This is a re-read for me: my father read the whole Narnia series to me when I was little, and I’ve reread a few of the books since then. This has always been one of my favorites of the series, and I wanted to revisit with adult eyes.
This is the first book in the series chronologically, but was one of the last to be written. It basically is the “world-building” book that introduces us to the concept of an alternate/magical world and sets the stage for the action of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, which takes place many years later. Digory Kirk is a young boy who, with his very ill mother, moves into his aunt and uncle’s house in turn-of-the-century London. He soon befriends Polly, his neighbor, and they begin to explore the adjoining houses along their road. During one of their explorations, they come across Digory’s uncle doing experiments in the attic of their home; as a result, Digory and Polly are sent to a “wood between worlds,” from which they can explore a number of other universes and, in doing so, discover true evil–an evil that, unintentionally, crosses back into the human world with them.
This is a short, fast read that is somewhat distinct from the other books in the series. The plot is definitely a bit less engaging than some of the other books in the series, mainly because the world is so new and much of the story is there to explain elements of the old, familiar world that appears in the rest of the Chronicles. It’s a much less memorable story than, say, The Lion…, but it’s still enjoyable and entertaining. The stakes seemed to be much lower in this book, and the evil (in the form of the White Witch) is played for laughs, rather than fear as it is later on down the road, so I’d say this book is tonally very different. Digory and Polly are good protagonists–they’re not as fully-formed or as easy to like/hate as other main characters in the series (Lucy and Edmund, for example)–but they’re still solid and sweet.
I enjoyed this book on a deeper level, too, because you can see a lot of the religious allegory very clearly here. I’m by no means religious, but it was fun to try and pick out religious themes and symbols and understand their purpose and meaning. I’ve never subscribed to the belief that the Chronicles are merely Christian books–of course, the religion plays a lot into the subtext, but it doesn’t diminish the pleasure of a secular reading of the book. I loved these books so much when I was younger without ever being aware of a deeper message; I think that for kids it’s more of a story about good and evil and what that means. So if that’s holding you back from reading this and the other books in the series, I’d highly recommend rethinking your stance and giving them a try–this is a great book, and the ones that follow are even better.
I might actually recommend reading this one last, or at least after reading The Lion…, because although it is technically a prequel, a lot of the enjoyment you get out of it comes from understanding certain references to landmarks/people in later books (the lamppost, for example).
Overall, a good book. Not as good as others in the series (not sure why I’ve always thought of it as a favorite) but still worth a read, especially when read in context with the other books.