And so in the course of our Narniathon reading we come to the book that C.S. Lewis started second, finished last, and yet is chronologically first in the series, including as it does an account of the creation of Narnia. In my last post on The Horse and His Boy, I explained my new theory that reading the series in the order of writing might be a more satisfactory way to do it. But we are reading in the order of publication, and so this one comes in the penultimate position.
Therefore, I’ll have to wait until next month to talk about the sixth book that Lewis actually completed. But I can’t help considering this one, The Magician’s Nephew, as in some ways the culmination of all he set out to do in Narnia. It circles back to the first book, explaining some of the mysteries therein, and involves the same antagonist, the White Witch/Jadis, telling the story of how evil came into the originally uncorrupted land of Narnia.
This came about through a human being, a “son of Adam.” And that character, Digory, is a development of the evil-doing boy in the first book, Edmund. In The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, Edmund is not a very well-rounded character. At first he just seems to be a nasty, vindictive boy who is willing to sell off his siblings with no apparent motivation, until we hear a brief statement that a “horrid school” was what started to send him wrong. The sacrifice of Aslan in his stead is not even allowed to come into his consciousness, although he shows himself worthy of it when he becomes willing to sacrifice himself for his comrades in battle. It is a powerful archetypal picture, but in novelistic terms a bit sketchy.
By the time Lewis got to The Magician’s Nephew — note that the title signals that this book is all about Digory, although in a rather roundabout way — he had become willing to delve much more into the central character of a “son of Adam” who is vulnerable to temptation. And Lewis here identifies much more fully the source and origin of that vulnerability, one that is very personal to him because he shared it: Digory’s mother is dying. The source of his life has been struck down, causing him to feel shaky and unsure about everything. His father is also absent, and he has to live with a kind but distracted aunt and an uncle who is apparently mad.
A boy in this position is very open to negative influences. He could easily have gone the way of Edmund and become a horrid, nasty bit of work. Edmund was first tempted to betray his sister, Lucy, by lying about their meeting in Narnia; although Digory has no siblings, at the very beginning of the story he forms a fast friendship with a girl, Polly. And Digory is tempted in the land of Charn to ignore Polly’s intuitive sense of the evil he will awaken by his curiosity, and overrides her by violence, twisting her arm to keep her from preventing him ringing the magic bell that awakens Jadis.
These three female figures, Digory’s mother, Polly, and Jadis, form a trio of “anima figures” in Jungian terms. They are images of the feminine side of Digory’s own soul, his internal connection to the spirit. His mother, the root of his life, is in danger of dying and leaving him completely. Bereft of her comforting and wise presence, he falls prey to a conventionally feminine vice, curiosity, and awakens a spirit of untrammeled selfishness and lust for power, the “witch” who is always the dark side of a mother’s love.
It is only Polly, his contemporary and equal, who can save him. She does not abandon or reject him after his cruel act, even though she is clearly hurt and disturbed by it, but remains loyal and steadfast in her friendship. She understands how hard it is for him to be losing his mother, and surely it is this dose of human empathy that enables him to bear the pain without turning hard and bitter, without cutting himself off from others and becoming a tyrant like Jadis or a madman like his uncle.
At the same time, Polly knows when to hold back, letting Digory enter the garden of the fruit of life alone, and not interfering in his final dialogue with the Witch. As Jadis tries to persuade Digory to take the fruit which has been forbidden to him for purely selfish use, Polly accompanies him with her consciousness, supporting him and believing in him, silently. She offers companionship, trust, and mutual support, not the unbridled power that Jadis offers.
And between the two, Digory makes the right choice. It is the meanness of Jadis’s suggestion that he abandon Polly, taking the fruit and returning with it to his own world to save his mother, which alerts him that this is a wrongful temptation. He repulses Jadis, not only because he is obeying an external command, but because his eyes have been opened to the shabbiness and unwholesomeness of the tempter. “There might be things more terrible even than losing someone you love by death,” he realizes. Those worse things include the death of one’s own higher self, which happens when we turn away from and betray our friends, our fellow humans, even if we may tell ourselves we are doing it for a noble purpose.
Thus Digory makes up for the evil that he himself brought into Narnia, dragging the Witch along with him as he was striving to escape her. Thus he becomes worthy to take the fruit of life, no longer forbidden, into our world. And his mother, in a moving scene, can also come back to life.
Though I’ve focused on some of the inner aspects, this book is on another level simply a wonderfully exciting magical adventure in the clear tradition of E. Nesbit, whom Lewis acknowledged as one of his favorite writers for children. Along with the marvelous concept of the “Wood Between the Worlds,” it has funny scenes like the “planting” of Uncle Andrew, and numinously beautiful ones like Aslan singing Narnia into life. It’s a fitting conclusion to a series that extended the Nesbit tradition into a new generation and created a new imaginary world for us to step into.
Oh but wait, it’s not the conclusion yet! We still have one more book next month, and even though for me it feels a bit like stepping backward, I am glad the journey is not over yet.