Scholars disagreeing with authors about their works(?)

So my boys and I recently got done reading the Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis, and we read them in the order they were in the box set- i.e. the chronological order in Narnian time. So Magician’s Nephew, then "The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe*, and so on.

Apparently according to Wikipedia, there’s a letter from Lewis to a child in which he says:

I think I agree with your [chronological] order for reading the books more than with your mother’s. 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 read them. I’m not even sure that all the others were written in the same order in which they were published

But then the article goes on to mention that many scholars disagree with this ordering, and that it dilutes the impact, etc…

How in the world does that work? That seems like the most pretentious sort of second-guessing to me- in essence telling the author of a series of works that they’re wrong about the order in which they should be read. It kind of reminds me of a teacher (or was it a college professor?) who told me once in class that it was perfectly possible for a book or other written work to have symbolism and meanings that the author didn’t intend or even know are there.


For an author it is a good idea to do one’s homework, research, and scholarly criticism and analysis of one’s own work before it is published, and not comment on it and get into arguments with scholars afterwards.

As for meaning, it should be intentional but there are different levels of (possibly unconscious) intention and serendipity, as well as possible coincidences.

ETA sometimes there are genuine continuity errors in multi-book series— it happens!— that the author corrects in later editions.

The author is unaware of how many things in the books make very little sense when changing the order of the reading, because he was only concerned with continuity when he was writing, but scholars are able to look closely at all the references and such and can point out why it makes much more sense to read them in the order they were published. While Lewis might feel as though the order of publication might not match the order of being written, that’s definitely not true for the first few books, where the majority of the continuity issues are if you start with Magician’s Nephew.

Plus, you really can’t completely read them in chronological order unless you stop LW&W near the end, then read Horse and his Boy, then go back to finish LW&W. That’s just silly. There’s no reason to do that other than it happens to be chronological.

As I understand it, Tolkein didn’t intend for the Battle of Five Armies to be a reflection of WWI.

However, it’s difficult to see many other parallels to it in history. The Napoleonic wars had some multi-national alliances but there was at least a fairly clear cause for all of it - for Napoleon to rule everything/to prevent Napoleon from ruling everything. Prior to that, most alliances were one group of nations trying to take over some land from someone weaker than their alliance.

A bunch of armies getting together, to fight it out, for effectively no obvious rationale like in WWI is a rare event. And that’s pretty much the case of the Battle of Five Armies.

I would have to agree that the author is wrong. He might be right that he had no particular intention of taking a note from the real world but it seems unlikely that it didn’t affect how he viewed war in the 1930s. (And, likewise, writing while WWII was unfolding, it’s probably not too strange that LOTR became more clearly a good vs evil affair.)

I blame Walter Hooper for the Narnia mixup. He got the rights to the books after C. S. Lewis died, and immediately renumbered them in chronological order.

The published order means the books flow from one to the other. In fact, some of the books written later have clever callbacks to the previously-written books. Which make NO sense if you read them with one of the later books numbered “1” (which is The Magician’s Nephew, where you learn where the lamppost that Lucy sees immediately upon discovering Narnia comes from… if you hadn’t read Lion/Witch/Wardrobe yet, you’d wonder why you’re supposed to care).

I can think of many series where reading/viewing them in chronological order would be less than enjoyable. “No, no, no, kids, you have to sit through the Star Wars prequels before you get to meet Luke and Han and all the fun characters and actually start to care about the series. But don’t be angry, you get to start with…a trade dispute! YAY!”

Lewis made his opinion quite clear of what order to read them in, by writing them in that order. One letter to a fan where he tells her “You do you” doesn’t change that.

In the specific case of the Narnia books, there are some callbacks in later-written books that don’t make sense if they are read in the order of the internal chronology; e.g. the narrative voice in The Magician’s Nephew talks about the seed brought back from Narnia being planted in England and eventually falling in a storm, then its wood being made into a wardrobe that the reader might have heard of, which makes little sense if you hadn’t read The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe yet. There’s also the matter of shoehorning The Horse and His Boy into the last few pages of The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe, by strict chronology.

The other thing to consider is that Lewis may have been trying to be kind when writing to the girl in supporting the chronology as she saw it, or that he didn’t consider the question to be all that important and thus didn’t take much time to ponder on it.

If you asked me, I’d say first-time readers should read in publication order for the flow, which is how I read it to my kids, but when I reread I’ll typically do so in order of internal chronology.

Of course, the definitive treatment of authorial authority comes to us from Mr. R. Dangerfield:

ETA: ninja’d by @digs and @Chronos - too fast for me!

Both writer and interpreters are correct. It really doesn’t matter. /writer, Publisher’s Weekly reviewer.

