The Magician’s Nephew: Chronicles of Narnia
by C.S. Lewis
The Magician’s Nephew is the sixth book written in the Chronicles of Narnia series, however chronologically it is the first, so I chose to start here. I read The Last Battle years ago when I was still in grade school and remember absolutely nothing about it, and I have the most recent cinematic version of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe somewhat fresh in my mind. All this is to say that while I have some exposure to Narnia, little of it is fresh enough for me to have many expectations going into this book. What I got out of The Magician’s Nephew was a bit of a mixed bag. It is, obviously, a children’s novel, and I was able to read it as one much more easily than I am with YA novels. It is also (and this should come as no surprise either) heavy on the Christian symbolism and mythology. That said, I enjoyed the first part of the book for its Dahl-esque glorification of the morality and triumph of children over adults, but the latter half of the book which is essentially an animal version of the Genesis story was much too heavy handed for me. In short, it strapped subtlety to a rocket full of dynamite and blasted it into the sun.
All right, so above I mentioned that The Magician’s Nephew is a lot like a fluffy version of Genesis, and it is, but it’s also literally the genesis of Narnia. This prequel was meant to describe how Narnia came into being and how the evil witch came to inhabit what should have been a peaceful and happy place, how the wardrobe came to be a portal, the lamp post, the talking animals, the all of it, and as far as world building mythology goes, it does a fairly good job of this in the amount of space it has.
We start the story with Polly, a young girl living in London, who meets the boy next door, Digory after spying on him over the fence. They’re about the same age, so they become fast friends and playmates. We learn that Digory is staying with his aunt and uncle because his mother is sick and is being unsuccessfully treated for a mystery disease. Polly sympathizes with him, and after a bit of a pep talk, the two of them hatch a plan to try to get into the old abandoned house at the end of their complex by moving through the connected walls of all the houses in between. It’s a great plan, except none of the children can decided on math of the whole thing, and instead of ending up in the abandoned house, they find themselves in the secret attic of Digory’s uncle, a room that is regularly off limits.
Uncle Andrew is from the start, a horrible man. He tries to get the children involved in his experiments but fortunately Polly is able to smell a rat, and insists that it is time for her to go home. Uncle Andrew capitulates and offers her a pretty yellow ring, which she happily accepts and then POOF, she’s gone. Of course, Digory doesn’t take too kindly to his new friend being winked out of existence, but Uncle Andrew insists that it was a necessary sacrifice in the name of magical inquiries–after all, the guinea pigs he’d already sent can’t come back to tell anyone what they saw on the other side. So Digory, rightly insists that Uncle Andrew bring Polly back, and Uncle Andrew insists that Digory himself go to bring Polly back, and after a lengthy history on how Uncle Andrew came to be a *ahem* magician, Digory finally agrees to go, but calls his uncle (again, rightly) a coward. So he takes the green rings, which can bring them back, and a yellow ring which flings him through dimensions to where Polly is, sleeping in a tranquil forest type marsh thing. They have a bit of trouble with memory for a time, followed by an argument about whether or not they should really go straight back to uncle Andrew, or explore some of the other pools, which are apparently portals to other places.
So after Digory and Polly get a few shots in at each other’s genders, they agree to go exploring. Using the yellow rings again, they hop into a different pool than the one they popped out of and end up in Charn, which is a bleak, cold world, devoid of people or any living thing really. The children wander around the streets of Charn until they come to a palace which finally has something interesting in it; an entire hall of wax figures. They start out looking like good and gentle people, but progressively, the deeper they go, the people start looking colder, and meaner, until they come to the final statue of a gorgeous woman who looks positively wicked and prideful. Near her is a bell and a hammer and an ominous inscription warning the kids that whoever strikes the bell may or may not bring danger upon themselves, but wouldn’t you just love to find out?
It is Polly’s opinion that the bell ought not to be rung, but Dignory is fairly itching with curiosity and after a verbal fight, he physically (and painfully) restrains Polly to ring the bell for himself. Well, not only does the bell ring, but the ringing gets louder and louder and so loud that it begins to collapse parts of the palace before it finally stops. And that’s not all. The beautiful, wicked lady? She gets up! She gets up and demands to know who woke her. Unfortunately, the whole palace is still coming down around them, so she does her only kind act in the whole book and doesn’t leave the children behind to be crushed by falling stone. She gets them out and sets upon Digory a slew of questions about how he came to be there and to wake her, and gives them an account of her own history. In short, Jadis killed everybody in Charn because she could, and also because she didn’t like her sister.
The kids obviously don’t think any better of her than they do Uncle Andrew, and hatch a plan to escape back to their own world. Unfortunately it goes wrong, and they end up bringing Jadis back as well. Fortunately she can’t use her magic in the real world, but she is still incredibly strong, which she demonstrates in going on a rampage throughout London on the top of a hansom she stole. Digory makes the brave decision to try and get her back to her own world, but this time he manages to transport himself, Polly, Uncle Andrew, Jadis, the hansom horse and the cabby into a black, world of emptiness.
Well, almost emptiness. There’s a song out there, somewhere in the blackness, and it’s calling up all sorts of things. Stars, a moon, a sun, and as the sun rises, they get their first look at who is singing the song–Aslan the lion. Jadis freaks out and throws a lamp post at him but it harmlessly bounces off his face. She takes off, and Aslan finishes creating the world in seven minutes. The whole world, including all the animals in it grow up out of the ground to Aslan’s song, and then he chooses two of each animal to gift speech to. The animals then go on their way to torment Uncle Andrew who has convinced himself that he hasn’t actually seen what he’s just seen.
Digory on the other hand tries to get an audience with Aslan because hey, if anyone can cure his dying mother it’s God, right? But Aslan isn’t entirely pleased with Digory, since it was Digory who brought Evil into the newborn Narnia in the form of Jadis. He instructs Digory to go to the edge of the world and grab a silver apple from the tree growing there and bring it back, so that he can fend off Jadis for a little while. He gives the cab horse wings to fly them to the tree, where they’re once again met with an ominous message to not steal the fruit and use it for selfish purposes. Digory does what the sign asks and gets his fruit but Jadis has gotten there before them and temps the children to eat from the Tree of Knowledge *cough* which Digory refuses to do and instead flies back to Aslan with the apple and plants it by the river.
There’s then a coronation of the first king and queen of Narnia, and Aslan agrees to send Digory, Polly, and Uncle Andrew back to the real world, with a silver apple for Digory’s mother as a reward.
Back home Digory cures his mother, buries the apple core with the magic rings and goes about his life, which involves inheriting a lot of money and moving to the country, until, when he’s an adult, he comes back to his uncle’s house and cuts down the apple tree and fashions it into a wardrobe for his country estate.
Wow, that summary is almost longer than the book! I enjoyed this story, as I said, because of the innocent triumph of the children in it. The Christian mythology I could have stomached a lot more easily if it hadn’t felt like I was being beaten over the back of the head with a bible. I also enjoyed the tip of the hat it gives to Jane Eyre in the beginning, and the nice way it ties in little things from the rest of the Narnia books. As a final volume, it would absolutely give warm closure to the series. As a first book, it allows for a simple, easy introduction into the world and its key players. Either way you chose to read The Magician’s Nephew, it is well worth your time.
The next book on my reading list is The Neverending Story by Michael Ende.