In the beginning

The ruins of Charn (Pauline Baynes)

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.

Pegasus (image credit http://www.theoi.com)

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).

Illustration by William Morris

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.

Giovanni Battista Piranesi, Fantasy of an Ancient Bath (1755/1760)

The start of a reread of the Chronicles of Narnia in chronological order

32 thoughts on “In the beginning

  1. This is actually my favorite part of Narnia Chronicles – The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe take the noble second place. Call me nostalgic, but I don’t mind the mansplaining that much, nor the class problems – though talking animals and their unexplained and unearned servility toward humans grated on me more, despite knowing where it came from 😉 I did love the ambivalence of Digory’s uncle, he was terrifying figure right to the point when Jadis showed up and showed him his place 😀 She’s by far the best of Lewis’s creations, Aslan notwithstanding, at least to the older, more jaded me 😉

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    1. Hah! the servile talking animals may also get my goat more than the preachifying, Ola! I too did feel a little bit sorry for Uncle Andrew for his gradual comedown — until I remembered how cavalier and selfish he was before Jadis overtopped his antics. Can you imagine feeling sorry for, say, Trump when after he eventually vacates the White House he and his nasty family get punished by due process of law and he cuts a pathetic figure?

      You, ‘jaded’?! I think not! But yes, ruthless Jadis is an impressive villain, willing to destroy a world rather than yield it to others’ control—now that sounds like someone one worthy of universal hate.

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      1. Oh, if Jadis’s word were law I’d be very terrified indeed! 😅 But this juxtaposition of the pathetic evil of Uncle Andrew, a bit Goethian in its ability to inadvertently bring good, with the total self-consuming evil of Jadis is for me one of the book’s highlights. I also loved how Lewis managed to show that power corrupts – how for some even a promise of it is enough, and how others are deaf to its siren song.

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    1. I hope he appreciates those old, well-thumbed copies, Cathy! I got myself a one-volume hardback a while back but in rereading a paperback copy of this instalment I discovered that the Pauline Baynes illustration of Charn I include in the review is missing from the compendium, and I have no idea why they would do that.

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  2. JJ Lothin

    It’s a long long time since I last read The Magician’s Nephew but the Charn Bell in the Hall of Images has remained with me over the decades: a wonderful illustration of ‘Oh God, what have I just done?!?’

    Really interesting article – thank you!

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    1. Cheers, JJ, I enjoyed putting this together so it’s always a bonus if readers enjoy it too!

      The conundrum of the bell is fascinating, isn’t it. The Arthurian versions of this motif (either a bell or a horn) are inconsistent: in one the visitor is enjoined to sound the instrument, in another forbidden, but the outcome is usually the same—Arthur and/or his knights wake but is told it’s not yet time to be roused and so slumber on.

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      1. jjlothin

        I like that slumbering business … There’s a realm of gods in Theravadin Buddhism that I always fancied getting reborn in: the realm of the unconscious beings.

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  3. I loved reading this post because it reminded me how important the Narnia books were to me in my younger years. I’m stubborn in that I insist on reading them in publication order, and yet The Magician’s Nephew is possibly my favourite. The whole concept of the Wood Between the Worlds and the crawling through the roof space and Digory’s awful uncle – you’re making me want to read it again!!!

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    1. I’m sorry, I’m not taking responsibility for you wanting to read it again, Karen—you own it! 🙂

      Reading in publication order versus chronological order: it’s a matter of personal taste and choice, of course, though I understand Lewis himself thought this should be read first by future readers; perhaps it was because it took him so long to complete it bearing in mind the emotional fall-out of his mother’s early death. But certainly starting with LWW means that the (literally) magical moment when Lucy emerges into a snowy landscape will always have the intended impact.

      The Wood Between the Worlds is a wonderful concept, a bit reminiscent of William Morris’s fantasies. Nick Swarbrick has a lovely piece on the magic of woods here if you’re interested: https://wp.me/pa8jug-27k

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      1. LOL! Indeed – I do feel a bit of a winter of re-reading coming on. As for the order, I can understand why Lewis would think what he thought for future readers. But the start of LWW is magical as you say – and it’s where Narnia made its first appearance in our world, so I would always want to begin with it. And thank you for the link – I’m a great lover of trees and woods! 😀

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        1. We’ve several woodland walks near us — a beech wood with lovely autumn foliage just gone over, a bluebell wood in May, wooded sections along the Usk, wooded hillsides threaded through by a canal towpath — so we’re very lucky in that respect.

