'The Magician's Nephew': the Beginning of the End of Narnia, Part One
While The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe leapt into life in Lewis’s imagination as a fully-fledged tale in its own right, Lewis temporarily struggled with the mechanics of his own creation in the sequel, Prince Caspian. But the following books, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, The Silver Chair and A Horse and His Boy showed a remarkable maturation of the process of inventing and sustaining a fictive world. Lewis rapidly built on the foundations of symbolism that he had stumbled upon in the first book, transforming Aslan from a straightforward re-imagined Christ figure initially into a providential force, whose repeated answer to Shasta in A Horse and His Boy was intended to reflect the trinity of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit:
"Who are you?" asked Shasta.
"Myself," said the Voice, very deep and low so that the earth shook: and again "Myself, loud and clear and gay: and then the third time "Myself, whispered so softly you could hardly hear it, and yet it seemed to come from all round you as if the leaves rustled with it.
As an author, Lewis had progressively banished any uncertainty he may have had connecting his profoundly held beliefs and his stories by creating a new set of powerful symbols to represent the world view that he wanted to convey to modern readers. With Narnia, now grown into a stronger creation, Lewis had plumbed the bottom of the creative and spiritual impulses which started it and made it such a success. He had stepped back from the edge of allegory and found firm symbolic footings for his ideas.
But, as we have argued, the purpose was not simply to ‘convert’ readers into Christians, though that was probably a hoped-for byproduct. Many studies have shown that the Chronicles of Narnia have indeed achieved the effect of bringing many thousands of people closer to a Christian world view. But none of that would have happened if the books had not largely succeeded in what we propose was Lewis’s first aim: to ‘flip’ the reader out of an Ironic cultural framework and into a new perspective on life and the universe. This switching of viewpoints was not necessarily Christian, but was a definite shift from the subjective, psychology-driven reality of the Twentieth Century centred around the Self, to an objective, morality-driven cosmos which was centred around an external power.
If we picture the imagination as a swirling ocean of creativity, Lewis’s command of the symbology of Narnia was such that this ocean now had nowhere to go but had to proceed eschatologically: in other words, having built a successful world, Lewis sought to both explain the beginnings of that world narratively, and then to bring it to a satisfactory conclusion.
In The Magician's Nephew Aslan is established as the Creator — he sings Narnia into existence, and gives the animals the gift of speech. Evil enters the young world through Jadis, queen of the dead world of Charn, and, as in the story of Eden, there is a garden with a highly significant fruit. In The Last Battle we are privy to the end of Narnia, but importantly, as we shall see, we first see its descent into wickedness, and its rejection of Aslan.
In all of this, though, Lewis's sole intention in writing the Chronicles was not particularly to produce charming children's fairy tales nor disguised but intense theology: their purpose is to engender a change of perspective for the reader.
Early entrances into Narnia are almost always unplanned by those who enter. In The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe the Pevensie children stumble through a wardrobe door, seemingly by accident; in Prince Caspian they are unexpectedly jerked off a railway platform and thrust into Narnian life many centuries after they had left. In The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, Lucy and Edmund tumble with their cousin, Eustace, into a picture of a sailing vessel on a wall. After this point, though, there is a change: in The Silver Chair, Jill and Eustace seek to enter the world of Narnia consciously; in A Horse and His Boy, Shasta and Bree share the quest to escape to the land of Narnia in the North. It is almost as though the Narnian universe has developed its own gravity and is able to pull characters toward it, rather than be stumbled upon - the earlier attempt in Prince Caspian seems clumsy in comparison to the grace of the door in the school wall in The Silver Chair. In a sense this reflects the growing maturity of Lewis’s imaginative creation and its pull on his own imagination.
But, having made it clear that Aslan is the controller and monitor of all events in both The Silver Chair and A Horse and His Boy, it must have become clear to Lewis that he could not profitably continue to write more and more books outlining further and further adventures of a growing number of protagonists in the Narnia universe without running into a kind of creative exhaustion, even though many readers no doubt wished that he would. Instead, Lewis probably thought, consciously or unconsciously, any new approach to Narnia had to differ a little: he would go back and try to inject into the original symbols of the first book some of the imaginative power and consistency he had discovered later. For example, the lamppost which Lucy had first seen in the snowy woods of Narnia on her first passage through the wardrobe - from where had it come? Why was it shining in the middle of a forest? And what about the White Witch? If Narnia was a land overseen by Aslan, how had she made such an impact upon it? From where had she come? Why did the wardrobe door open onto Narnia? In the first book, these images had been effective before Lewis had found their wellspring: now that he had energised his own ability to conjure with symbols, how could they be reworked?
These questions led Lewis back in Narnian time to its beginning. And interestingly, in The Magician’s Nephew, Lewis came up with a protagonist that was more autobiographical than any other in the Narnia tales: Digory begins the story upset and anxious for his mother’s health; Lewis had lost his mother at the age of 11. Digory’s alliance with Polly and their desire to explore their row of houses bears some resemblance to Lewis’s own childhood. He was left to his own devices for much of the time, and obviously found his way into the unexplored parts of his house at times, just as Digory and Polly do:
I am a product of long corridors, empty sunlit rooms, upstairs indoor silences, attics explored in solitude, distant noises of gurgling cisterns and pipes, and the noise of wind under the tiles. (Surprised by Joy, Lewis's autobiography)
In fact, we can see in Digory’s progress a kind of perhaps-unconscious allegory of Lewis’s own development - in these explorations, Digory encounters his Uncle Andrew who introduces him to some ideas which lie at the foundations of the Ironic universe world-view, as it came to the fore in the Twentieth Century: Uncle Andrew is very self-centred, power-hungry, morality-free and incapable of appreciating the beauty and truth of certain external factors around him. Through him, Lewis explores the atheistic world-view which he himself came to hold for years, even after reading Dante - the idea that there were no real grounds for being a moral person, as well as the idea of the vastness of the universe. Uncle Andrew represents a kind of ‘shadow protagonist’ in that he takes steps that Digory or Lewis himself might easily have taken, and turns out ‘wrong’ and corrupt, his senses constrained, his powers much reduced. Andrew becomes a puppet of evil on many levels.
Stay tuned for Part Two coming soon.