My sister and I were always given one book apiece on Christmas Eve, ever since we were very small indeed. After the midnight candle-lit carol service, before racing up to bed, we’d sit by the tree and open up our “first gifts of Christmas.” I’ve received many a wonderful book in this manner, but the one I loved the most was this graphic novel version of The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe. (HaperCollins, 1995)
I must have been in third or fourth grade when I got this one; old enough to have already read the Chronicles of Narnia books, but still so young I was more than a little frightened by the nasty creatures Jadis has in her audience at the sacrificial stone table.
It’s the first graphic novel I ever read, and is the only one I’ve re-read multiple times. They aren’t usually my preferred style, but this one captures the pace and spirit of those Narnia books nearly perfectly. My copy’s pages are torn on the edges and soft like old dollar bills from all the times I turned them, curled up by the fireplace or hidden under the covers at night. Most of the words come straight from C. S. Lewis’s original novel, just adapted and distilled by Robin Lawrie, who also drew the cinematic illustrations. She made sure to include a great deal of the dialogue between the siblings, animals, and Aslan without letting the conversations get too cluttered with text. It got to the point where I had memorized chunks of the real book, just because I could picture what was said and done in this illustrated version as though I had lived it myself.
Lewis’s wonderful descriptions aren’t lost here, either. Paragraphs from the book that capture his magical balance of winter mystery and hopeful warmth are not left out, including one of my favorites about the first time the Pevensies hear Aslan’s name.
“At the name of Aslan each one of the children felt something jump inside. Edmund felt a mysterious horror. Peter felt suddenly brave. Susan felt as if some delicious smell had floated by. And Lucy got the feeling you have when you wake up and realize that it is the beginning of the holidays.”
That’s the feeling that used to define Christmas Eve for me: anticipation and history. The strange combination of coziness and goosebumps. I remember reading this book the night it was given to me and feeling like I’d gone straight through the wardrobe with Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy. How horrible it would be to live in a world where it was “always winter, never Christmas.” And how grand an adventure to go about bringing Christmas back.
I loved the illuminated style of the illustrations: the creative borders with animals, trees, and heraldic symbols characterizing each chapter’s mood. The pictures are expressive, particularly the characters’ faces and all the movement in exciting scenes of battle or escape. C.S. Lewis has described Narnia so well in his books that fans of the series can picture certain settings in their mind’s eye like photographs of real places. The illustrations here can go along hand-in-hand with your own inner Narnia: no artistic liberties veered too far away from my own imaginary constructs, at any rate. The Beavers’ house, Cair Paravel, even the Professor’s mansion are brought to life in a simple but solid manner. The embellishments of style and extra details get to stand out in the framework and the layout: columns with carved satyrs on either side of the pages in which Mr. Tumnus describes Narnia in the spring, or the twisted roots around the picture where Lucy finally brings her siblings through the wardrobe and into the woods.
The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe is such a good story. It has a tint of medieval romance – Lewis was a medievalist as well as a fiction writer and theologian – as well as an enveloping glow of childish goodness that can fight back even the most biting winter miseries. Robin Lawrie’s adaption is colorful, exciting, serious, and blessedly faithful to the original book. I loved it as a little kid, back when Christmas Eve was a night of heart-in-your-throat nervous excitement. I love it now that winter has taken on a more medieval coldness in my older-ish age, because it warms me up: the memory of reading it three, four, five times in one month acting like embers that have not quite died out.
The Chronicles Of Narnia is a delightful series of books, but I think that this graphic novel is even better loved in my memory because it can transport me instantly back to Christmastime in the late 1990s. I don’t think it’s still in print, which is a terrible shame, because this would be a great way to get more reluctant readers hooked on the vivid fantasy world and larger than life characters of C.S. Lewis’s imagination. There’s also an adaption of The Magician’s Nephew, which is almost as good. (A tragically under-appreciated book in the series, I say.) If you can find a copy of either at the library or a used bookshop, do give it to someone this holiday. It can turn Christmas Eve into something extra magical, where any danger lurking in the cold darkness outside can be dispelled by bravery and the assistance of a majestic lion. (Lion not included.)