For generations of children, from those growing up in the 1950s to those born in the 21st century, the fantasy novel The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe has been a staple at bedtime. Originally written in 1950, it chronicles the tales of four young siblings, who discover that a mysterious old wardrobe is really a portal to a magical land.
They go on to have many adventures in the land of Narnia, where the White Witch has kept it frozen for 100 years to ensure the inhabitants live in perpetual winter. The land of talking animals and mythical creatures is a source of fascination for the children, who embark on an exciting adventure to save Narnia and subsequently their own lives.
The author, Clive Staples Lewis, who wrote under the name CS Lewis, was already a well-known fiction writer when he penned his most famous book at the age of 54. Born and brought up in Belfast, Ireland, he loved the stories of Beatrix Potter as a child and began writing and illustrating his own animal stories from a young age.
A former Oxford University student, he excelled at Greek and Latin literature, philosophy and ancient history. However, on his 19th birthday, on November 29 1917, he found himself shipped to the front line in France’s Somme Valley during the First World War.
He suffered from home-sickness and depression as a result of the harsh life of trench warfare, but after being wounded by a shell, he was sent to hospital to convalesce, eventually being demobilised in December 1918. He became a Fellow and Tutor in English Literature at Magdalen College, Oxford, in 1925.
At the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939, when Lewis was 40, he served in the Oxford Home Guard after unsuccessfully applying to join the Armed Forces again.
The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe is probably the best known of seven novels in The Chronicles of Narnia collection, and it is generally considered to be his most enduring and popular novel.
The story begins in 1940 when the Pevensie siblings – Peter, Susan, Lucy and Edmund – are evacuated from London during the Second World War to stay with the elderly Professor Digory Kirke in his country manor. While exploring the house, Lucy finds an old wardrobe and on stepping inside, she’s suddenly transported through a magical portal to Narnia.
She meets a faun (a mythical creature who is part-man and part-goat) called Tumnus, who tells her of Narnia’s fate under the White Witch. Future visits to the magical land ensue, with Lucy and her three siblings meeting a talking beaver, who befriends and watches over them.
The children learn of a prophecy that the White Witch’s power will fail after two sons of Adam and two daughters of Eve sit on the royal thrones at Cair Paravel castle. This is why humans are banned in Narnia and the children have to be careful to keep their existence secret.
The rightful King of Narnia, Aslan, has been absent for a long time. When the children arrive, Aslan reappears to support their quest, much to the anger of the White Witch. The tale of how the Pevensie children and Aslan battle to save Narnia is the fascinating subject of Lewis’s seven novels, The Chronicles of Narnia.
TV and theatre
The tales of Narnia have been made into many television series and films and have continued to enthral many generations of children, and also parents who have enjoyed reliving their youth through the books.
The tales have been adapted three times for television broadcast. In 1967, a 10-part series was produced by ABC Weekend Television and broadcast on the ITV network. An animated TV movie was produced in 1979, winning the first Emmy Award for Outstanding Animated Program.
In 1988, an ambitious third TV adaptation was made by the BBC, who used live actors, animation and animatronic puppets to produce a trilogy of programmes. It won a BAFTA Award and was nominated for an Emmy.
There have been numerous stage adaptations, including one in 1998 by the Royal Shakespeare Company by Adrian Mitchell. The most recent stage production was Mitchell’s play at the Stratford Festival, in Canada, in 2016.
In 2005, a successful film version of the book was released, co-produced by Walt Disney and starring some famous Hollywood A-list actors in the leading roles, such as Tilda Swinton as the White Witch, Liam Neeson as Aslan and Ray Winstone and Dawn French as Mr and Mrs Beaver. It was a global hit, grossing $745 million at the box office.
It was followed by two further films:
Based on the siblings’ return to Narnia to help the prince remove his corrupt uncle, King Miraz, from the throne, The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian was produced by Walden Media in 2008.
Completing the trilogy, The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader in 2010 was set in Narnia three years after the Prince Caspian adventures. The film focuses on Edmund, Lucy and their cousin Eustace, who return to Narnia to join the now King Caspian in a dangerous mission to rescue seven lost lords.
The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe remains the most widely stocked book in libraries to this day and was the author’s greatest success during his lifetime.
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