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Cair Paravel -- The glistening citadel of this dateline does not in fact exist, but to children it can be more real than many an actual place: Cair Paravel is the capital of Narnia, the setting of what was, until Harry Potter, the world's best-selling fantasy series.

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  • The seven-volume Chronicles of Narnia, by the mid-century Irish writer C. S. Lewis, has some 65 million copies in print in 30 languages. In the books several English schoolchildren are transported to a realm where a human society, modeled on the Arthurian court, coexists with strange creatures, intelligent animals, and magic. Always the young visitors perform some improbable feat to rescue the kingdom from sinister forces. Presiding over events is Aslan, an enormous supernatural lion who called forth Narnia, loves English schoolchildren, and appears whenever hope seems lost.

    Although Narnia has survived countless perils, the Chronicles themselves are now endangered. On one front they face the dubious honor of corporate marketing. On another literary voices have begun to denounce them as racist and sexist works. What's in progress is a struggle of sorts for the soul of children's fantasy literature.

    American readers may already know of the corporate designs on Narnia. The New York Times reported in the spring that the publishing conglomerate HarperCollins, which recently acquired the rights to Lewis's work, plans a major marketing push for the Chronicles. Toy stores will be inundated with Narnia plush, and HarperCollins will commission new volumes for the series. Any parent who has encountered one of the odious Winnie-the-Pooh movies produced by Disney--sitcom and psychobabble invade the Hundred Acre Wood--will gasp at the thought of the HarperCollins marketing department's deciding it knows better than C. S. Lewis did what constitutes The Chronicles of Narnia. Besides, Narnia's world was destroyed when its dying sun exploded, in the final volume of the Chronicles. This would seem to preclude sequels--but hey, who wants to be a stickler?

    Furthermore, HarperCollins intends to soft-pedal the spiritual subtext of the Chronicles. Lewis, a prolific writer of Christian commentary, enfolded religious themes into the stories, allowing children to read them as adventure yarns and adults to appreciate the symbolism. In one book Aslan dies and is resurrected; in another he appears as a lamb and serves the children roast fish, the meal Jesus requested after the Resurrection. According to a HarperCollins memo quoted in the Times, concerning a proposed documentary, the publisher deems it essential that "no attempt will be made to correlate the stories to Christian imagery/theology."

    More on Lewis

    If Screwtape had watched CNN
    Amy Schwartz's winning essay

    Sample Lewis's 'Screwtape'

    C.S. Lewis and the Inklings

    C.S. Lewis Links

    Discussions

  • The Screwtape Letters
  • Lewis on Theocracy
  • Lewis's Christian Symbols
  • Only British readers are likely to be familiar with the Chronicles' second tribulation: critics attacking the books' reputation. The centenary of Lewis's birth was widely celebrated in England in 1998, but amid the general affection was prominent dissent. The novelist and critic Philip Hensher, a rising figure in the London literary establishment (he's a Booker Prize judge), censured the Chronicles as "poisonous" and "ghastly, priggish, half-witted" books intended to "corrupt the minds of the young with allegory."

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