During a recent lying abed with 'flu, I re-read C.S. Lewis's The Magician's Nephew. I have read the Chronicles of Narnia many times, but perhaps not for two or three years now. There was a time when I lived on Lewis's writings and swallowed them whole, but I have become a little bit more picky about my Lewis lately.
I opened the book with some hesitation, therefore, hoping not to spoil the memory of a childhood pleasure even a little. I needn't have worried, for it was a fresh pleasure and great nourishment to read. That said, I have a few criticisms. I think that there are weaknesses in Lewis's writing for children. For instance, some of the children's slang is out of date; and I don't think he is particularly good at "action writing", where the events move along swiftly.
Three things struck me by the time I had laid down the book.
(1) Lewis excels at myth-making. There is The Wood Between the Worlds, a sleepy, silent place of deep green shade under the trees with pools opening into different worlds; there is accursed Charn with its dying sun, the house of the images sitting in their pride and the bell that wakes cruel Jadis; there is the music of Aslan uttering into being the world of Narnia; the Apples of Youth growing in the garden in the midst of the mountains. In one sense, it doesn't really matter whether Lewis's action writing is good or not. That is not why one reads such a story.
(2) Lewis is very good at uncovering what it is like to do right in the moment of decision. For instance, when Digory strikes the bell that wakes Jadis, he is secretly pretending to be impelled by the enchantment heavy in the air; and when he is tempted to steal one of the Apples of Youth for the healing of his dying mother (he knows he must not steal it, because the Apple of Youth is meant for another purpose, the protection of the new world of Narnia), he must make the most terrible choice. The point in both cases, revealed to him clearly when confronted by Aslan, is that although the choice is difficult for the will, or even not utterly clear for the mind, one has just sufficient light and strength to do the right thing.
(3) Aslan is another great triumph of the book, and this is no mean feat: how often does one have God done convincingly in a piece of art? Sometimes - witness Milton - it goes badly wrong. Aslan is compassionate, but unbending in his demands, and one cannot lie to him: at least, not unless one's own mind has lost the possibility of truth. And he is never presented as capricious. There is always a reason for obedience. The Apple of Youth, if picked selfishly or stolen may still possess great power, but had Digory given it to his mother after its theft "The day would have come when both you and she would have looked back and said it would have been better to die in that illness". As it is, Aslan tells him to pick an apple that has grown from the seeds of the Apple of Youth, and when Digory takes it to his mother she is healed. But this apple is a gift, not stolen, and is therefore a health-giving thing.
Now I must decide which of the Chronicles to pick up next.