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’?

 

 

 

 

 

Narnia re-read. The Magician’s Nephew Chapter nine. The founding of Narnia.

Synopsis: Aslan calls the animals of Narnia into being. The Witch attacks him, then flees.

I would love to see the sequence described here animated somehow, especially the spreading of plant life outwards from Aslan. Whether I ever will, I don’t know.

I didn’t really expect Uncle Andrew to be brave enough to take issue with Jadis’ behaviour.

When Digory says to Andrew that, ‘You wanted to know about other worlds. Don’t you like it now you’re here?’ I’m reminded of the idea, mentioned in LB, that ‘All find what they truly seek,’ or the old saying, ‘Be careful what you wish for.’ Andrew didn’t really want to enter another world as an open-minded visitor. He wanted knowledge, riches or power which other people didn’t have.

‘The more dressed up you were to begin with, the worse you look…[when you become messed up]’ I’ve proved this theory on literally hundreds of nights out.

Do people make hissing noises at horses? Why? What do they mean?

When people talk about the best order in which to read the Narniad,  I always think of this moment, when the lamppost begins growing from the ground. If you read this book first, when Lucy finds a lamppost in a wood you already know why it is there and how it got there. There’s no mystery about where you are, or what sort of place it is. However, if you read LWW first, when you read about the growing lamppost, you have that satisfying moment of recognition and the mystery is solved for you. I absolutely believe that publication order is the best way to enjoy the books.

Uncle Andrew’s ideas about the ‘commercial possibilities’ of Narnia show us just how lost he is, in a moral or spiritual sense. Edmund in LWW (planning to build roads and cinemas) and Eustace in VDT (thinking that Calormen’s trade and finance systems preferable to Narnia’s) made similar mistakes. They don’t see the value of the land itself, the worth of it simply existing. They want to ‘develop’ it for profit. This idea goes against Lewis’ deeply held values and beliefs, discussed in his non-fiction. Lewis would definitely not want to explore the ‘commercial possibilities’ of a place full of natural beauty.

For some reason, until Digory points it out here, I always forget that Andrew is not only brother to Letty, but also to Digory’s mother. He’s so callous about her.

Pauline Baynes’ illustrations of the animals bubbling up out of the ground always stayed with me. Her drawings were instrumental in developing the Narnia I saw in my mind’s eye.

Aslan choosing two of each species – ‘always two at a time’ – reminds me of the Noah’s Ark story. It amuses me that Aslan uses a ‘nose boop’ to select the animals.

When we are told that some sorts of animal weren’t chosen at all, this must presumably include mice, as we learn in PC that they only gain the power of speech after their actions at the Stone Table in LWW. Which other species were overlooked? Why? What were the criteria?

Why is Aslan described as unblinking? This is mentioned elsewhere in the Chronicles. Is there some significance?

Why is there a flash of fire?

When Aslan speaks here, for the first time in the book, it feels like a really emotional moment.

 

 

 

Narnia re-read. The Magician’s Nephew Chapter eight. The fight at the lamp-post.

Synopsis: Digory transports Jadis, and others, to the Wood Between the Worlds. They then travel to a new, empty world. Music begins.

When the crowd call Jadis the ‘Hempress of Colney ‘Atch, it refers to Colney Hatch, Barnet, London. Colney Hatch is the name of an area, but in this instance references the well-known ‘Lunatic Asylum’. This place was built in Victorian times, and the name became a byword for insanity.

Is Jadis left handed? Or ambidextrous?

Do children still eat barley sugar? When I was small it was given to me when I had a sore throat. It almost made being ill worth it.

Digory shows his bravery here, and his appreciation of Polly.

Jadis lists cities from her world. ‘Charn’ is reminiscent of ‘char’ (to burn) and ‘charnel house’ (a place where skeletal remains are stored. Both are relevant when Charn’s fate is considered. As far as I can discover, ‘Felinda’, ‘Sorlois’ and ‘Bramandin’ have no specific meaning other than being names which sound like they originate from different cultures. (To me, Sorlois sounds French.)

Uncle Andrew shows his true colours here: he is a coward; he doesn’t want to take any responsibility for his actions;he refuses to face consequences.

What do modern children make of phrases such as, ‘My hat, what a picnic’? (I feel like I need to shoehorn this into a conversation soon.)

I’ve always found it difficult to imagine ‘nothing’ or ‘nothingness’, particularly the nothingness which presumably preceded the existence of the universe.

When the Witch says that, ‘My doom has come upon me,’ does she really know that this is the world where her life will (eventually, after a very long time has passed) end? Or is she just being dramatic?

When the Cabby starts to talk about being thankful, mentions that death is not to be feared if you have lived your life properly, and then suggests singing a hymn, it is the first time – that I can recall – so far in the Chronicles in which a direct reference to Christianity’s beliefs and practices is made. The hymn itself is probably ‘Come, Ye Thankful People, Come’, which includes the famous line, ‘All is safely gathered in’. (An episode of ‘Dad’s Army’ takes its title from this.) The hymn also has some relevant lyrics considering the situation which unfolds across the next six chapters:

Come, ye thankful people, come,
raise the song of harvest home;
all is safely gathered in,
ere the winter storms begin.
God our Maker doth provide
for our wants to be supplied;
come to God’s own temple, come,
raise the song of harvest home.

All the world is God’s own field,
fruit as praise to God we yield;
wheat and tares together sown
are to joy or sorrow grown;
first the blade and then the ear,
then the full corn shall appear;
Lord of harvest, grant that we
wholesome grain and pure may be.

For the Lord our God shall come,
and shall take the harvest home;
from the field shall in that day
all offenses purge away,
giving angels charge at last
in the fire the tares to cast;
but the fruitful ears to store
in the garner evermore.

Even so, Lord, quickly come,
bring thy final harvest home;
gather thou thy people in,
free from sorrow, free from sin,
there, forever purified,
in thy presence to abide;
come, with all thine angels, come,
raise the glorious harvest home.

Once again, Lewis describes something which is wonderful and terrible at the same time. The music which has begun is ‘so beautiful he could hardly bear it’. As seen elsewhere in the Chronicles, music has a beauty and emotional intensity which is able to profoundly affect those who hear it.

For me as a child, this entire passage felt truly beautiful. (I much preferred it to the various creation stories we learned about at school.) It seemed to capture the beauty and sense of wonder which Lewis must have intended.

The idea of a world being brought into being through a song or the voice of God is not unique to Narnia. In Christianity, God’s word brought the world into being. In Hinduism, the sacred sound ‘Aum’ began the world we live in. In Tolkien’s creation story, music brings life to the world. (The idea of creatures being ‘born’ from the ground is also found here.)

The response each character has to the Voice confirms their current state of ‘goodness’ – or not. It is similar to the way the Pevensies responded to hearing Aslan’s name for the first time in LWW.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.