I could take a straw poll to find out which of the Narnia books everyone likes best (feel free to leave a comment). The Guardian claims that The Magician’s Nephew is the second favorite book out of the series, though it has never been that high in my own rankings. It’s a charming story, and more importantly, some key back-story, but one can’t help feeling as if it’s a bit of a ‘prequel.’* Especially if, like me, you began your Narnian adventures with The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.
But let’s give TMN a chance. Digory Kirke, who will become Professor Kirke in TLWW & other books, shouting ‘It’s in Plato! All in Plato! What do they teach in these schools?’, is just a small boy, wandering through the drafty attic-space connecting a row of terraced houses. Joined by the intrepid neighbor-girl Polly, they soon fall victim to a trick of Digory’s mad-professor-uncle** Andrew and find themselves wandering in the tranquil, shady ‘Wood between the Worlds,’ filled with pools by which they can access different dimensions. They risk jumping in a strange pool and wind up in the so-old-it’s-dying world of Charn, encountering ruined cities and one long hall filled with wax people.
In the hall is a bell with a poem posted underneath it, enticing the reader to chance a ring – or always wonder what would have happened. Digory strikes it, awakening the tall, beautiful queen Jadis, a powerful magician who claims to have conquered Charn and then sent it to sleep with the use of the ‘Deplorable Word.’ With her awakening the city begins to crumble; the children escape to the Wood but manage to bring Jadis back with them, and then, back into England.
She quickly causes a fuss, bent on conquering England/Earth although her magical powers are nonexistent in our world. Thanks to some quick thinking by Digory, a whole cadre of characters are transported back to the Wood and then into a dark ur-place, where they quickly encounter a singing lion.
Spoiler: it’s Aslan, singing Narnia into being. For a good chapter-and-a-half the only music of the song (and its creation-effects) are described; its first lyrics are,
“Narnia, Narnia, Narnia, awake. Love. Think. Speak. Be walking trees. Be talking beasts. Be divine waters.”
And with that ends chapter 9, as far as we’ll go for today.
A note on allegory
Allegory, not to put too fine a point on it, is a bitch. Once you start claiming that what you are writing is allegorical – that it is analogical to the very nature of reality – you open the door to having every tiny bit of your story diced up, interpreted, misinterpreted and spat back out, bearing little resemblance to the original. To some degree of course, all writing contains these analogies. By writing allegorically as a Christian, Lewis is putting flesh on the bones of his theology, including the most concrete and/or controversial bits of his theology. He’s not only alluding to the physical world but also the metaphysical and he’s alluding in a rather cunning fashion: by using children’s literature.
I think that this cunning is why, as I mentioned in the introductory post, the aesthetics of my faith are so strongly Narnian. At the time in which I was just beginning to form the capacity to think beyond the corporeal, to engage with the reality of the transcendent, to grapple with this Someone that apparently was supposed to be called ‘God’ (among many other titles one found mostly in hymn-books), I was reading these books for the first time. That they spoke in story-form about the categories of faith made them (the story and the categories) come vividly to life.
Of course there will be parts of Narnia that are details of the story, plot devices or narrative shortcuts rather than hard-and-fast doctrinal arguments. By engaging with Narnia as allegory we accept that Lewis does have the idea of a bigger story of spiritual reality underpinning his small story. And so, with that, some musings:
Temptation & evil
Despite the laughable attempts of the 2010 film version of ‘Voyage of the Dawn Treader’ to turn that tale into a cautionary ‘you must avoid temptation’ yarn, TMN is really where the discussion of temptation enters into Narnia. And no better place than with the archetypal temptation of Eve by the Serpent, or, in Narnia, of Digory by the Bell and its poem. I find it fascinating that it is the children in Lewis’ stories that bring evil into the world: their innocence and curiosity is foolish, perhaps, but not selfish – they do not desire the knowledge of Good and Evil, as in the Genesis creation story. We’ll return to a discussion of temptation in part 2 of TMN.
The ‘evil’ that has been introduced into Narnia isn’t an amorphous substance but a person, Jadis, alternately the ‘Witch’ or the ‘Queen.’ From a feminist standpoint I am concerned that although Lewis personifies his curious Eve-character as the boy child Digory, he then personifies evil itself as a woman. Jadis is present in different forms throughout the Narnian saga; for example, as the White Witch in TLWW and as the serpent/enchantress in The Silver Chair, and in the echoes of the serpent in the reptilian bird-god Tash in The Last Battle. Why this categorical association of powerful women with evil?
