Thursday, February 17, 2011


The Wookiee Storybook is a 1979 Star Wars children’s book featuring characters and events from the infamous 1978 Star Wars Holiday Special. The book is illustrated by Patricia Wynne; no author is credited. Here, Chewbacca returns to his home world for his two-hundredth birthday while his son “Lumpy” gets lost in the swamp.

This is, basically, a story you’ve heard before, told in a completely pedestrian manner, only Star Wars-ified: a kid wants to be a hero, disobeys his mother and goes into danger, gets rescued, and learns that “Even when you were afraid, you kept trying. That is what makes a hero.” Whatever. It’s also weird to see Wookiees speaking intelligible dialogue.

The only “real” Star Wars characters here are Chewbacca and Han Solo, and Han doesn’t have much to do (although there is a brief but interesting mention of how they met and became partners). But is it canon? Who cares? (Okay, it’s probably not, what with the Wookiee telepathy and the Millennium Falcon’s rocket shuttle and convenient “super-sensitive tracking camera.”)

Wynne’s full-color artwork is quite good. She does an excellent job with the characters, and her attention to detail in the backgrounds is particularly impressive, as is her vision of Kashyyyk. Her art is the highlight of the book.

I love Star Wars, love Chewbacca, love Han Solo, but The Wookiee Storybook is really for collectors only.


Wednesday, February 16, 2011



The Last Battle (1956) is a children’s fantasy novel, the seventh and final in C. S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia. It won the 1956 Carnegie Medal. Almost single-handedly, Tirian, the last king of Narnia, must deal with the rise of a false Aslan and a surprise Calormene invasion.

The Last Battle is a grim and bleak tale unlike any other in the series, as things start badly and get progressively worse in a hurry. Lewis handles this well, particularly by capturing the feelings of his characters, particularly their despair, and as a result, the book is suspenseful and gripping. The book’s finale, both as part of this story and the series as a whole, is nothing short of magnificent: it is an emotionally and spiritually powerful finish. The book’s final paragraph, which captures the heart of the true hope of Christianity, may bring tears to the eyes.

Lewis’s prominent theme here is the danger of false religion, and he deals with it from the points of view of the unbelieving perpetrators as well as the unwitting victims. The biblical imagery is strong here (for those who have a deep familiarity with the contents of the Bible, it may be the strongest in the series). The false Aslan’s politics and dealings evoke any number of biblical images, ranging from Old Testament prophets to Revelation imagery. Certainly The Last Battle is the most philosophically and theologically interesting book in the series (which is why it’s also the most controversial).

The book is not without a couple of small problems. Lewis’s involved narrator sometimes feels out of place given the direness of the story. Lewis also skips over a little more of the story’s behind-the-scenes developments than he might have – we do go from a lone crafty ape to a full-blown Calormene invasion rather quickly. But these are minor issues that do not detract from the story significantly.

Some readers have complained that in The Last Battle, Lewis “undoes” all his previous stories. This could not be more wrong (do you “undo” a game when you finish it and put the pieces back in the box?). Rather, Lewis brings them all full circle: The Last Battle culminates with the fulfillment and consummation of Narnia and all its stories.

As with The Horse and His Boy, some readers have also alleged racism here. While the dark-skinned, “Arab” Calormen are the villains of the piece, they are never portrayed as inherently evil (as in The Horse and His Boy, some are good and some are bad). Similarly, Lewis has been accused of being anti-Islam in his writing, for no other reason that I can see except that Islam is the religion of many Arabs. Certainly the Calormene religion bears no resemblance to Islam to the very limited extent to which Lewis goes into it; with its bloody god Tash and its human sacrifice, it’s far more reminiscent of the ancient worship of Chemosh or Molech. Anyone seriously maintaining these accusations is inferring quite a bit more than Lewis has put into the text.

The Last Battle is a triumph, a phenomenal story, and a beautiful conclusion to the series.


The audio version of The Last Battle is performed by Patrick Stewart. Anyone familiar with Stewart’s work, whether on Star Trek or elsewhere, knows he has a powerful voice, and so expectations will rightly be high. But while Stewart generally does a good job, he doesn’t quite meet these lofty expectations. Some of his voices are simply off; his sort of Cockney accent for the Calormenes seems flat-out wrong. And from time to time during his performance, his voices run into his narration. On the whole, it’s a good but not great performance.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011


The Magician’s Nephew (1955) is a children’s fantasy novel, the sixth in C. S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia. Decades before the events of the other books in the series, two children (one of whom is Professor Digory Kirke from The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe) travel to magical worlds, inadvertently free the witch Jadis, and witness the creation of Narnia.

The Magician’s Nephew often has a lighter feel than the other books in the series. Lewis, who draws to a great extent upon his own childhood, is involved in the narrative in a more playful way than we’ve seen since The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. And while Jadis is an imposing and terrible figure, her attempts to conquer London are more comical than anything; Lewis does a good job striking a balance with her and not making the character ever seem silly, in spite of what’s happening.

