Narnia re-read. Finishing The Magician’s Nephew.

So I’ve finished re-reading the Magician’s Nephew.I’d wondered how I would find this book, as I know I enjoyed it as a child, but I don’t think I felt as emotionally attached to it as other books, such as PC or VDT.

Usually, when I’ve completed a book, I discuss the negative and positive responses I’ve had during the re-read. To be fair, there wasn’t much I didn’t enjoy about MN. I suppose that  if I had to choose something, the increasingly obvious links to religion in ‘our world’ weren’t a huge favourite of mine. (Although I don’t suppose anything in MN is quite as obvious as the lamb at the end of VDT.) Aside from that, the only other thing I wasn’t hugely keen on was the use, as elsewhere in the Chronicles, of ‘cockney’ speech.

There were, however, a number of highlights in this book for me. One was Polly. I think I may have slightly overlooked Polly in my youth in favour of Jill and Lucy. Returning to her as an adult, I really liked what I found. She’s adventurous and imaginative (why else would you create a smuggler’s cove in your attic?) but not reckless or thoughtless. She is the voice of reason when Digory is tempted to do things he really shouldn’t – although he doesn’t always listen to her. She has her weaknesses, sometimes being a little short-tempered for example, but this only adds to the feeling that she is an authentic girl, rather than a plot device. She’s certainly not afraid to speak her mind. I always appreciate that in female characters in particular.

The humour in this book makes it an enjoyable, quite light-hearted read. Many of the comic touches, particularly those relating to Uncle Andrew and the brand new animals of Narnia really amused me. In comparison with books such as SC, LB and PC, the book itself felt ‘lighter’. (This links in with Michael Ward’s ‘Planet Narnia’, where he states that this book is linked to the medieval associations of the planet Venus. (Laughter is one of these.)

Another association of Venus is beauty. I really do think that some of the passages in this book could be described as beautiful, particularly the re-imagined creation of a world. (Vitality and creativity are also Venusian traits.) The wood between the worlds, the silent, mystical garden, and the flight to reach it, crossing the lands of Narnia are also gorgeously – and memorably – written about.

The tenderness between Digory and his mother, and Aslan’s understanding of Digory’s pain are, to my mind, quite moving.I think this is especially the case now that I am aware of the parallels with the author’s own life. You really do wish that Lewis, and all the people you have known in similar situations, could have access to a magical apple.

Finally, the Magician’s Nephew is delightful in its foreshadowing. We nod sagely as the lamppost is planted. As Digory moves to the special house in the country. As the tree is turned into a wardrobe. The land we’ve already grown to love makes a little more sense to us now. We love being in on the secrets.

 

Narnia re-read. The Magician’s Nephew Chapter fifteen. The end of this story and the beginning of all the others.

Synopsis: Uncle Andrew and the children return to our world. Digory gives his mother the apple, which heals her.

Aslan warns the children about our world, and how it could end similarly to Charn. The story takes place prior to both world wars, so Lewis may have been referring generally to the evil things, and weapons, that people would invent to defeat each other. Ford suggests, in his ‘Companion to Narnia’ that it is a more specific reference to the atomic bomb, which had of course been used prior to this book being written. Aslan also warns of tyrants rising up, which the reader knows to refer to those such as Hitler and Stalin who wrought such devastation on the world. I’m not entirely sure, however, why Digory and Polly are warned of this – are they supposed to act on the knowledge? If so, how? Wouldn’t it frighten them terribly? Or is it really just a warning that is being given indirectly to the reader?

For the rest of their lives, we are told that the memory of Aslan’s ‘golden goodness’ was a source of strength and happiness to them. The words, ‘The feeling that it was still there, quite close, just around the corner or just behind some door, would come back and make them sure, deep down inside, that all was well,’ describes pretty accurately what my relationship with Narnia was, for me as a child, and in many ways as an adult.

Digory’s ability to provide a cure for his mother, a genuine, gentle cure, is a very touching end to the story, particularly as Lewis must have been thinking of his own mother as he wrote it. How different his life might have been.

We’ve seen Digory being less than perfect during the story: twisting Polly’s arm; lying to himself; lying to other people; rushing into situations without thinking about the consequences. But here, we see the Digory being gentle, thoughtful, and we see how desperately he loves his mother.

I’ve mentioned before that as a child the religious undercurrent of the Chronicles passed me by for a good while, but here the references to religion in our world are coming thicker and faster. Heaven (also previously mentioned by Digory when arguing with the Witch outside the Garden) is mentioned again. The doctor speaks of Mrs Ketterley’s recovery as a miracle.

I don’t imagine the children buried the rings very deeply. The next occupant of the house could have unearthed them, and ended up in the Wood Between the Worlds, with no means of return.

