Thursday, August 12, 2010

The Magician's Nephew

There's something about early August that makes me very nostalgic for my childhood pre-working summers, when this would have been just the mid-way point and not on the tail end. This is the time of year, more than any other (even Christmas), that makes me want to revisit kids' and YA novels. Last summer it was rereading the last two Harry Potter books over a three-day stretch; this year, I hunkered down and reread C.S. Lewis' The Magician's Nephew in an afternoon (I could have sworn it was a longer read).

Despite what the movies would have you think, The Magician's Nephew (not The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe) is the first book in Lewis' famous series. And it wasn't until rereading it that I finally saw how religious his books are. Certainly, I had heard about the religious aspects, but they didn't strike me as particularly extreme in the other stories. Generally speaking, religion was a much bigger deal during the time period the stories are set in (prior to WWI) so it always made sense to me that religious details would be incorporated.

Well, rereading The Magician's Nephew really casts a different light on the rest of the series. It isn't obviously more religious, I guess. The characters don't quote passages from the Bible or anything, and in some ways all the magic that Lewis conjures up is rather anti-Christian doctrine. But the last half of books makes it clear that The Magician's Nephew is decidedly Biblical, and is quite literally the Book of Genesis for the series. But I'll get to that in a minute.

The story is fairly simple. Digory and Polly are neighbours living in London. Digory has only recently arrived, though, and is staying with his aunt and uncle (brother and sister, not married couple) because his mother (their sister) is gravely ill and his father has gone to India to work. So, Digory is not at all happy with his situation, but he and Polly become friends and start exploring the attics of their rowhouses. Digory's Uncle Andrew fancies himself a magician, and at the first opportunity he gets, he tests out his magic on the two children. Uncle Andrew has created rings (yellow ones and green ones) that will take you to another world. He, of course, is too afraid to try them and instead tricks Polly into putting on a yellow one. She vanishes immediately, much to Uncle Andrew's delight and Digory's dismay, and Uncle Andrew persuades Digory to go after her because she doesn't have the green ring, which will supposedly bring her back. Digory heads off into the unknown and discovers the Wood Between Worlds. 

I love the structure Lewis constructed for his magical travel. The Wood Between Worlds is a beautiful forest, filled with little pools. Each pool is the entrance to another world, which is how the children discover that their green rings will take them to any world they desire (put them on, choose a pool and jump in) and the yellow rings will always return them to the Wood. Genius. Looking to have some fun before heading back to Uncle Andrew, they children go and explore a world that is dying. In it, they discover Charn, an ancient city filled with no one; that is, until Digory rings a bell and awakens the Emperess Jadis, who is also a witch and quite evil. By unhappy chance, the children accidentally bring Jadis back to London with them, where she wreaks havoc.

They decide they need to lose her somewhere, so they use their rings and take her back to the Wood and into a new pool. But this world is dark, and the children worry they've somehow stumbled upon a place that doesn't exist. Then they hear a song, low and lovely, and slowly light comes into the world, and then water and mountains and plants and trees and animals and all the other things that make up a world (sound familiar?). Of course, the singer is Aslan, the great lion, and he is creating Narnia. The story really becomes very Biblical at this point, and Digory even has to go pick an apple from a far-off and walled garden in a task that tests his faith and belief in Aslan. It's interesting to read, actually, because although it seems heavy-handed now, I'm sure I didn't notice any of the allusions as a child (of course, I was not a religious a child, but still).

The ending, which manages to explain The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe, before that book has even come out, is perhaps the best example of foreshadowing I have ever read. Really, anyone looking to write a series should study Lewis' technique of subtly couching future details into otherwise relevant descriptions and explanations. In many ways, The Magician's Nephew is just an extended prologue to the rest of the stories; it works best when you know what's coming, which rewards rereaders who come back to books many years after first enjoying them. It's really a perfect little reread: it's quick, it's interesting, and it reminds you of just how wonderous and new stories felt when you were a kid – before images and ideas seemed familiar – and you could just get lost in the world of the story.

The Magician's Nephew
By C.S. Lewis
First published in 1955 (cover image shown from HarperTrophy edition)


  1. "The Magician's Nephew" is not just a prequel to the rest of the Narnia series, but an entertaining fantasy novel in its own right. Definitely a must-read for fantasy fans.

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