Narnia re-read. The Magician’s Nephew Chapter seven. What happened at the front door.

Synopsis: Jadis and Andrew go into London. Jadis steals a horse-drawn cab and causes mayhem.

When I was younger, I didn’t understand so well the way that Andrew’s ridiculous thoughts about the Queen being attracted to him only appeared when she was not present. I think I understand better now. Reality often disrupts and corrects our happy daydreams – what we’ll say to the boss, how we’ll deal with a situation, how we’ll be received etc. – when the time actually comes for action. Things don’t play out the way we imagined them in our heads.

Why didn’t the Queen’s magical powers work in London? Does magic need to be near a source or place of origin? How does she later manage to perform magic in Narnia, such as generating the enchanted winter? Do different worlds have different rules?

I’d forgotten about the (secretly thrilled) housemaid. There are lots of little comic touches throughout this book. When I think of the other stories, they have light moments but I suspect that MN might be the most comedic. I don’t know why this might be. Maybe Lewis was feeling happier at this time in his life. Maybe it stemmed from him writing about a different time period. Maybe it just fitted his idea for the story.

I was always puzzled by Aunt Letty’s mattress mending. I suppose it’s another thing you don’t really see these days. What were mattresses like then?

The description of the house – ‘It was one of those houses that get very quiet and dull in the afternoon and always seem to smell of mutton’ – reminds me of two things. Firstly, the description of Bill Door’s visit to Miss Flitworth’s parlour in Pratchett’s ‘Reaper Man’, and secondly, the memory of visits to numerous houses which belonged to friends of my Grandma.

Digory’s hope – and his fear that the hope might be dashed – for his mother’s recovery surely reflects the young Lewis’ emotions as he watched his own mother’s health deteriorating from cancer.

Jadis’ ability to ride on the top of the hansom ‘with perfect balance’ impressed the young me.

Cruelty to animals and a disregard for their welfare is often an indicator of a ‘baddie’ in the Chronicles.

What did Jadis whisper in the horse’s ear?

As I mentioned earlier in my re-read (in VDT) I don’t really enjoy Lewis’ ‘accented’ voices. This is true of the ‘cockneys’ in the crowd here (‘Gor! Ain’t she strong then!’ etc.) It just feels awkward to me.

‘Womfle –  pomfy – shomf’ (used to denote someone speaking through a damaged top hat) is probably my favourite ever mixture of nonsense words and onomatopoeia.

The first time we meet the Cabby, we are given plenty of clues as to his personality and nature. He is clearly worried about others, including the horse itself. He’s calm in a strange and dangerous situation. Despite Jadis having destroyed his means of making a living, he is kind and gently spoken towards her, trying to convince her to calm down.

 

 

 

 

 

Narnia re-read. The Magician’s Nephew Chapter six. The beginning of Uncle Andrew’s troubles.

Synopsis: Jadis has managed to return to the Wood between the Worlds. The children unintentionally bring her back to their world, where she meets Uncle Andrew.

When I was younger, I loved the idea that creatures like Jadis, from other worlds, could arrive in ours. I don’t think that I’d imagined inter-world travel as two-way until reading this book. The children’s inadvertent transportation of the Queen through the portal reminds me of a scene in Rowling’s Harry Potter series, where the protagonists use magic to travel between two places, but an enemy grabs one of them, so they have to change course.

Once again, Digory is taken in by the Queen, while Polly heartily dislikes her.

There is a mention of Jadis’ size, and the possiblity of her having ‘giantish blood’. This would tally with Mr Beaver’s statement in LWW that she is descended from Adam and Lilith (Adam’s first wife, according to Jewish mythology, who is supposed to be a jinn linked to demons and sinfulness) on one side, and giants on the other. Presumably all the people of Charn – or possibly only the noble houses – are the same. Was this world a world of giants? The idea that Jadis is descended from Adam makes you wonder how descendants of ‘Adam’ ended up in a totally different world to ours. Did they travel between worlds? (I suspect that the truth is that this statement, from LWW, doesn’t really match the ‘backstory’ Jadis is given by this, later, book.

Uncle Andrew makes mention of his ‘old Dorsetshire family’. In Downing’s ‘Into the Wardrobe’, it is suggested that he is partially based on Robert Capron, the cruel headteacher Lewis talked about in ‘Surprised by Joy’. Capron took pride in his Devonshire family roots, being from Southern England. It is worth noting that Capron was described as ‘tall’ with ‘plentiful grey hair’. Lewis feared him, but saw him as a fool as well, which reflects Digory’s relationship with Uncle Andrew.

