Number of pages: 220
This book was written as a prequel to The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, and features two characters living in 19th Century London, Polly and Digory. Quite early on, Digory is revealed to be the Professor from The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, we learn here that he did (as the book suggested) know more about Narnia than he seemed to let on.
This story does not feature Narnia until about half way through, and when it finally appears it is in the process of being created by Aslan. The first half of the book involves Digory's Uncle Andrew, who has created magic rings that transport you between worlds.
C.S. Lewis' vision is that several parallel worlds are located within pools within a mysterious wood, which the rings can transport people to. After being tricked into going to the mysterious wood after Uncle Andrew sends Polly there against her will, Digory decides to visit one of the other worlds.
This turns out to be the dying world of Charn, where the children meet a character called Jadis (she is of course the White Witch from The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe). The book hints that she is the one who ruined the world of Charn, and evidently many others before this.
The portrayal of Charn is one of the darkest and most vivid moments in the Narnia books for me, and I remember being fascinated when I was young, particularly the depiction of a room full of kings and queens, all frozen like waxworks, from which Digory releases the White Witch. To this day, I always think about how I would like to know what worlds were in the other pools (maybe one of them would lead to Westeros?)
The children inadvertently take the White Witch out of Charn and take her to London, taking pity on her. Inevitably, she plans to take over our world, so the children have to attempt to return her to her own world. Of course, they forget which of the several pools led to Charn, so they end up bringing the Witch into Narnia, along with Uncle Andrew, a cabbie and his horse.
The story is essentially a tale about how Narnia came to be and also how evil came to enter it. It's a book that I still enjoy immensely, particularly with the obvious Christian symbolism. Not only does the paradise the Aslan has created for the animals resemble the Garden of Eden, but there is a chapter involving apples and the White Witch tempting Digory that recalls the story of the fall of man (according to Michael Ward's The Narnia Code, C.S. Lewis wrote this book based on the character of Venus, and the Goddess Venus was typically portrayed holding an apple.
Overall, I thought this was an enjoyable way of setting up the Narnia series, although I noticed that at times it felt a bit darker than many of the other books in the series (apart from maybe the suicide attempt in The Horse and His Boy). I love the fact that C.S. Lewis provided explanations for the fact that Narnia had a lamppost growing in the middle of a wood and also the origins of the wardrobe in the professor's house.
Next book: What's in a Name? (Cyril M. Harris)