The Magician’s Nephew
by C S Lewis,
illustrated by Pauline Baynes.
Fontana Lions 1980 (1955)
In this, the penultimate Narnian chronicle to be published, C S Lewis describes how Narnia came to be. The Magician’s Nephew is set around 1900, the heyday of Sherlock Holmes and Edith Nesbit’s Bastable family adventures, in a suburban London street perhaps similar to Nesbit’s Lewisham (the place recalling the Narnia author’s own surname). Here Polly Plummer and Digory Kirke make friends in a walled garden behind a house terrace before explorations down a secret attic passage lead them in unexpected directions.
There can be few readers who haven’t read, or at least heard of, Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia, even if they’ve only encountered the first (and possibly the best) instalment, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. Less familiar perhaps is the genesis of this world, and The Magician’s Nephew fills in these details admirably.
Biblical imagery is mingled with motifs drawn from classical mythology (such as winged horses) and some overt moralising, all leavened with attempts at humour; but to me what comes over strongest in a second reading is a depiction of different aspects of human love.
Polly first meets Digory when he is consumed by anxiety over his mother’s poor health and missing the countryside because both he and his mother are being looked after by relatives. But when they stumble by accident into the study of Digory’s uncle, Andrew Ketterley, they are inveigled into wearing rings that convey them to the Wood between the Worlds. And thence to the dead city of Charn, where — in a case of ‘out of the frying pan into the fire’ — they meet the dread figure of Jadis.
With some reservations (which I’ll come to presently) I enjoyed my reread of The Magician’s Nephew. Digory and Polly were credible protagonists, sufficiently different from each other to convince as individuals and as pre-teens. Uncle Andrew oscillated between a figure of fun and an ogre, but the award for the most villainous of all is of course Jadis: familiar as the White Witch from The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, her manifestation as the personification of sheer ruthlessness and megalomania is terrifying. Along with Lewis’s evocation of landscape and urban environment these characters were highlights for me.
I was also taken by Lewis’s use of symbols and motifs. The Garden of Eden is prefigured right at the start with the suburban plot where Polly and Digory meet up for the first time and which is revisited at the end. There are folkloric echoes too in the magical bell which, for better or worse, the unwitting visitor is dared to ring (King Arthur was similarly to be awakened in time of need from his eternal sleep with a bell or a horn). And whatever one thinks of the series as Christian allegory, having Aslan as both king of the beasts and Creator of Narnia is powerfully done.
But I must mention my reservations. In teaching and in writing fiction the practitioner is urged to “show, don’t tell”, but this precept doesn’t appear to have been in Lewis’s toolbox. His preachy avuncularism and patronising mansplaining continually hold up the action when those actions should be allowed to speak for themselves. I know too that as a child the whimsy of anthropomorphised animals may well have appealed to me, but as an adult this comes across as a clumsy tic, especially as their treatment here seems to reflect the author’s assumed superiority of class and privilege (though he disavows it when it comes to Queen Jadis).
Reader response theory however throws up further points. Names have meaning, as commentators will have noted. For example, Digory’s surname Kirke means ‘church’ (though any ecclesiastical significance isn’t made clear here). However, his first name is suggestive: when Aslan calls him ‘son of Adam’ we are reminded of that medieval expression of social equality “When Adam delved and Eve span, Who was then the gentleman?” To delve is to dig, of course, and thus Digory’s name is doubtless meant to deepen all the author’s Edenic allusions. On the other hand, Jadis — a name invented by Lewis — is reminiscent of the abusive term ‘jade’, in this case meaning a quarrelsome or disagreeable woman. (Aslan’s name of course is Turkish, meaning lion.)
All this aside, the core of the novel is, I believe, love in its various aspects, whether divine, fraternal, or that between a child and their parent: for instance, it’s clear that Digory is, despite severe provocation from Jadis, very loyal to Polly. In Planet Narnia the writer Michael Ward postulated that the seven books of the Narniad represented the seven astrological planets, and that The Magician’s Nephew corresponded to Venus in Lewis’s covert scheme. If that is true then the love the novel depicts is not so much sexual love as Aslan’s love for his creation and, in particular, Digory’s love for his poorly mother. This story is in fact a personal one for Lewis, because his own mother died of cancer in 1908 when the author was only nine years old; unlike Digory he was unable to do anything about it, but the deep emotions described in the book would have been the same.
The Narniad in general, and this novel in particular, was to have a profound effect on later writers, whose debt to The Magician’s Nephew is all too evident. Philip Pullman references Charn with his city of Cittàgazze in The Subtle Knife (and another ruined city in The Secret Commonwealth); and aspects of Digory’s uncle are reflected in Asriel, especially the greedy look both give the youngsters who will provide access to other worlds. Lev Grossman models the land of Fillory of his Magicians series on Narnia, with the ‘Neitherlands’ in The Magician King being a counterpart to Charn.
Finally, I would mention Susanna Clarke’s Piranesi which alludes to the Chronicles of Narnia not only in the statue of a faun but in a crumbling neoclassical building that comprises aspects of Charn’s palace and city. We cannot but be reminded of the charnel house, the place where bodies of the dead may be stored or even excarnated.
The start of a reread of the Chronicles of Narnia in chronological order