Lewis uses one of his favourite insults for witches: they are ‘terribly practical’. He doesn’t mean by this that they are able to do useful things. He means that their minds are not creative or empathetic, and unable to appreciate beauty. (Like the pre-dragoned Eustace in VDT.) They – to quote Oscar Wilde – ‘know the price of everything and the value of nothing’.

Digory’s initial inability to see how he has wronged Polly, and his exclamation of ‘just like a girl!’ are both reminders that if he’s not careful he could end up becoming just like Uncle Andrew. However, I don’t find myself disliking him; in the same passage he apologises and shows his overwhelming concern for his mother.

Lewis’ nostalgia runs through his descriptions of our world at this point in time: ‘You have never seen such clothes but I can remember them…He took a clean handkerchief ( a lovely one such as you couldn’t buy today)…’

One of the things I loved about this book as a child was the description of the Victorian world in which it is set. Uncle Andrew’s strange clothes, such as his eye-glass on a black ribbon, fascinated me. They seemed to come from a world which was close enough to understand, but far enough away to be interesting and exotic.

 

 

Narnia re-read. The Magician’s Nephew Chapter five. The Deplorable Word.

Synopsis: Jadis is awoken by the bell. She explains what happened to the world of Charn. She wants to travel to the children’s world with them. They try to escape.

When I was younger I was always really annoyed, on Polly’s behalf, at the Queen ignoring her and only addressing Digory.

I wonder how old the Queen is. How old was she when the enchantment began? How long as the enchantment kept her in stasis?

Polly is not in any way taken in by the Queen. She sees her for exactly what she is: dangerous and cruel. However, Digory thinks she’s ‘brave’ and ‘strong’, a true Queen. He’s allowing himself to be ‘fooled’ again, as he did with the bell and the hammer.

The Queen’s commentary on ‘dungeons…torture chambers…killed them all…’ adds to our image of this world. Inviting guests to a banquet, then killing them, shows a total disregard for the sort of hospitality ‘laws’ which were widespread in the Middle Ages. It certainly wouldn’t happen at Anvard or Cair Paravel. This kind of transgression will be familiar to anyone who has read G.R.R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire series. Martin explains its historical origins here: http://nerdist.com/george-r-r-martin-explains-the-red-weddings-historical-roots/

I always loved the crown and dress of the the Queen in the illustrations. They looked exotic and otherworldly.

The lack of nature, countryside, trees in Charn reminds me of Tolkien’s portrayal of Saruman’s desecreation of Isengard in The Lord of the Rings. Both authors saw the increasing urbanisation and modernisation of Britain as the destruction of what the country should truly be. The sounds of Charn were ‘wheels…whips…slaves…’. Saruman is described as having  ‘a mind of metal and wheels’.

Here were are told the Queen’s name, Jadis, and we know that this is the White Witch of LWW.

What are ‘the Powers’ mentioned by Jadis? Are they gods?

Jadis shows here that she is one of those people – there are many in our world, unfortunately – who see mercy, or the reluctance to spill the blood of others, as weakness.

The Deplorable Word taps into the ancient idea that certain words have real power (for example the names of gods). There have been taboo words for centuries.

What happened to all the dead soldiers? Why aren’t their skeletons lying everywhere? Did the Deplorable Word completely atomise them?

We see how Jadis and Andrew are alike, although Andrew is really a pale imitation of Jadis, with little of her power. They both see everyone around them as dispensable. They both speak of their ‘high and lonely destiny’. They both betray their greedy thoughts through hungry facial expressions. They both see magic as a way to gain power over others rather than genuine understanding.

Jadis refuses to accept facts which we know to be true because they don’t fit with her worldview. This is the first ‘weakness’ we have seen in her – a lack of understanding of things outside her experience. This will become important later in the story.

 

 

Narnia re-read. The Magician’s Nephew Chapter four. The bell and the hammer.

Polly and Digory explore the world they have entered. They find a strange bell and hammer in a room of statues. Against Polly’s wishes, Digory strikes the bell.

Polly and Digory’s immediate reactions to Charn are telling. Polly just knows it feels wrong. Digory has lots of curious questions. He’s fascinated by finding the answers to questions, an impulse which echoes Uncle Andrew.

