Magic: Characters and Lands
Perhaps it’s best that I’m taking on C.S. Lewis’ Narnia series as a novice. The only volume of the series that I have read is The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and that was many years ago. Given that I remember little of it, and because I have read none of the other stories, I have had the relative luxury of approaching The Magician’s Nephew without bias. That’s a luxury, you ask? Not a handicap? Yes—without prior knowledge or understanding of the series as a whole, my analysis is less likely to be colored by what takes place in the other stories. And I’m sure there will be other newcomers like me whose interest has been piqued by the release later this year of the Disney-produced movie of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Like me, they may be venturing out on the Internet exploring for opportunities to learn more about the Narnia series and to share their observations.
This article specifically discusses how The Magician’s Nephew comes across as a piece of children’s literature in a time when the genre is dominated by the likes of Harry Potter and Lemony Snicket. To frame this discussion I’ll focus on what I see as the common denominator in the story—magic. We will look at the role magic plays for each of the main characters, how it affects each of them, and, finally, what it offers us, today’s readers.
Does this portrayal of magic have a chance of interesting us as much as the image of Harry Potter zooming around the sky on a magic broom during a rousing match of Quidditch? Perhaps not. I have to admit that, while I enjoyed The Magician’s Nephew, it was often because it felt peacefully nostalgic—not because I was anxiously turning the page to see what happened next. But then, I’m not a kid anymore, either.
But I do think it’s hard for The Magician’s Nephew to compete against Harry Potter. The magic used in this story is not as fantastic as that which children today are used to. A ring used to pop from one world to another is a bit of a yawn compared to what kids see every day in movies and TV programs now. In fact, the pace of the entire story is slow and rather quaint, with the narrator occasionally inserting himself like a friendly old uncle. The point here, though, isn’t the magic itself—and certainly not that friendly uncle. The point is that through the magic—perhaps in spite of it—the characters display their qualities, both good and bad.
So who has magic in The Magician’s Nephew? How is it used and who benefits from the use of it? In the story most of the characters are touched by magic. Many wield it to some degree or another.
Andrew is the titular magician, but isn’t much of one. Only by means of inheritance has he come to possess the substance from which the magic rings are made. Intrigued by the potential benefits and profits of magic, Andrew is too much of a coward to experiment on himself with the rings and instead uses helpless animals and children. When faced with those who really do possess magic, however, he is helpless. He views Jadis with fear although he is attracted by her beauty and power. He sees Aslan only as Aslan physically appears, a wild beast, and Andrew has no perception of the power that Aslan wields.
The children, Polly and Digory—portrayed at first as naïve and mischievous—grow during the story to become brave, noble, patient, and loving. They start out seeking adventure by attempting to explore an empty dwelling in their row of houses and wind up being forced to either grow or be overcome by the events that take place. The children also come to use the magic and are changed by it—not by the magic directly, as through some spell, but by the use and misuse of it by others in the story. Lewis portrays Digory as ultimately noble and brave although a bit impulsive. Polly is thoughtful and also brave. We quickly see that the two possess greater virtue in their innocence than does Uncle Andrew in his ‘maturity.’
When the children mistakenly enter Andrew’s attic room and he discovers them, Lewis plainly shows us Andrew’s greed, cruelty, cowardice, manipulation and vanity. Sure, he is a magician of sorts, who must be fascinating to the children, but his use of magic is cruel and greedy—as he demonstrates when he tricks Polly into putting on the ring, forcing Digory to logically see that he must follow after her. And this is precisely when Digory starts to show his mettle, and his behavior starts becoming an example for us.
The evil queen Jadis, whom Digory unwittingly brings back to life in the dying world of Charn, uses magic to give her power and through the use of it has destroyed her world. She is hungry to rule again. She is experienced in wielding magic and is overcome by the power of it. She does not have the strength of character to use it fairly for the greater good of all. She is only interested in using it in order to gain power and rule over as much and as many as possible.
Aslan wields the greatest magic in this story and possesses the greatest power. Aslan, alone, truly understands the power of the magic he wields. Although he does not appear to be the creator of the magic itself, he is very close to it. He creates Narnia and through his wise use of magic, it will be a wonderful, peaceful world for hundreds of years. But he also possesses a magical foresight seeing that Narnia will not be able to withstand the evil of Jadis forever. Eventually he will be forced to deal with her. His strength and fairness are always evident, but so is the weight of this burden upon him.