Isaac Asimov tells about being in the audience at a talk about one of his stories (or at least when one of his stories came up). After the speaker gave his interpretation of the piece, Asimov got up and said he didn’t think that’s what the story meant.

“What makes you think you know what this story means?”

“I wrote it.”

“I still say, what makes you think you know what it means?”

[This is not Asimov’s verbatim account of the incident, just my no doubt faulty recollection. I’m sure someone – paging @Exapno_Mapcase – will recall it more accurately. I couldn’t find it in a few minutes of quick Googling.]

People read a lot more into The Trees by Rush than what was originally intended by Neil Peart. He meant it as a silly little story about imagining if trees were more like people based on a cartoon that he saw, but the story has a lot of potential political/economic implications. I was rather surprised when reading that Peart didn’t mean anything in particular given that certain previous Rush lyrics were very clearly drawing from Ayn Rand.

And in some ways it makes sense that he didn’t mean anything by it, because which trees one is supposed to agree with is rather ambiguous; both varieties have their merits. It’s only when people whose politics are too polarized one way or the other do they assume that it obviously talking about how awful the other side is. As much as one person could say that it shows the folly of forced equality, it could also been seen that the author is advocating for the violent overthrow of capitalism.

A professor once related to me that he was giving Tom Stoppard a ride to the airport after a visit to the university. There was a student in the car, and he asked Stoppard what he thought about the constant analysis and reanalysis of his works.

Stoppard’s reply was something like, “sometimes you pack for a trip and don’t realize what made it into the suitcase. That doesn’t mean you didn’t put it in there.”

In other words, it’s the prerogative of scholars to interpret works as they see fit. They can find truths independent of the truths the author intended when the work was written.

I don’t know about it happening to Asimov himself, but Asimov wrote about it happening to Shakespeare, in his short story “The Immortal Bard”.

It’s just Death of the Author writ large. Yes, that is one valid means of interpreting a work, but there are other equally valid ones. Several should be taken together to fully explore the work instead of relying on either the author or any particular reader’s ideas.

As to Narnia, either reading order is fine. I prefer starting with Wardrobe, but others prefer starting with Nephew. Either/or.

This is certainly true; and I suspect most authors would agree.

On the other hand, if a scholar makes a claim about what the author was thinking or consciously intended or was trying to do, the author is the ultimate authority on whether or not that’s true.

Actually (if what Wikipedia says is true, and I’m pretty sure it is), Lewis began work on The Magician’s Nephew immediately after The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe but finished it last, even after The Last Battle (which was the last of the seven to be published as well as the last chronologically).

I don’t think it’s always necessarily true that an author intends his/her works to be read in the order they were written, or published, but it usually works that way. IIUC, Lois McMaster Bujold recommends that her Vorkosigan books be read mostly in chronological order, not publication order.

But yeah, in this case, it isn’t a matter of an author publicly and officially saying that the books should be read in chronological order, but saying, in a private letter, “Yeah, kid, okay.”

This is confusing to me, what manner of scholaship would qualify you to make this assessment? I mean you could be an expert in 20th children literature generally and CS Lewis specifically but that wouldn’t really give weight to your thoughts on what is essentially a matter of opinion (in which CS Lewis’ opinions are a matter of record).

If CS Lewis said his favourite ice flavor is chocolate, then its chocolate, even if the leading scholars on Children’s Literature in the first half of the 20th century prefer vanilla.

This reminds me of Georgia O’Keeffe‘s insistence that there was no sexual imagery on her flower paintings. I believe her that she didn’t intend that, but I can see why critics and fans disagree.

Academic scholarship is sufficient to overcome authorial facts. :face_with_monocle:

I have posted this account but I think it might be relevant…

Speaking of scholars interpreting works of literature I remember reading somewhere an anecdote of a student who got into an argument with his teacher— they were reading Don Quixote in English and the teacher was making a great deal about the word usage in a passage and how Miguel Cervantes hid a double meaning into the passage. The student reminded the teacher Cervantes originally wrote the book in Spanish and there is no way he intended that passage to be understood in that way in English.

If I read Narnia in order of publication, and I find that I enjoy it more that way then reading it in order of chronology, am I enjoying it “wrong?” If someone asks me what the best way to read Narnia is, do I base my advice off of what I actually experienced reading the series, or do I have to tell them what CS Lewis said to do?

If someone asks me about Star Wars, do I tell them they have to watch all nine movies, in order, starting with The Phantom Menace? Or can I tell them to just watch Star Wars and maybe Empire, and not worry about the rest?

Can I recommend individual Marvel films, or does a prospective new viewer have to watch all 50+ of them? I know which one Kevin Feige would prefer, but I’m not sure his opinion is the most important one, here.

Can I tell someone not to read a book at all? That certainly would contradict the intent of the author, who would really prefer it if everyone read their book.