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    1. Thanks, Annabel. 😊 I too reread this—rather sooner than I’d originally intended!—after Piranesi, and thought I’d get this review out before scheduling my Clarke review.

      As for the allusions, I can’t help trying to tease them out if I’m able to, but as I always say this is my application of ‘reader response theory’ but no guarantee it represents Lewis’s actual intentions…

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  4. We saw a really well-staged version of this at the Shaw Festival in Niagara-on-the-Lake last October. The adaptation focused our attention on the main ideas, as good theater is often able to do.

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  5. Great points, Chris, although I do have to say I loved all the talking animals, the personification of Christ through Aslan and all the Christian and religious imagery. Call me sentimental and it won’t be a slur!

    This is by far my favorite of the Narniad, which I found to be more “adultish” and vivid and attention capturing than the rest, including the darker aspects with Charn and Jadis, though I liked most of the others.

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    1. I agree there’s a poetic beauty in the novels’ religious ideas which is, in the best sense, sentimental, Laurie: but what I see as Lewis’s avuncularism rather grates for me. Still, chacun à son goût — the world would be very bland if we all had the same tastes and expectations! 🙂

      Do you think The Magician’s Nephew feeling more adult in tone is to do with it being the penultimate chronicle published and — probably — written? Along with The Last Battle and its tragic valedictory tone? Certainly I found in this second read that I enjoyed it more than I’d remembered doing the first time.

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      1. That is a good question, Chris. I am not sure why, but I seem to remember that part of the motivation for writing TMN was to explain somethings, isn’t that right? How the lamp post came to Narnia that the children see in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and also the origin of Jadis, for example. I wonder if those questions came from adults and so he answered them with a “feel” that would have been different if children asked him?

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        1. I agree that Lewis was partly doing an origin story here with Aslan, Jadis and the lamppost, and of course Digory is the Professor in LWW. I shall really have to do some more sleuthing behind the composition of this piece.

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    1. Knowing that Lewis was hugely influenced by Nesbit’s fictional Bastable family (the children, and the uncle, and the India connections) helps to make the London settings more vivid, it’s true, what with the suburban terraces, the lamppost, the cabriolet and the local characters, all straight out of The New Treasure Seekers and The Wouldbegoods — Uncle Andrew fits right in with all that.

      And did you notice that Pauline Baynes’ illustration of Aunt Letty on her mattress echoes Jadis’s sleigh design in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe?

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  6. What an enjoyable read this is. Thank you, Chris. I haven’t seen that particular Pauline Baynes illustration for years and was instantly transported back to childhood. At the age of ten I enjoyed this particular episode of the series and wonder what I would make of it now. You raise several interesting points and I would love to see if I feel the same way as you reading it again after all these years.

    Have you seen that Katherine Langrish’s book about the Narnia stories: “From Spare Oom to Ward Drobe: Travels in Narnia with my nine year-old self” will be published by Darton, Longman & Todd, April 2021?

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    1. Yes, I saw that thread from Katherine on Twitter, Anne, exciting! I hope I will have reread a couple more in the series by then. And maybe you’ll have managed a reread by then too and see whether the same magic was there. 🙂

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  7. I’ve been thinking about doing a Narnia re-read and this post has convinced me to do it before Christmas. I’ll be honest, when I read Narnia I tend not to try and read too much into the stories, which always makes me worry I’m missing so much, as your post has highlighted – there’s so much going on under the surface of even the least exciting of the Narnia books.

    And this – “His preachy avuncularism and patronising mansplaining continually hold up the action when those actions should be allowed to speak for themselves” – pretty much sums up what has always bugged me reading Lewis as an adult (and perhaps even as a child, although maybe I’m giving Young Me a bit too much credit here) 😀

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    1. I do really love reading but — perhaps as a result of an academic musical training with equal emphasis on analysis and well as performance — I also love looking at the ideas behind those books. So the Narnia tales, with their irksome Big Uncle turns of phrase, becomes more palatable to me if I look more at the literary aspects than the theology!

      I read all seven of the books in the one volume edition in one full swoop not that many years ago, so this time round I’m taking them steady and spreading them out. But I might still manage LWW before Christmas… 😁

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