The Magician’s Nephew is about paradise. It’s a creation myth, and it draws heavily from the myths that Lewis knew best. Milton’s Paradise Lost is echoed throughout, as is the Hebrew creation story from the book of Genesis. And of course it wouldn’t be Lewis if it didn’t reach into some pagan myth as well, so we have the garden of the Hesperides and their precious apples making an appearance, too.
The word “paradise” winds its way into English, most likely, from Avestan—an early Iranian language—that gifted itself into many ancient languages, including Assyrian, and then Hebrew and Greek. It went on to French and then eventually English. Of course, in different languages it took on different flavors, being used early on to describe the great walled gardens of the first Persian empire, whereas in Greek it was used for parks designed to hold animals, and in Hebrew could simply mean “orchards.” In modern English our first thought on hearing the word might be heaven or something like it, but for the majority of the word’s life the primary meaning would have been something like “a walled garden belonging to royalty.”
So let’s jump in! The Magician’s Nephew is the story of the creation of Narnia (or, more accurately, the world in which the country of Narnia exists). Digory and Polly, along with Uncle Andrew, Jadis, a cabby named Frank, and a horse named Strawberry, find themselves in a world of complete darkness. In fact, it is not just darkness but “nothing.” Until, that is, a Voice begins to sing, and then a chorus, which brings light bursting into being. First light, then stars. Then we get the sky, and when the sun rises we see hills, and a river winding through a valley. The song goes on and plants begin to grow from the earth. In fact, when Jadis hits Aslan—who is the one singing, of course—with the crossbar of a lamppost, the power of creation is so strong that when the bar falls to the ground it “grows” into a full lamppost. Then the animals come out, bursting from the ground, shaking the dirt off themselves as they join the new world. The smallest animals of Earth were a bit larger here, and the largest animals a bit smaller.
And then Aslan gives the world its marching orders: “Narnia, Narnia, Narnia, awake. Love. Think. Speak. Be walking trees. Be talking beasts. Be divine waters.” A while after this Aslan sends Digory and friends to a walled garden just outside Narnia to retrieve a magic apple, and of course we also have the coronation of the first king and queen of Narnia, who are human and from our world.
The connections to the Biblical creation story are many. The world before creation is dark as well as “formless and void.” And while in Narnia there is the gentle breeze and the breath of the lion, in Hebrew we have God’s רוּחַ hovering over the face of the deep (a word that can be translated as wind, breath, or spirit). The animals are also “brought forth” from the earth, and God forms them from the ground (Genesis 1:24; 2:19). God goes on to create the first human, the Adam, and—we don’t need to go too far into this, but there are actually two slightly different creation stories in chapter one and two here—since no plants have come up from the ground yet, God places Adam in a garden he has planted “in Eden”…his own little paradise (Genesis 2:5-9). Then God shows Adam the Tree of Life, and the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. One makes people live forever, the other is forbidden, for it brings (the awareness of) evil into the world.
So there are more connections: King Frank and Queen Helen mirror Adam and Eve. Digory is also told of an apple that will let people live forever (and the same fruit, when misused, brings evil and corruption upon those who eat it). A notable difference is that in the Genesis story, Adam and Eve choose to eat the fruit which has been forbidden, and Digory does not. Of course it is Digory’s own poor choices that have brought evil into Narnia in the shape of Jadis, but in the end Narnia does not fall, not like Earth did once upon a time. We’ll see this more fully in Perelandra, but Lewis loved this idea that there was a true choice with the fruit, that humanity didn’t have to make the choice we did, and that there might have been a better, purer, less painful world for us if we have made the choice. No doubt given Lewis’s theology this theme continues to resonate because—since we can grow to become like gods or beasts—we are making this choice every day.
There are other similarities. There is a talking serpent in the Genesis story, and talking everything in Narnia. (We definitely don’t have time to go down the theological rabbit hole of theories about whether all animals could talk in Eden, but it’s fun to think about. Check out the Book of Jubilees 3:28 (canonical scripture for the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, non-canonical for most other Christian denominations) for another version of the Genesis tale that addresses this very question).
One interesting contrast is why human beings are the only rightful rulers of Narnia. In Prince Caspian we were told that only humans could truly be kings and queens in Narnia, something that seems strange given that—especially in light of what we know at that point in the series—the only humans appear to have come directly from Earth in some way. In the Genesis creation story, Adam and Eve are given responsibility over all the animals because they are made in God’s image. Their job is to be caretakers of the garden and the creatures in it, a sort of royal caretaker position. Not quite so for King Frank and Queen Helen. Yes, part of the job interview involves Aslan asking, “can you use a spade and a plough and raise food out of the earth?” and part of the job description is naming the creatures, but the reason humans are royalty in Narnia is because “as Adam’s race has done the harm, Adam’s race shall help to heal it.” They are placed in authority in Narnia because the responsibility is on them to heal the evil that has been done to the people of Narnia. I have to say, this one phrase struck me as almost alien given the world I’ve grown up in, and it was a refreshing feeling to think of leaders who thought in that way. Nevertheless, in both Narnia and the human world described in Genesis, humans are in charge because they are God’s representatives to the rest of the world.