I’ve been to lots of places which have reminded me of parts of the Narnian world (which I try to photograph and upload here via my instagram account) but I’ve never seen anywhere which reminded me of Charn (except perhaps in Sci-Fi, where barren planets with strange skies are more likely to be found). I love Pauline Baynes’ illustration showing the two children holding hands, dwarfed by their surroundings.

The Narnian world has Aslan. We know what the equivalent is supposed to be in our world. Does – or did – Charn have an equivalent? Do all the worlds which can be reached by the wood have one?

The deadness, the stillness, the lack of anything natural in Charn, will provide a complete contrast with Narnia. Everything the children see adds to the ominous picture: the fountain is in the form of a monster rather than a normal animal; the figures’ clothes are decorated with ‘strange beasts’; there is no evidence of plant-life, not even moss. The eeriest detail is the light. The red, cold, dead light, coming from an old sun in an inky sky is quite unsettling.

Are these figures simply very realistic statues, or could the right magic revive them?

The magical translation of the inscription, enabling the children to read it, reminds me of Doctor Who, where the Tardis automatically translates speech and written text.

I wonder what proportion of people would choose to strike the bell, and how many would not.

Lewis is often accused of less than enlightened portrayals of gender in the Chronicles. Here, however, we see that Digory’s dismissal of Polly ‘because you’re a girl’ is simply a mask for his own failings. (Just as Andrew spoke of Digory having been raised by women when Digory accused him of being selfish and cruel.) I know that Lewis’ attitudes to women and female characters weren’t always modern, but I personally find in Polly a clever, brave and warm female protagonist. Yes, she’s interested in the clothing of the statues, but her interest is not harmful or excessive, like Digory’s.

Sounds are always key in the Chronicles, with the power to generate strong emotions and reactions. Here, the sound of the bell tells us straight away – if we hadn’t already guessed – that striking the bell was a terrible idea.

I don’t know whether it’s just my perception of it, but this book’s chapters seem to end more frequently on ‘cliff-hangers’ than other books from the series. Up to this point there has been:

Digory and his Uncle were alone in the room.

He … picked up the ring …

And they jumped.

They had never been more mistaken in their lives.

 

 

 

Narnia re-read. The Magician’s Nephew Chapter three. The Wood between the Worlds.

Digory is reunited with Polly in the Wood between the Worlds. They decide to use the rings to explore other worlds through the pools in the wood.

The title of this chapter is a nod to William Morris’ ‘The Wood Beyond The World’, which Lewis greatly admired. (He mentioned him frequently in his personal correspondence, and gave lectures defending Morris from criticism. It has also been suggested that Prince Caspian was based on Morris’ character Child Christopher.) This book, by the man who is nowadays more famous for his ever-popular fabric and wallpaper prints, is considered to be key in the development of the fantasy novel. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Wood_Beyond_the_World) Lewis’ friend Tolkien also acknowledged Morris as an influence on his writing.

Where is the wood? Is it somehow attached to Aslan’s Country? Is it infinite or does it eventually come to an end? Do people often go there? Why does it exist? Is it eternal, or does it have a beginning and an end? When I was younger I didn’t see the appeal of a peaceful place where nothing seems to happen, but now I do.

In Lev Grossman’s ‘Magicians’ series, I enjoyed reading about his version of the wood, the Neitherlands. All other worlds are connected by the Neitherlands, which consist of deserted Italianate buildings, which are all libraries.  Different worlds are accessed via fountains, although these can dry up. I believe he has stated that either the wood grew over the buildings there, or the buildings were built on top of the wood. (The series revolves around the magical world of Fillory, which is linked to our own and is the focus of a series of classic British children’s books. It’s Narnia, by another name.)

Polly shows her sensible, practical nature here. She realises that they have to fight against the pleasant dreaminess of the wood. She imagines the consequences of rushing into action. When Digory is carried away by the thought of exploring, he talks over her and ignores what she’s trying to say, which is a foretaste of what will happen in Charn.

It is here that we are told that Digory becomes Professor Kirke from LWW. This was written after that though, and Lewis had never initially intended to write a ‘prequel’ to LWW, and it makes his initial conversation about Narnia (with Peter and Susan) seem a little strange.

I like the fact that Polly and Digory squabble (much as Jill and Eustace do). They don’t just marvel at the extraordinary events taking place. They behave like real children do. Their arguments continue throughout the chapter.

When they try returning to London, why can they see through the walls of all the buildings? Would this happen in other worlds?

How did the dust in Uncle Andrew’s box manage to make rings which wanted to both leave and find the wood? Were there separate compartments? Who in our world would have known how to do this? How did Uncle Andrew work it out? Why did the dust behave in two different ways?

