Opening Passage: The first sentences from each. The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe:
Once there were four children whose names were Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy. (p. 111)
From Prince Caspian:
Once there were four children whose names were Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy, and it has been told in another book called The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe how they had a remarkable adventure. (p. 317)
From The Voyage of the Dawn Treader:
There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it. (p. 425)
From The Horse and His Boy:
This is the story of an adventure that happened in Narnia and Calormen and the lands between, in the Golden Age when Peter was High King in Narnia and his brother and his two sisters were King and Queens under him. (p. 205)
From The Silver Chair:
It was a dull autumn day and Jill Pole was crying behind the gym. (p. 549)
From The Last Battle:
In the last days of Narnia, far up to the west beyond Lantern Waste and close beside the great waterfall there lived an Ape. (p. 669)
From The Magician's Nephew:
This is a story about something that happened long ago when your grandfather was a child. (p. 11)
Summary: It's very difficult to know where to start when talking about a set of books you've read repeatedly for about three decades. I'll take the basic outline of the story to be known already, and just remark on some things that stood out to me on this particular reading.
Reading all seven together, one notices most the links between the books, some of which were already obvious and some of which are more subtle. The obvious links are mostly concerned with the characters. The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe introduces the Pevensies to Narnia; Prince Caspian, which was subtitled The Return to Narnia brings them back. They even have very similar overall structures: the Pevensies in coming into Narnia contribute to restoring it in battle against an oppressor. The roles of the Pevensies and of Aslan are nonetheless very different in each case. The Horse and His Boy, in which we learn about what is south of Narnia, occurs within the frame of LWW. Peter and Susan, of course, are too old to return, but Lucy and Edmund return in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, bringing Eustace with them. VDT introduces us to what lies east of Narnia, and makes clear parallels between Eustace and Edmund in LWW. Lucy and Edmund are then too old to return, but Eustace returns in The Silver Chair, bringing Jill Pole; they explore north of Narnia. They return in The Last Battle, which is the third book whose Narnian element actually takes place almost wholly in Narnia. Digory and Polly enter at the very beginning in The Magician's Nephew and see the very end in The Last Battle. Technically, I suppose, MN has a voyage to west of Narnia, but it is not the central element of the tale. LB, unsurprisingly, has plenty of links with both of the beginning tales, LWW and MN. After LWW and PC all the stories explore edges of the map, so to speak: the end of the world (VDT), the Calormen south (HHB), the giantish north and beneath the earth (SC), the first days (MN), and the last days (LB). Notably, though, in each case the means of entry into the world of Narnia is different: Wardrobe (LWW), Horn (PC), Picture (VDT), Door (SC), Rings (MN), railway accident (LB), and, of course, HHB has no entry at all.
But there are subtler connections between the books. The Silver Chair has a lot in common with Prince Caspian. In PC, the backbone of the tale is the journey of the Pevensies from Cair Paravel with the help of Trumpkin, which they botch by not following Aslan, whom only Lucy can see at first; they then meet up with Prince Caspian, who is under the ground in Aslan's How, the monument holding the sacred Stone Table. Then there is physical battle. After the victory they have the Romp, that is the Bacchanalia, securing Caspian's throne. In SC, the backbone of the tale is the journey of Eustace and Jill from Cair Paravel with the help of Puddleglum, which they botch by not following the signs that Aslan gave to Jill; they then meet Prince Rilian, Caspian's son, who is in underland. Then there is a battle against enchantment. After the victory and the escape from underland, they come out in the midst of the Great Snow Dance, thus making it possible for Rilian to see his father and become king properly. While learning is never disparaged, schooling in both is treated as an oppressive thing. In PC, we have the name of the author of Caspian's grammar book (Parvulentus Siccus, i.e., Dry-as-Dust) and at the end we have the freeing of the Telmarine children from school in the Romp. The frame of SC is Experiment House, and Eustace and Jill have to be freed from it, as well, albeit in another sense. None of this is particularly noticeable unless you are looking for it; every similarity involves a significant variation, and, despite PC involving more battle, SC is, of course, a darker book.
As I mentioned in passing, The Silver Chair also has a lot in common with The Last Battle. (The comparison is repeatedly suggested in LB itself.) They both are Eustace and Jill stories, obviously, and they both involve rather consistent failure -- while the Pevensies generally triumph, poor Eustace and Jill not only make every mistake, they hardly ever catch a break. In SC, they never actually succeed -- they fail with regard to three of the four signs, and while they do (barely) get the fourth and most obvious sign with Puddleglum's help, they are still only saved in the end by Puddleglum stamping out the fire and Rilian slaying the serpent. In LB, although nothing is their fault, their task is to lose; they've practically lost already from the moment they enter Narnia. Both SC and LB are also concerned with deception. If we're asking how people can be fooled with regard to the truth, the two major paths are for people to be convinced that what is true is not true, which is the temptation of the Green Witch (SC), and for them to be convinced that what is not true is true, which is the temptation of the Ape (LB). The Green Witch multiplies doubts and the Ape multiplies falsehoods. Both are effective -- the conquest of Narnia from the Green Witch's deception is only narrowly averted and the conquest of Narnia from the Ape's deception succeeds. Neither can be handled by argument alone, precisely because both deceptions are directly messing with the evidence. The only difference between the two cases is that in SC Puddleglum manages to act in time, refusing to play the Green Witch's game, and in LB everyone fails to do this until it is too late.
