One issue with teaching The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is that it's already a pretty popular book. When I teach it, something around one-quarter of my students have already read it. This isn't a major stumbling block for me because I teach and analyze it at a level students will not have experienced before, but this can be an issue. As well, for an advanced middle school reader, one who's already slogging his/her way through the Harry Potter series, the book is a little on the easy side.
Let me introduce to you one of my favorite middle-grade fantasy novels, The Weirdstone of Brisingamen by Alan Garner. This unsung classic is, in many ways, superior to C.S. Lewis's book while sharing many of its thematic elements.
The book begins with two middle school-aged children, Colin and Susan, who have been sent from London by their mother to spend the summer with her old nurse in the English countryside (shared thematic element #1). The stay in the region of Alderley, which is an area of England rich with old folklore. The two children encounter the magical realm (shared thematic element #2) in their explorations of a nearby hill, eventually encountering an ancient wizard, Cadellin, who lives under the hill guarding a group of sleeping knight, the “Sleepers”, who are fated to awaken during England's greatest need. Unfortunately, Cadellin has lost a magical stone which guarantees his power, the “Weirdstone”, and now is vulnerable.
I will not spoil the ending here, but there are things to take note of in this book. Like The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, the main female character Susan, is brave and intelligent without the sexism that taints C.S. Lewis. (Susan must be a popular name amongst fantasy writers.) The couple that Colin and Susan stay with, the Mossocks, speak in a well-written regional accent which is fun to interpret and speak aloud.
Anybody with an education in medieval fantasy literature will recognize the identity of the Sleepers: they are, of course, King Arthur and his knights. This is never mentioned explicitly, but any clever reader will understand this. That said, the identity of Cadellin also becomes quite clear even though he does not share the exact same name as the eternally famous wizard of Arthur's court. Keeping these references in the background makes the book stronger. The quest to save the Sleepers runs the risk of being cheesy, but Garner stays clear away from any hint of that.
One of the strongest aspects of this book is it's sense of atmosphere and place. On a way C.S. Lewis was rarely able to to, Alan Garner creates an air of menace and foreboding. Strange mists become terrifying and dangerous. At times it seems as if the very boulders might leap up and seize the two young children. As well, the worlds of the magical and classical cross over dramatically. While Lewis always kept Narnia separate from the real world and mostly accessible through overt doorways like a painting or wardrobe, Garner has his magical world become a threat to the real one, forcing Gowther Mossock, the book's equivalent of Professor Kirke, to join in the children's quest.
The most effective section of the book may be the chapters that take place underground. While fleeing an evil witch, a person far more earthy and repugnant than the White Witch, the children find themselves in caves pursued by diminutive but numerous creatures called svarts. Aided by two dwarves (dwarfs?), the four scratch their way through tunnels to the surface in a sequence so claustrophobic it will make any reader cringe. It is a landmark moment of fantasy writing and terrifying. These tunnels are so cramped that if one of the four becomes caught, everyone behind will be trapped and die. Then there's water. (Shudder!)
Lastly, while Narnian mythology seems to be a blend of classical Greek with Germanic folk traditions, The Weirdstone is a heavier dose of Norse lore mixed with Celtic mythology. We are far closer here to Tolkien than Lewis ever got. At the climax of the story, when the heroes are being attacked with absolutely overwhelming force, a terrifying being from the tales of Valhalla appears, assuring the doom of everything dear and good if the main characters fail.
While the ending of the story is fairly predictable, this is no weakness. The heroes prevail but not without great cost, losing a dear member of their company. Lewis's Narnia seems to exist strangely as a place where humans can appear and have adventures, always emerging stronger and more mature. The worst thing that happens at the end is the the children miss Narnia as the deal with the mundanity of the “real world”. Garner's tale is far more realistic with the costs of war, but not so much that a young reader will be turned off.