In addition to the characters, the worlds they inhabit effect and are affected by the magic in this story. Up to their disappearance from Andrew’s attic, the children have been in London and, although it is a different era from our own, it is still familiar to us. The rings, by contrast, transport the children to a place that is unfamiliar to them and us—the Wood Between the Worlds. It is quiet and warm and full of life, and they are very comfortable there but oddly unaware of themselves at first or where they have come from. They are overcome by the bliss of the place, and indeed it might be viewed as heaven—a blissful place where specific forms may be just a way to give an earthly reference to the minds of Polly and Digory (and to us).
The Wood is beyond earthly conceptions of good. It is a place where evil does not exist and cannot survive. When Jadis is brought here by accident by the children from her world she simply withers. She loses all strength and seems to have no knowledge of herself or what she was before she came there. The appearance of Jadis in our own world is an indictment of sorts, in that she finds her strength, if not her magic, once again when she is taken to Earth. She sees Earth as a place of opportunity and is eager to rule it.
But Lewis serves up an indictment of other worlds, too. The children discover Charn when they (or Digory, at least) decide to do some grander exploring than what they had in mind when they set out to investigate the empty house in their row back in London. They determine the proper use of the rings and jump into one of the ponds in the Wood, then find themselves in a ruined and apparently uninhabited city. The sun is a dim red. The buildings are old and crumbling. Lewis describes it as deathly silent, not the warm, rich silence of the Wood Between the Worlds. After some exploring, they enter a great hall. Here Digory is overcome by his curiosity and rings the bell that awakens Jadis. If Charn had ever been a fair and decent place, she and the people of Charn changed it into a place of power for power’s sake, and she destroyed it when threatened with the possibility of losing that power to her sister. Later in the story when they see that the pond that led to Charn is dried up, Aslan says that that world is ended as if it had never been. He warns that if the leaders of Earth do not change their path, Earth may have a similar fate.
Narnia fares somewhat better than Earth or Charn. We witness Narnia being created by the magic wielded by Aslan. When the entire group is transported to this world all is darkness. Aslan sings Narnia into existence. As they watch, light, mountains, rivers, trees, grass and animals all appear. Through this we begin to understand the true power of the magic and what Lewis is pointing to as the real source and meaning of it, both in the context of the story and metaphorically.
Of the characters, who understands the magic? Andrew is vain enough on Earth to suppose he is a great magician, but he understands it least of all. He wishes to use it for his own gain and is only a pretender. Jadis quickly sees this when she comes to Earth and drafts him to help her explore the new world she wishes to dominate. Andrew gains nothing from the magic and, if not for the strength of character of Polly and Digory and the beneficence of Aslan, he could easily have been destroyed by it.
Jadis understands the magic or, at least, that using it according to her will can make her very powerful as she was on Charn. But through the use of it she destroyed Charn and everyone living there. At the end of this story she remains in Narnia, but in a position, that, for now, exerts no influence; she is in exile.
Aslan understands the magic and uses it for the good it was intended. He also understands its power and danger and that using it, while giving great power, also places great responsibility on those who use it. Jadis and Andrew did not know this or did not care; destruction (in the case of Jadis) and mishap (in the case of Andrew) followed.
Digory and Polly perhaps don’t understand magic, but they are at least open minded enough to see the dangers inherent in it. Digory craves it to save his dying mother, but is afraid to take it for his own use by stealing an apple. He doesn’t know exactly what would happen, but he believes it would displease Aslan and fears the consequences. Because of his bravery and obedience, Digory is nonetheless awarded an apple by Aslan and he is able to take it back to earth and miraculously cure his mother. Polly perhaps does not receive anything directly and serves mostly as a companion, but she grows much during the course of the story. In the end even Uncle Andrew is restored to Earth and over time becomes redeemed. He does not become heroic, but after returning to Earth he at least becomes benign and attempts no more magic.
The peril of this story may be much more nuanced (read: dull) than what children today may be used to, but the moral and virtues are much more evident than in today’s literature. Through the course of the story, the children grow, particularly Digory, and this prepares him for his greatest challenge. This challenge is not Jadis; she is merely one of the vehicles for it. The peril Digory faces is whether he can overcome the temptation to take one of the magic apples. This is made even more difficult because if it were only for himself he might easily overcome the temptation—but it is for his mother who is bed-ridden and dying back at their home in London.
Because he is able to overcome and win this battle with himself, we are presented with the lesson that selfless acts of strength and bravery can produce big rewards. In this case, Digory is given one of the magical apples and is able to save his mother. Through this trial and all that has happened before he has become a better human being. But in a world where we are accustomed to the sensory overload of physical peril we see in movies, television programs and even television news, we may have difficulty identifying emotionally with Digory’s peril even though the consequences of failure will result in his mother’s early death.
That is the problem for today’s reader. Will Digory’s triumph be appreciated or even understood in a world where the message of a story is easily overcome by the technology used to present it? I’m betting not.