I told you before that I really like apocalypses. But I’m not a monster. I like creation stories too. Especially when they are as well-told as The Magician’s Nephew.
A well-told tale
From a technical storytelling perspective, The Magician’s Nephew is, in my opinion, the best written of the Narniad. (Narniad: a term I learned recently describing the Chronicles. You like it?) I know that’s only an incremental judgment as it can’t be said that any of the Chronicles are badly written. But if I had to rank the books in order of well-written to slightly less well-written, The Magician’s Nephew would be at the top.
As a writer, I like to learn how to tell a good story from reading good stories. I like going back to a story and trying to figure out why it works so well. And there are many things that work well in The Magician’s Nephew.
This story moves
No one likes a slow story. The best stories grab your hand and hustle you from one room to the next—one city to the next—one universe to another. There is always something to see, or something to think about, or something to do. TMN is that kind of story.
No sooner have we gotten comfortable with Digory and Polly’s life in London then we’re whisked into the cold strangeness of Uncle Andrew’s study, and from there to the uncanny calm of the Wood Between the Worlds, and then down into the glooming aftermath of the Empire of Charn. The reader never grows weary of the scenery, but at the same time doesn’t feel as if she’s being robbed of some essential vision.
Characters in sharp relief
Digory Kirke and Polly Plummer are some of the Chronicles‘ most well-defined characters. Within the very first chapter, we feel like we know a lot about them and we care about what happens to them. What’s better is that they take charge and drive the plot. Everything that happens—the whole chain of events leading them to witness the creation of Narnia—is really their fault.
They decided to go exploring in the tunnels behind the attics. Once they got into the Wood, they decided to go world-hopping instead of simply returning to Uncle Andrew. (Who wouldn’t?) Digory decided to ring the bell that woke Jadis.
I’ve read many stories where the Bad People are out to get the protagonist before the protagonist even knows what’s going on, so in a sense, the protagonist’s choices are always reactionary. They’re moving pieces on a board that someone else set up. Digory’s and Polly’s choices are incitant, thereby centering them in the story in an organic way. They aren’t Chosen Ones in any sense of the term. They’re kids who let their curiosity get the best of them, caused a lot of trouble, and set out to fix it.
Villains, up close and personal
One element that sets TMN apart from the other Narnia stories is how in-your-face the villains are. Uncle Andrew and Jadis are very present and take up large amounts of space in the story. Other notable Narnia villains—Miraz, Rabadash, the Green Witch—only show up in 2-4 chapters of their respective stories. But Andrew and Jadis—celebrity couple names: Andis? Jandrew?—are there, right alongside our protagonists: covering their mouths to stop them from screaming, pinching their ears, holding their hands, kicking them in the teeth. After witnessing Andrew’s cold ruthlessness in the attic and Jadis’ destructive power in Charn, it’s frankly terrifying.
More importantly, we get to see the villains evolve alongside our heroes. All of Andrew’s pompous affectation slithers out of him when he meets Jadis, only to be replaced by cunning deviancy when he recognizes the rich possibilities of the newborn Narnia. Freshly awakened from her long nap in Charn, Jadis is emboldened in our world, weakened in the Wood, terrified (but calm in Narnia), and calculating in the Wild.
By twining the narratives of the good guys with that of the bad guys so intricately, Lewis tells a grounded tale where both the heroes and the villains remain close and real to the reader.
Build a world—or three
The world-building in TMN is simply breath-taking. Making one fantasy world realistic is a tall order, but Lewis manages three, and does it with such economy as to be envied. Vivid portrayals of Narnia, Charn, and Earth (not to mention the Wood Between these Worlds) are delivered without the story feeling overloaded with information. (Truly, what one wants from most of Lewis’ writings is more, not less.) Lewis said the Narnia stories began with a picture of a faun carrying parcels in a snowy wood. Well, the magic works both ways: with words, Lewis creates solid pictures in his readers’ heads.
An intimate story
For all its world-hopping wonderfulness, TMN is a small, intimate tale. Compare the creation of Narnia to, say, the creation of Arda in The Silmarillion. For the story of Arda’s birth, Tolkien spins out a pantheon of gods (Ainur, Valar, etc.). They are personal and super-powerful, but not intimate with their creation. And once they craft the world, they dwell far from the creatures they are ostensibly responsible for.
