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Matt Mikalatos

C.S. Lewis, The Four Loves, and The Magician’s Nephew

Before we dive in this week, make sure to check out last week’s article by author Ferrett Steinmetz, who asks the question, “Is there such a thing as a necessary prequel?” Some great thoughts about prequels and, of course, focusing on The Magician’s Nephew as an example of a prequel that gets it right!

In 1958, C.S. Lewis recorded a series of radio interviews about love. These would go on to become the basis of his 1960 book, The Four Loves. The Narnia series were all in print by this time, so I’m not going to pretend here that The Four Loves was in any way in the back of Lewis’s mind as he wrote The Magician’s Nephew. However, what is clear is that The Magician’s Nephew is also intended as a sort of “tour” through the world of love as well. It’s not surprising that some of Lewis’s core insights and thoughts about love exist in both books (in fact, as we’ll see when we get to Perelandra and again in ‘Til We Have Faces, some of these themes are touchstones he returns to over and over again in his work).

So, I thought it would be interesting to use Lewis’s later thoughts as a framework to explore what he’s up to in this one. Being Lewis, of course he’s going to use ancient Greek concepts of love as the basis for his philosophical experiments…

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Series: The Great C.S. Lewis Reread

“Would You Like Wings?”: An Invitation to Transformation in The Magician’s Nephew

It was the horse who chose Narnia, that much is clear.

His name was Strawberry, and he had been in the middle of a long and troubling day. First he had been out doing his daily work with his cabby on the streets of London when an otherworldly half-giantess had taken control of him and made him her “royal charger” and then it was all galloping and crowds and shouting.

Then a moment of rushing speed, and Strawberry and a number of human companions (and the otherworlder) found themselves in the wood between worlds. And it was there that Strawberry “shook his head, gave a cheerful whinny, and seemed to feel better.”

[Then he stepped into one of the pools…]

Series: The Great C.S. Lewis Reread

Finding Paradise in The Magician’s Nephew

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.”

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Series: 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.

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Series: The Great C.S. Lewis Reread

The Magician’s Nephew: The Creation of Narnia and the Coming of Evil

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.

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Series: The Great C.S. Lewis Reread

The Horse and Her Girl: C.S. Lewis and Aravis

We tend to take questions like “Was C.S. Lewis sexist?” and place it in a binary: yes or no. We could do that, certainly, and we would have a simple and rather uninteresting answer, because if we’re going to boil right down to it, yes, for sure, obviously, much of Lewis’ work matches nearly any definition of sexism we’d like to use.

We could also spend a great deal of time putting Lewis’ views of women into the various contexts which he inhabited and investigating why he may have come to the conclusions that he did: the age he lived in, his lack of regular interaction with a diversity of women at various times in his life, the death of his mother when he was a child, the world of elite scholars in the 1940s and ‘50s in Britain, or how shaped he was by medieval and, yes, Christian thought.

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Series: The Great C.S. Lewis Reread

“A Second Rabadash” — C.S. Lewis and Dangerous Leaders

C.S. Lewis had strong political opinions and in many ways they undergird his work, though he’s slow to make them overt, unless he’s talking about the way schools are run. His earliest works (the world of Boxen that he invented with his brother) is filled with stuffy politics, mostly because he thought that’s what the adult world was: people endlessly talking about things he himself found boring. But as we saw in Prince Caspian, Lewis’ political thoughts often came down to a question of order versus disorder: Is the right person in charge and are they rightly responding to those in authority above and below them in the organizational chart?

In The Horse and His Boy we get an interesting and rather detailed look at Lewis’ ideas of the dangerous political leader, and what the most effective responses are in the midst of the disordered world that comes as a result of bullies and peacocks in power (Lewis, of course, says “pajock” rather than peacock). Nowhere is this clearer than in the poor young man named Rabadash.

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Series: The Great C.S. Lewis Reread

Growing Up in Narnia: The Pevensies as Young Adults in The Horse and His Boy

Last week marked the 70th anniversary of The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, and the first anniversary of this column! Many thanks to everyone for creating the wonderful and interesting community that’s been building around the comments here over the last year.

The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe tells us in the final chapter that our main characters—Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy—grew to be adults in Narnia, and lived their lives as kings and queens. This all takes place in the space of a few paragraphs, and though it’s referred to often enough in other books, the “Golden Age of Narnia” mostly unfolds between the stories recounted in the books, not within them.

Except in The Horse and His Boy, where we see the siblings (save Peter) as royal adults in Narnia. It’s a fun and inventive bit, giving us a little flavor for what we missed of the larger stories through our former heroes’ generous cameos in this tale.

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Series: The Great C.S. Lewis Reread

Aslan the Demon: Religious Transformation in The Horse and His Boy

“I believe in no religion. There is absolutely no proof for any of them, and from a philosophical standpoint Christianity is not even the best.” That’s what Jack “C.S.” Lewis wrote to one of his friends when he was 17 years old.

