Welcome back to Narnia, peeps. When we last checked in with Digory, Polly and other characters of The Magician’s Nephew, Aslan was Gettin’ All Creatory and Jadis the personification of evil had gone and run off, after throwing the iron lamp-post bar ineffectually at Aslan’s head. As the second half of the book begins, Aslan has chosen some beasts of every species and breathed on them the ability to become talking beasts. Digory, suddenly possessed by the notion that some of the magic of this world could heal his terminally ill mother back in England, marches up to Aslan and asks if she might be made well. Aslan (after giving Strawberry the now-talking horse a convenient set of wings) sends Digory and Polly on a mission to the Western Wild* to a walled garden. In this garden he is to pluck an apple from one of the enchanted trees and bring it back to Aslan.
Strawberry, Digory and Polly make their way (at a truly astonishing rate) to the garden, stopping only for a night’s sleep. Arriving at the garden, they are met by another poem:
Come in by the gold gates or not at all,
Take of my fruit for others or forbear.
For those who steal or those who climb my wall
Shall find their heart’s desire and find despair.
Once inside the garden, Digory picks an apple, despite his hunger and delectable appearance of the fruit. He realizes he is being watched by a semi-awake bird-of-paradise and then by a fully-awake Jadis, who has fled to the garden and eaten the fruit for herself. She plays the temptress again, attempting to convince Digory to eat the fruit and rule with her, or to take one back to his mother instantly. After a short bout of indecision he sees through her ruse and hightails it back to Aslan with Polly and Strawberry.
Aslan reveals to him that indeed, the poem on the gates of the garden contained truth; Jadis will live forever, but at what cost to her quality of life? And because Digory took an apple for another, and did not steal it, Narnia will be consecrated – by the planting of an apple tree – in peace and hope, rather than cruelty and thievery.
With the crowning of Helen and Frank – the cabbie & his wife – as the first King & Queen, and the return of a rather miserable Uncle Andrew by the talking animals, Digory, Polly and Andrew have a short word with Aslan and return to London. Aslan gives Digory a fruit from the newly planted apple tree which he feeds to his mother, and it cures her illness. Digory’s family gets word that a distant relative has died and left them a big house in the country, which enables Digory’s father to come back from military service in India and for them to move to the country for good.
Jadis, Jadis, Jadis! Carnivorous is the word that’s coming to mind when I think about her: ready to devour Narnia as she has Charn. Lewis sets her up in clear opposition to Aslan – when Digory refuses to eat the apple and stay with her, she tries to convince him to steal one for his mother. This is going way beyond a ‘misery loves company’ sort of situation – she is actively encouraging Digory to defy Aslan. We don’t know if she has encountered Aslan before, but it seems to me that Lewis leaves room for her, as the archetype of evil, to have an instinctual reaction against Aslan’s archetypal ‘good.’
That Digory takes so long to shake off her encouragement that he steal the apple to heal his mother is evidence that there is something stronger going on here than just evil vs good, however. I find that The Magician’s Nephew is a bit of a maverick when read against the other ‘rules’ of the Narnia canon.
Some of the ‘rules’ of the Narnia canon:
– no one is to be told what would have happened
– only people of a certain age (children and young adolescents) get to come from England to Narnia
– Aslan is the ‘good’ & Aslan’s opponents are inherently ‘evil’
(There are more – to be discussed in future books, especially The Silver Chair.)
In the other books, the good vs evil lines are much more clearly drawn. But in TMN, Jadis has a choice to make, having left Charn, of how to act both in England and in Narnia; her choice to continue pursuing ultimate domination is not a necessary consequence of her character but a choice. Similarly, Digory’s concern for his mother is his driving motivation throughout the latter half of the story. He happens to make the right choice.
Does this make his character a bit too flat? Perhaps. It is in service of the plot of later books, however, and we need not automatically assume extra character flaws, especially in a children’s straightforward allegory.
Another way that Lewis breaks ranks with the rest of the Narnia canon is in the fact that Aslan tells Digory et al ‘what would have happened’ had he stolen the apple. Readers familiar with Narnia will remember the Aslan’s refrain to the every-curious Lucy that ‘no one is to be told what would have happened,‘ an infuriating and thoroughly real comment on the world as we know it. Is it the ‘grey area’ of creation of a new world, I wonder, are the barriers between concrete and potential realities more permeable, so that characters are allowed to see further down paths that have been set before them?
