The penultimate book in the Narniad, The Magician’s Nephew (1955), like the previous entry in the series, The Horse and His Boy takes a leap back in time, but a much larger leap, all the way to the beginning, before there ever was a Narnia. (This post might be slightly spoilery for the book).
Young Digory is staying with his mother’s brother and sister, Mr and Miss Ketterley, while his mother lies seriously ill, and his father is India. But in a sort of reverse of the typical children’s story scenario, rather than Digory having gone from city to country, he has come to London, having lived all his life in the country ‘with a pony and a river at the bottom of the garden’. Here, living next door, he meets Polly Plummer, about his own age, and they soon become friends, exploring their homes since the summer is one of the coldest and wettest they’ve ever seen. Digory tells Polly about his parents and his rather strange Uncle Andrew (Mr Ketterley), always locked up in his study where no one is ever allowed, and whom Miss Ketterley never allows to speak to Digory.
One day, on one of their ‘indoor explorations’ Polly and Digory find the tunnels underneath their homes (once again, I couldn’t help but think of Blyton adventures), and decide to go into a house they know to be empty on their street. But when the go there, they find the house not empty at all but occupied by Uncle Andrew who cleverly traps the children forcing them to wear magic rings that will take them to another world. Thus begins an adventure which not only brings the evil Jadis (the White Witch) into the human world where she unleashes her terror (but with a bit of a comical touch), but also involves a journey to the world that became—in fact becomes before our very eyes—Narnia.
This is the first of the books which goes into some sort of an explanation about where Narnia lies vis-à-vis our real world, and also the first to bring up the idea of other worlds, all accessible from a sort of in-between space—the wood between the worlds. In this it seemed to me, to go from just fantasy as one feels the other books to be, to also bringing in an element of science fiction—likening the different worlds to different places off a tunnel. While this isn’t the central element of the book for magic and the divine are much at work as is the usual case in the Narniad, in this element, I felt the book stood out from the others. There is also a touch of the myth as well, with the discovery of the other world/s being connected with Atlantis.
As in many of the previous books in the series, this one too has its biblical parallels—Aslan’s creation of Narnia for instance, somewhat echoing the creation story; Digory bringing Jadis into that world representing man bringing evil into a ‘good’ world; the apple tree and the temptation that Digory must face besides Aslan himself representing the divine or supreme power—his ‘magic’ or ‘influence’ in this story in fact extends more visibly into the ‘human’ world as we see in his bringing Helen into Narnia and indeed helping Digory.
Besides the creation of Narnia itself (a most beautiful scene in the book as Karen also finds in her review), the book also tells us how Jadis came to be in Narnia and how she got the name we have so far known her by—the White Witch. It was interesting how Lewis brings out the similarities between Jadis and Uncle Andrew as well as other points showing that the worst humans are as bad as (perhaps, worse than) the witches of fantasy–willing to use people (and things) as they need them and then seeing them no longer, believing themselves to be beyond any rules, or closed to seeing anything that they choose not to see, for instance. I was also intrigued by some aspects that Lewis connects with Uncle Andrew; his idea for instance of rules being meant for little boys, servants, women and the general population or his shockedly asking whether he ought to have asked the guinea pigs’ permission before using them in his experiments. Perhaps I am reading too much into it but these seemed to me at least a hint of Lewis’ criticism of patriarchal setups and animal cruelty. On the latter, we also have the fact that despite the Cabby being a kind and good-natured man, Strawberry the horse still calls him out for the treatment meted out to him in the human world.
Uncle Andrew in some ways is far worse than Jadis herself for not only does he share many of her worst traits, he is also a complete coward. And in keeping with the ‘modern’ world he belongs to, he is not looking for ‘power’ alone, but money, preparing to turn Narnia into a health resort for profit. Digory on the other hand, is the more typical ‘hero’ of a children’s adventure (a touch like Edmund), making his mistakes, but also learning his lessons. I was pleased to see Polly getting Digory to face his mistakes and apologise for them.
There were so many enjoyable moments in the book. There’s the creation of Narnia of course, the feeling that it gives the children of having always belonged or the richness of the in-between world are simply lovely, as is the moment of Strawberry getting to be one of Narnia’s talking animals (I still haven’t quite understood why a distinction had to be made between the talking and non-talking animals—for food, most likely) or going on to become even more special. The animals’ treatment of Uncle Andrew was great fun, and I couldn’t resist laughing at Lewis’ dislike of school coming out once again;
…‘And then they’ll have histories you know’.
‘Well, it’s a jolly good thing, they haven’t now’, said Polly. ‘Because nobody can be made to learn it. Battles and dates and all that rot.’
Recognising a character and a place that we meet later (or rather have meet/seen earlier) is also great fun.
I’m really enjoying these revisits to Narnia for Chris’ #Narniathon21—I’ve loved my own reads and also getting more insights and thoughts about the books from Chris’ and others’ reviews and posts. How sad that there’s only one more to go…
The edition pictured is not the one I have; I have a Scholastic paperback picked up second-hand (pp. 186) which doesn’t mention a date except saying that the first Scholastic edition was published in 1988.