‘When things go wrong, you’ll find they usually go on getting worse for some time; but when things once start going right they often go on getting better and better’. I don’t remember this quote from earlier readings, but it really stood out for me this time. Based purely on my own experience of life, it’s actually quite accurate.

Digory is described as a great traveller (something Lewis definitely was not). Maybe his journey to other worlds sparked this interest in him.

Again I am reminded of how much more pleasurable it would be to read this book after reading LWW. Reading about the lamppost in the woods, the house in the country, ‘with the suits of armour’ and of course about how the wardrobe came into existence, is so much more satisfying when you know about what happened there. Otherwise, it’s just spoilers.

Narnia re-read. The Magician’s Nephew Chapter fourteen. The planting of the tree.

Synopsis: the Tree of Protection is planted. Uncle Andrew is dealt with. Frank and Helen are crowned.

I would love to see the coronation clothes, and the delicate circlets, of Frank and Helen. Narnian clothes, even crowns, are beautiful and comfortable, something Lewis clearly felt that the clothing of our world was often not. Frank’s crown is decorated with rubies, which used to be known in India as ‘the king of jewels’. It is sometimes seen as a symbol of royalty. Helen’s crown has emeralds, which have been used to represent love and fertility.

The name Frank originally meant a man who was one of the European tribe of ‘franks’. It later came to mean ‘a free man’, which I suppose Frank becomes when freed from the difficult, hard life he has been living in London. To be described as ‘frank’ means that someone is open, honest and direct, even when something difficult is being discussed. This definitely matches Frank’s character.

I actually start to feel somewhat sorry for Uncle Andrew at this point. His vanity must surely not have survived being caged, buried and pelted with everything from nuts to live bees. It’s about as close to a slapstick scene as we get in Narnia. By the end of this passage, it is impossible for the children – or the reader – to fear, or even respect him. He is a figure of fun, to be pitied at best. (Polly asks Aslan to help him, but he can only do so by giving him the gift of sleep.)

The bear is extremely kind and helpful, keen to do the right thing, and not the most quick-witted animal. This reminded me of the Bulgy Bears in PC.

‘They had christened him Brandy because he made that noise so often.’ Indeed. Drinking alcohol itself is not viewed as a ‘bad thing’ in Narnia. Lewis enjoyed drinking, and spent a lot of his social life in pubs. (His favourites, in and around Oxford, can still be visited today.) At feasts, characters drink wine of different types. The beavers share a drink which sounds alcoholic with the Pevensies in LWW. The alcohol isn’t the problem; it is Uncle Andrew’s reliance on it which makes it something slightly pathetic.

Often in the Chronicles we are told or shown that it is impossible to know either what would have happened if another course of action had been taken, or to know the details of someone else’s story. However, that rule does not seem to apply here as Aslan explains about the apples and the Witch. We are told what would have happened to Digory, his mother, and anyone else who stole fruit from the tree. We are also told what will become of the Witch. Maybe this is different because the general effect of the fruit is being described with reference to specific people, rather than a set of circumstances specific to one person. Or maybe I’m overthinking this.

‘There might be things more terrible even than losing someone you love by death’. As a child, I couldn’t  really imagine how this could be true, but now I think I understand.

 

 

 

 

Narnia re-read. The Magician’s Nephew Chapter thirteen. An unexpected meeting.

Synopsis: Fledge and the children arrive at the garden. Digory encounters Jadis. He returns to Aslan with the apple.

Of all the foods people eat in Narnia, the one I longed for most as a child was the fruit of the toffee tree. I could imagine quite clearly how it would taste. The idea of its leaves being papery, like honesty leaves, is a lovely idea. I’ve tried to find apple flavoured toffee – the nearest thing I could think of – but so far haven’t been able to. When I eat my way through the foods of Narnia, I think I’m going to have to somehow try to make my own.

I love the little asides the narrator gives us, for example saying that Polly said she bathed, but she wasn’t a great swimmer, so we’d best not inquire further.

As mentioned in the previous chapter’s post, in Greek mythology there was said to be a place called the Garden of the Hesperides. It was described as being far to the West, beyond the mountains, just as this garden is. In the garden was a tree – or trees – which bore golden apples, which granted immortality to those who ate them. The garden belonged to Hera, who was associated with peacocks, known for their beautiful multi-coloured plumage. Lewis’ garden, with its watchful bird, seems at least partially inspired by it.

The gates of the garden face east, presumably because this is the direction associated with the Emperor over the Sea. The garden is described as being a private place, and is described as beautiful, but an air of solemnity is also suggested. Many of the signs of something spiritually significant used elsewhere in the Chronicles by Lewis are here; reverent silence, the beauty of nature, an appealing scent, and the combination of seriousness and happiness.

