It’s the sixth month of the #Narniathon21 hosted by Chris at Calmgrove and we’ve reached the penultimate installment in the Narnia series in publication order, although this book is the first chronologically. Once again I re-read my childhood Puffin copy – noting that this edition has nice wraparound artwork on the cover. I’ll have to return to my Folio set for The Last Battle though, my Puffin one is lost.
The Magician’s Nephew was the book I’d been waiting to get to in the series, given it’s the Narnia origin story and was a big influence on writers like Susannah Clarke when she was writing Piranesi, and the world of Charn within is the obvious precursor to Pullman’s Cittàgazze in The Subtle Knife, more on that later.
However, to begin at the beginning, having been initially willing to read the books chronologically, I realised that reading in publication order is the way to go.
This is a story about something that happened long ago when your grandfather was a child. It is a very important story because it shows how all the comings and going between our own world and the land of Narnia first began.
It implies we’ve already met a grandfather; there is a knowing wink to the reader who will soon work out who that grandfather is.
Then we launch into the story of Digory Kirke and Polly Plummer. Digory is living in London with his Aunt and distinctly odd Uncle, the Ketterleys – brother and sister, as his father is in India and his mother is ill. Digory and Polly are exploring in the attic, finding a crawlway under the eaves, which leads to Uncle Andrew’s hideaway, where his uncle tells them about his experiment with a guinea pig and shows them green and yellow rings he has made, tricking Polly into putting a yellow one on, whereupon she vanishes. Of course, Digory has to go and rescue her, taking the green ones that are supposed to bring them back.
Digory and Polly end up at the ‘wood between the worlds’ which is full of many pools, which they correctly deduce will take them to other worlds – so they go exploring and end up in Charn. See what I meant about Pullman’s Cittàgazze? It’s just like Baynes’ vision from 1955, which is so atmospheric. Between Lewis’ descriptions and Baynes’ illustrations this ruined city really does come to life, as our pair of friends will find out when they get into an argument,
‘That’s all you know,’ said Digory. ‘It’s because you’re a girl. girls never want to know anything but gossip and rot about people getting engaged.’
‘You looked exactly like your Uncle when you said that,’ said Polly.
Which spurs Digory to hit a bell, which wakes up a row of sleeping kings and queens including Jadis – yes, TLTW&TW’s white witch – although she is full of colour here. To cut a long story short, she manages to piggy-back on their return to 1900 London where she causes merry hell! Eventually Digory manages to catch her and put the green ring on, drawing Polly, Uncle Andrew, a cabby, his wife and a horse with them too back to the inbetween world.
Then, as Lewis so typically does, once again he dials back on the fun and goes full into allegory mode as we finally meet Aslan who sings Narnia into being. Even though there is an ancilliary quest for Digory to get an apple to cure his mum from a faraway tree in a magic garden which involves a horse becoming a Pegasus to transport him (a welcome touch of Greek myths there), this latter part was heavy on the Christian allegory side. I enjoyed the first half of the book so much. But I was very happy with the final resolution which links back to TLTW&TW in a rather lovely way that made me smile. So a book of two halves for my re-read. Digory and Polly were great though, as were those pitted against them in Uncle Andrew and Jadis.
This installment, more so than any others for some reason, took me back to my college Dungeons & Dragons playing days, and thoughts about character ‘alignment’, of which there are five kinds in the classic game (2nd edition, 1988) – Lawful Good, Chaotic Good, Neutral, Chaotic Evil and Lawful Evil, typified by crusading Paladins, Clerics or Robin Hood types, Thieves, Sociopaths, and Evil Tyrants respectively. It was always more fun to play a Neutral or Chaotic Evil character. Obviously, Aslan is LG, Digory and Polly are CG, Uncle Andrew is CE and Jadis is LE. However, there are few if any neutral characters at all in Lewis’ vision.
The really interesting thing in this book though was the ‘wood between the worlds’ which is so distinct this time and, I understand, influential to Susannah Clarke writing Piranesi. The only other time we’ve come close to a transition world is at the start of The Silver Chair where our young protagonists are blown into Narnia by Aslan from a cliff. Here, it is a proper and suitably odd place, but doesn’t relate to either Christian concept of limbo or purgatory as you might expect. It’s more like an airport hub, where you can pause your journey before the next leg of your trip, with many onward route choices being available.
It’s a good thing I can’t remember anything at all about The Last Battle! Watch this space next month…