 

 

 

 

 

Narnia re-read. The Magician’s Nephew Chapter two. Digory and his uncle.

Synopsis: Uncle Andrew explains the origins of the magic rings. Digory decides to go after Polly with the second ring.

Mrs Lefay always sounded so interesting to me, I wanted to know more about her back story. Why was she sent to prison? Where did she get hold of the box? What ceremonies should it have been destroyed with? Why? Her name is an echo of Morgan Le Fay, the sorceress who features in Arthurian Legend. The term ‘fay’ itself can be used interchangeably with fairy or faery, which is suited to Mrs Lefay’s role as a ‘fairy godmother’.

Uncle Andrew’s insistence that the rules don’t apply to him, that he’s special and different, stand in direct contrast to Aslan’s stance. In both LWW and VDT, Aslan explains that he must follow his, and the Emperor’s, rules, for example by becoming visible when Lucy casts the spell in the Coriakin’s house. The reader is shown that his talk of a ‘high and lonely destiny’ is insincere and self-serving.

I would love to see the box itself.What were the decorations like? What exactly was it made from? How could Andrew be sure that it was Atlantean? Who did he learn this from? Who else had this secret knowledge?

Lewis was interested in the idea of Atlantis, his friend Tolkien even more so: it inspired his story of the downfall of Numenor, and he had recurring dreams about a land consumed by the sea. (These are documented in his own writing.)

How had the dust come into our world in the first place? Did it arrive here as dust or was it dust made from something else. Who travelled between the worlds? This is another unknown story.

The more Andrew speaks, the more he reveals about himself. He wants knowledge, and probably that power which knowledge that other people don’t have brings, but doesn’t stop to think about the consequences. He admits his health has been damaged, and he shows absolutely no interest in other people (or animals) apart from wondering how he can make use of them. Polly’s safety is of absolutely no concern to him, and his empathy is so lacking that he can’t understand why Digory is so upset. In contrast, we see that Digory understands the ‘rules’ – of fairness, courtesy and doing the right thing.

Andrew is the perfect example of what we become when we see ourselves as the hero of our story, rather than looking at ourselves as part of a bigger story. He can’t see that other people are equally important to him.

Do children now know what ‘the white feather’ represents?

As ever in Narnia, we see how reading the ‘right books’ helps us: Digory predicts that Andrew won’t profit from his terrible conduct. Andrew finally seems disconcerted. He dismisses Digory’s ‘old wives’ tales’ but in the Chronicles we have seen, notably in PC, that such tales are often true. They are dismissed by those who fear or misunderstand them, such as King Miraz.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Narnia re-read. The Magician’s Nephew Chapter one. The wrong door.

Synopsis: Polly and Digory become friends. They explore the connections between the attics in their street. They meet Uncle Andrew, who tricks Polly into picking up a magic ring.

Lewis tells us that the events in this book happened when ‘your grandfather was a child’. This is true for me – my grandfather was born in 1900, just two years after Lewis himself, but doesn’t really apply to modern children. However, to under-tens everything more than twenty years ago is like ancient history, so I don’t suppose it matters much.

The mention of cheap, delicious sweets reminds me of the way I would always find my mouth watering when reading Richmal Crompton’s ‘Just William’ stories. (Sweets were one of William’s chief pleasures in life.)

I know that some people recommend beginning the Chronicles with this book, and most box sets number it ‘1’, but I firmly believe that the reader’s experience is much more satisfying if they have already read LWW before MN. Isn’t it more fun (magical, even) to discover Narnia by entering the snowy wood inside the wardrobe, and having Mr Tumnus introduce it, than by simply being told that there are ‘comings and goings between our world and the land of Narnia’?

The mention of Sherlock Holmes here contributed to my childhood belief that he was a real person. (Apparently, I’m not alone in this.) I did not know who the Bastables were. I’ve since read E. Nesbit (the author of the stories in which the Bastable siblings feature), but the reference was lost on me at the time. Growing up in the 1980s, Victorian and Edwardian children’s literature such as The Water Babies and The Secret Garden seemed either to be enjoying continued popularity, or to be in fashion, I’m not sure which.

