This book was left in a shelter in the New York section of the Appalachian Trail for some passing thru-hiker. I happened to be passing through, saw it...moreThis book was left in a shelter in the New York section of the Appalachian Trail for some passing thru-hiker. I happened to be passing through, saw it, and sat down to read it. As I recall it took perhaps 45-60 minutes to do so -- not because the text was long but rather because it's the sort of book you want to dwell on a little as you read it.
In a nutshell this story is about two caterpillars, living life as normal. But one of them starts asking questions about his life, and why he lives it as he does. One day the two stumble upon an immense column of caterpillars, all struggling to reach the top. What's at the top? Nobody knows, but it must be special, because everyone's struggling for it. So the two join this struggle. Eventually one becomes disillusioned with it, and with not reaching the top, and leaves. The other eventually leaves as well, but for different reasons. Saying any more than this would be giving away the story too much (and arguably even this much is too much).
The lesson/moral of the story is perhaps a little trite, to the cynical critic. And I'm not sure the mechanics of what happens are quite as coherent and realistic as they should be. But it makes a good point, and if you give it the time it requires to absorb it without rushing, it's worth the time.(less)
Polly and Digory are two children growing up in London around the time of Sherlock Holmes (that is, around 1895) in the same row of houses. Digory's uncle has been experimenting with Magic and has devised a way to visit other worlds. Digory and Polly become his guinea pigs to test it out, visiting two worlds: the dying world of Charn, and the newborn world of Narnia. Along the way we meet the White Witch, the first Talking Animals of Narnia, the first joke, the first Narnian king and queen, and -- of course -- Aslan. We see how evil first enters Narnia, and we see how that evil is addressed.
Within the Narnian arc, of course, this story is important simply for explaining how Narnia started and why a certain wardrobe acted as it did. (And why a certain professor in a future story expressed less incredulity than expected, once.) It may also be interesting for the Biblical stories it's obviously intended to varyingly echo and evoke, blended with classical mythological references. (On that note, this time reading I noticed that in Narnia it wasn't woman who sinned and offered man the opportunity to sin, but rather man who sinned with the woman at worst egging him on. I don't think anyone should particularly care about the gender blame game in either instance. But it is interesting to note nonetheless.)
Outside the Narnian context, the story itself doesn't have as much to recommend it as other Narnian entries do. Narnia's primal magic is excellent -- a world where anything planted just grows? including coins, toffee, and lamp-posts? -- and the world feels distinctly and uniquely new. But other than that, there's not a whole lot to heighten interest. There isn't an obvious driving question to the story. (Digory's mother, sure, but she's not mentioned enough to carry that story, or at least wasn't during this read.) The characters have their own identities, but they exist more to play out the story than to be intriguing themselves. And the story itself is interesting more along the lines of being informative about Narnia than being interesting so much in its own right. Plus there are its unaddressed magical loose ends -- what's the nature of the in-between place or the mark, are those green and yellow items good or evil or simply too powerful, and so on -- which are totally unlike the magic in any of the other stories. Which isn't bad per se, but it's less rationalized than one might want.
Overall, this story is definitely worth reading to get the whole picture of Narnia. And that's why you should definitely read it. But on its own it's not as great as some of the entries in the Chronicles of Narnia.
One last topic: for the newcomer to Narnia, what reading order should be followed? Lewis wrote the stories in one order, but that order is not the chronological one, so a choice must be made.
The allusions this story makes to the contents of the other are few: at start explaining that this story would explain how "the comings and goings" between our world and Narnia started, and at end to set up the mechanism of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. I don't believe these brief allusions damage those stories. Knowing that there is a lamp-post in Narnia from this book doesn't really spoil Lantern Waste in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, except to prove that that is Narnia. But a series reader won't be surprised by this, so it hardly matters. (And even someone not seriously reading through the series doesn't need to know these details -- the story setup primes the reader to expect magical events and explanations.)
In the end, then, I think the chronological order is the right order to read through these stories, if you intend to read them all. (And you definitely should!) If you're quite sure you're not reading them all -- but really, they're all short enough and enjoyable enough, that why bother? -- publication order might be reasonable. But I think there's enough magic to each entry that you might as well still read chronologically.(less)