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.

The Magician’s Nephew, Chap. 3: Pool Party

It took two chapters, but the adventure has finally begun. Digory takes two green rings, one for himself and one for Polly, puts on a yellow ring, and winds up in the “Other Place”. This is one of my favorite things in this book series: the Woods Between the Worlds. Even the name sounds magical.

Digory finds himself, not in Narnia, but in a lush forest. There are shallow pools of water every few feet, and the place is so quiet, it’s as though you can hear the trees growing. As enchanting as it sounds, though, the Woods Between the Worlds scared me as a child. Digory isn’t there long before he starts to forget who he is, or why he came here.  He finds Polly in a similar state, half-asleep, and she doesn’t recognize him. When they see that they’re both wearing yellow rings, their memories are jogged, and they remember who they are and what they’re supposed to be doing.

While I was still hoping that I’d find a magical world in the back of my closet as a child, this scene helped me be aware of all the risks that might entail. I obviously knew that I’d be charging into battle to fight against evil, but I didn’t think of all the obstacles that would come before that. If I ever traveled a magical world, I would have to bring a friend with me, in case I wound up in the Woods Between the Worlds. I also really hoped that friend would be a unicorn.

I love the idea of the Woods Between the Worlds, though. Each pool of water is an entrance to a different world, provided you have your magic ring on. The Woods seem to stretch on endlessly, with pools every few feet. There are so many worlds that the children would just be able to walk into, which is a dizzying thought. As they’re about to try one out, Polly suggests that Digory marks their own pool of water, so they can find their way back home.

I rather like Polly. She seems like the brighter of two, and maybe even the braver.

The Magician’s Nephew was the second-to-last book written in the Narnia series, which means that Lewis most likely hadn’t thought of the Woods Between the Worlds before then. It’s a bit of a shame, I think, because it’s too good of an idea to waste. With endless worlds you could literally jump into, you could spend a lifetime exploring in the Woods and never visit the same place twice. Hence why it’s so important for Digory to mark the pool that will take him and Polly home, when they’re ready. That’s another scary thought: losing your world, and trying for the rest of your life to find the right pool and get back home. Even though that sounds like it would make a great story, that was another childhood fear of mine. When I discovered a new world (because I knew it would happen, someday) I would also have to take precautions to get home. Because as much fun as exploring other worlds is, sometimes you just need to sleep in your own bed.

The Magician’s Nephew, Chap. 2: Ethics Review Board

We’ve made it the second chapter, and we’re on the cusp of the true adventure. Digory’s the nephew, and we at last get to meet the Magician. His name is Uncle Andrew, and he’s as close to a mad scientist as the Narnia series gets. He’s got crazy, fly-away gray hair, everyone around him thinks he’s mad, and is, in fact, something of a genius. Before wardrobes and strange cupboards at school, Uncle Andrew figured out a way to send people to someplace…else. He doesn’t quite know what that other place is, but he’s more than willing to use Digory and Polly as his human guinea pigs.

Most of the second chapter is dedicated to Uncle Andrew explaining how he was able to make magic rings that could travel between the worlds. He received an ancient box from his godmother (who was said to actually have fairy blood), containing dust from Atlantis. After many years of study, learning everything he could about magic, he created several yellow and green rings. The yellow would send anyone who touched it to the “Other Place”, and the green ring would, in theory, bring them home again. Before Polly and Digory accidentally found their way into his study, Uncle Andrew had only tested the yellow rings on literal guinea pigs. They all vanished, but none of them returned. Unsuspecting Polly became his first human test subject, when she takes a yellow ring, and disappears from the study, and the universe altogether.

I remember not liking this chapter very much. To me, it cemented Uncle Andrew as a villain in the story (and what nine-year-old likes villains?), and the attention was all on him. When I read it now, I really enjoyed it. In fact, I wanted more.

‘Meanwhile,’ continued Uncle Andrew, ‘I was learning a good deal in other ways (it wouldn’t be proper to explain them to a child) about Magic in general. [. . .] I had to get to know some–well, some devilish queer people, and go through some very disagreeable experiences.’

