The Magician’s Nephew, Chap. 10: C.S. Lewis is a Jerk

There was a sequence in this chapter that rather confused me as a kid: the first joke.

I like that Aslan included jokes and laughter in Narnia right away. Laughter is important. I know a lot of people will say that they’d like to die in their sleep; if I had a choice, I’d like to die laughing. Besides, I think most of us would agree that God has a sense of humor, and so it’s only fitting that Lion Jesus would, too.

As the Talking Animals pledge to Aslan that they will remain Talking Animals and not revert back to their mute counterparts, a jackdaw embarrasses himself, and everyone laughs.

“‘Laugh and fear not, creatures. Now that you are no longer dumb and witless, you need not always be grave. For jokes as well as justice come in with speech.’ [. . .]

‘Aslan! Aslan! Have I made the first joke? Will everybody always be told how I made the first joke?’

‘No, little friend,’ said the Lion. ‘You have not made the first joke; you have only been the first joke.'”

As a kid, I didn’t understand how the jackdaw was the first joke, and I re-read the passage several times before I figured it out. Now I think it’s just kind of mean. God is personally making fun of you. Of course, probably a lot of people feel like that…

Aslan selects his council of animals, saying they have much to discuss, because evil has already entered the new world. It makes me kind of sad that Narnia has always known evil, even though it was literally formed seconds ago. It was never a pure, incorruptible place, and never will be.

The other thing that caught my attention in this chapter was when Aslan called the animals for his council, he chooses “the chief Dwarf, and you the River-god, and you Oak and He-Owl, and both the ravens and the Bull-Elephant.”

There was something that bothered me about this when I was a kid, and there’s something that still bugs me about it now. Can you spot it?

The characters called into Aslan’s council are almost all male. The one exception is that Aslan called both talking ravens – a male and female – and we can probably make the assumption that a tree is genderless. The Narnia series – and C.S. Lewis – have both been called sexist. And…it’s not an unreasonable thing to say. For example, in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, when Santa gives Susan her bow and arrows, he says that he hopes she never has to use it, because “battles are ugly when women fight.” I still remember that line perfectly, because it enraged me so much as a kid, and I was so happy that it was removed from the Disney adaptation. Susan’s treatment in The Last Battle is also questionable, as she gets booted from Narnia for…growing up? Becoming interested in nylons and lipstick? Susan’s fate isn’t exactly clear, and neither are the reasons why she was no longer allowed back in Narnia. This might be a comment on growing up, but the eldest Pevensie child is allowed back in Narnia. This can be interpreted in a couple different ways, one of which is that she’s kicked out for discovering sex.

Discussing just The Magician’s Nephew and no other books in the series, there are still some big problems. Reading the book as an allegory for the story of Adam and Eve, Jadis (who would become Lewis’s most iconic villain, the White Witch) represents both original sin, and the serpent. Her holy counterpart is represented by a male. Even without reading deeper into the text, the adult woman is still the antagonist. Upon returning from Charn, Polly is quickly shoved to the back, out of the action as well. The Cabby’s wife, Helen, also makes an appearance, and becomes the first Queen of Narnia, but she has a decidedly bit part in the story, to the point where I didn’t even remember she was in it.

On the other hand, Jadis is the most powerful character for a good portion of the book, and a true magician, unlike pathetic Uncle Andrew. Polly also seems to be a bit brighter than Digory, and they wouldn’t have woken up Jadis at all if he’d listened to her. Throughout the series, there are a number of female characters presented in a positive light–Lucy most notably comes to mind. It’s also worth noting that these books were all published in the 1950s, a time when women were supposed to get married, have kids, stay home and cook the roast. It may be that these books are just a product of their time. However, it’s disheartening to think that even in a fantasy world, personally built by God, women are not equal to men.

Thanks, C.S. Lewis.

Jerk.

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Announcement: Schedule Change

Originally, this blog began on Blogger, and is still updated there. Check it out!

