Monday, December 3, 2012

The Magician's Nephew and its Delights

I haven't been writing a lot lately because it's the end of the semester, which is a time of frantic grading for me. But somehow I have still managed to get in a lot of reading. This week I came across an essay that a student wrote on C.S. Lewis' The Magician's Nephew, and I realized that I couldn't remember the plot of that book at all; it had been such a long time since I'd read it. Obviously it was my duty to stop grading and reread The Magician's Nephew immediately. It's work-related, right? That doesn't count as procrastination.

 (This is the first edition, published in 1955.)

Rereading the Narnia books as an adult hasn't always been successful for me. The Horse and his Boy, for example, turned out to be way more offensive than I remembered, and it was so disappointing. And I get tired of all of the villainous vegetarians, educational reformers, and independent women. All of the characters who would be sympathetic ones in an E. Nesbit novel are the bad guys in the Narnia books. So I was surprised at how much I enjoyed The Magician's Nephew.

Maybe it's because The Magician's Nephew is the most E. Nesbit-like of all of the Narnia books. There is a reference to The Story of the Treasure Seekers in the first paragraph, and Polly and Digory, the main characters of The Magician's Nephew, are really similar to the Bastables children. (Except that they are much less hilarious.) When Polly and Digory plan to explore an abandoned house or make a smuggler's cave with packing-cases and ginger-beer bottles, it's straight out of the Bastables' playbook. They even sound like the Bastables when they talk, especially in the beginning when they are speculating about Digory's mysterious uncle:

"'Well, either he's mad,' said Digory, 'or there's some other mystery. He has a study on the top floor and Aunt Letty says I must never go up there. Well, that looks fishy to begin with.'
'Perhaps he keeps a mad wife shut up there.'
'Yes, I've thought of that.'
'Or perhaps he's a coiner.'
'Or he might have been a pirate, like the man at the beginning of Treasure Island, and be always hiding from his old shipmates.'
'How exciting!' said Polly. 'I never knew your house was so interesting.'"

(Illustration by Pauline Baynes from the 1955 edition.)

So much of The Magician's Nephew reminds me of the E. Nesbit book The Story of the Amulet. Both books are about objects that allow their bearers to travel magically: Polly and Digory have magic rings that take them to different worlds, and the children in The Story of the Amulet have a magic necklace that lets them travel back in time. Both books have imperious ancient queens who appear in present-day London, scholarly gentlemen who are interested in Atlantis, and mystical scenes that take place at the beginning of the universe. But it's fascinating to see C.S. Lewis's different take on these ideas. E. Nesbit's ancient queen is mildly annoying, her mystical scene is based on Egyptian mythology, and her Atlantean scholar is a kindly old man with a passion for learning. C.S. Lewis has a truly wicked queen, a mystical scene that is based on Genesis, and an Atlantean scholar -- Digory's uncle, and the magician of the title -- who is pure evil.

(H.R. Millar's illustration of the Queen of Babylon causing chaos at the British Museum, from The Story of the Amulet.)

(Pauline Baynes' illustration of the Queen of Charn causing chaos on the streets of London, from The Magician's Nephew.)

The Magician's Nephew has delights of its own, though, that are not found in any E. Nesbit book. I love the Wood Between the Worlds, a peaceful, drowsy woodland dotted with ponds that serve as portals between dimensions. (I also loved how these portals showed up in Lev Grossman's The Magicians and The Magician King, which are must-reads for any Narnia fans.) One of the ponds leads to Narnia, of course, but it's Narnia in its earliest days. That was one of the things I had forgotten about The Magician's Nephew: that it's the story of the creation of Narnia. It explains the origin of the witch, the wardrobe, the talking animals, even the lamp post. It's fun to see all of these things popping into existence.

(Aslan in the process of creating Narnia's animals.)

The Magician's Nephew is the best Narnia book that I've reread so far. I might try rereading The Silver Chair next. Although I just looked at it, and it starts out complaining about "co-educational" schools where the teachers don't beat the students, so ... maybe I should just reread another E. Nesbit book.


  1. Obviously it was your work-related duty, and the fact that you enjoyed it is just icing on the cake. I do like this one as well - I love Aunt Letty, "a very tough old lady," and the whole untold story of how Uncle Andrew lost her money (Laura Miller calls it a Trollopian subplot!)

    The Silver Chair was always my least favorite, though I can never quite say why.

  2. Aunt Letty is a great character! I love how fearless she is, even when Jadis throws her across the room.

    So far the Silver Chair involves a lot of guilt-trips from Aslan. I'm hoping that it will get a little less depressing as it goes on.