Although the end of The Silver Chair had left the possibility of more adventures for Eustace and Jill in Narnia wide open, and The Horse and His Boy had suggested the possibilities of more stories set in the reigns of Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy, for the sixth Narnia book, Lewis abandoned both possibilities. Instead, he chose to tell the tale of the creation of Narnia, a story which, if more than occasionally inconsistent with earlier Narnia books, at least allowed him to reference beloved old childhood tales and play in the time of late Victorian London.
Like the first book of the series, The Magician’s Nephew is set in a very exact real world time and place—when Sherlock Holmes was in Baker Street, and the Bastables were exploring things. (If you are sadly unfamiliar with the Bastables, hang on; I hope to be able to discuss them in some upcoming posts.) Lewis treats this time with some nostalgia, lingering especially on the food—an ongoing minor theme in all of the Narnia books, incidentally, probably reflecting the rationing that lingered in England after the end of World War II.
Living in this London are Polly and Digory. Polly likes London; Digory does not, partly because he has been brought here since his father is in India and his mother is ill with one of those convenient literary illnesses that are never quite explained, and mostly because he is convinced that the uncle he is now living with is insane. As it turns out, this is not quite right. Uncle Andrew is not exactly insane, but he is a walking advertisement for hubris.
Uncle Andrew is an interesting villain, utterly convinced that he is in the right, not for any moral reasons—indeed, he is convinced that morality is beneath him—but because he is superior to his fellow humans, both in intelligence and to an extent, breeding. He believes he is the last, or among the last, people in England to have had a fairy godmother. (Personally, in rereading the book, I rather feel that the godmother or Uncle Andrew was completely making the fairy part up; in any case, she would not have been the nicer sort of fairy.) And he just happens to have some dust gathered in Atlantis.
How exactly Atlantis popped in here is not quite clear, but I suppose that a series already muddled with Greek, Norse and Christian myth could stand a little touch of Atlantis. Anyway, the point is, the dust can be formed to make magic rings, which in turn can take their wearers...elsewhere. Uncle Andrew has been trying them on guinea pigs; through a rather nasty trick and giving Digory a guilt trip, he next tries them on Digory and Polly, sending them to the woods between the worlds, Charn, and Narnia, with a few stops in London in between.
The result is a book that feels less like a Narnia book than any of the others, perhaps because it takes too much time explaining Narnia’s more magical elements (the wardrobe, the lamppost), perhaps because it spends less time in the Narnian world than the other books. Admittedly, after Prince Caspian, none of the books spent much time in the actual country of Narnia—perhaps Lewis recognized that he’d made his imaginary country entirely too small—but at least they traveled in nearby lands. In The Magician’s Nephew, most of the action takes place in the wood between the worlds, or Charn, or even the very unmagical London, and the visit to Narnia is entirely too short. It’s marvelous to see the beginning of Narnia, but not so marvelous that Digory and Polly get to spend such little time there (one night and two days). And perhaps, too, because more than any other book in the series, this is a book that borrows extremely liberally from other texts, including certain then-unpublished texts by C.S. Lewis’s great friend J.R.R. Tolkien, and, in the London scenes, the works of Edith Nesbit.
I read The Magician’s Nephew before the The Silmarillion was published, (which dates me, I know) and thought the concept of a divine figure literally singing a world to life was just lovely. When I read The Silmarillion, I assumed J.R.R. Tolkien had copied the concept, given the publication dates. Actually, it was quite the other way around, and I cannot imagine that Tolkien was pleased to see his elaborate myth of divine beings singing creation into existence turned into this. To be fair, Lewis only seems to have stolen the singing concept, and Tolkien’s elaborate myth of competing songs and themes and angels is quite lost. But if the scene is not quite up to Tolkien’s majestic prose, it is quite lovely in its way, and the antics of the villains during the creation scene are amusing, if mostly unbelievable. (I can believe that they would well want to get out of Narnia, but you would think they would find the sudden creation of trees and animals just a little more distracting than they do.)
The borrowings from Edith Nesbit are equally abundant, if not directly stealing from a friend, and provide much of the delightful humor of the book. The Magician’s Nephew does have other marvelous bits. The woods between the worlds, a rather heavy forest filled with quiet pools where the very alert can find new universes by jumping into ponds, is a delightful concept: I rather hope to get there some day. Lewis’s description of the dying city of Charn has a dull grandeur to it. And, of course, this book brings back the splendid witch Jadis, the sort of unthinking tyrant (and witch) who would rather kill all living people and creatures with a single word than to surrender for a single moment. (I mean, really. At least leave behind the chocolate makers. What good is destroying the world if you can’t have any chocolate to go with it?) And she’s also an elitist snob. (She believes firmly that only royalty can become Magicians.)
Lewis, however, here abandons some of the elitism from previous books: his three characters with supposedly fairy blood cross all classes (one is a duchess, one middle-class, and one a very lower class servant); he turns a cabdriver and his wife into a king and queen; and dooms Jadis, in the end, by that very elitism.
But the intersection of all of this with Narnia, and a creation story, and a little morality tale complete with, geesh, a tempting apple right at the beginning of creation (I could feel the anvils falling) ends up feeling rather disjointed, even with the appearances of Jadis and Aslan. It does not help that, despite a few of Digory’s more questionable actions (most notoriously, freeing an evil witch and bringing her to Narnia) he is neither as awful as Edmund and Eustace were on their first trips nor as heroic as Peter and Shasta. And although Polly is forthright, brave, and quite capable of sticking up for girls, she, too, is somehow more bland than Lewis’ other girl protagonists—particularly following the awesome Jill and the proud but brave Aravis.
Speaking of Polly: Polly never marries, although a long standing tradition in children’s literature would have had her marry Digory eventually, as Shasta and Aravis had in the previous book. But then that might have led to awkward questions about exactly where she was in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, and why Digory as the professor had to hire any housekeeper at all.
And right there, perhaps, is the problem: in going back to telling the beginning of Narnia, Lewis felt the need to explain certain odd elements of Narnia: the lamppost, the wardrobe, the way some animals talk, while others do not. (I suspect, with the wardrobe, that he might have been tired of eager questions from children hoping to find magical wardrobes—I know I can’t have been the only child to tap hopefully on the back of a closet, just in case.)
But I’m not sure that certain things in Narnia needed to be explained. The lamppost in the middle of a forest behind the back of a wardrobe was marvelous simply because it didn’t make any sense whatsoever; it was, in its way, the essence of magic, and part of what made that scene so marvelous. (It doesn’t help that some of the information in this book directly contradicts statements made in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, one reason I do not recommend reading this series in chronological order.) Narnia is, after all, magic, and as any good magician will tell you (even in a book filled with evil magicians) explaining away the tricks is one of the best ways to destroy the illusion, and the magic.
Mari Ness regrets to report that her current closet is free of gateways to other universes, perhaps because it is made of drywall and concrete instead of quasi-Narnian wood. She lives in central Florida.