, and a straightforward story of the ways in which they battle, are the elements of a good modern story. And none of that Talking Beasts stuff – in Swordbird, now available in paperback, and the new Sword Quest, a prequel to the earlier book, the animals behave like humans except when it is convenient for the author to emphasize their nonhuman characteristics (such as flight, obviously, in the case of the birds around whom the two Nancy Yi Fan books are structured). There is a certain amount of appealing visceral excitement in a book such as Swordbird, and Sword Quest is equally deserving of a (+++) rating for its exploration of a world in which peace-loving birds must find a magical sword in order to beat back the threat of warlike archaeopteryxes. The birds in these books are really stand-ins for humans – they not only talk, and battle with weapons, but also play musical instruments, engage in politics, and so on and so forth. This sort of fantasy is in many ways closer to Aesop than to Lewis or Tolkien; it is a far cry from the world-spanning and world-shaping endeavors of the best 1950s fantasists. The newer, simpler and more direct form of fantasy writing has undeniable immediate appeal for its target age group. What will be interesting to find out is whether the readers who outgrow Christopher Paolini and Nancy Yi Fan move into the greater and darker complexities of Lewis and Tolkien over time – or whether they simply abandon heroic fantasy altogether.

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