I’ve been migrating my old posts from Blogger to WordPress daily, one post at a time, and as of The Magician’s Nephew chapter 9, we’re all caught up with the old blog. Sorry to disappoint – I’m not actually a wizard who can read and type incredibly fast.

Due to my lack of wizard powers, this blog will no longer update five days a week. Starting this week, I’ll be posting only on Mondays and Fridays. But stick around–the next chapter of The Magician’s Nephew will be up tomorrow, and we’ll be taking a trip back to the world of manga soon enough.

 

The Magician’s Nephew, Chap. 9: Uncle Andrew is “That Guy”

In this chapter we have the first appearance of Aslan, singing the world to life. We have the stars, a young sun, grass and trees…even after all these years, it’s still a magical moment. The thing that detracts from it most, however, is the characters. The children, the Cabby, and the horse all know that something important is happening, and that they are witnessing a rare and breath-taking event. Unfortunately, Uncle Andrew and Jadis can’t enjoy it, and they let everyone know.

The magic in Narnia is more powerful than Jadis’s own magic, but the real reason she can’t stand it is because she’s evil.  It doesn’t get any deeper than that. It’s disappointing, but I should have known to expect that by now.

I guess I just don’t appreciate it when children’s books treat kids like they’re idiots. Children are smarter than we give them credit for, I think; they can handle a little moral ambiguity. I remember reading books like The Giver and Tuck Everlasting when I was in elementary school. Books that dealt with pretty heavy themes–euthanasia, mortality, freedom–many of which would not necessarily be called “kid-friendly”. They didn’t always wrap things up in neat and tidy ways, and would leave me with questions. They challenged the way I usually thought (“Why does my teacher think that Winnie dying was a happy ending?”), and helped introduce us to new ideas. You see that the world doesn’t fit in nice, neat boxes, and those are the lessons–and the books–that make a real impact on you. It seems pretty obvious as I write this, considering how well I remember those books, and how much of The Magician’s Nephew I forgot over the years.

Don’t get me wrong–the Narnia books (at least the ones I’ve read) are part of a wonderful series that I hold close to my heart, and I’m really enjoying The Magician’s Nephew right now. But as an adult, I can now see flaws in the books that I overlooked before.

My favorite part of this chapter was probably when the animals came to life. They rose out of the ground, and Aslan selected two of each kind to be talking animals. Uncle Andrew, however, continues to ruin the birth of a new world by freaking out. He keeps trying to get Polly and Digory to use their rings to get out of Narnia and back to their world, leaving Jadis (and the cabby) behind in Narnia. Digory doesn’t want to leave, though, because he believes Aslan could help save his mother.

“Digory’s heart beat wildly; he knew something very solemn was going to be done. He had not forgotten about his Mother; but he knew jolly well that, even for her, he couldn’t interrupt a thing like this.”

Uncle Andrew could learn something from him.

The Magician’s Nephew, Chap. 8: Big Song Theory

Halfway through the book, and we’ve almost made it to Narnia!

Right now, I think Jadis is my favorite character. She’s certainly the most interesting. I suspect that the real reason C.S. Lewis decided to have her return to our world with Digory and Polly is because he wanted to see what would happen if he let someone like her romp around London. I wish we hadn’t had to watch Digory wait around in the previous chapter, because Jadis sounds like so much more fun. When she she finally returns to the house, it’s with score of people following her, including a Cabby, police officers, and a crowd of spectators. Jadis fully believes that she’s going to take over our world, and most of the people following her think this is the most entertaining thing they’ve seen in their lives. It takes her a minute to realize that her followers are actually laughing at her.

Digory – and Polly, who was finally allowed out of bed – finally spots a chance to take the Witch to the Woods Between the Worlds. Jadis was suffering when she last went to the Woods, probably because she’s evil and that place is pure good. Digory acknowledges that it would probably be awful to abandon her there, but he doesn’t know what else he can do. Digory does manage to grab Jadis and put on his yellow ring, but in the confusion ends up taking a few extras along for the ride: Polly, Uncle Andrew, the Cabby, and the Cabby’s horse, Strawberry.