Lewis’s imagination has free rein in a number of places in the story, most notably the Wood between the Worlds, the dead city of Charn, and the birth of Narnia. And with references to fairies, Atlantis, Arthurian legend, and the like, this book has something of the feel of a traditional fairy tale. The total effect is that for the most part, The Magician’s Nephew is refreshingly different from the other books in the series.

In addition to Lewis’s nostalgia for the Edwardian days and bygone social mores (the good and the bad), there are other moral themes at work here. The one that Digory is faced with time and again throughout the novel is integrity. And as The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe contained strong parallels to Christ’s Passion, The Magician’s Nephew parallels the biblical account of Creation and the Garden of Eden.

It has been the fashion recently to read The Magician’s Nephew as the first in the series (since it is, after all, chronologically first). This is fine, I guess, but to my mind it works better after the reader has finished The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and the “Caspian trilogy.” Here, Lewis assumes that the reader already has a familiarity with Narnia, and while that isn’t mandatory to enjoy the book, there are a lot of little moments that the reader will not fully appreciate if he or she hasn’t read the other books first.

The Magician’s Nephew is a fun, imaginative story. But don’t read it first.


Friday, February 4, 2011


The Horse and His Boy (1954) is a children’s fantasy novel, the fifth in C. S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia. Here, an adopted lower-class boy, a young, independent girl, and two Narnian talking horses attempt to flee from Calormen into Narnia; on the way, they get caught up in international political intrigue.

While Lewis wrote this book fifth, it takes place during the original reign of the Pevensies during the last chapter of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. The only reason for this chronological decision is so that Lewis can bring the Pevensies back in supporting roles, which he does (plus Mr. Tumnus). And it is nice to see them as adults, more mature but still distinctly the same characters.

I trust it will not be too great an affront to Lewis to say that this story reads like The Prince and the Pauper by way of Arabian Nights. Not that there’s anything wrong with the story; it’s well-told, but it doesn’t feel particularly imaginative, and that’s what separates the good Narnia stories from the great ones. The Horse and His Boy feels too much like Lewis took a number of trusty old story elements and gave them the Narnia treatment.

This is the only book in the series where children from Earth are not prominent characters (there’s not much time spent in Narnia, either), and that alone gives The Horse and His Boy a different feel from the rest. But this isn’t Lewis’s best set of characters. Shasta is decent enough, but I feel like we’ve seen him before, in Twain and elsewhere. While the horses have their own personalities, they don’t add much to the story. A highlight is Aravis (another character we’ve seen before), in whom Lewis has the strongest female character in the series. (Aslan, as usual, steals most of his scenes.)

Lewis offers lessons to be learned, of course. The most obvious theme is pride: the Calormenes are a prideful people in general, and several of the book’s prominent characters have to learn to practice humility. Another is divine providence, which, thanks to Aslan, is present in all the books in a general way, but here is much more pronounced, culminating in Aslan explaining to Shasta how he has been present and involved at every key moment of the boy’s life.

Some critics have pointed to The Horse and His Boy (as well as to The Last Battle) and cried “racism.” In a book where most of the people who are good and right are light-skinned and the warmongering villains are dark-skinned, that’s understandable, but, I think, taking it too far. Certainly Lewis has populated his other Narnia books with light-skinned enemies, and, while he has done Calormen in the style of the medieval Arab world and set this culture up as a rival to Narnia, there is nothing egregiously antagonistic on Lewis’s part here, particularly since he portrays Aravis so sympathetically.

In short, while not Lewis’s best, The Horse and His Boy is another quality adventure.


Tuesday, February 1, 2011


The Silver Chair (1953) is a children’s fantasy novel, the fourth in C. S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia. The reformed Eustace, along with his classmate Jill, are summoned to Narnia to rescue the now-aged King Caspian’s only son.

The Silver Chair is a solid adventure, and, with its structure and content (giants, caverns, witches and such), is reminiscent of traditional fairy tales. On the downside, the story turns on a couple of rather predictable twists (they may be predictable even to children, at least to children who have, as Lewis might say, “read the right sort of books”), and there really isn’t much of a climax.

Lewis always has moral themes going on, but here, they’re particularly good. Eustace and Jill have to learn hard lessons in accountability and personal responsibility. The related theme of faithful obedience in the face of death is powerfully done: Eustace and Jill struggle the whole time, in sharp contrast to Prince Rilian, whose faith is summed up when he says, “Aslan will be our good lord, whether he means us to live or die. And all’s one, for that.” Lewis also continues to take shots at “modern” values by setting up his “Experiment House” school and then blasting it mercilessly; this assault is unapologetically obvious.

The characters are well done here: Eustace continues his struggle toward maturity. Jill, in contrast to the always positive but not particularly capable Lucy, is (and becomes) a competent and practical character. Puddleglum, the wettest of all blankets, is a nice supporting character (thankfully Lewis doesn’t overdo it with him). And Rilian’s simple but unshakeable faith is impressive.

The Silver Chair is a solid entry in the series, even if the moral themes pack more punch than the story itself.