Digory is tempted by the desire to eat an apple, just as Adam and Eve were in the Bible story of the garden of Eden. It is particularly bad when he smells the fruit before putting it away. However, he manages not to succumb.

The illustration that accompanies this chapter (and this post) is one of the most memorable from the entire series. Your eye is naturally drawn to the figure of Digory, set in the foreground. Then you notice the bird in the tree, and perhaps the fountain. But then you finally realise that something is wrong. Half hidden in the trees is Jadis. Spotting her in this image gives the reader an echo of Digory’s experience as described in the text.

Jadis’ temptation of Digory is so cruel, in using his own mother’s illness, that we see very clearly just how terrible she is. She’s so clever, and so manipulative, that Digory is completely torn by the decision he has to make. However, he chooses correctly, to do what is ‘right’ rather that what might personally benefit him. Did Aslan already know he would be tempted in this way when he sent him? Was that part of the ‘quest’?

 

 

 

Narnia re-read. The Magician’s Nephew Chapter twelve. Strawberry’s adventure.

Synopsis: Digory asks Aslan for help. Strawberry becomes Fledge, a winged horse. He takes Polly and Digory on a mission for Aslan.

There are a number of passages in the Chronicles which I find particularly emotional. The beginning of this chapter is one which never fails to get to me. Digory is so desperate to help his mother, and so afraid of what will happen if he can’t. You can feel the grief coming off the page. Of course, Lewis knew exactly how this felt, having lost his beloved mother at just such a young age. When I was younger I felt empathy for Digory. Now I’m older, and have lost a parent myself, this passage seems even more genuinely sad. Now, I think perhaps I understand why Aslan’s tears (‘wonder of wonders’) are more remarkable perhaps than anything else about him. ‘Grief is great.’

Unsurprisingly, there are Biblical allusions to be found here.  ‘My son, my son,’ echoes Samuel 18:33: ‘O my son Absalom! My son, my son Absalom! If only I had died instead of you! O Absalom, my son, my son.’

The garden to which Digory must travel is not simply a geographical feature of the Narnian world. It is also a place of myth and symbolism. Scholars have noted its relationship with Dante’s Mount Purgatory. (J. Christopher: Mount Purgatory Arises in Narnia) Personally, it reminds me of Lothlorien in Tolkien’s ‘Lord of the Rings’.

Digory is asked to pick an apple. Apples appear often in myth and legend. (This is partly because, until relatively recently, ‘apple’ simply meant ‘fruit’, rather than the specific fruit we know it as. The most famous mythical apple is the one eaten in the garden of Eden. A golden apple played a central role role in the Judgement of Paris, in Greek mythology. Golden apples also appear in Norse and Celtic mythology. Most relevant here, however, is the Greek myth of the Garden of the Hesperides. (See next chapter for more detailed discussion of its relevance.)

Fledge’s modesty when asked about becoming a winged horse is similar to Frank’s reaction to being made king. The name ‘Fledge’ is chosen as it means ‘developing feathers which enable flight’. The series of drawings showing Fledge’s wings growing are among my favourites from the entire Narniad.

There are many experiences in Narnia which I longed to have. Flying on Fledge’s back must be one of the most magical. No wonder it’s been a popular choice for the illustration on the cover of the book in a number of editions.

Paul Ford discusses the use of North/South/East/West in Narnian geography, in his ‘Companion to Narnia’, which I would thoroughly recommend. Fledge and the children fly west, across Narnia and into the Western Wild, passing the waterfall mentioned in LB. They see the sandy south, presumably the desert border with Calormen described in HHB. Do they also pass what becomes Telmar (which is described elsewhere as being beyond the Western Mountains?)

‘Re-snuggled’ is definitely a word deserving of more use.

 

 

 

 

Narnia re-read. The Magician’s Nephew Chapter eleven. Digory and his uncle are both in trouble.

Synopsis: The animals try to help Uncle Andrew. Digory asks for Aslan’s help. Aslan chooses Frank and Helen to be the first king and queen of Narnia.

I know what a Norfolk suit is (in addition to the illustrations showing what it looked like, there’s plenty of information available about this style of clothing) but have not been able to find references to ‘howlet hats’ anywhere. Judging by the illustrations, it looks like some sort of bowler hat, and is referenced as this later in the chapter. Maybe it’s simply an error in the text?

Why can’t the animals understand the words that Uncle Andrew says to them?

This chapter sees the animal-based humour continued, with touches such as the elephant pitying Uncle Andrew’s nose. The selection of animals is quite odd, including bulldogs, donkeys and tapirs.

Uncle Andrew’s ‘wicked deed’ is mentioned. But I can’t decide which one is being referred to. Is it simply giving Polly the ring? He’s done other wicked things, besides this: using Digory’s mother as leverage; trying to escape Narnia without the others and so on.

