In the first half of the twentieth century, two drinking buddies wrote vastly different fantasy series -- one was the classic "Lord of the Rings," and the other was the "Narnia" series. A close pal of J.R.R. Tolkien's and a fellow "Inkling," C.S. Lewis was one of the first widely-read fantasy writers, and his books are still widely read and enjoyed by children and adults alike.
"The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe" opens as four children (Lucy, Edmund, Susan and Peter) are being shipped to the English countryside at the beginning of World War II. While exploring the vast house where they are staying, Lucy accidently ventures into a winter-locked world called Narnia, which is ruled over by the evil White Witch. The king Aslan is about to return -- but the Witch quickly gets a hold on Edmund's soul.
"Prince Caspian" takes place long after the events of "Lion" (though in our world, only a short time has passed). Young Prince Caspian escapes his uncle's castle when his life is threatened, and he finds refuge with the hidden races of Narnia -- dwarves, talking animals, dryads, centaurs and many others. And to help Caspian regain the throne, the two kings and two queens of Narnia are called back...
"Voyage of the Dawn Treader" begins when Edmund, Lucy and their obnoxious cousin Eustace are sucked through a painting into Narnia, where their pal Caspian is now king of Narnia (and an adult to boot). Caspian is heading toward the end of the world to find several knights who were banished, and vanished into the perilous islands along the sea.
"The Silver Chair" heads into slightly darker territory when Eustace returns to boarding school. He and outcast girl Jill Pole are drawn into Narnia, where Jill must perform a task to redeem herself for a stupid act. She must find the dying Caspian's son Rilian, who vanished many years before. The search will send the two children across Narnia with the pessimistic Puddleglum, to carnivorous Giants, creepy underground creatures, and an enemy worse than they could have imagined...
"Horse and His Boy" shoots back in time to the middle of "Lion." Shasta lives with the man he thinks to be his father in a hovel by the sea, but when a Calormene warrior purchases him, he escapes with the man's talking horse, Bree. He meets the escaping noblewoman Aravis (who also has a talking horse), and the two are planning to escape to Narnia and freedom. But in the capital city, there is a conspiracy brewing against the visiting Narnian kings and queens...
"Magician's Nephew" clears up many of the questions about Narnia, Aslan and the White Witch. Digory and Polly end up in very serious trouble when they encounter Digory's weird, slightly nutty uncle, a magician who has created magical rings that send the user to other worlds. The two kids end up in the "wood between the worlds," and venture into a dying land where they set loose the evil Queen Jadis -- who follows them to the newborn world of Narnia.
"The Last Battle" is definitely the end of the series, where Narnia decays slowly into the final battle between good and evil. Humans are destroying the trees and killing the dryads, and a false Aslan is appearing to mislead the inhabitants of Narnia. Old and new friends will band together as the true Aslan prepares to lead them to a new land.
If you don't like allegory (religious or otherwise), then steer clear of the Chronicles. While Lewis's beliefs are presented in a more complicated and subtle manner in his other fictional works, here the parallels to basic Christian beliefs are very obvious. Reportedly even Tolkien, one of Lewis's best pals, found the allegory annoying.
But if you can get past the slightly ham-handed treatment, it's a fantastic read. Lewis reshapes typical mythical elements like dwarves, nymphs, talking animals, centaurs and wicked witches into shape in his invented world. And Narnia is an inviting place -- it isn't always fun or pleasant, but there is always the feeling that the good guys will ultimately -- if not immediately -- come out on top.
Lewis's writing can become a bit precious at times, in the tradition of many British authors writing for children. But he puts plenty of detail and mystery in his stories, sprinkling them with little mysteries and questions that are explained as the story goes on. Where did the lamppost come from, for example?
While not quite as well known as his pal Tolkien's work, C.S. Lewis's Narnia series still a fun and dramatic fantasy story. For a bit more insight into the origins of fantasy as we know it, check out "The Chronicles of Narnia."