This is a story about something that happened at the turn of the present century. In those days, Harry Potter was still a schoolboy, and Lyra had only recently witnessed God disintegrating when he was exposed to the merest whiff of reality. The internet was nicer, and as for UK house prices, I won’t tell you how cheap they were because it would only make your mouth water in vain.
The Young Adult fiction market was booming, with every publisher keen to find the next Harry Potter or His Dark Materials. The beauty of children’s publishing, though, is that each generation discovers the classics anew. C S Lewis’s seven Narnia books had been perennial sellers since they were first published in the 1950s, but new readers were now flocking to the series that had been a huge influence on JK Rowling and Philip Pullman. In 2001, the first Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings movies made their debuts, and Walden Media acquired the rights for a movie version of The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe that split the difference, throwing British schoolkids onto a battlefield in a quasi-medieval fantasy world.
The Narnia series, then, was all set to become a modern “franchise”. As part of this, HarperCollins announced new books “using the same characters and with storylines which fill in the gaps of existing ones”. I’d mentioned online how much I’ve always loved the Narnia books, but reading them before I’d had any contact with religion meant I’d always seen Jesus as a disappointing Aslan tribute act. On the back of that remark and Doctor Who novels I’d written, I was invited to pitch for the range. I sent in a very short proposal for a book called Swanwhite and, as is often the way with these things, that was that and I have no idea if it even reached the desk of the relevant editor. No new Narnia books ever materialised.
I’d completely forgotten about this until the weekend, when news spread that the author Francis Spufford has written a Narnia novella, The Stone Table, for his daughter, and that a privately-printed edition of 75 copies has been given out to friends and family. One recipient, the writer Frank Cottrell-Boyce, has put the early chapters up on Twitter, and they’re receiving rave reviews.
I’m a huge fan of Spufford’s work. I May Be Some Time evokes nostalgia, but is also revelatory and unsentimental, a very difficult trick to pull off. Unapologetic is a public declaration of his Christianity, showing his working. Jesus has always been the elephant in the room with Narnia, and while C S Lewis is a hero to the American Christian right, they put their faith in things he’d barely recognise. A new Narnia book has to be about Christianity, in some way that respects Lewis’s beliefs, but also understands he was writing nearly 70 years ago and he was a crusty old fart even then. Spufford is exactly the right person to square this circle.
That said, I don’t think we need Narnia VIII.
There are open fictional worlds, and there are closed ones. Arthur Conan Doyle quickly realised he’d created the formula for an endless series of Sherlock Holmes stories: more to the point, even during his lifetime, other writers concluded he didn’t have to be the one writing them. Conan Doyle created a serial, not a saga, as did the various creators of Superman, James Bond, and Doctor Who. The task at hand for those who write these new adventures is to create endless variations, balancing fidelity to what’s gone before with modern insights.
Talented writers at the top of their field have written entertaining sequels and prequels for books that are perfectly self-contained, like Pride and Prejudice, The Catcher in the Rye, The Time Machine, and Rebecca. The estates of J R R Tolkien, Frank Herbert and Douglas Adams have actively encouraged selected authors to write continuations. It’s perfectly possible – trivially easy, in fact – to plot routes to every unexplored corner of Pauline Bayne’s beautiful map of Narnia. It could be done.
There’s certainly a formula to the Narnia stories – children from our world coming to Narnia and learning the true meaning of Aslan. But even by the second book, Prince Caspian, Lewis himself was subverting it, with Narnia conquered by human beings, forcing the animals to pretend they can’t talk and the dwarves to hide in plain sight as short people. The fantasy creatures huddle underground, like members of the French Resistance. Lewis’ second Narnia book is an ironic deconstruction of the Narnia formula just as sly as those of Neil Gaiman or Philip Pullman over half a century later.
Lewis went to pains to give the series a beginning, middle and apocalyptic end, retrofitting the first of those (the sixth book published was The Magician’s Nephew, what we’d call a prequel or origin story now), and filling another narrative gap with The Horse and His Boy. There’s a rich cast of characters in the books, but Lewis moved things along, swapping out the schoolchildren protagonists, and building in time jumps that meant that, while the books fit together, it’s only Aslan who appears in all seven books. The net effect is that it feels like Narnia’s whole story has already been told.
The seven Narnia books are the product of a particular person already finding himself at odds with the particular time they were written. The author of the Narnia books wasn’t some interchangeable cog in a smooth running franchise machine. It’s as simple as saying it matters that they were written by C S Lewis.
The original version of this piece attributed the excellent book Strange Days Indeed to Francis Spufford, and not its actual author, Francis Wheen. The error has since been corrected.