The Great C.S. Lewis Reread

The Deplorable Word: Power, Magicians, and Evil in C.S. Lewis’ The Magician’s Nephew

C.S. Lewis didn’t care for magicians.

In fact, as Lewis wrote in The Abolition of Man, he saw the core problem that magicians were trying to solve one that was at best distasteful, and at worst something that led to actions “disgusting and impious.” That core problem: “how to subdue reality to the wishes of men.” (We won’t get into this much yet, but he saw magicians and scientists as related in this sense…something we will discuss more when we get to the Space Trilogy.)

For the “wise men of old” the core question of the universe was “how to conform the soul to reality,” but for magicians the question was how to bend Nature to one’s own desires (or, at best, humanity’s desires). “It is the magician’s bargain: give up your soul, get power in return.” The process was clear: the magician “surrenders object after object, and finally himself, to Nature in return for power.”

Where the wise sages of old bent their soul to reality using “knowledge, self-discipline, and virtue,” the magician embraces a core selfishness, a willingness to make whatever sacrifices are necessary to attain greater power.

And, according to Lewis, this is so simple and so starkly clear that a child may recognize the signs of a fledgling magician in a few moments. Digory discovers it when talking to his Uncle Andrew, who is going on and on about how lying may be immoral for a child, but things are different for him. The rules don’t apply because he is, after all, someone special. A bit royal. A bit better than others. Digory recognizes this for what it is: “He thinks he can do anything he likes to get whatever he wants.”

Digory is right, of course. Uncle Andrew is glad to explode a few guinea pigs or experiment on children if it increases his power. After all, he is a keeper of “secret wisdom” and has a “high and lonely destiny.” Digory doesn’t much care for him.

In Uncle Andrew we see a minor magician on the beginning of his journey. He has done some awful things, certainly, and he has made terrible sacrifices to interact with “devilish” people so that his power can increase. But his sacrifices have not been so great that he has forfeited his soul…and his power is not so great yet, either.

Jadis, on the other hand, is a magician at the height of her power, and Digory is taken in by her at first. Digory and Polly arrive, after a series of adventures, in the dead world of Charn. There they find a series of statues showing the rulers of the great city. Here Lewis shows us a bit about the potential corrupting influence of ultimate power on human beings. Digory and Polly notice that the first kings and queens seem, from the looks on their faces, to be people who were almost “certainly nice.” They looked “kind and wise.” A little further along and they begin to look “solemn.” Not bad, not unlikeable—just the kind of people you’d have to mind your manners around.

When they get to the middle of the room the faces begin to be “faces they didn’t like.” The rulers here looked “very strong and proud and happy, but they looked cruel.” Further on they looked crueler still, and still further on “they were still cruel but they no longer looked happy.” They were “despairing faces: as if the people they belonged to had done dreadful things and also suffered dreadful things.”

And our final figure—who we will soon discover is the most powerful magician of all, the White Witch, the Empress Jadis—had “a look of such fierceness and pride that it took your breath away.” Digory thinks her beautiful, and when she wakes he even thinks her “brave” and “strong.” “She’s what I call a Queen!” he says. He soon learns better. But what Lewis wants us to see is the path of the magician, the danger of selling bits of one’s soul for greater and greater power.

We soon learn that she gained her power at great cost. Jadis had learned the “deplorable word”…a word that when spoken would kill every living being in her universe except for the speaker. The ancient kings had known this word but they were too “weak and soft-hearted” to use it, and tried to hide the knowledge. Jadis herself didn’t use it until “forced” to do so by her sister. Jadis had gladly sacrificed every soldier in her armies in her battle with her sister. She was always glad to sacrifice someone else. When the children object to this, Jadis says, “What else were they there for?” She sees everyone in the world only as objects that serve her or do not serve her.

For Jadis, all of life, all of morality, is centered on Jadis herself. She defines peace, essentially, as “giving me all that I want.” Her sister is “too weak” because she has moral boundaries that include things like not destroying all life in the universe… something that Jadis sees as a moral good because, well, the rules are different for her. Sure, she’s the last Queen, but she’s also “Queen of the World.” She’s willing to kill everyone if that’s what it takes for her to get what she wants.

She questions the children over and over, wanting them to acknowledge her power, to compliment her great deeds, asking, “Has your master magician, your uncle, power like mine?” She tells them, “Remember what you have seen. This is what happens to things, and to people, who stand in my way.” Demanding to know, “Does your uncle rule a city as grand as mine?”

Jadis, we are told, is “hungry and greedy.”