If you’re not familiar with Paradise Lost, it’s definitely worth reading alongside The Magician’s Nephew. There are multiple references, the two clearest being the creation of the animals, and the description of the Garden of Eden in Milton compared to the walled garden outside Narnia.
The way the animals are described is remarkably close. Both talk, of course, about the animals bursting up from the ground, but Lewis even specifically mentions many of the same animals Milton does: both mention lions, leopards (Milton calls them libbards), moles, stags, and elephants (“Behemoth” in Milton). And while, yes, there are only so many animals, even the way Lewis describes them have some similarities. The one that astonishes me that Lewis references so clearly is the stag. Milton says, “the swift Stag from under ground/Bore up his branching head,” and Lewis says, “The stags were the queerest to watch, for of course the antlers came up a long time before the rest of them, so at first Digory thought they were trees.” (Read lines 449-484 of Book 7 for a taste of Milton’s description. Also, the serpents have wings in Milton! I don’t know how Lewis passed on that one…though of course he does give us a winged horse.)
Look for similarities, too, in how the walled garden is described in Lewis (“You must journey through those mountains till you find a green valley with a blue lake in it, walled round by mountains of ice. At the end of the lake there is a steep, green hill. On the top of that hill there is a garden. In the centre of that garden is a tree.” That’s what Aslan says, and when the kids get there they discover that the garden is walled with green turf, with “high gates of gold, fast shut, facing due east.” Milton tells us the same: Eden had a “verdurous wall” through which “One gate there only was, and that look’d East.” The middle tree in Eden is the Tree of Life according to Milton, and Digory, “knew which was the right tree at once, partly because it stood in the very centre and partly because the great silver apples with which it was loaded shone so and cast a light of their own down on the shadowy places where the sunlight did not reach.” (Note that in the Greek myth of the Hesperides, the apples are gold, not silver. If anyone has a theory about this little difference I would certainly be interested in hearing it. Interesting side note: many scholars suggest—and it’s a pretty decent argument—that the “golden apples” referred to in antiquity may have been references to oranges!)
When Digory finally plucks an apple, Milton is referenced yet again. When Satan and Eve study the apples in Paradise Lost, they are described as fruit with “savorie odour” that caused both “hunger and thirst” (Book 9, lines 579-587)—it is literally tempting and is described over and over as something that creates desire. Similarly, Digory smells the apple and regrets it at once because, “A terrible thirst and hunger came over him and a longing to taste that fruit.”
Another side note here: the Genesis account never says that the fruit of the Knowledge of Good and Evil is an apple. That’s a European tradition that came much later (and thus, of course, the “Adam’s apple” that is stuck in the throat of all men). Various other traditions or guesses include grapes, pomegranates, bananas, wheat, and even psychedelic mushrooms (a theory going back to 13th century France). What about the Tree of Life? Well, according to the book of Revelation, that tree bears a new crop of fruit every month!
And each of these stories contains a prophecy of what is yet to come.
Paradise Lost quotes from the story of Genesis and speaks of the “enmity” between the descendants of Adam and Eve and the serpent…and goes on to say that this is referring to Jesus, their descendent, defeating Satan in centuries to come. (Book ten. 179-191.)
And Aslan, too, says that a reckoning will come with the evil that has been loosed into his new world. “Evil will come of that evil,” he says, “but it is still a long way off, and I will see to it that the worst falls upon myself.” Referring, of course, to the defeat and victory to be found at the Stone Table.
But at the core of it all (and yes that’s an apple pun and I won’t pretend it wasn’t on purpose), the message of Lewis’s story is this: if we want to find paradise, we don’t find it alone. We don’t find it through stealing magic for ourselves, or through breaking into royal gardens and sneaking away with some undeserved power. No…that road may lead to eternal life, but it brings with it eternal misery. Instead, a full and beautiful life, a blessed life is found by seeking the well-being of others…whether the beasts of Narnia or one’s own mother.
Because, in the end, when Digory selflessly brought the apple to Aslan as directed, they planted the apple and because of the creation-power still present in the fresh land, another tree of life grew. This one brought life, but also kept away the evil of Jadis for a time. And Aslan rewarded Digory with another apple…not for himself, but for his sick mother. When he returned home she ate it, and her health returned to her at once.
And in the backyard of Digory’s flat he buried the apple core, which eventually became an apple tree. It moved sometimes in the winds from another world. And when that tree fell one day, Digory (by then Professor Kirke) used that wood to fashion a wardrobe which he kept in the spare bedroom. We, too, can build a royal walled garden of our own in whatever space we have. When we give the apple of life to others, it is a seed of love that grows into something more. And in time that royal garden of our own devising will open to something wider, and wilder, and better…for the others in our lives and for ourselves.