We were at the bookstore yesterday looking through the science fiction and fantasy section, and I decided to get the one-volume Chronicles of Narnia edition, given that several of ours are falling apart or not even around anymore, mostly because of the efforts of one particular child. Most annoyingly, it has the wrong order of the books, so I had to write the correct order in the table of contents so the kids know what order to read them in.
Now I have good friends who like to support the publisher’s chronological order for reading these books, and I don’t really hold it against them, but they’re simply wrong. The books should be read in the order of publication. Sometimes people point to a letter Lewis wrote suggesting that it can be read in chronological order, and there really are times when you can appeal to authorial intent to establish something in the canon of the fiction. For example, Dumbedore is gay and always was. How do we know that? The author said so. Period. She made the fiction, and she can tell us what’s true in it. It’s her intellectual property, and she has the right to say what’s true in her fiction.
But this is a separate question. Lewis was trying to dissolve a dispute between a mother and child about what order to read the books in, and the reason he gave was silly. Here is the letter he sent to the child who wrote to ask about this:
I think I agree with your [chronological] order for reading the books more than with your mother’s. The series was not planned beforehand as she thinks. When I wrote The Lion I did not know I was going to write any more. Then I wrote P. Caspian as a sequel and still didn’t think there would be any more, and when I had done The Voyage I felt quite sure it would be the last, but I found I was wrong. So perhaps it does not matter very much in which order anyone read them. I’m not even sure that all the others were written in the same order in which they were published. (Dorsett, Lyle (1995). Marjorie Lamp Mead, ed. C. S. Lewis: Letters to Children. Touchstone. ISBN 978-0-684-82372-0.) per Wikipedia
With all respect to Lewis as the author, this is a simply a terrible reason for reordering the books, and he as a literary critic should have known better. Not knowing that another book is coming later does not mean that it didn’t come later. So not planning out the whole series at once does not mean you can read them in any order. In fact, there are all sorts of literary reasons not to read them out of order.
There’s certainly a sense in which he’s right that you can read them in any order. He probably wrote each one as a standalone novel in that you could read each one by itself, without knowing of any of the others. But he also wrote them in a certain order, and he at least published them in the order they came out. Some of them may have been started before he published others and then published later. I believe he took longer to write some of them and came back to them after doing others. There are some crazy conspiracy theories out there about the order of the books and how they symbolize something to do with the planets in the solar system, and there’s no way that’s true. Lewis didn’t plan the series out. He just started writing each one after thinking the previous one might be the last.
Nevertheless, there are developments in the storyline that it makes literary sense to read in the order they were published. The publisher doesn’t get the five books of the main storyline wrong. The five books involving the Pevensie children and their cousin Eustace are in the right order in the publisher’s version. What they get wrong are books five and six in the publication order, which they move to spots one and three to try to pretend they’re doing it in chronological order. They’re actually not. The Magician’s Nephew really does take place first. But The Horse and His Boy does not take place third. It starts and ends before The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe is over. It may be the closest thing to a chronological order that you can get, but it’s not strictly speaking chronological.
And the Wikipeda page on the series does a nice job summarizing the literary arguments for preserving publication order, citing quite a number of Lewis commentators and literary critics about why his letter gets it wrong. You should be surprised when you get to the first mention of Narnia in The Magician’s Nephew, because you’re not supposed to know it’s a prequel about the creation of Narnia until you get to that mention very late in the book, and I think Lewis expected most readers to be very familiar with Narnia when they got to that from having read the rest of the series. The introduction to Narnia in the actual first book is much more wondrous and brings the reader into that world the same way Lucy was brought into it, which is a much better literary move than getting there by the book that was meant to explain how Narnia got there to an audience already very familiar with it.
The point about the first mention of Aslan in the first book is also excellent. You do know who Aslan is when you first get to him in book one if you’re already read the prequel, but the narrator then tells you that you don’t know who he is. Lewis was forgetting all the details of his own literary presentation when affirming this child’s reading order over his mother’s, and it’s literary malpractice.
I think it’s shameful that Harper Collins uses this poor reasoning as an excuse for their distortion of Lewis’ novels by publishing them in the wrong order, both in this collected volume and in their numbering of the individual novels, causing many new readers to read them in the wrong order. The vast majority of Lewis commentators disagree with them for doing so, and the one reason they give simply doesn’t hold up against the many reasons to encourage people to read them in publication order.