For one, I think the books achieve what they set out to do. They're accessible and straightforward, incorporates its Christian analogies fairly well, and they're entertaining, descriptive, and adventurous. What more could you ask for in a children's book series?
However, there were a lot of times that I read the books and felt there was room for improvement, or things I think would've been better if handled differently. Now, the books are still good and I still found them an enjoyable read, but from a storytelling perspective I feel they could be a lot better. C.S. Lewis's writing does improve with each book though, which is pretty cool to see.
To really break down my thoughts, I'm going to divide it by book since each book is pretty different from each other.
The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe
The first of the Narnia series that Lewis wrote (though it's Book #2 in the series' chronology). This book is ultimately my least favorite of the bunch, as Lewis hasn't quite honed his skills at this point. It introduces us to the world of Narnia and provides the foundation of a pretty good conflict, though in my opinion its the most clumsily written out of the series. There's a fair amount of exposition, and also a painful case of telling instead of showing (i.e. the Battle of Beruna, more on that in a second).
It also suffers the most from bland/shallow characterization. Edmund is the most interesting of the four, mainly because he starts off the most flawed and has an actual character arc where he goes through character development and becomes a better person. Lucy is also interesting as her character traits stand out a little bit more, and they contrast greatly with that of Edmund. Susan and Peter, on the other hand, barely stand out. They're the older, more responsible / logical kids, but they're also boring and barely display unique personality traits.
(Side thought here, what if Lewis wrote The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe with only Lucy and Edmund? Perhaps it would've allowed him to focus on those two characters and make the conflict and resolution between the two have more of a payoff. Edmund could go through his character development as per usual, and maybe Lucy could experience character development by having her struggle to forgive Edmund and trust him. IDK, food for thought).
The movie adaptation of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, on the other hand, fixes a lot of the problems I have with the book. It gives Peter an actual character arc, it gives us a better look at why Edmund is the way he is, the Witch is a colder, more threatening villain, and there are key moments at the beginning that come full-circle at the end. It also addresses some specific gripes I had with the book:
1. The battle. In the book, the battle isn't even shown, but rather explained by Peter after the fact... which ultimately robs the story of the epicness the battle could've provided, especially since Edmund redeems himself awesomely during said battle, like seriously. Meanwhile, in the movie, it actually shows the battle and it actually shows Edmund redeeming himself, which is a far more moving payoff to his entire character arc than the book's "Edmund did the thing off-screen".
2. A minor dialogue alteration that makes Aslan more awesome in my opinion. In the book, when the Witch confronts Aslan about the whole deep magic thing, Aslan says "Let us say I have forgotten it. Tell us of this Deep Magic." To me, the only reason Aslan says this is so Lewis can have the Witch go into exposition-mode and explain the deep magic, which the Witch does. It's a painfully obvious "let's give this character a reason to exposition" moment. In the movie, Aslan instead says "Do not cite the Deep Magic to me, Witch! I was there when it was written." That line alone speaks leagues more about Aslan's character. It feels more in character, like something Aslan would say... at least in my opinion. This may be more of a nitpick, but sometimes it's the little things that make the biggest impact.
The movie also features an adapted version of Mr. Fox, who has become one of my favorite characters as a result. While what they did with Mr. Fox may have not been a necessary change, I think it benefited the story. In my opinion, more colorful characters means a more interesting story and a more lively world, so the adapted Mr. Fox was a welcome change that I missed when I read the book.
(I should probably note that I watched the movie before I read the book, meaning my opinion of the book was influence by the movie. My point still stands though that the movie improved the story greatly).
The Magician's Nephew.
The prequel story that gives us a look at the origins of Narnia and the White Witch. Overall, I like this book. It gives the male protagonist, Digory, a compelling motivation that leads to a great moment of conflict later in the book. It also handles the two children protagonists, Digory and Polly, a lot better than The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe handled the four kids. It gives the two more personality, and their personalities contrast each other and play off each other fairly well. It also expands on the Witch's backstory and awesomely establishes her evil by explaining that she committed omnicide on her homeworld. Wow.
Also, the Wood Between the Worlds is a pretty cool location. Frank and Strawberry were also pretty neat characters. There were some other neat things too, like the similarities between Uncle Andrew and Jadis, calling out magicians as people dealing with things that they think they understand but they don't actually understand at all, and a "don't try to do magic kids" message which is probably a good idea for a series that frequently mentions magic.
The Horse and His Boy.
This one is a sort of the oddball of the group, as it takes place mostly in Calormen and the protagonists are two kids that were born in the world of Narnia (instead of being brought there from our world) and two talking horses. I really like how this story shakes things up by changing the location and making the protagonists something else than "a few kids from our world." Aravis definitely stands out among the female protagonists, though I wish she could've done a little bit more in the story.
This story does a little bit better in terms of the battle near the end. It does a lot of explaining "football announcer" style via the old hermit and his pool. Not great, but better than what The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe did.
Oh boy. I have a love-hate relationship with this book. I love it because it almost does something amazing, but I also hate it because it doesn't do the amazing thing and instead does something else that's a lot less amazing.
The book focuses on the four kids from the original book (Peter, Susan, Lucy, Edmund), who are teleported to Narnia. However, one-fourth of the way into the book, it goes into an in-depth detailed backstory of the character Prince Caspian. This backstory was so intriguing, that I forgot I was reading a story about the four kids. It was one of the best set-ups for a character in the entire Narnia series. His backstory, motivations, internal conflict, practically everything you needed to tell an epic, character-driven tale. But that's where it ends. After Caspian's backstory is told, it switches back to the four kids, and Caspian takes a backseat. He doesn't do anything really important for the rest of the book. He's got an excellent setup and is way more interesting than our protagonists, but he's only a mere side-character in the book named after him. Why??? Why did Lewis do this? Why didn't he just write the story about Prince Caspian? There was so much raw potential, and Lewis effectively wastes it. Heck, focusing on Caspian and his resistance of old Narnians would've given us a better look at the current state of the Narnian world as well. That's basically what Caspian's backstory did in the first place, so it only makes sense to continue focusing on Caspian.
