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'The Magician's Nephew': the Beginning of the End of Narnia, Part Two


In the first chapters of The Magician's Nephew, Lewis touches upon the Twentieth Century notion of the nature of the universe, and comes as close as he can to explain the ‘scientific’ basis for the Narnia universe. For Uncle Andrew, of course, other worlds may exist, but they cannot be reached in an ordinary way:

Ah, but when I looked at that dust (I took jolly good care not to touch it) and thought that every grain had once been in another world - I don't mean another planet, you know; they're part of our world and you could get to them if you went far enough - but a really Other World - another Nature another universe - somewhere you would never reach even if you travelled through the space of this universe for ever and ever - a world that could be reached only by Magic - well!" Here Uncle Andrew rubbed his hands till his knuckles cracked like fireworks.

Even in this, Lewis is drawing upon his knowledge of the mediaeval world-view. As we continue to explore space through increasingly sensitive technologically capable devices, we commonly come across the viewpoint he describes in his book Miracles about the immensity of the cosmos:

Many people say, 'They could believe in miracles in olden times because they had a false conception of the universe. They thought the Earth was the largest thing in it and Man the most important creature. It therefore seemed reasonable to suppose that the Creator was specially interested in Man and might even interrupt the course of Nature for his benefit. But now that we know the real immensity of the universe—now that we perceive our own planet and even the whole Solar system to be only a speck—it becomes ludicrous to believe in them any longer. We have discovered our insignificance and can no longer suppose that God is so drastically concerned in our petty affairs’.

However, this view rests upon the myth that the immensity of the universe is a recent discovery. The truth is that Ptolemy, who was alive in the second century AD, taught that in relation to the distance of the fixed stars, the whole Earth must be regarded as a point with no magnitude. Ptolemy’s astronomical system became the basis of that of the Dark and Middle Ages. The modern idea of an ignorant Middle Ages is the falsehood; the spatial insignificance of Earth had been asserted by Christian philosophers, Christian poets, and Christian moralists for one and a half millennia. Lewis goes on:

It is a profound mistake to imagine that Christianity ever intended to dissipate the bewilderment and even the terror, the sense of our own nothingness, which come upon us when we think about the nature of things. It comes to intensify them. Without such sensations, there is no religion. Many a man, brought up in the glib profession of some shallow form of Christianity, who comes through reading Astronomy to realise for the first time how majestically indifferent most reality is to man, and who perhaps abandons his religion on that account, may at that moment be having his first genuinely religious experience.

From the modern misconception come various other idly held beliefs.

One is that, if the Earth is so small, it must therefore be insignificant and unworthy of the attention of a universal God. This brings in the question of size: something tiny must, goes this argument, be something correspondingly meaningless or unworthy. Lewis addresses the idea that merit has anything to do with things in two ways:

If it is maintained that anything so small as the Earth must, in any event, be too unimportant to merit the love of the Creator, we reply that no Christian ever supposed we did merit it. Christ did not die for men because they were intrinsically worth dying for, but because He is intrinsically love, and therefore loves infinitely. And what after all, does the size of a world or a creature tell us about its 'importance' or value?

This second way - the notion that something’s size determines its value - is illuminating because it is easy to illustrate the folly of it:

There is no doubt that we all feel the incongruity of supposing, say, that the planet Earth might be more important than the Great Nebula in Andromeda. On the other hand, we are all equally certain that only a lunatic would think a man six-feet high necessarily more important than a man five-feet high, or a horse necessarily more important than a man, or a man's legs than his brain.

The emotional difference is one which has developed over time, as Lewis explains, further underlining his opinions of the ‘modern’ world view:

Medieval thinkers believed that the stars must be somehow superior to the Earth because they looked bright and it did not. Moderns think that the Galaxy ought to be more important than the Earth because it is bigger. Both states of mind can produce good poetry. Both can supply mental pictures that rouse ... emotions of awe, humility, or exhilaration. But taken as serious philosophical argument, both are ridiculous. The atheist's argument from size is, in fact, an instance of just that picture-thinking.... What we fondly call 'primitive' errors do not pass away. They merely change their form.

In The Magician's Nephew, Polly and Digory are used by Digory's mad uncle to experiment with magic rings that send them to the Wood Between the Worlds where they eventually make their way into Narnia. Narnia exerts no ‘pull’, just as it did not in the case of many of the first stories, and the way in which it is reached seems to be the product of a series of ‘accidents’ - but the reader of the Narnian tales is wise to these apparently unconnected events now: we expect the appearance of Aslan at any moment. Actually, the story is more than half done before the Lion makes an appearance, lit up by the sun which he has just created:

Digory had never seen such a sun. The sun above the ruins of Charn had looked older than ours: this looked younger. You could imagine that it laughed for joy as it came up. And as its beams shot across the land the travellers could see for the first time what sort of place they were in. It was a valley through which a broad, swift river wound its way, flowing eastward towards the sun. Southward there were mountains, northward there were lower hills. But it was a valley of mere earth, rock and water; there was not a tree, not a bush, not a blade of grass to be seen. The earth was of many colours: they were fresh, hot and vivid. They made you feel excited; until you saw the Singer himself, and then you forgot everything else.

It was a Lion. Huge, shaggy, and bright, it stood facing the risen sun. Its mouth was wide open in song and it was about three hundred yards away.

"This is a terrible world," said the Witch. "We must fly at once. Prepare the Magic."

Having grown more and more vigorous and confident with symbols in the earlier books, Lewis now explicitly ‘creates’ Narnia through Aslan, and has all the other key symbols - lamppost, Witch and wardrobe - narratively explained: the lamppost has magically grown from a fragment of one torn off by the Witch in her interlude in Edwardian London; she herself has entered Narnia after being freed from an enchantment by Digory’s lack of control in another world entirely; and the wardrobe is made from the wood of an apple tree, the seed of which came from Narnia.

In one way, The Magician’s Nephew is a piece of wish-fulfilment by its author: Digory returns to his world with an apple which cures his mother. In the same way that Lewis has visited Narnia’s distant past to attempt to create wonder, he revisits his own loss of his mother. The switch of world view which occurs in this tale is at the instant when Aslan, confronting Digory, connects his magical new creation with all the pain and grief of the Ironic world from which the boy has come:

"But please, please - won't you - can't you give me something that will cure Mother?" Up till then he had been looking at the Lion's great feet and the huge claws on them; now, in his despair, he looked up at its face. What he saw surprised him as much as anything in his whole life. For the tawny face was bent down near his own and (wonder of wonders) great shining tears stood in the Lion's eyes. They were such big, bright tears compared with Digory's own that for a moment he felt as if the Lion must really be sorrier about his Mother than he was himself.

"My son, my son," said Aslan. "I know. Grief is great. Only you and I in this land know that yet. Let us be good to one another.”

The transformation is not the resurrection that took place in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, nor the coming to end of the world as in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader; nor is it Puddleglum’s affirmation of a better world in The Silver Chair. This ‘flip’ most closely resembles that experienced by Shasta in A Horse and His Boy:

Shasta was no longer afraid that the Voice belonged to something that would eat him, nor that it was the voice of a ghost. But a new and different sort of trembling came over him. Yet he felt glad too.

It takes place in both books on a profoundly emotional level: we do not see the external world transformed but experience a deep change in our own subjective worlds. Narnia has grown so strong that it can now affect us not only intellectually, but emotionally.

So strong had it become, in fact, that it could bear to be destroyed.

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