The last time I read The Magician’s Nephew was thirty years ago.
Before I sat down to read, I tried to bring to mind all the things I could remember, and I was surprised by how many there were: Aslan singing, the Wood Between Worlds, the witch grabbing Polly’s hair (yes, okay, that one is on the cover of my edition). I had a vague memory of the rings, and of Strawberry coming into Narnia, as well as the illness of Digory’s mother and the adventure to get the apples.
When I finally started reading, I was delighted by the relatively straightforward adventure, the piercing commentary on the sort of people who become magicians, the terrifying world of Charn, as well as the largely humorous tone of so much of the book. The White Witch was—at least to me—more terrifying and much funnier in this book than in her earlier appearance. Lewis’s commentary both on people and the way we interact with Nature was more piercing and overt than I remembered.
There’s no subtle underlying theme like in some of the other Narnia books (i.e. “This is a book about spiritual warfare”). This one’s pretty straightforward: the creation of Narnia, and how evil came to be in that world. We get origins for a lot of things, like the lamp-post, talking animals, the wardrobe, Professor Kirke, why humans are the kings and queens of Narnia, how the White Witch came to be, and the events which will eventually lead us to the Stone Table.
Lewis isn’t afraid to retcon some things from the previously published books, either. The witch’s origin is much more detailed and not exactly the same as in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. The whole “deep magic from the beginning of time” bit that was a key plot point in LWW is neatly sidestepped. The witch’s role as the “emperor’s hangman” appears to not be a thing. This isn’t an enormous surprise from the author who changed Reepicheep’s height by a foot between books. Lewis doesn’t let continuity get in the way of his stories.
Lewis started writing The Magician’s Nephew soon after he finished The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. In fact, he started it before the first of the Narnia books had been published. He wrote several partial drafts, then set each aside. In the end, whether because of the personal nature of the story or because he was having a hard time getting a handle on it, this is the Narnia book that took Lewis the longest to get onto the page: five years from start to finish.
Lewis also changed publishers mid-series with this book. The first five books had been published through his longtime friend Geoffery Bles. With The Magician’s Nephew, Lewis turned to Bodley Head. So far as I know there’s no great controversy here… Bles retired right around this time, and it may be as simple as that.
It’s interesting to note that, depending on when you were introduced to Narnia, this may well be the book that had the number one on the spine. In some editions, the story of Narnia’s creation is put at the front of the line. I cannot exaggerate how much ink has been spilled on this topic. Lewis scholars love to tackle it (they mostly agree they should be read in publication order) and so does pretty much anyone trying to introduce a new kid to the series (I suspect we may all prefer it in the order we ourselves read it). I read them first in publication order myself, and that’s my strong preference. I agree with the argument that certain things about The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe are more effective if it’s read before The Magician’s Nephew.
Lewis did weigh in on the controversy. In 1957 a kid got in a fight with his mom about which order to read the books. He was headed into a second read and wanted to read them chronologically, and his mom (who apparently didn’t know that controlling adults are pretty much always villains in the world of Narnia) told him he should stick to publication order. The kid sent a note to Lewis, who wrote back:
I think I agree with your order for reading the books more than with your mother’s. The series was not planned beforehand as she thinks. When I wrote The Lion I did not know I was going to write any more. Then I wrote P. Caspian as a sequel and still didn’t think there would be any more, and when I had done The Voyage I felt quite sure it would be the last. But I found as I was wrong. So perhaps it does not matter very much in which order anyone read them.
Douglas Gresham (Lewis’s stepson) is more-or-less responsible for the chronological reordering in the later editions. A few years ago he said, “[HarperCollins] asked, ‘What order do you think we ought to do them in?’ And I said, ‘Well…I actually asked Jack himself what order he preferred and thought they should be read in. And he said he thought they should be read in the order of Narnian chronology.’ So I said, ‘Why don’t you go with what Jack himself wanted?’ So, it’s my fault basically—the order of Narnian chronology. And I’m not the least bit ashamed of it.”
In any case, there’s plenty to talk about with this book! In two weeks we’ll dive in with a look at Jadis, magicians, and the Deplorable World. If you’re reading along, here are some things to watch for as you’re reading:
- The Jewish and Christian creation story, found in Genesis 1-3, is referenced multiple times. Note the uses of “breath” and the ground, the forbidden fruit and the fruit of life.
- There are many obvious references to Milton’s Paradise Lost, and if you have the time to read it in conjunction with The Magician’s Nephew, I think you’ll be pleased by the resonance.
- Literary allusions are not in short supply in this book. If you’re familiar with Edith Nesbit’s children’s books (which Lewis cribs from more than once in the Narnia books), you’ll see a lot of connections here. Read The Story of the Amulet for a shockingly similar plot (kids discover an amulet that lets them travel to other worlds and they accidentally bring the Queen of Babylon to modern London). It certainly appears that he may have lifted a few things from Tolkien’s Silmarillion as well (Tolkien had read sections of this to Lewis and the Inklings). And Arthurian legend, Greek myths (Pandora, for instance), and Atlantis all get shout-outs.
- The Magician’s Nephew has strong themes about the misuse of Nature…a theme important to both Lewis and Tolkien.
- Lewis is not a fan of magicians, witches, or wizards. Pay special attention to the type of person who becomes a magician. What does Lewis have to say about them? What does he see to be the main character defect that would lead someone to become a magician?
- Remember as you read that Lewis, like Digory, had a terminally ill mother as a child. Lewis’s mother was 46 years old when she died, and Lewis was nine.
- In Dr. Michael Ward’s Planet Narnia, he argues that this book is associated with Venus. Be looking for possible references to the morning star (or Lucifer), the evening star (Hesperus…who had a garden of apples that could grant immortality), and of course, things traditionally associated with either the planet or the goddess: love, beauty, fertility (and even—according to Homer—humor).
- It’s no coincidence that there are strong parallels to certain events in this novel and in Lewis’s space novel, Perelandra, which takes place on Venus.
- One other thing I love about this book—and I suspect we may do a full article on it—is how often Lewis inverts some of his own Narnian tropes. I don’t want to spoil a full article ahead of time, but be on the lookout for moments where events in the story go opposite to what we might expect given our experience in Narnia so far.
Lastly, a fun bit of trivia and an insight into the character and kindness of the author: you may have noticed that the book is dedicated to “the Kilmer family.” The Kilmers were a gaggle of kids who wrote Lewis letters about Narnia over the years, and he kept up a lengthy correspondence with them (many of these letters can be read in Letters to Children). The children often sent drawings, questions, updates about their family, or thoughts about theology. The Kilmer children had started writing C.S. Lewis after he had been corresponding with their close family friend, Mary Willis…Lewis and Willis’s letters can be read in the book Letters to an American Lady. It’s a lovely reminder of how engaged Lewis was with his audience, and his generosity toward children in particular and people in general.
So, my friends, welcome to the new land of Narnia and the New Year! See you in two weeks to talk about power, magicians, and the Deplorable Word!