Narnia, on the other hand, is birthed by a single Lion singing as he winds his way through a dark pre-world. Plants and creatures and animals, stars and river and sea spring “out of the Lion’s head.” To bestow on his creatures the gift of Speech, he walks to and fro, touching them two-by-two, nose-to-nose. He breathes on them, takes counsel with them, laughs with them. And in the middle of it all are Digory and Polly, Andrew and Jadis, watching, witnessing, being transformed.
Any number of newly-created Narnians could have become legendary in the first few hours of that world’s creation—the Adams and Eves at the start of history. Instead, all the starring roles are given to the characters we’re already familiar with from our world and from Charn. (Except for the First Joke, of course.)
Choice seems to be the theme that runs through The Magician’s Nephew. In this story, individual choices literally shape worlds. Boy Andrew chose to keep the mysterious box his fairy godmother gave him instead of burning it as instructed. Digory and Polly chose to go exploring other worlds instead of returning to Uncle Andrew. Digory chose to ring the bell that awakened Jadis. One choice led to another—and then to trans-universe implications.
We don’t always know what will follow our choices. Often we find that what we think we wanted is not what we expected. Like Digory at the apple tree, we can only choose the right thing—or what we desperately hope to be the right thing—knowing that what follows might not be what we wish for.
There is no takeaway from this theme: except to say that the right choice is very much the one that feels wrong in the moment. What feels correct is not always correct. And we can even deceive ourselves about our feelings. Digory used the excuse of enchantment to cover up his overwhelming curiosity about the bell. Had he not succumbed to that feeling, he might have chosen differently.
But choosing the right thing won’t make us feel good or right. If Digory hadn’t rung the bell, he likely would have gone home feeling sour over the missed opportunity, a reflection of which is mirrored by his making the right choice at the apple tree: he feels as though he is condemning his mother to a lifetime of illness by taking the apple to the Lion instead of home to her.
But right choices do eventually lead to better outcomes. Not the best always, but at least better ones. Because Digory made the right choice, Narnia had some security against the Witch for hundreds of years. Of course, it would have been better if the Witch hadn’t been brought to Narnia in the first place. But that raindrop had already fallen. This was the best end to the story that could be given. And no one gets to see what would have happened.
A deeper current that runs through TMN is that of reflection. (Maybe that isn’t the right word for it, but it’s the best one I can think of at the moment.) And maybe this is a literary device that ties the story together more than it is a part of the theme. But I love how Digory, Jadis, and Andrew are reflections of each other, and how each one indirectly enables the other.
Each of the three faces an Eden-like moment preceding a fall or some great calamity: Jadis with the Deplorable Word, Andrew with the box of dust, Digory in the Hall of Images, and both Jadis and Digory in the Western Garden. Digory notices how Andrew and Jadis are alike in their mentalities: proud, arrogant, willing to use people (and guinea pigs) to get what they want. Polly points out how Digory is like his uncle. The trio are inextricably bound throughout the story. And even though each one ends up opposing the others, they start out on the same path, working with the same tools. While we root for Digory, we are reminded that he is not so far from becoming the story’s more ostentatious villain.
(And how fitting is it that Professor Kirke houses the children who must defeat the villain he is responsible for unleashing in Narnia?)
It’s not the power one has that matters: it’s the person on the inside. Would Jadis have used the Deplorable Word to wipe out Charn if she hadn’t learned it? Of course not. But she would have gone on being a cruel, cold monarch who deemed her subjects as only fit for her pleasure. (And would she even know true pleasure?) If Uncle Andrew hadn’t opened that box, he might never have sent a girl, without warning, into a potentially dangerous Other World. But he would have found other ways of being cruel to children and whoever he felt would suit his purpose.
That’s the future that awaited Digory.
But Digory, instead of running away from Aslan like Jadis and Andrew, went to Aslan out of desperation. And when he met Aslan, the course of his life changed for the better.
I wonder how the Deep Magic and the Stone Table came to be. Lewis started writing this story, or an early version of this story, the year after LWW was published, so I’m sure he didn’t simply overlook it. Before the Hundred Year Winter, Jadis must have become quite a cosmic figure in the new world’s early history for the Emperor-over-the-Sea to make some kind of deal with her regarding traitors. Perhaps it was a last-ditch attempt to save Narnia from her grasp, only to have a Narnian traitor cut down the tree of silver apples, allowing Jadis to swoop in for the kill.
The opening of a Magician’s Nephew movie must undoubtedly be like the opening to The Fellowship of the Ring: with the history of Charn and its last great War being recounted via voiceover from Jadis, the Queen of Queens and the Terror of the World (perhaps of all worlds).