The Boy Who Cried
When we first meet Digory Kirke, he is crying.
This would be striking enough in a contemporary novel, but consider that The Magician’s Nephew was published in 1955. Even then, C.S. Lewis had no reservations introducing his young Victorian hero as a vulnerable figure. He then ushers in the foundational conflict of the story: Digory’s mother is dying. In spite of the liberal use of humor throughout the book, there is a stronger, darker undertone set in this very first scene.
Digory and his new friend Polly Plummer try to make the most of a very wet and boring summer. Polly is a sensible, smart girl whose friendship with Digory is complex, based on a mix of sympathy and tolerance for his occasional impetuosity. They go exploring in the attics of their connected houses and accidentally end up in the forbidden study of Digory’s uncle. What started as a game turns into a life-or-death situation, when they learn Digory’s uncle has been dabbling in magic.
The Man Who Laughed
Lewis channels the “creepy uncle” trope masterfully by making Uncle Andrew comically foolish, but just clever enough to be dangerous. Uncle Andrew demonstrates how ineptitude, coupled with a generous dose of selfishness, can be every bit as dangerous as calculated evil. His character encapsulates the arrogance of career politicians and certain scientists.
Men like me, who possess hidden wisdom, are freed from common rules just as we are cut off from common pleasures. Ours, my boy, is a high and lonely destiny.
Not only, then, does he frame his methods outside of common boundaries, but he validates them by attributing it to fate, a fate which he has in some ways earned through dubious merit.
The “Strong” Woman and the Stronger Girl
Just as Digory’s courage is juxtaposed with his uncle’s cowardice, so do we find Polly’s foil in Empress Jadis.
Jadis is the last Queen of Charn, a wasted city in a dying world. She is stunningly tall, charismatic, and beautiful, with superhuman strength to cause destruction or cast spells. She is supremely confident, the persona of power-lust. Digory falls for her charm, one of the many layers of temptations he faces in his Pilgrim-like journey through other worlds. Polly is less susceptible, mistrusting Jadis from the beginning.
The subtlety of Polly’s characterization is that she is not merely an inverse of Jadis. She, too, is confident and strong in her convictions. Where she differs, and where it most matters, is in her relationship to Digory. Polly respects him, but she does not flatter him. She calls him out when he makes mistakes. They fight fairly often, but for good cause. Polly is bittersweet; the grounding influence over Digory’s lofty, sometimes Uncle Andrew-esque folly. In contrast, Jadis flatters and allures, but hers is a sweetness that leads to death.
Londoners in a New Land
In our first glimpse of Narnia, there are echoes of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Shire and the anti-industrial underpinnings of fictional rural utopias. Those from our world who experience Narnia in its early days, birthed by the lion Aslan’s song, find themselves struck by a feeling of youth and exuberance. Their very personalities change, shedding the “sharpness and cunning and quarrelsomeness” of big-city life.
This return to the countryside, echoed a little later in the book, is significant both in terms of plot development (which I won’t divulge here) but also for the contrast it provides with Charn. In Charn, there was no countryside—merely one great metropolis spreading far as the eye could reach. The city-state embodies greed, excess, slavery, and sin. The young, rural Narnia arises as a paradigm of virtue, fairness, and beauty.
When in Doubt…
Virtue, indeed, is the compass which the protagonists rely on in all situations.
When faced with a crisis in her home, Aunt Letty—Uncle Andrew’s longsuffering wife—uses her sense of right and wrong to discern an otherwise unfamiliar situation.
Digory, caught between a rock and a hard place, recalls Thou Shalt Not Steal to choose the lesser of two evils.
While Lewis could easily have justified his young heroes stretching the rules, that was not the point he was trying to make. In fact, this unassuming children’s book makes a clear statement against subjectivity, or the idea that morality is relative to any individual’s point of view. Lewis illustrates there are higher principles and values ordering the universe, which, if broken—and in spite of short-term gains—will inevitably result in long-term loss. Just as Uncle Andrew and Jadis cannot bend the rules for their own purposes, neither can Digory and Polly, regardless of their good intentions. They have the agency to make such decisions, but the presence of good and evil, right and wrong, determines the true nature of the outcome.
As Aslan says: “All get what they want; they do not always like it.”
Your post is fabulous 😊👍
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it’s been a long time (60+ years) since i read Narnia and i recall that even after several rereads i had no idea that it was anything but an adventure story… now i’m a lot older but not much wiser and it’s enlightening to learn about the moral basis of the book. and somewhat mortifying to see how much i missed… maybe i should give it another try… great post and analysis…
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Thank you! I’m going through the whole series again. This book was one of my favorites so I really tried to tease out the reasons. 🙂 I think, though, I couldn’t have read it deeply before 2020… recent life experiences have made certain parts clearer.
Ooh!!! I think after the Silver Chair, this is my favorite Narnia Chronicle. But it has to be read next to last, not in the “new and improved” order, but in the original order. I like the aha! moments I got, such as, “Oh, that’s where the lamp post came from. Oh, that’s who the professor is, etc…
I can read these books over and over!
We share the same top favorites! 😀
I grew up reading chronological order so this just feels “right” to me haha.
I much prefer the published order as well, not the chronological. This book was a completely new book to me when read in published order!
I’d never thought of these character’s being foils for each other. I’ve never tried to read deeply or looked for other questions to prod deeper thinking. I usually just try to sink into fantasy as an escape.
That’s what I love about great writers, you can really read them on multiple levels!
What a great review, Marian! Here I thought I’d plumbed the depths of Narnia and you’ve brought up a number of new insightful observations. I especially like this: “…making Uncle Andrew comically foolish, but just clever enough to be dangerous. Uncle Andrew demonstrates how ineptitude, coupled with a generous dose of selfishness, can be every bit as dangerous as calculated evil. His character encapsulates the arrogance of career politicians and certain scientists…”
In my review, I focussed on Lewis’ statement (in Letters to Malcolm on Prayer) where he says with our decisions we’re either taking a step towards heaven or a step towards hell. Initially while being different from his uncle, Digory, showed some disturbingly similar traits. I said in my review: “Through the characters of Uncle Andrew and Digory, we see the formation of a virtuous character who makes prudent choices (with mistakes along the way), and the result of a deceptive and corrupt character who makes the wrong choices .” Here’s a link if you want to read the review: https://classicalcarousel.com/the-magicians-nephew-by-c-s-lewis/
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Thanks, Cleo! 😀 Checking out your review now!