Magicians are selfish. Greedy. Self-centered. They think that they have a different set of rules to follow than “commoners.” They can say and do things no one else can, and for them it’s not a moral failure. It’s something laudable because…well, can’t you see all the power? They’re getting what they want, so that means what they did must have been correct, even good. They are the best, the most powerful, the most wonderful, the strongest, and if they choose to throw someone else under the bus or pour their blood out in war, well, that’s what other people are for.

We do see a moment of terror for Jadis. In the wood between worlds she seems to have no power at all. The children are stronger than her. And yet, as soon as she gains the upper hand she completely forgets that moment of powerlessness: “… her mind was a of a sort that cannot remember the quiet place at all.”

Uncle Andrew falls into serving her easily. Why? She possesses power, and he wants it. He fantasizes that he will be her husband, perhaps, while Jadis sees him as nothing more than a means to an end, someone to be used. When she is done with him, she discards him. When the kids are not useful to her, she seems unaware of their presence.

Aslan, of course, is not impressed with her power. His power is greater than hers. But Aslan’s picture of the proper ruler is something quite different. In fact, he’s the first to put the correct descriptor on Queen Jadis: she is evil.

When Aslan trains King Frank and Queen Helen on what will be required of them as the newly appointed sovereigns of Narnia, he gives them wise advice. They are to “do justice” among their people. They must “protect them from their enemies when enemies arise.” Aslan tells them to rule with kindness, to be fair to their people, and to remember that their subjects, “are not slaves.” And if war should come, Frank must be “the first in the charge and the last in the retreat.” Their cares, and their focus, must never be on themselves. It must always be upon their people.

Our young man Digory sees all this, and understands it, and is given a chance to join the rank of the magicians. Aslan sends him to the walled garden where silver apples of immortality await. A rhyme at the gate tells us that the apples should only be taken for others, not for one’s self. Like any power, it is best used in the service of others, or it comes with a terrible curse for the one who uses it for their own gain.

Digory takes an apple, as Aslan directed. But Jadis is there, having taken and eaten one for herself. She invites him to join her, to rule at her side, to become like a god in power and longevity of life. Or, she says, he could use the apple to heal his sick mother.

Digory wavers. Wouldn’t it still technically be for someone else if he stole the apple and gave it to his mother?

But Jadis pushes too far. She tells Digory he could just leave Polly behind so no one would ever know what he had done. And Digory sees again the pure meanness of the witch, and it’s at that moment he makes his decision, to make things right in Narnia rather than use the power for himself.

It seems unfair.

Jadis gets what she wants. The apple works, even though she stole it. Aslan says so himself, “She has won her heart’s desire; she has unwearying strength and endless days like a goddess.” There’s more to the story, though: “But length of days with an evil heart is only length of misery and already she begins to know it. All get what they want: they do not always like it.”

So, we come at last to this:

In this world, as in Narnia, there are those who gain power through cruelty and spite, who see others as pawns to be used. There are those who have words of power and use them to harm, to destroy those who oppose them. There are people who would sacrifice everything and everyone around them for another day, another month, another year of power. And for a time it may work. The magic of the apple works even when that magic is stolen. People like these—the magicians —will rage when they are not properly worshiped. They will demand we bow down and acknowledge how great they are, how powerful, and if there is a moment when they are weak, when they are defeated, they will deny it or—as with Jadis—will not be able to hold it in their mind, and deny reality. And so long as we allow it, they will work great harm in the world for even the smallest benefit to themselves.

And yet, in time there will be a new coronation. Whether it’s King Frank and Queen Helen or—many centuries from now—the Pevensie children, Aslan has a way of bringing true rulers to the throne. People who are doing their best to be kind, to think of their subjects, to protect them from harm, and who use power to serve others, not serve themselves.

As for Jadis, pity her. She got her heart’s desire and it brought her only misery. And in time, Aslan will bring justice for her many acts of evil.

There are two saying of Jesus that kept echoing in my mind as I reread The Magician’s Nephew. Lewis all but quotes them. The first is this, “What profit is it for a person to gain the whole world but lose their soul?” (Matthew 16:26). And the second—a saying I see my own community of faith wrestle to believe—“whoever wants to be great among you must be your servant.” (Matthew 20:26)

Power is only great when used to serve others. When we use it for ourselves, it corrupts and destroys. Kindness is strength. And, yes, a new coronation will always come in time.

Matt Mikalatos is the author of the YA fantasy The Crescent Stone. You can follow him on Twitter or connect on Facebook.


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