Of course Lewis is writing before the advent of feminism (though not, interestingly, of women’s suffrage movements), so we might find wider cultural reasons for his reinforcement of patriarchy. It is also worth noting that the word he commonly associates with Jadis, rather than evil or powerful, is cruel. The use of her power in cruel, destructive ways is the source of her evil. The ‘deplorable word’ that Jadis spoke to achieve ultimate power over her world, Charn, has chilling reverberations with the atomic warfare of WWII and the beginnings of the Cold War. TMN was published 1955, after all.
But this doesn’t take away from the fact that Lewis’ archetype of evil is a woman, sprung from Digory’s giving-in to temptation in Charn, and later, becoming a temptress herself. Is this the ‘lady folly’ of the Biblical Proverbs, calling out in the streets, with a voice as loud as ‘lady wisdom?’ We’ll keep an eye on Jadis throughout this series.
How much fun must Lewis have had writing this book? Given a blank slate on which to imagine a creation narrative, he wonderfully illustrates it with Aslan, the lion and Jesus-figure, singing and imbuing the new world with a magically generative power. Even things like iron lamp-post bars, coins and toffees grow into trees when dropped on the soil. I will leave you to read the chapters in your own time rather than quoting them at length here. Suffice it to say that Lewis is at his best in TMN not when writing dialogue, but in his descriptive prose. Interestingly, it is only after Frank the Cabbie has sung a hymn to calm the party and ‘pass the time’ that the Lion appears, singing. And it is Polly who makes the imaginative link between the song and the life bubbling up all around her: she gets the idea that all these things are ‘like ideas coming out of the lion’s head.’ It is as if Aslan, aware of an audience, is creating in song because the humans have been singing. Although the party don’t make this connection, Polly, who is curiously silent during much of this part of the story, is the only who recognizes the song as one of creation.
Lewis makes a clear statement against immanentism (the idea that the creation an of extension of the deity rather than distinct from it) in his story. The Lion effects a creatio ex nihilo; its song causes everything else to come into being and start singing as well. Though the doctrine of the ex nihilo is not synonymous with Christian orthodoxy,*** during Lewis’ lifetime it would have been the predominant view held by Anglican laypeople, even of the imaginative, academic sort.
Another not-so-missable theological point being made here is about the pre-existance of Christ. Because TMN was published after TLWW, readers will be familiar with Aslan’s association with Christ, the second person of the Trinity, rather that just with just a vaguely divine figure. To have him actively involved in creation is not just trinitarian; it’s practically a creative rendering of the first ten verses of the gospel according to John.
Fantasy meets science fiction
I have lamentably never read Lewis’ Space Trilogy (it’s next on my to-read list for the Lewis canon), but I do love the crossover between worlds that he must address when dragging Earth characters into Narnia. How does the passage of time work? Does magic work on Earth as well? What is this magic? Rather than taking the modernist ‘magic in Narnia is equal to scientifically identifiable phenomena on Earth,’ Lewis allows for a bit of mystery in his magic. Jadis’ spells do not work on Earth, but she nonetheless retains considerable power. Polly, Frank and his horse, untouched by any ‘magical genes’ (as Uncle Andrew thinks he has) can travel between worlds. Uncle Andrew dabbles in magic to develop his magic rings. Far from viewing this last point as a necessity of the plot, I think that the implication of a permeable boundary between worlds is important both from a narrative as well as a theological perspective. That there are other worlds out there, beginning and ending all the time, not untouched by evil or danger, Lewis grants, as well as a sort of universal curiosity-and-fear about moving between worlds.
Moving between worlds becomes Lewis’ apologetic for his use of allegory. Allegory ‘cuts both ways,’ so when Lewis says something about Narnian reality through the eyes of his Earth characters, readers naturally find themselves evaluating how this reality transposes back on their own. The events that take place on Earth have their reverberations in Narnia as well. It’s a subtle reinforcement but effective.
Let me sum up
As Inigo Montoya rightly tell us, ‘let me explain’ usually has to kowtow to ‘let me sum up.’ So, in short: Lewis = crazy-smart dead white English dude who has written children’s novels with surprising theological and emotional resonance. The Magician’s Nephew, we’ve seen so far, conveys some pretty significant opinions about ‘the beginning of things.’ Next week: conversations with Aslan, winged horses, the fountain (garden?) of youth, and the unreliability of fairy-tale endings! As always, feel free to weigh in or lay into Narnia in the comments below.
*Not to be confused with unfortunate prequels like the Star Wars ones, parodied excellently here.
**Mad-professorship apparently runs in the family.
***Indeed, good and thorougly scriptural cases can be made against it; see for example Catherine Keller, discussed last year on this blog, and her musings on ‘the spirit of God hovering over the face of the deep.’