Five characters—standing in darkness on something cold, firm and seemingly barren and void—bear witness to the creation of the magical land of Narnia. Drawn into the experience by the sound of an exquisite and almost eerie singing that defies recognizable definitions of music, Digory, Polly, the Cabby, Uncle Andrew, Jadis the Witch Queen and Strawberry the horse are about to encounter the Creator. Each of them will take a different spiritual journey based on an individual response to both the music and the physical presence of the great lion Aslan. What is the principal significance of this scene? And how does it help us interpret the spiritual signposts that author C. S. Lewis provides his readers as the journey progresses?
Although this episode does not occur until the mid-point of The Magician’s Nephew, it is truly where the journey begins. Through what they have experienced prior to this point, the characters have been given knowledge (or have recognized knowledge around them) that will determine their response to Aslan, the story’s personification of God. Some of them will embrace Aslan whole-heartedly while others will avoid him completely. Some will joyfully become devoted disciples who will freely follow and do his will even in the face of suffering and death, while others will make their own rules, carve their own paths, pursue their own aggrandizement and continually instigate conflict by fighting against Aslan and all he represents. This tension between obedience and rebellion becomes a metaphor for the desire to know from whence we came—and the choice of what to do about what we discover.
The Bible tells us that planted deep within every person is the desire to know God. Though we —like the characters in this book—may choose to believe what has been revealed to us or not, we would find it difficult to refute the seemingly universal and deep yearning to know why we exist and what our purpose is in life. How did we get here? Why were we put in this place and time? What are we supposed to do with this life? These are the questions that constantly beset and drive us through the days of our lives.
Digory, for example, in early conversations with the amoral and self-serving Uncle Andrew, shows himself to be a young moral and ethical apologist who quite reveals Uncle Andrew to be the villain that he is. How did Digory get this way? Was his conscience developed over time by equally moral and ethical parents? If so, where did they learn or from whom? One may argue nature and nurture or trial and error, but both intuition and science tell us that there is a beginning to all things—a point of creation. Thus, the search for the creator or “prime mover” begins.
As Digory and the others listen to the music and watch the creation of light in Narnia, they are stricken with an unexplainable recognition to which they just can’t quite give a name. This is the call of that inner yearning to know... the response to the creator’s voice planted deep within the soul. For Digory, Polly, the Cabby and Strawberry, this call is welcomed and brings great joy and a desire to know fully and more.
Jadis and Uncle Andrew, on the other hand, are horrified. Uncle Andrew wants to find a hole to crawl into and hide. Jadis is so angered by a power that seems far beyond hers that she would rather destroy all than endure existence in such a place.
Each of these responses is typical of the God-given right we all have to choose what our relationship with the Creator will be. C.S. Lewis knew this journey intimately, having struggled well into adulthood before completing his discovery of that needed relationship on a dark and solitary walk one evening after years of debate with such devout men as J. R. R. Tolkien. Lewis recognized that this encounter with the Creator, shared by himself and his characters, begins the real journey.
Once this foundational journey is understood, we can pay true attention to other spiritual themes that Lewis builds into the pages of The Magician’s Nephew. The most easy to follow is Narnia’s metaphorical creation itself. Beginning with a dark void, Lewis faithfully follows the Genesis story as Aslan calls forth vegetation and animals. The story is a story, of course, and not meant to be a rote reiteration of the Biblical myth. Aslan names the Cabby and his wife (who is pulled out of her own world into Narnia) King Frank and Queen Helen, not Adam and Eve, and they are given dominion over Narnia and its inhabitants—and responsibility for naming the animals and plants just as God instructed Adam and Eve to do in Genesis. Aslan also commands King Frank to make his living from the earth, blesses Frank and Helen and their children and grandchildren, and promises that their offspring will be kings of Narnia and neighboring Archenland. The promises of Aslan echo the promises God makes to Abraham in Genesis—that he will be the father of offspring more numerous than the stars.