There were a few other things I noticed. I was quite struck in this reading of The Last Battle with the fact that, while all who pass judgment go to Aslan's country, those who don't have very different end results. The humans who fail go to Tash, at least those about whom we know anything; the Talking Animals who fail lose their power of speech; the Dwarfs who fail are in a sense stuck in their own minds. This may be all tied to the case of Emeth, whose tale is, I think, often misread. The Last Battle, recall, is heavily concerned with deception; in a very real sense, the last battle is not the Battle of Stable Hill but the battle between Truth and Lie. As his own name indicates, Emeth has always sought truth. And Lewis puts Emeth in Aslan's country for much the same reason Dante puts Ripheus in heaven: Ripheus is in heaven to make the point that, wherever it may be, justice is far more well-regarded by God than it is by gods or men. And Emeth is in Aslan's country to make the point that, wherever it may be, the same is true of love of truth. The three different failures, on the other side, are three different ways of describing what begins to happen when one loses the love for truth.
I was also struck this time around with just how extraordinarily good the characterization in The Magician's Nephew is. It's so good that I actually have very little I can say about it. Every character -- every one without exception -- gets a more vivid portrayal than you would expect given that many of them are met only briefly. Over and over again, with just a few well chosen lines, Lewis is able to do more with the characters than most people could do in a much greater space. It's probably not surprising that Digory and Polly are (along with Eustace and Aravis) my favorite characters in the series. And Lewis layers a lot of subtleties to paint a definite picture -- there are many little ways, for instance, in which Digory is very like Uncle Andrew; you could miss quite a few of them if you're not looking for them, but overall they give both Uncle Andrew and Digory a greater depth than they would have otherwise. If you want to know how to handle characters in a story, this is very much a book to study.
I read the books in an unusual order: LWW - PC - VDT - HHB - SC - LB - MN. This order actually works remarkably well. LWW pairs with PC, of course, but as noted in the Introduction, VDT and HHB both pair well as victorious journeys, one from and the other to Narnia, and SC and LB, as noted above, have a considerable amount in common. It's true that SC makes repeated references to VDT, which it follows in publication order, but it also explicitly mentions HHB. And while it might initially seem odd to end with the beginning of the world, simply considering MN itself, it is very well suited to end the series; a retrospective end, one where we see how it all began, is a perfectly respectable end, and the end of MN would be perfect as an end to the series, bookending the series with the wardrobe. The primary problem with putting it last, and one that is perhaps insuperable, is that LB repeatedly refers to MN. I'm glad I tried out this order -- I saw a lot that would perhaps have been less obvious in any other order, more than I can write down here. But it's probably the case that, in general, The Last Battle is too obviously suited to being last. So my suggested order is none of the standard orders, but LWW - PC - VDT - HHB - SC - MN - LB, taking LWW and PC together, then VDT and HHB together, and then SC, MN, and LB as a sort of trilogy about evil. But the original publication order still works quite well.
A minor note. When reading The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, I realized to my annoyance that the single-volume version I was reading (previously I had only read the individual books) not only makes the irritating decision to use the internal chronological order, thus failing to open with LWW, it also gets the end of the episode of the Dark Island wrong. Most of the time when the original British editions were published in America, they were published essentially as-is. This is not true with VDT; for the American edition, Lewis changed the original description of Eustace to avoid calling him stupid, a small change that later became fairly important given that Eustace is rather significant for the the back part of the series. And Lewis also changed the aftermath of the Dark Island. In the original, fleeing the horror that is the island where dreams come true, they look back and see that it has vanished. Lewis changed this so that the island does not disappear. It makes the ending of the episode quite a bit better. Up to 1994, these changes were reflected in American editions, as they should be. But HarperCollins, in its infinite non-wisdom, reverted the changes when they took over. This is every bit as stupid as Eustace is very definitely not.
In addition to reading the books, I also listened to all of the Focus on the Family adaptations (which also, I noticed this time, revert the VDT changes). I had forgotten how long they were (The Silver Chair, at 225 minutes, just seemed interminable), so it was a fairly heavy time commitment. I very much like Paul Scofield's narration, and the adaptation is reasonably good. Some of the voice acting is quite good, although David Suchet's Aslan mostly only works in small doses (it works best by far in Voyage of the Dawn Treader). Thanks to the Darwins, I also listened to the audiobook version of The Magician's Nephew, read by Kenneth Branagh. It was extraordinarily good, especially from the point at which Jadis arrives in London. The entire back half of it was just splendid. And Branagh, I think, hits the emotional tones of the story (particularly its humor) much better than the FoF adaptation did.
Favorite Passage: There are lots that could be chosen, but here is a passage that I think shows what I meant about MN having extraordinary characterization:
...Polly had discovered long ago that if you opened a certain little door in the box-room attic of her house you would find the cistern and a dark place behind it which you could get into by a little careful climbing. The dark place was like a long tunnel with a brick wall on one side and sloping roof on the other. In the roof there were little chunks of light between the slates. There was no floor in this tunnel: you had to step from rafter to rafter, and between them there was only plaster. If you stepped on this you would find yourself falling through the ceiling of the room below. Polly had used the bit of the tunnel just beside the cistern as a smugglers' cave. She had brought up bits of old packing cases and the seats of broken kitchen chairs, and things of that sort, and spread them across from rafter to rafter so as to make a bit of floor. Here she kept a cash-box containing various treasures, and a story she was writing and usually a few apples. She had often drunk a quiet bottle of ginger-beer in there: the old bottles made it look more like a smugglers' cave. (p. 13)
This little bit of description, eight sentences, is about a place. But the place is described in such a way that by means of it we learn everything essential to know about Polly: she is imaginative, adventurous, and has a sort of practical intelligence.
Recommendation: Highly Recommended, of course. And the Branagh audio version of MN is also Highly Recommended.
C. S. Lewis, The Chronicles of Narnia, HarperCollins (New York: 1994).