This book, of all the Narniad, has the most autobiographical elements in it. The most noticeable may be the era described. The other stories are set in the mid-20th Century, but this is not. Digory and Polly are growing up in the world Lewis himself knew as a child. Also, Digory is self-conscious about his unusual name; Lewis never used his real name (Clive Staples) but referred to himself as Jack from a very young age. Friends and family called him Jack, too. Digory, like Lewis, would grow up to become a professor with an interest in Plato, who took in evacuees during World War II. Just as Digory has a very ill mother, Lewis lost his beloved mother Flora when he was just a young boy. It may be this which made this book the one Lewis took longest over. He returned to it a number of times, and it was completed last of all the Chronicles.

Even though I wasn’t even born at the time being described, this entire chapter makes me feel nostalgic. My own childhood feels like it has more connections and similarities with Polly and Digory’s than it does with childhood in 2016.

Another echo of Lewis is found here in the children’s questionable maths. Lewis himself really struggled with maths throughout his life.

Lewis always seems to remember childhood very keenly; I am reminded of this by his comment on Polly wanting to put the rings in her mouth, if she had been younger.

It’s strange that Polly is the more adventurous – and reckless – here, as later in the book she is sensible and difficult to fool, whereas Digory is not.

As a child I remember finding Uncle Andrew quite alarming, particularly his hair and long fingers. His ‘greedy look’ was quite frightening. The silence and lack of ‘drama’ surrounding Polly’s disappearance was equally chilling.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Narnia re-read. Finishing The Horse and His Boy.

I remember absolutely loving this story as a child. This memory was confirmed by the spines of my first Narnia books: HHB’s is much more dog-eared and worn than the others. I must have read it dozens and dozens of times. So how was my re-read, decades later?

Some aspects of the book I did not find enjoyable: this book, along with LB, is the most problematic of the Narniad to discuss. Having to write an exploration of race issues in the story before I began my chapter-by-chapter was, although necessary (I felt, anyway), sad. My recollections of Narnia, and all that it meant for me when I was young, were entirely innocent. So the realisation that Narnia might not always be the totally benign, loving, welcoming world I remembered was an unhappy one. I found myself wishing the book was different. It felt like the literary equivalent of an elderly relative with questionable views. You love them, but really wish they would change their thinking – and what they casually say around the dinner table. I also felt foolish. I’d never noticed the way the Calormenes were portrayed, in all those hours reading the story. What did this say about me?

As I’ve worked my way through the Chronicles on this re-read, I’ve found that Aslan, although clearly present, feels increasingly distant to me. For example, I really envied the Pevensie girls’ closeness to him in LWW, and Lucy’s dreamlike encounter with him in PC. I didn’t envy Shasta being chased and frightened by him, or Aravis being attacked. I didn’t wish it was me walking through the mist with him by my side.

The very existence of Prince Corin is, for me, a definite ‘negative’ when reading this book. I’ve been really surprised by just how strongly I reacted to him during my re-read. I really wanted to jump into the story and shout at everyone, “This boy is a brat! Why has nobody noticed? Why are you indulging him?”

One subject which often concerns people in this book is the approach to gender. As I’ve previously mentioned, I will be exploring this in a separate post. However, I feel it still requires a mention. Lasaraleen is presented as everything which is ‘bad’ about traditional ‘feminity’. Susan, the archer-queen, seems helpless and reliant on the men around her. Do I think Lasaraleen and Susan were short-changed in terms of character traits and story development due to their gender? Yes, I suppose they were.

However, despite it’s issues, I found plenty of positives in HHB too. Gender stereotypes aside, I enjoyed (both now and all those years ago) reading about the proud, courageous, determined, cool-headed, female character of Aravis. She is no damsel in distress. She doesn’t wait around, worrying, for someone to save her. She does it herself. And it was Aravis who stayed in my imagination, long after I’d put down the book. I loved her. I loved Shasta, and Bree too, but especially Aravis.

The glimpses into the world of the Narnian Golden Age were another source of pleasure for me. Some of the blank space between the Pevensies’ coronation and the final stag hunt of LWW is coloured in.

The nostalgia rushes came thick and fast: the beauty of Aravis’ story-telling; the fear of sleeping near the black entrances to the tombs; talk of ‘two hundred horse’; the exhilaration of riding through the moonlit desert. I found some of the descriptive passages (the nightingale singing in the oasis is the one which springs immediately to mind) quite beautiful.

How this book would be for those encountering it for the first time today, I don’t know. For me, it was a real mixture of uncomfortable awareness of the book’s outdated viewpoints, genuine affection for the main protagonists, fuzzy nostalgia, admiration for Lewis’ gorgeous prose and very strong urges to ‘box’ Corin into next week. As I work my way through the Chronicles, the journey feels stranger and stranger.