Aslan says that the worst effect of the evil Jadis will cause will fall on him. Does he already know exactly what this will be? Or is it a promise to be the defender of the animals of Narnia in a more general sense?

When I was younger it seemed like a wonderful thing when Frank and Helen are simply removed from our world and placed in Narnia. Now I’m older, I find myself thinking about what they left behind. What family did they have? Who missed them?

What is a half-curtsey? How is it different from a normal curtsey? Why would it be particularly known to country girls?

In PC, Caspian declares that he isn’t ready to be king, that he’s ‘just a kid’. Here, Frank explains that he’s not educated properly and doesn’t feel fit. In both instances, Aslan disagrees, and says so. Humility is shown as a valuable asset for a ruler.

I’m not sure of the reason, but I find the exchange between Aslan and Frank quite moving. Maybe it’s because we’ve seen that Frank is simply a decent man. He’s as far removed from Uncle Andrew’s ‘high and lonely destiny’ as it’s possible to be. He’s kind to animals instead of experimenting on them. He looks on the bright side. He’s brave and level-headed. He has absolutely no airs and graces, no sense of entitlement. In this respect he is the total opposite of the haughty, self-centred Jadis. He sees his role as protector of his subjects, whereas she sees hers as possessions, which exist only to serve whatever purpose she chooses for them.

When Aslan mentions war, and Frank says that he doesn’t know if he’d be brave until he’s been tested, I think that’s a sentiment that any of us who haven’t been in combat can relate to. I wonder if Lewis thought of his own combat experience as he wrote this.

 

 

 

 

Narnia re-read. The Magician’s Nephew Chapter ten. The first joke and other matters.

Synopsis: The creatures of Narnia speak. Aslan calls them to a council. Some try to help Uncle Andrew.

Again, Aslan provokes mixed emotional responses: his speech is ‘lovely and terrible’.

The existence of fauns, satyrs and other creatures of Greek myth in Narnia was seen by Tolkien as inconsistent world-building. He really didn’t like it. (For further discussion of this, see earlier posts on LWW and PC.) As a child, I simply accepted the mix of Narnian ‘races’ without question, and to be honest it doesn’t bother me now I’m an adult, either.

I remember young me enjoying Aslan speaking to the brand new Narnians. I’m not sure what appealed to me then, as I had absolutely no idea about the Aslan/Jesus parallels at the time, and it’s not the standard action of a children’s book. I suppose it’s an attractive scene thanks to the beautiful setting, the novelty of all the different animals being together, and of course the presence of Aslan (who young me absolutely adored).

I’d love to hear the sound of different animals laughing. In different places in the Chronicles, Lewis mentions how good it feels to laugh, or share jokes. Lewis valued humour, and we know that he enjoyed jokes and story-telling when in the company of friends. The Magician’s Nephew is, to my mind, the Narnia story with the most comic touches running through it, and feels quite light-hearted. (This is in stark contrast with The Last Battle, which Lewis completed prior to MN.) Young me was always amused by the creatures’ misunderstanding of Aslan’s words, where they think there is ‘a neevil’ in Narnia. And when a rabbit suggests that the humans are large lettuces, again the humourous side of the story is at the fore.

Narnia has always seemed to be a temperate land (with of course the exception of magical winters) yet there are creatures like elephants there. After Narnia was established, would animals of this sort move southwards to places like Calormen?

Strawberry thinks he recalls aspects of his earlier life ‘like a dream’. Characters in the Chronicles often liken other worlds, or other ‘lives’, to dreams. This is taken to its fullest conclusion in the Platonic conclusion of LB.

The Cabby’s wistful recollection of country life, and the horse’s less than fond memories of London reinforce the idea which Lewis returns to again and again, that modern urban life is somehow ‘unnatural’ and even harmful.

For some reason I was surprised to see the Cabby call someone ‘mate’. I suppose I thought of this use of the word as more modern.

The animals’ kindly attempts to help Uncle Andrew, with their ‘noises of cheerful interest’ still make me laugh today. Poor Uncle Andrew is damned as being ‘practical’, a word which Lewis uses in a less than flattering way. His inability to comprehend the reality of the situation, and its meaning, is caused by his own internal barriers. He can’t see what Aslan is, other than a large lion. I wonder what the ‘things he did not want to think and feel’ actually were.Again, I’m reminded of LB, and the dwarves who ‘refused to be taken in’. As Lewis explains, ‘What you see and hear depends a good deal on where you are standing: it also depends on what sort of person you are’. Self-deception is a common theme throughout all seven books.

Why would animals shout ‘tally ho’ or ‘tantivy’?