Okay, so we’re in London, in a world without magic. Uncle Andrew has found a way to use magic to send people to other worlds, and it’s suggested that the way he learned things was not on the up-and-up. Tell me that backstory doesn’t intrigue you. Who are these people, what are these disagreeable experiences? I want to know!  C.S. Lewis should have just skipped writing The Horse and His Boy and given us Uncle Andrew’s story instead.
There’s no room for moral ambiguity in the Narnia series, though, so he wouldn’t be an acceptable Lewis protagonist. And it’s made very clear that even though Uncle Andrew is, in fact, “beastly” for sending Polly to another world without telling her what she’s getting into.

This is exactly the reason why we have ethics review boards. Sure, they might stop you from doing some of the really fun social experiments, but at least you won’t wind up in a different universe when you’re filling out questionnaires with Lickert scales.

Wait, is there actually an experiment out there that can send me to a magical world? SIGN ME UP!

Unless you’re sending me to Westeros.

The Magician’s Nephew, Chapter 1: Growing Up is Hard To Do

I’ve always loved fantasy stories, and I think one of the most influential ones in my life has been The Magician’s Nephew by C.S. Lewis. All told, I would read the first four (in chronological order) of The Chronicles of Narnia: The Magician’s Nephew; The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe; The Horse and His Boy; Prince Caspian. I never quite made it to the three final books, though I owned them all. If anyone ever asked me which book was my favorite (and no one ever did), I would have told them The Magician’s Nephew. It was the first in the Narnia series that I ever read, and it opened up a world of magic to me.

When I was in grade school, my Aunt Linda was sick with ovarian cancer. I spent many weekends traveling to hospitals two or three hours away from home to see her. It was a hard time for me, and I think one of the reasons I really fell in love with fantasy books was because I needed some magic in my life.

Right from the first few pages of this book, though, I realized that it wasn’t just a need to escape that compelled me to read — and love — this book as a child. When the main character, Digory, meets his friend Polly for the first time, she can see that he’s been crying. He explains:

‘And so would you [. . .] if your father was away in India–and you had to come and live with an Aunt and an Uncle who’s mad (who would like that?)–and if the reason was that they were looking after your Mother–and if your Mother was ill and going to–going to–die.’

Well, shit. Already something I could relate to, and we’re only on page six.

I also forgot how quickly children’s books start. Digory and Polly meet, they’re friends, they go explore houses. There’s not much build-up before they reach Uncle Andrew’s study and begin their real adventure.

Now, there’s plenty of criticism about C.S. Lewis, but there is at least one thing he does right: captures the enchantment of childhood. Polly has a secret “cave” in the attic of her house, and it’s a place that I would have loved to have as a child. Re-reading this, I still wish I had a place like this.

 Polly had used the bit of the tunnel just beside the cistern as a smugglers’ cave. She had brought up bits of old packing cases and the seats of broken kitchen chairs, and things of that sort, and spread them across from rafter to rafter so as to make a bit of floor. Here she kept a cash-box containing various treasures, and a story she was writing and usually a few apples. She had often drunk a quiet bottle of ginger-beer in there: the old bottles made it look more like a smugglers’ cave.
 A cozy hideaway, a space just for you to be alone in. And there’s something about making this in her attic that makes it truly child-like. Perhaps because even if I had a hide-out like that as a kid, I wouldn’t be able to fit into it as an adult. If I did, and I returned to it, it would be a place full of nostalgia, certainly, but not a place of wonder as it once had been.

Childhood is a common theme throughout the Narnia series. Peter and Susan get booted out of Narnia at the end of Prince Caspian because they’re too old, and the only people who can save Narnia are children. There’s a little sadness when it comes to leaving your childhood behind, knowing that magic isn’t really real, that you’ll never find a secret world in your closet or get a letter delivered by owl. (My owl with my Hogwarts letter just got lost! I swear!) There’s one passage in the first chapter that captures this exquisitely, when Digory and Polly are discussing what might be in the empty house they’re trying to sneak into.

‘But I don’t expect it’s really empty at all,’ said Digory.

‘What do you expect?’

‘I expect someone lives there in secret, only coming in and out at night, with a dark lantern. We shall probably discover a gang of desperate criminals and get a reward. It’s all rot to say a house would be empty all those years unless there was some mystery.’

‘Daddy thought it must be the drains,’ said Polly.

‘Pooh! Grown-ups are always thinking of uninteresting explanations,’ said Digory.

When we talk about the end of childhood, we talk about children losing their innocence, or gaining responsibilities. Maybe every so often, we should think about their imaginations, too, and keeping our own ones intact.

We all have to grow up, but our imaginations don’t have to be a casualty of adulthood.