Maybe the most satisfying part of this scene is Uncle Andrew, finally getting a taste of his own medicine and whining about it.

“‘Oh, oh, is this delirium? Is it the end? I can’t bear it. It’s not fair. I never meant to be a Magician. It’s all a misunderstanding. It’s my godmother’s fault; I must protest this. In my state of health too. A very old Dorsetshire family.'”

This reminds me of playing video games with my friends as a kid, and the sore loser’s cries of, “that’s not fair”, “you’re cheating”, “my controller’s broken”, and, the most desperate of all, “MY DAD WORKS AT NINTENDO!”

This is about as much character development that Uncle Andrew gets for the rest of the book. On one hand, it’s a little unfortunate. On the other, it’s kind of fun to see him miserable. He seemed like such a powerful figure when Polly and Digory first encountered him, but now he’s like a small, bratty child.

One thing really intrigues me as the group is in the Woods. Strawberry begins drinking from one of the pools of water, that as we know, is a doorway to another world. My question is, what would happen if Strawberry drank the whole thing? Would the world vanish, or would it just be impossible to get to? This is what I mean when I said I thought Lewis should do more with the Woods, because it’s just such a good idea. So many questions, so many possibilities, and we’ll never know the answers.

I volunteer myself to write a spin-off series that answers all the questions I have.

After a little more confusion, the all the characters leave the woods and we’re…finally…almost in Narnia. Sort of.

Instead, the characters are whisked away to Nothing. They’re in the dark, they’re alone, and the world they’ve stumbled into is empty. They’re not in Narnia, because Narnia doesn’t exist yet. It’s dark, and then they hear a noise; a song, rather.

Most of this chapter is occupied with describing this song. I remember being enchanted by this scene as a child, but I thought I would be bored reading it as an adult. I was — as I am about many things — wrong. The world of Narnia is being sung into life, beginning with the stars. When I was a kid, this made sense to me. I didn’t know how the world began, (there was something about a Big Bang, but also something about a Garden of Eden…) so why couldn’t it have started with a song? It made about as much sense as anything else.

Even if Lewis is on the “Eden” side of the road and I’m now a fan of the Big Bang, I still enjoyed this chapter. As I reflect on it here, I can actually see some similarities between the two. The both have the same theme: From Nothing, Something. And that Something started small and grew until it’s the Something that we know today. The difference is the time scale. Here might be a good place to put a creationsim vs. evolution debate, and discuss the obviously correct choice. But that’s a little weighty for discussing a children’s book, particularly a children’s book where one of the characters is Jesus with four legs and fur.

The Magician’s Nephew, Chap. 7: Drawbacks of Childhood

In the first chapter of The Magician’s Nephew, C.S. Lewis captures the magic and wonder of childhood. In the seventh chapter, it’s all about the helplessness.

Digory and Polly go on the adventure of their lives, but it involves a lot of waiting around. Polly had to go home, and her parents punished her for getting her shoes and stockings wet under circumstances she can’t quite explain, and is out of the picture for most of this chapter. Jadis ends up getting a horse-drawn cab and is taking a romp around the city with Uncle Andrew. Knowing how dangerous Jadis is, Digory contemplates going after them. However, he’s faced with several limitations. He doesn’t know where they are, and his Aunt Letty would never let him leave the house if he couldn’t tell her where he was going. Besides that, he doesn’t have any money to pay for trams to take him around the city.

When you’re a kid, it seems like everything you do is on someone else’s schedule. You have to depend on adults for just about everything. They’re supposed to provide for you and protect you. Even as we get older and more independent, we still rely on our parents, and (in theory) live by their rules. Driving home the point is Polly, punished and unable to help. It’s a little frustrating that Digory can’t go after Uncle Andrew and Jadis, even though he knows that’s what he should do. Watching Digory sit and wait for them to come back may not be the most exciting thing to read, but it is realistic.

Along with that, there’s another part of this chapter that gave me chills, when Aunt Letty briefly discusses Digory’s mother and her failing health.

