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.”