As a sidebar to the creation of Narnia, Lewis also notes mankind’s destructive tendency to misuse creation. Uncle Andrew looks at Narnia and sees the burgeoning life and beauty in terms of pounds and shillings. First on his agenda is the killing of Aslan so that he can possess and develop Narnia and possibly live forever.
Lewis now has Aslan expand on another theme that has run through the book since the first pages—the existence of good and evil in the world and the resultant and inevitable conflict this creates. Just as the biblical God confronted Adam and Eve when they ate the forbidden fruit, Aslan turns to confront Digory, who is responsible for bringing the evil and powerful Queen Jadis from Charn—a dead world that she has ruled into destruction—into the beautiful, new, vibrant and perfect Narnia. At first, Digory attempts to refocus Aslan’s attention on Jadis, but Aslan quickly redirects Digory, reminding him that he is responsible for his actions and must now requite the wrong that he has committed. While God certainly never expects us to be responsible for another person’s wrongdoing, the sad thing we come to realize (as does Digory) is that our wrongdoing and poor choices may have far-reaching consequences for those around us and the world in which we live—just as the choices of others will also affect us. None of us lives in a vacuum. Despite the best of intentions, Digory’s own agenda—his own will and desire—has caused him to act impulsively without considering how this might affect others. He just had to ring that bell, just as Eve had to try that fruit!
But how can we point a finger at Digory, or even Adam and Eve? We know, deep in our own hearts, that our desires and perceived needs—or just downright wants—drive us to make choices that we later recognize as ill-advised. How often have we heard out of our own mouths, “so-and-so or such-and-such made me do it?” And we also see that this is a typically human pattern. Digory’s choice in ringing the bell out of self-gratification and curiosity echoes Polly’s choice early in the book when she impulsively accepts the yellow ring from Uncle Andrew because the rings are the most beautiful and desirable objects that she has ever seen, and she covets them. Likewise, Uncle Andrew and Jadis are driven by their desire to possess and use power to their own ends. Their decisions are based solely on what’s in it for them, and the rest of the universe be damned! In addition, when Jadis is not present, Uncle Andrew forgets his fear of her and reverts to his own path of treachery and cunning. He is proof of our own inclination to dismiss the cost of making the wrong choice when any consequence seems far away or nonexistent. Lewis helps us realize that conflict comes from many quarters, even from within. What might the choices we make today do to or for our world and those around us tomorrow?
But wait, you say. Digory’s motives are driven by his deep love for his mother and his desire to save her. Isn’t this noble and right and selfless? Yes, and Aslan recognizes this in Digory, but even Digory sees that part of himself also houses a dark side—a side that desires to take control and go its own way without regard for consequences. Aslan reminds Digory that he must think and count the cost before acting, no matter how noble the deed.
Aslan assures Digory that good will eventually triumph but that Narnia will have to struggle through the battle between good and evil. The reality is that evil is present in the world, not as God ordained or desired, but as invited by the free choices made my mankind. Digory mourns even as we say, “if only...” But ifs are not what are real. God is not a puppeteer. He wants us to seek Him and meet Him without strings attached. No one is forced to know God.
What of this god, Aslan? What do we see in his character that draws Digory, Polly, the Cabby, and Strawberry the horse—yet repels Uncle Andrew and Queen Jadis? The answer is found in Aslan’s first command to the newly created world and inhabitants of Narnia. As Aslan awakens Narnia, the first directive he gives them is to love. The characters who are drawn to Aslan recognize that this command grows out of a foundational attribute deeply ingrained in the Creator. Primarily through Digory’s interaction with Aslan, we witness the love that he has for all that he has made and knows. When Digory has the courage to look into Aslan’s eyes after asking that his mother be cured, he sees that Aslan’s tears for his pain (and hers) is even deeper than his own.
Those who are repelled by Aslan, however, have no love save that of self-preservation. Their hearts are so hard that they find his song discordant and grating and only seek to run in the opposite direction. Again, none is forced to respond; Jadis and Andrew are allowed to make their own choices.
