Children's Literature

23rd December 1994 at 00:00
A Book of Narnians: The Lion. The Witch and the Others, Text Compiled by James Riordan. Illustrated by Pauline Baynes, Collins Pounds 9.99. 0 00 193914 9

Spare a thought for the poor children's publisher whose best-selling authors are dead. With no new stories about Peter Rabbit or Winnie-the-Pooh, you simply have to find more and more ingenious ways to repackage the old ones. It's also happened to Alice and Toad, and now it's happening to the inhabitants of Narnia.

C S Lewis wrote seven books about Aslan's country, recording its creation in The Magician's Nephew and its destruction in The Last Battle, and that was that. But since there is a seemingly insatiable appetite for things Narnian - no doubt the more so following the posthumous discovery of C S Lewis, Movie Star - Messrs Collins are constantly striving to feed that hunger.

The latest "product" - and, since I myself have been employed in this very industry, I choose the word with care - is A Book of Narnians, comprising descriptions of assorted characters, cobbled together from Lewis's own words. Possibly, it was conceived as a kind of bestiary; if so, it unfortunately fails, being incomplete and uselessly arranged in non-alphabetical order.

On the other hand, maybe the publishers envisaged it as a way of introducing Lewis's world to the young reader. Since it is impossible to tell, however, where the various chunks of text have been ripped from, or how they fit into the scheme of Narnian history, Lewis's prose has been reduced to little more than a series of extended picture captions.

Still, what pictures! Frankly, a scissors-and-paste book of this kind doesn't deserve such wondrous illustration. It is over 40 years since Pauline Baynes - an absurdly under-rated artist - first depicted, in pen and ink, the denizens of the realm beyond the Wardrobe door. Now she has returned with a paint brush and a palette of gem-like colours, to bring new and vibrant life to Narnia.

Fledge, the flying horse, hovers above an exquisite landscape on chestnut-coloured wings; Mr Tumnus, the goat-footed faun, wanders through a snow-shrouded wood; a terrifying Wer-Wolf leaps out of the page with yellow eyes and slavering jaws.

They are all here: Beavers and Bears, Dwarves, Centaurs and Unicorns, the evil White Witch and Aslan himself, golden-maned - glorious yet terrible.

But it is a sad irony that the collaborative creativity of C S Lewis and Pauline Baynes - a writer and artist so perfectly matched - should have inspired a book that so poorly serves them, and their admirers.

Brian Sibley is a writer and broadcaster whose books include Shadowlands and The Land of Narnia

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