The Magician’s Nephew, Chapter 4: Curiosity Killed the Kids

The first pool that Digory and Polly jump into is the wrong one. The story would be very different if they’d gone to any other world, but then, they’d never make it to Narnia without going into this one first. Polly and Digory enter the world of Charn, and it’s…chilling.

Everything about this world is old and still. They wander through ruins, and there’s absolutely no sound. There’s no people, no animals, nothing but empty courtyards. Even the light in this world is described as feeling old, as well as reddish. That last detail is more unnerving to me now that it was as a kid. I don’t know how much C.S. Lewis knew about astronomy, but the red light makes me think of Red Giants: cool, dying stars, millions of years old. It’s not just an old world, it’s a dying one.

I was a little wary about re-reading the Narnia books at first, because of the narrator. The last book in the series I read, Prince Caspian, I found the narrator so annoying, I wish I could have skipped the descriptions altogether.  Lewis uses an intrusive narrator to tell the story, and he’s not shy about making his presence known. I won’t go as far to say that the book’s written in first person, but every so often someone – referring to themselves as “I” – pops his head in and gives you his frank opinion on the matter at hand. Either there’s not as much of it as there was in Prince Caspian, or it doesn’t bother me as much now. It can be a little jarring, but I don’t actively hate it. It makes me think of a grandfather telling his grandkids this story, which is probably the way Lewis intended it to be. There’s a warmth to it, and it makes me think of my dad, reading this book to me when I was sick. On the other hand, it also allows Lewis to be a bit lazier with his writing, and he sometimes uses it to avoid writing in-depth descriptions, or to fast-forward scenes.

If you were interested in clothes at all, you could hardly help going to see them closer. [. . .] I can hardly describe the clothes. The figures were all robed and had crowns on their heads.

Digory and Polly inspect the rows of people who resemble wax sculptures. It becomes apparent that they’re all set up in a particular order. First come people whose faces are kind, and look like the type of person you might want to have a cup of tea with. But as they continue, the faces get crueler and crueler, until they finally reach the most beautiful – and cruelest – looking person of all.

In a lot of fairy tales (and Disney movies), your inside matches your outside. That is, the more evil you are, the uglier you are. Of course, all the high school outcasts like myself know that the opposite is true, and it’s the pretty girls who are the mean ones. I’m glad to see Lewis didn’t fall into the same cliche of beautiful people being good, and ugly ones being evil. Perhaps it’s too predictable.

It’s been a long time since I read this book, and I’ve forgotten a lot of the details. It’s sort of nice, actually; it’s almost like reading it for the first time again. The order that Digory and Polly find the frozen people in seems important, starting with the kind people and ending with the evilest. I wonder if there’s a point to be made here that I haven’t picked up on, or if it’ll be revealed why they’re arranged in this way. I hope it’s explained.

This chapter also played on a fear that I didn’t even know I had until I read this book. Digory and Polly come across a bell, a hammer, and a poem:

Make your choice, adventurous Stranger;
Strike the bell and bide the danger,
Or wonder, til it drives you mad,
What would have followed if you had.

Polly doesn’t want to ring the bell; she wants to put on her yellow ring and leave this world. Digory, on the other hand, already feels the magic start to work on him. After an argument with Polly, he rings it, mostly out of spite. After a couple paragraphs describing the sounds it makes, the ruins start collapsing around them.

The choice here is that you can either ring the bell, and something terrible will happen, or go crazy wondering what that terrible thing would have been. I think we all deal with “what-ifs” and “might-have-beens”, and they can gnaw away at you. That’s bad enough, but when something is magically cursed to make you perpetually wonder what would have happened if you walked away… well, I’ve never had much willpower, so I would probably give into the temptation of ringing the bell. But the idea of losing my mind, even as a kid, was scarier than the potential risk of whatever would happen when that bell rings. If there’s actual, physical danger, then you can find a way to escape it. If it’s in your mind, how do you fight it, and will you ever be free of it?

Again, this is one of the hazards of traveling to a new world. I’ll have to be very careful not to read any cursed poems that will drive me mad.