The Dying Before the Living: The Magician’s Nephew by C.S. Lewis

Yesterday I picked up The Magician’s Nephew for the first time in several years and I learned several quite good things about it. I came from a family that spurned the chronological renumbering Harper has been doing for decades and always came at the Narnia books Wardrobe-first, but as, I suspect, most people, I have read some of the books more than others. The Magician’s Nephew I think I have read the most times out of any of them, and it’s true that this time around there wasn’t a single line in the book that wasn’t dearly familiar.

I did notice some things about how Lewis wrote the books–about what he liked. Yes, there’s all of the theological stuff, which is less of an allegory and more of a self-aware parallel, like in John Scalzi’s Redshirts. What’s odd is his voice, which I’ve heard a lot of people complain is difficult to read aloud. Apparently there is no flow in the text. I heard them aloud, several times, and I never had a problem with it. I’ve never read them aloud myself, though, and this time through I can see how a person might have trouble.

Lewis’s tone towards the reader, regardless of what funny, glum, terrifying, or wonderful thing is happening in the story, is chummy and personal. Settling down to his voice is like settling down with a long letter from someone who doesn’t intend you to share the letter with anyone else. It’s full of asides, bits of omniscience, and awkward parentheticals stuffed into the end of sentences in ways a lot of writing teachers probably would have berated him for. (I side with Lewis here.)

Moreover it’s like getting a letter from a magpie, because Lewis loves delicious, glittering little treats in an absolutely childlike way, and he lures you right into the plot with them. He starts on page one, as he is introducing his story as historical fantasy (the historical part, interestingly enough, I think gets passed over a lot in the reading because now both the era of the story and the era of the first audience are Old). Here, according to the book and to Lewis’s bitter memory, the clothes were uncomfortable and the schools were horrific. And then: “But meals were nicer; and as for sweets, I won’t tell you how cheap and good they were, because it would only make your mouth water in vain.” Boom! The first page, and he’s already dragged you into another world as easily as a magic ring, just by mentioning the tantalizing out-of-reach treasure of sweets.

The next bit of treasure he drops is Polly’s Smuggler’s Cave up in the attic, the kind of secret hideaway that you pursue madly as a child and I think frequently keep yearning for as an adult. Polly stashes all kinds of things up there–furniture bits, candles, her secret story-writing project that Digory is absolutely not allowed to see, and the extremely excellent touch of all her empty ginger-beer bottles, because leaving them makes it feel more authentically like a smuggler’s cave. This is exactly the kind of secret space you want as a kid, and even better if there’s the chance to go beyond that and sneak into a mysteriously empty house two doors down.

That bright temptation of a small imaginative adventure lures us in, and it also lures Polly and Digory right into the plot: instead of an empty house (and we never do find out what is in that house–it remains a whole world to be explored, whether the cause of its emptiness is plumbing or criminal gangs), they land in a warm study full of glittering magical rings. It’s just like a trail of Reese’s Pieces, and it works on me as a reader just like it does on Digory and Polly.

We get a few other treasures in here, by the way, in the form of more things Lewis just drops on us in a casual line never to pick up again. Old Mrs. LeFay was a fairy? Does that mean our world has its own magic? It certainly had ATLANTIS, although the only thing we know about that is that the “stuff” the rings are made from didn’t come from there originally, but from the Wood Between the Worlds. But that means there are magical things about our world after all, things no one in the books ever gets to explore because they’re too busy in Narnia. They’re there, anyway–our world is not barren of magic, in some small, lightly explored way. (Take that, Quentin from The Magicians, you odious, charmless toadstool.)

Anyway–for the title of this post. Our world isn’t a dying world in this book, but the book is frontloaded with death. It starts off with Digory’s mother in the process of dying. That’s what makes him and Polly friends instead of enemies, at first. The first world they go to, when they get out of the wonderful, suffocatingly alive Wood Between the Worlds, is very much dying. Their presence, of course, sends the final towers toppling. But what they step into is already (brilliantly!) ghastly: a landscape of crumbling emptiness, stained to blood by a sun boiling to its death. Waking up Jadis livens things up, but mostly in the form of her relentless story of how she killed everyone else on the planet.

(While we’re on Charn: this time through, the hall full of not-statues reminded me strongly of the gods in the temple in Megan Whalen Turner’s The Thief, where they are doing something similar but distinct. It’s still a strange, stifling hall where figures who are too beautiful to be real straddle the line between alive and un-alive. However, MWT’s goddess isn’t frightening because she’s wildly destructive; she’s frightening because she’s a goddess.)

The Narnian bits are all about waking up, and the waking up is more powerful because we have just been to this oppressive, crumbling place where everything has descended into bloody destruction. The atmosphere on Charn is terrific, and when Digory rings the bell you can feel the sound crushing you down. On Narnia, the darkness wakes, and Aslan’s song makes things creep and burst and beam into life. Half the power of Lewis when he’s joyful is how effectively he sets it up against what is horrifying. And of course because Digory is sorry enough and obedient enough, he gets to save his mother’s life as well.

People talk a lot about Lewis’s overt Christian themes in the Narnia books, but talking to one point on any book really is a disservice to everything else that’s going on. It’s easy to hand over all the war horror to Tolkien and give Lewis the God stuff. But they were of the same era (and Tolkien did God stuff in the personal way long before Lewis). At the end of this whole book about how a world can finish going wrong and how, with the introduction of Jadis to Narnia, it can start to go wrong, there’s a prophecy for our world: that in a few decades’ time, tyrants will rule and people will suffer. If we’re not careful, it will go like Charn.

Of course the books are never interested enough in our world to go back and see it through on our end. It’s just a lesson, one of the more overt ones. By and large, he would rather tell it with Lions, and flying horses, and talking beasts, and other bits of glittering gold.