The Magician’s Nephew Versus The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe: Which Should be Read First?

By Always Narnian

There has been much discussion in the past as to which order the Narnia series should be read in. At the moment, I am not going into such detail as to cover the entire series, but instead am going to focus on which of the books is better to begin the series with: The Magician’s Nephew or The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. This month is the 60th anniversary of the publishing of The Magician’s Nephew, now often labeled as book one in the Narnia series, though The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, the book that began the whole series, was first published five years earlier. So which of these should be read as the opening book to this magical world?

The Magician’s Nephew may seem the logical choice as the introduction to this series, as it recounts the origins of the world of Narnia. The Magician’s Nephew is an intriguing story about a boy named Digory and his friend Polly who get sent to another world by magic rings and later discover the land of Narnia. This book gives the perfect background to better understand this boy who later becomes the Professor that the Pevensie children go to stay with in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Lewis told the Kilmer family to whom he had dedicated The Magician’s Nephew:

“You must have often wondered how the old Professor in The Lion, Witch & W could have believed all the children told him about Narnia. The reason was that he had been there himself as a little boy. This book tells you how he went there, and (of course that was ages and ages ago by Narnian time) how he saw Aslan creating Narnia, and how the White Witch first got into that world and why there was a lamp-post in the middle of that forest.” [1]

This story does indeed help you to better understand the whys and hows of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. You know how Narnia came to be such a fantastical land, how the animals there can talk and are bigger than normal-sized creatures. In The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe you don’t know how the Witch came to be ruling over Narnia. You do not understand why the Professor knows all he does about Narnia, why he tells Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy: “Yes, of course you’ll get back to Narnia again someday. Once a King in Narnia, always a King in Narnia.” After reading Digory’s story, you do know why the Professor believes them, and you even know how the wardrobe could transport Lucy to Narnia in the first place (you might remember that Digory took the tree planted from the Narnian apple and created the wardrobe from it).

Now let’s look at The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe as the first book. Let’s consider two quotes from these novels. Near the closing of The Magician’s Nephew a line comes up that says: “That was the beginning of all the comings and goings between Narnia and our world, which you can read of in other books.” This, of course, would be obvious to the reader who has already read The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. You get a sense of “Yes, this is how that world came into existence and there are other times when people have gotten into the world of Narnia, as I have already read.” However, the end quote of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe goes as follows: “And that is the very end of the adventure of the wardrobe. But if the Professor was right it was only the beginning of the adventures of Narnia.” One who is reading this book as the second in the series would say, “Well, technically not. Even the Professor has had an adventure there of his own, I read about it already.” When you read The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe as the first book you do not understand who the Professor is, he is very mysterious and intriguing. Why would he say the things he does to the children? Reading this story first seems to make The Magician’s Nephew have more of an appeal to those who already know a bit about Narnia, a desire to know the back-story. Someone reading The Magician’s Nephew first may take it simply as the beginning of a story, not as a revelation of things you already know about this world. Certain hints in The Magician’s Nephew text also stick out better once you have already known about them in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe:

“The lamp-post which the Witch had planted (without knowing it) shone day and night in the Narnian forest, so that the place where it grew came to be called Lantern Waste; and when, many years later, another child from our world got into Narnia, on a snowy night, she found the light still burning. And that adventure was, in a way, connected with the ones I have just been telling you.”

Another example is the quote about Digory’s wardrobe: “And though he himself did not discover the magic properties of that wardrobe, someone else did.” These quotes do not read the same if The Magician’s Nephew is the first Narnia novel you have read. They are simply interesting statements, and almost a little random to the newcomer. They are not random for those who have already seen these adventures unfurl in Narnia.

Lewis, of course, had something to say about the order of this series. In one of his letters to a boy named Laurence, Lewis wrote:

“I think I agree with your order [Chronological Order] for reading the books more than with your mother’s [Published Order]. 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 reads them.” [2]

This may explain why some of the ties between The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and The Magician’s Nephew can be a little confusing. Lewis did not yet know the full extent of these stories when he wrote the first novel.

So, what exactly has this brief article revealed? Perhaps not an overly strong argument, but we have considered how reading a back-story before or after the main story are two completely different experiences. It can change the way you think of that particular story. As Lewis said, he did not know there were going to be any more stories, perhaps why The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe may seem so much like the first book of a series. However, Lewis agreed chronological was best and shared preference for this order with Walter Hooper, putting The Magician’s Nephew as the first. [3]

So what is your preference? Which of these timeless tales should be chosen by a new reader as the introduction to Narnia?

[1] The Collected Letters of C.S. Lewis: Volume III: Narnia, Cambridge and Joy 1950-1963 edited by Walter Hooper
[2] The Collected Letters of C.S. Lewis: Volume III: Narnia, Cambridge and Joy 1950-1963 edited by Walter Hooper
[3] The Collected Letters of C.S. Lewis: Volume III: Narnia, Cambridge and Joy 1950-1963 edited by Walter Hooper, endnote

2 thoughts on “The Magician’s Nephew Versus The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe: Which Should be Read First?

  1. hobbit_of_narniahobbit_of_narnia

    I read LWW first, and I really do prefer to read them in the order they were written rather than chronological order if I’m reading straight through the series.

  2. always narnianalways narnian Post author

    Hobbit-
    I think I prefer Published Order. I just really especially like the idea of LWW first. It just seems right!

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