Monday, 14 October 2013

C. S. Lewis - The Magician's Nephew (1955)

This book has some of my favouritest baddies ever! 

In my first year of university, everyone in my course had to study the Bible, specifically Genesis (the first bit, about Adam and Eve). This was not for any ‘religious teaching’ as such, but for the supreme influence that the Genesis story has had on Judeo-Christian societies and their respective artistic movements. We see the Adam and Eve story everywhere: it comes through in all forms of morality tale, in paintings and sculptures, in classic literature and in children’s books all the way down to ads for ice cream on TV. The story possesses a wealth of symbols that to this day make a story rich and exciting: taboo acts, power, temptation, desire, destruction, love, fear, salvation and betrayal. 

The Magician’s Nephew is another such tale!

The Magician's Nephew, one of the lesser-known Narnia Chronicles, was written in 1955 as a prequel to the first five books. While the other books of the Narnia series were written in the space of a year, The Magician's Nephew took a whopping 5 years to write. It was followed a year later by the final book in the septet, The Last Battle.

The story starts with a boy and a girl (whatever Lewis’s thoughts on gender, he believed in indoctrinating the two sexes equally). Digory is a bit of a wet blanket and Pol’ is sharp and tomboyish. The two children live in London in the same tenement block and one day decide to explore the interconnected attics where they live. Scurrying through the attics, they accidentally find their way into the study and laboratory of Digory’s Uncle Andrew, the archetypal mad-scientist who decides that the children will be perfect test subjects for his attempts to travel between worlds.

Tricking Polly into putting on a  ring that immediately teleports her ‘somewhere away’, Uncle Andrew then proceeds to use Polly as bait, telling Digory that he must travel after her with a different set of rings that allow them both to return or Polly will never find her way home. Thus begins their adventure.

Uncle Andrew is a brilliant character, he is a conniving and narcissistic wretch with grandiose delusions of being a master magician. “Ours is a high and lonely destiny”, he says proudly to Digory, attempting to explain away his cruelty after using Polly as a test subject.

Digory, dictated by Uncle Andrew’s cruel whim, takes the rings and teleports to a strange forest dotted with pools. Digory finds Polly and the two children discover that each pool will take them to another world. Before heading back to the clutches of Uncle Andrew, they decide to go exploring. 

The cool thing here, is the immediate understanding (as a reader) that the possibility of danger and harm coming to the children is incredibly real. Unlike the Pevensie’s (Peter, Edmund, Susan and Lucy of The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe), Polly and Digory come from poor and under-privileged families and are very aware of the harshness of the world. Where the Pevensies are destined to become the four kings and queens of Narnia, Polly and Digory are no one, they are lost in an immense universe surrounded by evil and oblivious adults. There is a truly ominous air as they jump into a pool and find their way into a strange world called... Charn.

Jadis, the last Queen of a dying world is the archetypal Eve/Lillith figure, a woman with the blood of demons. She is composed of such a raw and uncompromising greed for power  that she destroys her entire world rather than lose it to another. Lewis’s love for symmetry is shown here. Where Lillith/Eve was one of the first beings of Earth, Jadis is the last person left alive as her world begins to die.

Sensing Jadis’s dark and titanic nature, the children attempt to escape her by using their rings, but the sorcerous queen manages to follow them home; an act that eventually leads Uncle Andrew, Jadis, Digory and Polly into a newly formed Narnia, as the world itself is being born from the ashes of Charn.   

The book has two of the most compelling bad-guys I have ever had the pleasure of coming across in children’s fiction (next to the two truly vicious parents in Pullman's His Dark Materials series): Uncle Andrew and Queen Jadis together illustrate the worst elements of humanity. They are charismatically awful, described by Digory as ‘bearing the mark’, a vague term that has to do with their obsession with the darker magical arts and could translate as the eternal hunger for power.

The Magician's Nephew is choppy and lacks the long quest element of Lewis’s other books, but it reveals to the reader a visceral core of the biblical tales, and reflects why the Genesis tale is still so powerful after so many years: everyone loves to hate a great bad-guy!

For more brilliant C. S. Lewis villains, I recommend The Last Battle. If you can deal with some of the more really biblical stuff, I recommend his sci-fi trilogy that begins with Out of a Silent Planet, which has some cool ideas but is pretty patronising. And also, The Screwtape Letters, a Faustian sort of story that is actually pretty funny!

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