Lewis told us, years later, that The Horse and His Boy is the story of the “calling and conversion of a heathen.” He doesn’t mean the term “heathen” as something offensive, and would of course put his past self in that same category. He was also—when he was an atheist—sensitive to the arrogance of religious people who talked as though they had found the truth and he had not. Never one to shy away from strong opinions, he didn’t seem to take it personally when others thought him arrogant in the same way after his conversion.

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Series: The Great C.S. Lewis Reread

Ethnocentrism, Heathens, and Heretics in The Horse and His Boy

“The calling and conversion of a heathen.”

So many questions we have about The Horse and His Boy are answered in this short phrase. Why are the Calormene people presented as they are? If they are meant to be roughly Middle-Eastern, why are they polytheist instead of monotheist?

More questions may be answered by remembering Lewis’s audience: young, white, British children. We’ll talk in a moment about ethnocentrism, and the “center” in this case is clear and undeniable: it’s the Pevensie kids. They are both the stars and the target audience.

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Series: The Great C.S. Lewis Reread

 “Narnia and the North!”: The Horse and His Boy

C.S. Lewis loved horses. He once said, “I’d sooner have a nice thickset, steady-going cob that knew me and that I knew how to ride than all the cars and private planes in the world.” (He’s no Judith Tarr, though! Be sure to check out her excellent SFF equines series here at Tor.com!)

Lewis wrote the entirety of The Horse and His Boy in 1950. So this book, the fifth of the Narnia books to be published, was the fourth to be completed (The Silver Chair was written partially before, but finished afterward). It’s also the third chronologically, taking place during the final few pages of The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe. He and his publisher considered a few other titles, including Shasta and the North, Narnia and the North, Over the Border, Cor of Archenland, The Horse Bree, and The Desert Road to Narnia. It seems to me they chose wisely.

[We could spend a lot of time debating exactly what this book is about…]

Series: The Great C.S. Lewis Reread

Living Water, Resurrection, and Aslan’s Golden Back: Biblical Allusions in The Silver Chair

People come to Narnia from many different places. Some find the religious metaphors overwhelming, others don’t notice them at all. Some people love them because of the spiritual underpinnings. When we started this series, one thing I wanted to do was make the many allusions to Christian theology a little clearer for those who don’t come from a Christian background. In this article we’re going to look specifically at the moments when Jesus, uh, I mean Aslan, shows up in The Silver Chair.

There are a lot, and I mean a lot of Biblical allusions in this book. When Aslan walks in, Lewis piles them on top of each other until you could feel like you’re reading Bible fanfiction. This is no particular surprise, as Lewis loves to cobble together his mythology from a variety of places, and in Silver Chair we have references to Plato, Dante, Arthurian legends, Shakespeare (Rilian looks “a little bit like Hamlet”), and I’m guessing a whole lot more that I didn’t catch.

[It all starts when Eustace and Jill do a little magic spell…]

Series: The Great C.S. Lewis Reread

Saving the Lost: Quests, Signs, and Unclear Instructions in The Silver Chair

The battle against the forces of darkness is, first and foremost, a rescue operation. Or so Jill Pole is told. Aslan advises her that her quest is to seek the lost Prince Rilian, “until either you have found him and brought him to his father’s house, or else died in the attempt, or else gone back into your own world.”

Her job is not to destroy the Lady of the Green Kirtle—Aslan doesn’t even mention her—or to prevent war in Narnia, or to bring justice for those talking beasts who have been eaten by giants. Jill has one clear job, and Aslan has specifically called her and Eustace here to do it.

[Let’s talk about Aslan’s four “signs”…]

Series: The Great C.S. Lewis Reread

Who We Fight Against: The Silver Chair and Knowing Your Enemies

In a battle we must know our enemies.

Lewis tells us unapologetically that the core idea of The Silver Chair is “war against the powers of darkness,” and since this is war, it would be interesting to make sure we know who these powers of darkness are, exactly. There are people we think are allies but are not in this story, as well as those who we assume to be our adversaries but turn out to be fellow victims. If we are to be effective warriors against the powers of darkness, surely we need to be able to discern who is an ally and who an enemy.

Let’s start with the Lady of the Green Kirtle. Lewis gives us contextual clues, drawn from some of his favorite classical work, hinting at who or what the Green Lady is.

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Series: The Great C.S. Lewis Reread

The Silver Chair: The Lady of the Green Kirtle, Fake News, and Enchantment

Poor Prince Rilian. His mother—the still unnamed wife of King Caspian—is killed by a serpent “green as poison” and when he sets out to find the foul worm to destroy it, he finds instead the Lady of the Green Kirtle. She is “the most beautiful thing that was ever made” according to Rilian, though our old friend Drinian can’t help but notice that she is dressed in a thin garment as green as poison and, “It stuck in Drinian’s mind that this shining green woman was evil.”

I know the first question in everyone’s mind: what exactly is a kirtle? The short answer is that it’s women’s clothing, either an underdress or an overdress depending on the years we’re talking about and the social status of the woman wearing it. We will soon learn that this particular Lady is of high status indeed: a Witch Queen from the far Northern parts of the world who intends, of course, great harm to Narnia.

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Series: The Great C.S. Lewis Reread

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