I love that the poem found outside the apple garden mimics the poem in Charn which beckons Digory to:
Make your choice, adventurous Stranger;
Strike the bell and bide the danger,
Or wonder, till it drives you mad,
What would have happened if you had.**
You know that when you encounter poetry in Narnia, you are to sit up and pay particular attention. Poetry crams lots of meaning into a small space. It also preserves some of TMN’s ambiguity throughout the series, allowing Lewis (and his readers) to break the ‘rules’ of Narnia that we looked at early, and to get at the ‘deeper magic from the dawn of time’ that Lewis refers to later. This deeper magic is not the same thing as the rules; I think that the rules are the translation of that deeper magic into language the Narnians can understand. In my head, this means that the rules are analogous to what scripture is for Christians. The bible itself is not spiritual reality; but it’s a reflection, a documentation, a capturing of spiritual reality in a strange and sometimes strangely ‘ruled’ form (including lots of poetry!). For Christians*** the Bible is something of that ‘deeper magic’ in human language. That’s what makes it so bloody difficult so much of the time!
Poetry, as kind of a shortcut to the ambiguity and the strangeness of the deeper magic, occupies an important place in Narnia – as it does in Tolkien’s work (albeit in a much less let-me-beat-you-over-the-head-with-my-club-made-of-EPIC sort of way). Given Lewis & Tolkien’s friendship and general cross-fertilization in Oxford I suppose this isn’t surprising!
Poetry isn’t the same this as beauty in Narnia, though. The poems that Lewis includes might have beautiful images or linguistic elements to them, but on the whole, when Lewis speaks of something as overtly beautiful, he is not giving a complement. Jadis is continually referred to as ‘beautiful.’ Uncle Andrew’s vanity for dressing well leads to his even worse humiliation at the hands of the talking animals. Aslan is never beautiful; he is simply overwhelmingly present. If we peek ahead to the fate of Susan Pevensie, we find her condemnation in her concern for adulthood and beauty in the form of ‘lipstick and boys and dinner parties.’
Lewis, suffice it to say, is pretty far from Dostoyevsky’s famous maxim: ‘Beauty will save the world.’ His view of beauty, certainly one with a lot of Christian history, is to abhor it and assert that it is only skin deep. Whilst emphasizing the temporary nature of outward beauty is important, I think that defining beauty as pleasing outward appearance is a rather ‘skin deep’ definition of the beauty that doesn’t do it justice. Lewis fascinating descriptions of the creation of Narnia are strange and beautiful. His characters do quite a fair amount of bickering but somehow manage to make choices that help to found Narnia in peaceful ways – a beautiful contradiction.
Wrestling with chosenness & paganism
At the beginning of the second half, Aslan designates a few among each type of animal, Noah-style, to become talking animals. The bigger animals get slightly smaller, and the smaller animals slightly bigger. They gather, Aslan breathes on them and they become the talking animals, a continual presence throughout all 7 books. Humans (English and Telmarine) characters are always best in Narnia when working in partnership with the talking animals and the mythological creatures: fauns, naiads/dryads, river gods, the star-people, etc.
I think that Lewis wrestles with the notion of chosenness / election with the gift of speech to the animals. Why would Aslan give this gift to some and not to others? It seems that they are to act for the good of all of Narnia, but to do so with a particular ability to interact with Narnia’s creator through the medium of speech. Is Lewis reflecting here on the vocation of those ‘called’ to faith in Christ? I think so – or rather I think that this is sort of a Narnian version of the Abrahamic covenant, including the talking animals of Narnia, the creatures of myth, and the English/Telmarine humans who act with them.
The presence of the pagan/mythological creatures has baffled many Christian readers of Narnia. I find it fascinating that so many conservative Christians go on about how much they love Lewis, seemingly overlooking his willingness to throw characters like Bacchus (who shows up in Prince Caspian) and the spirits of the trees into his books – is this just easy syncretism?
A ‘fairy tale ending’ for a fairy tale?
Perhaps it’s my penchant for indie films that makes me so happy with open-ended stories. Whatever it is – I find the end of TMN just a little too easy. Digory’s father gives up on his colonial army days and everyone lives happily ever after in the country. Lewis is writing children’s books, so I suppose an amount of riding-off-into-the-sunset is to be expected. But I do wonder if, were he writing today, he would feel less of a need (or less pressure from the ‘myth’ or ‘fairy tale’ precent) to end his story quite so neatly?
* I use the phrase ‘wilds’ all the time when talking about far-flung areas of the world (or just the outskirts of London that I rarely get to). Thanks, Clive Staples.
** There’s that niggling ‘would have happened’ again! Falling for the same trap as the mythical Pandora, Digory’s choice to risk everything to find out what would have happened brings Jadis to life. Charn is an older world, where much older choices have calcified its destiny in a solid, destructive direction. There’s no grey area here and to be tormented by ‘what would have happened’ is unacceptable, according to Lewis.
***and, I suppose, for Jews, with the regard to the Old Testament only, with a much stronger rule / law connotation.