“‘What lovely grapes!’ came Aunt Letty’s voice. ‘I’m sure if anything could do her good these would. But poor, dear little Mabel! I’m afraid it would need to be fruit from the land of youth to help her now. Nothing in this would will do much.’ Then they both lowered their voices and said a lot more that [Digory] could not hear.”

It wasn’t the talking about the obvious foreshadowing about fruit from the land of youth, but the part where the adults lower their voices so Digory can’t hear. I can tell you from experience that when you have a chronically sick relative, conversations like that are a big part of your life. My sister and I would overhear things that we weren’t supposed to, almost always worrying news. We almost never heard the end of those conversations. Either it would get quiet, or I’d become so uncomfortable that I’d somehow make my presence known. Hopefully in such a way that the adults wouldn’t realize I’d been listening in, though I might never know for sure. It turns out they’re a lot more perceptive than I thought. Of course, I used to sneak out of my bed and think that throwing a blanket over my head would prevent my parents from spotting me and sending me back upstairs.

Childhood logic.

I don’t know how other kids in similar situations handled things like this, but I was too anxious to ask my parents questions about what was going on. The information I got about my aunt was either from what they told me directly, and what was overheard. It’s funny, the things grown-ups will say when they think you’re not paying attention. And for something this big, I always paid attention.

Let’s not delve into childhood fear and sadness for a moment, though, and appreciate a very minor, nameless character: the maid. She has no idea what’s going on, and it’s something of a running gag in this chapter.

“While Aunt Letty was hurtling through the air, the housemaid (who was having a beautifully exciting morning) put her head in at the door…”

“‘Oh, Master Digory,’ said the housemaid (who was really having a wonderful day)…”

“‘Sarah,’ she said to the housemaid (who had never had such a day before)…”

I don’t know why I like this so much. It just makes me smile.

The Magician’s Nephew, Chap. 6: Unexpected Plus One

We’re a third of the way through the book, and I’m getting pumped to go back to Narnia! Digory and Polly haven’t quite escaped the clutches of Jadis, but they’re able to escape back to the Woods Between the Worlds and…return to London?

Wait, when do they go to Narnia? No, seriously, I read this, I know Digory and Polly accidentally take the Witch to Narnia. Why are they going back to London?

Well, it turns out I forgot a lot more details in this book than I realized.

The children and Jadis wind up back in Uncle Andrew’s study, and it becomes immediately apparent that Uncle Andrew just got a lot more than he bargained for.

“In Charn she had been alarming enough: in London, she was terrifying. For one thing, they had not realized till now how very big she was. ‘Hardly human’ was what Digory thought when he looked at her; and he may have been right, for some say there is giantish blood in the royal family of Charn. But even her height was was nothing compared with her beauty, her fierceness, and her wildness. She looked ten times more alive than most of the people one meets in London.”

Maybe that description is a bit cliche now, but I love it. Jadis’s presence also puts Uncle Andrew in his place pretty quickly. I like the contrast between the two. When Digory and Polly see Uncle Andrew in the beginning of the book, they see him as someone frighting and powerful. Compared to Jadis, he’s weak and cowardly. And, it would appear, not too bright, either.

“Children have one kind of silliness, as you know, and grown-ups have another kind. Uncle Andrew was beginning to be silly in a very grown-up kind of way.”

I’ll give my compliments to Lewis for that one. Not only does he capture the magic of childhood, but also at least one true fact about adulthood as well: that we have no idea what we’re really doing, but pretend that we do.

We also see more of Uncle Andrew’s character; along with being totally unprepared to deal with the consequences of meddling with magic, it turns out he’s pretty lousy at being…well, being an adult. It’s not just the “silliness” of thinking that Jadis would fall in love with him, but you can see it in other details. In one side note, the narrator says that Uncle Andrew has blown through his own money, and quite a bit of his sister’s.

