We all know The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, C.S. Lewis’s beautiful children’s book that he wrote for his goddaughter. The book, about a magical land called Narnia, sparked a whole series, of which The Magician’s Nephew was the sixth to be published. It is, however, the series’ prequel and so it is the first story according to Narnia history. To make matters more complicated; Lewis started writing this book soon after finishing The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, but it took him five years to complete it. Whether you regard it as the first, the second or the sixth installment in the series: this is a book of beginnings.
The story starts in 1900, with two children playing in the attic of the rowhouses where they live. The attic that Digory and Polly are exploring connects all the houses in the row, so that the children can crawl from house to house. They happen upon Digory’s uncle, who is secretly a magician. As an experiment, he tricks the children into touching magical yellow rings that transport them to a strange land full of pools. The children recognise this land as an in-between place, like the attic that connects their houses back home. They call it the ‘Wood between the Worlds’, where every pool is a portal to another world.
Before they go back home, the curious Digory persuades Polly to explore one other world using the rings that his uncle gave him. Yellow rings bring you and everyone you touch to the Wood between the Worlds, while green rings enable you to jump through a pool into one of those worlds. Unfortunately, the pond they choose brings them to a desolate world from which they inadvertently bring an evil queen called Jadis back to England, who promptly goes on a rampage through London, trying to take over Earth.
Digory and Polly try to return the Queen to her own world by touching her and the rings at the same time. In the confusion, the children, Uncle Andrew the magician, the Queen, a London cab-driver and his horse called Strawberry all end up in a dark, empty world. This is a world that is not yet created. As they all watch, the lion Aslan appears and creates the world by singing. It is the start of Narnia.
As I mentioned, the story is a prequel, especially to Lewis’s first Narnia book that tells the story of Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy Pevensie. Everything started when Lewis’s friends, after having read The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, asked him how the Victorian lamppost that is in the middle of Narnia’s woods ended up there. Lewis, who had not originally intended to write any more Narnia stories, was intrigued by the question and wrote the answer in the form of this prequel. We also learn more about the origins of the magical wardrobe through which the Pevensies end up in Narnia, and about the mysterious Professor Kirke.
It is no secret that Lewis’s Narnia stories have strong parallels with Biblical stories, although he himself maintained that he did not intend them as such. The beginning of Narnia is reminiscent of the story of Genesis and the creation of Earth. As in Genesis, evil is brought to the world shortly upon its creation, and as in Genesis, a personification of evil tempts the protagonist to take a bite of an apple. This happens when Digory is sent by Aslan to find an apple that will keep the evil Jadis away. The Queen, who has eaten one of the apples, appears and tells Digory to take a bite to become immortal. Furthermore, he can steal an apple and bring it to his mother, who is gravely ill. But Digory is not the first man in existence: he has other people to consider, mainly his mother and what she would think of him stealing. He doesn’t make the same choice as Adam and Eve.
C.S. Lewis was a storyteller in heart and soul. He was also an English literature professor and lay theologian, after he converted to Christianity at the age of 32. He wrote and spoke extensively about all kinds of skeptical questions that he had in his years as an agnostic, prior to his conversion, and thought about still now that he called himself a Christian. As a child he was mightily fascinated by Norse mythology and created a fantasy land called Boxen, together with his elder brother. He grew up to study and teach Mediaeval and Renaissance Literature. In everything he wrote (that I know of) this rich imagination plays a part, as well as the theological questions that to him were of the utmost importance. The biblical creation story shines through in The Magician’s Nephew, basically Lewis’s own mythology, as an inspiration and reminder of what was true to him. He did not mean the story to be a retelling of Genesis or to uncritically impress Christian values on young children.
Even if he did mean to do that, his books are not like some prudish, moralising children’s stories that Lewis would probably be familiar with from his own childhood. His writing is fresh and humorous, sparkling with imagination. His children are real children and not little adults, which is quite a feat. He describes countless wonders, sometimes abandoning the plot for a while to talk about a forest, or a building, or a garden at length. This doesn’t bother me, and it bothered me even less when I was little. I had a remarkable tolerance for digression back then, I remember, which enabled me to coast through books like The Secret Garden and Little House on the Prairie without getting bored. The Magician’s Nephew however has tons of adventure and threatening antagonists to keep you interested when you’re not eight years old and a day-dreamer. Lewis is the all-knowing narrator who tells the story like a grandfather telling a bedtime story:
“I wonder what Polly’s doing?” thought Digory. He wondered about this a good deal as the first slow half-hour ticked on. But you need not wonder, for I am going to tell you. She had got home late for her dinner, with her shoes and stockings very wet. And when they asked her where she had been and what on earth she had been doing, she said she had been out with Digory Kirke. Under further questioning she said she had got her feet wet in a pool of water, and that the pool was in a wood. (…) As a result she was told that she had been very naughty indeed and that she wouldn’t be allowed to play with ‘that Kirke boy’ any more if anything of the sort ever happened again. Then she was given dinner with all the nice parts left out and sent to bed for two solid hours. It was a thing that happened to one quite often in those days.”
I’ve loved the Narnia Chronicles ever since I first read them, although The Magician’s Nephew was my least favourite. The reason for this is very simple: I wanted to be in the world of Narnia, and a big part of the prequel doesn’t even take place there. My favourite was The Horse and its Boy, the only book that doesn’t have a protagonist from this world. Still, the least favourite book in a favourite series is also well-loved. It’s just ironic that the young me escaped to a fictional world through a story, that, upon reflection, continuously points to our own world.
Mirror Award for making a cockney cab-driver the king and a magician the jester
C.S. Lewis, The Magician’s Nephew (London, 1955)