With film-goers just months from finding Narnia at the multiplex, a Hope College professor's book provides insights for those seeking to understand C.S. Lewis's beloved Chronicles of Narnia series.
Dr. Peter Schakel of the Hope English faculty is the author of "The Way Into Narnia: A Reader's Guide," published recently by Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co. of Grand Rapids/Cambridge. It has been written to provide a basic guidebook for new readers of the Chronicles of Narnia as well as fresh insights for those who have traveled there often.
Later this year, the Chronicles will come to the big screen. The live-action, big-budget film "The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe," co-produced by Walden Media and Walt Disney Pictures, is scheduled for release on Friday, Dec. 9.
"The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe" was the first of the Chronicles to be published, in the fall of 1950; the final book in the seven-volume series, "The Last Battle," was published in 1956.
Schakel's book is a result of the three decades he has spent learning, teaching and writing about C.S. Lewis's books. An internationally respected scholar of C.S. Lewis's work, he has written or edited five previous volumes about Lewis. "The Way into Narnia" is his third book on the Chronicles.
"The Way into Narnia" begins with an introduction to Lewis's life and the publication of the series, exploring questions such as how a middle-aged professor with no children came to write books that have become beloved classics of children's literature, and what order for reading the Chronicles is most rewarding.
The main section of the book centers on Schakel's view that the best way to enter Narnia is to read the Chronicles as fairy tales. The book examines the influence an essay, "On Fairy-Stories," by Lewis's friend J.R.R. Tolkien had on the Chronicles. A chapter on each of the Chronicles walks readers through the work, pointing out fairy-tale features, considering literary strategies and structures, and examining universal themes, particularly religious ones.
The book concludes with a section of annotations on each of the Chronicles that clarifies unfamiliar words, highlights allusions and significant details, and offers interpretive comments for problematic passages.
"Publishers Weekly" calls "The Way into Narnia" "a perceptive and thorough reader's guide." Tolkien scholar Ralph Wood praises the "clear book-by-book analyses of the Chronicles" and says that the section of "immensely helpful annotations that illuminate obscure terms and historical allusions . . . is itself worth the price of the book."
A member of the faculty since 1969, Schakel first read Lewis's fiction in the early 1970s as a Hope professor, and began teaching it in a freshman composition course that he taught in 1974.
"Students liked the course, so I kept teaching it," he said. "Later I began using the class material as the basis for publications. My first essay on the Chronicles was published in the 'Church Herald' in 1977 and my first book on the Chronicles, 'Reading with the Heart: The Way into Narnia,' was published by Eerdmans in 1979."
Based on the trailer that hit theaters this spring and on what he has heard and read about the production, Schakel is optimistic about the film adaptation. People close to the film report that it stays true to the text and themes of the book, and that its technical features are of high quality.
"I think it will be a very good film," Schakel said. "The animation in the Disney Web site material looks excellent, and Andrew Adamson has superb credentials for directing a film like this, after his success with 'Shrek' and 'Shrek 2.'"
Also important, from his perspective, is that the studios are starting with the right book. Following the internal chronology of the way events occur in the Chronicles themselves, "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe" would come second, and new editions of the series label it as Book 2. But Schakel recommends that those reading the series for the first time start with "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe" and discover Lewis's magical world the same way that Lewis conceived of the stories originally.
"To read one of the other books before 'The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe' sacrifices strategies used by Lewis to lead readers into the world of Narnia and to help them share imaginatively in the experiences of Lucy and, later, the other Pevensie children as they discover what that world is like," he said.