The book is still good, it's just the squandered potential slightly ruins it for me.
... on the plus side, Lewis characterizes the four kids better this time around. Peter is still pretty bland in my opinion, but Susan gets some interesting moments.
And on the plus-plus side, the book introduces Reepicheep, who is one of my favorite characters.
Voyage of the Dawn Treader
An odyssey-style journey featuring Lucy, Edmund and a new character Eustace, with Prince Caspian and Reepicheep returning as well. Overall, a really good story. There's tons of adventure, Lucy struggles to do the right thing (and fails once, which has personal-character consequences for her), and Reepicheep gets a lot of focus. Eustace is the "Edmund" of this story in that he's a terrible person who goes through character development to become a better person. He also has an "enemy-to-friend" development with Reepicheep. Overall a fun story with good characters.
Though I don't remember anything in particular that Edmund did... Caspian did some things, but ultimately he's still a side character.
The Silver Chair
My favorite of all the Narnia books. I love the overall atmosphere it conveys, and it has some really interesting characters. The quest is a solemn, cold, lonely one. The three heroes, Eustace, Jill and Puddleglum only have each other to watch their backs as they travel through the harsh northern lands, and later the underground. The Lady of the Green Kirtle was an interesting villain as she relied on manipulation. Her origins aren't elaborated on, but it makes sense considering how she's mostly hidden her existence from Narnia. The Black Knight was a nice touch to her introduction too.
Ultimately, the atmosphere, Puddleglum's entire character, and the handling Lady of the Green Kirtle and the initial introduction of the Black Knight made this book my favorite for some reason. (It's mostly Puddleglum to be honest). On the downside, Eustace seems to lose a lot of his more defining personality traits in this one, and Jill doesn't have a whole lot of character either. Character-wise, Puddleglum is the most interesting, and also the most useful plot-wise. There's not a whole lot that Eustace and Jill contribute aside from Aslan telling Jill some plot-important information that's needed to complete the quest.
(More food for thought. What if Eustace and Jill were switched out for Narnians? Would that spice up the story?)
The Last Battle
I have bittersweet feelings about this book. For one, it has some really good characters, and it gives Jill a skill that distinguishes herself from others. The reason I don't like this book is that it's really depressing, even with the happy ending.
Jewel and Tirian were pretty cool though. I would be down to see stories of their adventures or something. I also like Puzzle and I found some of his character traits relatable, though I wish it gave a little more focus on his guilt and redemption.
... though it continues the trend of the Narnian-side characters being more interesting than the human-protagonists from our world. Hngh.
Overall, well-written, but one of my least favorites solely because it's depressing.
... so here are some of my overall thoughts.
Characterization is something I think Lewis struggles with the most, possibly because his stories are more plot-driven than character-driven, and he seems more focused on describing and developing the fantasy-world aspect of Narnia than the characters themselves. While he does get a lot better at characterization with each book, the protagonists of his books often suffer from being uninteresting compared to the colorful side characters. A big contributing reason as to why Reepicheep and Puddleglum are my favorite characters is that they are some of the most eccentric and unique characters in the entire series with personality traits that stand out. The reason why Edmund and Eustace are some of my favorite protagonists is that they're some of the only protagonists that get any character development, at least in the books.
Then there's the great missed opportunity that was Prince Caspian. The way I see it, he should've been the protagonist of his own story. But then again, there's no telling how Lewis would've handled that if he indeed went that route... and maybe Prince Caspian being the protagonist wouldn't have worked for the kind of story he wanted to tell.
A completely personal nitpick of mine is that, in the books, normal animals are often referred to as "dumb" and "witless." I figure that Lewis is probably using "dumb" as in "the inability to speak" rather than "stupid," but "witless" is still kind of harsh. It's not too big a deal, though I personally find it annoying how often it's repeated throughout the books.
I definitely have some more thoughts on Narnia than just these, but I already spent way too long writing this post up. So I'll sum up what I can remember off the top of my head:
- What if Aslan was a lamb instead of a lion? Might produce a more interesting dynamic between Aslan and everything else, but a lamb probably wouldn't match what Lewis wanted Aslan to be like.
- Why is it okay for Peter and Edmund to be directly involved in brutal warfare? They're children for crying out loud. Does the Narnia air prevent war-related emotional trauma? Because none of the kid-protagonists ever seem shocked to see violence and death as long as it's the enemy getting killed.
- It's interesting to see the way Lewis describes certain things and how it can suggest what his views are on certain things (possible example: Eustace's parents). Not saying it's a bad thing, but it is interesting and it's easily a topic for further analysis and discussion on its own.
- Eustace claiming to be a pacifist after attempting to bully Reepicheep. Was it a jab at pacifists, or purely a demonstration of Eustace's hypocrisy?
- I was fine with Aslan being an analogy for Christ, but I'm not so sure about later books suggesting that Aslan and Christ are the same. It is a fictional setting, sure, but it doesn't make a whole lot of sense for Christ to appear as a literal lion in any context when He was born of men to save mankind. It also doesn't make sense for Him to die again on the Stone Table to save Edmund, especially since He already died for humanity's sins on Earth, and Edmund is a "son of Adam" no matter where he is. I feel like Aslan only really works as an analogy, and connecting him directly to Christ as later books do makes things too weird.