Honestly, I’m a little disappointed that Uncle Andrew ends up being this pathetic. He looks small, literally and figuratively, next to Jadis, and is something of a fraud when it comes to being a true Magician. But he was able to use magic to send the children to another world, and have them return (with an unexpected plus one). Using magic in a world where none exists is pretty awesome, even if he was a schmuck about it. But as soon as Jadis comes into the picture, everything interesting and intriguing about him is out the window.

I guess the moral here is: Playing with magic can be cool, but you’re a jerk and not as cool as you think you are.

That’s a strange lesson.

The Magician’s Nephew, Chap. 5: The Queen Said One Word, You Won’t BELIEVE What Happens Next

I remember a fair bit about this book since I last read it. Digory and Polly wake up the evil witch Jadis, and they inadvertently take her to the new world of Narnia. I remember that it was Jadis’s spell that put everyone to sleep, and left Charn in ruins.

What I didn’t remember was how scary Jadis actually was before Digory and Polly found her. This chapter is dedicated to her backstory, and elucidates how Charn became frozen as it is now. Unfortunately, it doesn’t give us an explanation as to why the people sitting outside her chamber start out looking kind and end up looking cruel. I suppose it was just used as a build-up to end in Jadis. That’s understandable, because this is a children’s book. I’m a little disappointed that there’s no (apparent) deeper meaning behind this, because I’m an adult reading a children’s book and expecting more depth than the author provides.

Jadis tells us that she and her sister were feuding for the throne,  giving us images that are a bit…graphic for a children’s novel.

“‘I have stood here (but that was near the very end) when the roar of battle went up from every street and the river of Charn ran red.'” 

Holy hell. I know that children’s literature isn’t sunshine and roses all the time, but that’s pretty dark.

Like Uncle Andrew, Jadis’s backstory has a backstory, and holes that I desperately want filled in. It also shows us that she’s completely evil. I’ve been reading Clash of Kings, and some of the dialogue she has sounds like it would fit perfectly into the Game of Thrones series.

“‘Then I spoke the Deplorable Word. A moment later I was the only living thing under the sun.’

‘But the people?’ gasped Digory.

‘What people, boy?’ asked the Queen.

‘All the ordinary people,’ said Polly, ‘who’d never done you any harm. And the women, and the children, and the animals.’

‘Do you understand?’ said the Queen (still speaking to Digory). ‘I was the Queen. They were all my people. What else were they there for but to do my will? [. . .] You must learn, child, that what would be wrong for any of the common people is not wrong in a great Queen such as I. The weight of the world is on our shoulders. We must be freed from all rules.'”

It’s probably not fair to compare the two, but that mentality is basically the reason everyone in  A Song of Ice and Fire gets screwed over.

Jadis tells the children that there is a word–a “Deplorable Word”– that is so powerful it would end Charn. The Word itself is a deep, dark secret that only the most powerful magicians in Charn ever knew it. And while we’re comparing Narnia to things that Narnia shouldn’t be compared to, it reminds me of the Monty Python sketch about the funniest joke in the world, which is so funny, you’ll die when you hear it.

Most of Charn’s magicians refused to learn the Word, and it was forbidden to ever use. Jadis didn’t share their reluctance, and set out on an epic quest to learn the Word, and…

“‘It was the secret of secrets,’ said the Queen Jadis. ‘It had long been known to the great kings of our race that there was a word, which, if spoken with the proper ceremonies, would destroy all living things except the one who spoke it. But the ancient kings were weak and soft-hearted and bound themselves and all who should come after them with great oaths never even to seek after the knowledge of that word. But I learned it in a secret place and paid a terrible price to learn it.'”

…Really? That’s it?

This entire chapter is the story of how Charn ended up in this state, and we don’t get to see the most interesting and intriguing part. Hell, we’re not even told why Jadis was fighting her sister. I would probably read a whole book on Jadis’s rise into power, her learning the Word, and killing Charn with it. That sounds like an awesome story. Or maybe a terribly generic one, but at least I’d get some of my questions answered.

Excuse me, I need to go and write a fanfiction now about Jadis’s backstory.