Justice is also an attribute of this Narnian god. Though he has the power to destroy evil with a single breath, he allows Jadis to remain. There will be an ultimate confrontation between this all-powerful good and her venomous evil, but it will come in Aslan’s time, according to his plan, and dependent upon his will. He will allow circumstances to develop in Narnia until the time is ripe to bring a new reality. He alone will choose the time and place where he will take on the task of redeeming Narnia. And he has determined that Adam’s race (mankind)—having brought the evil in through personal choice—must help to correct this wrong.
God’s right to decide and do as He pleases with His creation (referred to as His sovereignty, His kingly and royal prerogative) has always been a thorny issue with humans. As Lewis demonstrates with Uncle Andrew, we all have a strong desire to direct our own lives and have our own way and mete out our own justice. Thus the eternal conflict within us: be god, or let God be god?
Lewis also does a thorough job of exploring temptation in The Magician’s Nephew. Within the first few pages of the book, we are aware of a room in Digory’s house that, according to Aunt Letty, must never be entered. Just as God forbade Adam and Eve to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, Uncle Andrew has forbidden anyone to enter the room where he works to perfect his magic. Of course, this is immediately intriguing to Digory and Polly: temptation number one. And even though they do not intentionally set out to seek this particular room, their errant mathematics—used to determine the distance to the empty house through the connected attics—gain them access, by their own choice to open the door in the brick wall. Polly allows her curiosity to overcome her and chooses to be the first to enter the room even though she knows that this is not the abandoned dwelling they were seeking.
Temptation number two: stay and explore, or get out. Digory knows that it is wrong to remain, but Polly has spotted the gorgeous yellow and green rings and her desire to know more about them moves her into the role of leader: temptation number three. She leads Digory far enough into the room that Uncle Andrew (who has been biding his time waiting for them) is able to lock both doors and entrap them.
Through flattery and deceptive logic, Uncle Andrew manipulates each child just as the serpent in the Garden of Eden manipulated Eve. He recognizes that the moral force in Digory may be hard to overcome or take too long to develop, so he focuses on Polly and her natural attraction to the rings. Just as the snake encouraged Eve to pick the fruit, Uncle Andrew entices Polly to touch one of the rings and wham! she is spirited out of her world.
Following a many-paged discussion of morals and ethics (Digory has them, Uncle Andrew does not) Digory is led into his own personal temptation to rescue Polly because Uncle Andrew assaults his honor. Won’t Digory rescue the lady, as is the manly thing to do? His choice to go after her (and who would not make that choice with him?) begins the story that Lewis ultimately took seven books to complete.
In the land of Charn, Digory is also tempted out of defiance and competition to strike the bell. And finally, in a certain garden at the top of a certain hill in Narnia, Digory faces the ultimate temptation.
Aslan has sent Digory to obtain the special apple that, when planted in Narnia, will produce a tree that protects the land with one hundered years of peace. Jadis, just as the serpent did with Eve, entices Digory to take the life-giving apple to his mother—to use the rings, forsaking all in Narnia to return to her and his world. And this time, Digory really understands that many of the events he has been a part of have been outcomes of his choice, and with the maturity of experience he makes the choice for Aslan and not Jadis—the choice for good rather than evil—even though the path for good will be harder to tread than the path of evil.
From encounters with the Creator to temptation and the nature of good and evil in the world, The Magician’s Nephew provides a great and entertaining foundation for the discussion of spiritual topics, with children and with adults. Written in a vernacular that they can enjoy and couched in the genre of fantasy that they love, the book brings forth profound and deep topics that should not be ignored in childhood yet are often are shunted aside because an adult doesn’t know where or how to begin the discussion. And, although there is more than enough to talk about in this book, six more are waiting to entertain and enlighten.
Aslan closes the first story with a promise to Digory. Because he has made the correct choice, Digory will see his mother healed—not for eternity in their world, but for the length of her life. Aslan also promises redemption for Narnia—the price of which Aslan himself will pay. But that is were the journey continues...