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.