I can’t actually remember reading the Narnia books as a kid, but I think one of my teachers read The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe to us in school. Or maybe we watched it as a movie. I don’t know for sure, but there was a brief exposure to Narnia during my childhood. But, considering the books were 40+ years old and did not follow a mystery formula, I was probably not interested in pursuing them further. I really disdained old things and fantasy things when I was kid.
After reading and loving Lev Grossman’s The Magician King, I decided it was high time I actually read the Narnia series. Grossman draws heavily on his love of fantasy in the Magician books and he clearly liked the Narnia books. Reading his book without that background felt like watching Community without being a movie buff. It’s that I-know-I-am-missing-the-reference-here left out feeling.
The Magician’s Nephew, as the first book in the Narnia storyline, describes how humans first came upon the land of Narnia. Digory and Polly are two little English kids exploring the attics of the row house they live in. They come upon Digory’s Uncle Andrew, a bad magician, who basically forces the two children to travel to another world. The children somehow manage to awaken an evil witch, who follows them back to Earth. In an effort to get rid of the witch by depositing her in some other world, Digory, Polly, Uncle Andrew, a carriage driver, and his horse all end up in Narnia just in time to witness its creation by the lion, Aslan. There is lots of Biblical imagery, as I am sure you are aware. Creation by an all-knowing, all-powerful god that always was/is/shall be. Evil enters Narnia at its creation in the form of a witch, who only enters Narnia by the fault of human curiosity. The Witch is tempted by and eats fruit from a forbidden tree. There are also lots of fantastical elements– talking animals, travel between worlds, magic.
After reading this, I can see many parallels between Narnia and Fillory… especially in terms of logistics and minor details. Both are ruled by animal god(s), have talking animals, can be reached through a middling sort of world or through a magic object (ring or button). There are quests. I also think Grossman’s pacing of The Magicians was probably influenced by the Narnia series. There is a quest in The Magician’s Nephew, but it doesn’t take place until half the book has gone by (much like The Magicians) and is over pretty quickly and without much fuss (well, if you consider nearly unbearable temptation not much fuss). There is also a lot of set up in The Magician’s Nephew… which is understandable since the book was written to provide a background and set-up for the rest of the Narnia series. The biggest difference is that Narnia is for kids and Fillory is for adults. Narnia is a pretty lovely, happy place and so far there isn’t much that feels dangerous or terrifying. Fillory is a pretty disconcerting, violent place, to say the least.
I am glad that I read this book because of its importance to the fantasy canon and because of its tremendous influence on Grossman’s work. I would recommend you read these if you missed them as a child and I plan on continuing with the series over the course of the year. However, I can’t say that based on this first book that I will put these on my short list of favorite books. Good, but not so amazing I can’t stop talking/thinking about it (cough Chaos Walking cough).