For those who are concerned with important books, The Magician’s Nephew should be a concern. It is important because in reading this book, the young reader should experience that particular delight when a book surprises you with the completely unexpected. And the surprise at the end of The Magician’s Nephew is of the first order. It is a concern because for many, this surprise is unfortunately and unnecessarily spoiled. The Magician’s Nephew is the sixth published in the series by C. S. Lewis and in it we find the creation story of this world of Narnia. Through his creation account, Lewis invites his readers to contemplate in a fresh way the beginning of Genesis just as he invited us to contemplate the Passion and Resurrection of Our Lord in The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe. And there is certainly much to ponder. The Magician’s Nephew is full of vivid imagery of the garden of Eden, the first temptation, the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, and the Tree of Life, bringing these strange and difficult realities to life for readers both young and old. And, as in all of the Narnia books, there are valuable lessons delightfully woven throughout the story.
The Violent Man
Throughout the Narnia series, Lewis introduces us to some truly memorable characters. Reepicheep and Puddleglum immediately come to mind as two of the very best. But each book has its own gem. In The Magician’s Nephew the best character is the cowardly and comical villain Uncle Andrew, the ‘magician’ in the title.
Uncle Andrew can be dismissed as the secondary antagonist, the primary place being occupied by Queen Jadis. While this is certainly true, Lewis uses Uncle Andrew to illustrate many of the lessons in the book. Jadis is simply a force of pure evil. We cannot relate to her. But we (the adults anyway) can see ourselves in some of the traits of Uncle Andrew. We probably know people like him, perhaps even one of our own uncles.
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In many ways Uncle Andrew strikes us as ridiculous. He suffers from a high degree of hubris without the circumstances or intelligence to warrant it. He is financially dependent upon his sister with whom he lives. He has a drinking problem. Uncle Andrew is a little man with a bit of knowledge yet he fancies himself great and wise. He perfectly exemplifies the man about whom Alexander Pope cautions: “A little learning is a dangerous thing; Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring.”
Besides being foolishly proud, Uncle Andrew is ultimately a violent man. He sees the accumulation of knowledge (magic in his case) as a means to some other end: power, wealth, or fame. Knowledge is something to be used, rather than something gained for its own sake. This is a fundamentally violent approach. If people or animals must suffer in order for him to make his gains, then so be it. The ends justify the means. Uncle Andrew is not sorry for the guinea pigs that “exploded like little bombs” during his experiments, or for Polly whom he sends to another world. Uncle Andrew does not understand Digory’s vexation concerning these matters, because he cannot see guinea pigs and Polly as good in themselves, as Digory does.
During the creation of Narnia, Uncle Andrew wishes that he had a gun so that he could kill Aslan and “make something” of the country. Later, when Uncle Andrew realizes the new life springing from the newly created Narnia, he imagines that he will become rich by bringing in bits of scrap metal and growing them into battleships. His thoughts always circle around manipulation and violence.
The final and most tragic aspect of Uncle Andrew’s violent nature is the violence he has done to his own person. Uncle Andrew has done violence to his ability to recognize the truth. He has labored long and hard to build up the walls that surround and protect his false idea of himself and the world around him. Anything that does not fit into his own notions of what is real and important he simply ignores or changes so that it will fit. While the cabby, the children, and Jadis all hear Aslan singing as he creates Narnia, Uncle Andrew only hears roaring. Or he convinces himself that he only hears roaring. “Now the trouble about trying to make yourself stupider than you really are is that you very often succeed. Uncle Andrew did.” Rather than responding to a moment of grace with receptivity and humility, Uncle Andrew forcefully excludes himself from the truth, for accepting it would be to acknowledge that much of what he has believed and strived for is a lie. This is the sad case of many people today and it often takes a catastrophe on the scale of a Flannery O’Connor story to shake them out of their self-induced spiritual comas.
Good and Evil
Another interesting question Lewis treats in The Magician’s Nephew is the tendency of goodness to be self-diffusive, and conversely, of evil to be self-centered. True goodness is expanding: the more you love the more you are able to love. Evil on the other hand, is small and mean. It shrinks ever smaller, excluding all but the self, which is finally and inevitably hated as well.
Aslan creates Narnia out of nothing by singing it into existence. (As an interesting aside, J. R. R. Tolkien also has the creator of Middle Earth sing it into existence in The Silmarillion.) The goodness of the creator bubbles forth as stars, water, plants and animals. When he is finished, Aslan says: “Creatures, I give you yourselves…I give to you forever this land of Narnia. I give you the woods, the fruits, the rivers. I give you the stars and I give you myself.” Aslan holds nothing back from his creatures, not even himself. This scene is in stark contrast to what we hear from Jadis, the despotic ruler of Charn. While Aslan creates out of love, Jadis willingly destroys out of hate. Rather than be subject to her sister, Jadis magically destroys every living thing in her world, sparing only herself. This de-creation of Charn and the complete isolation of Jadis is the logical end of hatred.
These opposing characteristics of good and evil can also be seen in the differing attitudes towards the magic apple found by Digory in the mysterious garden. The warning on the garden gates read:
Come in by the gold gates or not at all,
Take of my fruit for others or forbear.
For those who steal or those who climb my wall
Shall find their heart’s desire and find despair.
This warning is reminiscent of the tenth chapter from the Gospel of John. “Truly, truly, I say to you, he who does not enter the sheepfold by the door but climbs in by another way, that man is a thief and a robber.” And true to the verse, Jadis uses the gates neither to enter nor exit the garden, preferring to scale the walls. The apple, when used for another brings health and life, as we see when it heals Digory’s mother. But when used selfishly, it brings despair and more hatred. Aslan explains to Polly: “That is what happens to those who pluck and eat fruits at the wrong time and in the wrong way. The fruit is good, but they loathe it ever after.” God has filled this world He created with good things. Used in the right way, these good things nurture and strengthen; used inappropriately, they damage and torment.
A Final Thought: The Importance of Order
Some publishing companies have changed the order of the Narnia series and present the books not in the order written by C. S. Lewis, but in chronological order. This order lists The Magician’s Nephew as the first book in the series. The most unfortunate aspect of this change is that it diminishes the reader’s experience of The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe and The Magician’s Nephew. The intended mystery and wonder surrounding the professor is nipped in the bud and the magnificent reveal at the end of the Magician’s Nephew is devoid of any significance. This is a serious problem.
Why do we read literature? The philosopher might answer that good literature teaches the reader about truth and himself through vicariously experiencing the joys and sufferings of the characters in the book, thus training the intellect and emotions how to encounter similar experiences in his own life. The philosopher might also add that the mode of literature does this in an especially powerful and accessible way. While this is true, the average civilized reader is not thinking about this when selecting a new book to read. If I ask my ten-year-old daughter why she is reading a book she would say: “because it’s good” or “because I like it.” This is another way of saying that reading a good book is delightful. I pick up Dickens, Dostoyevsky, or Doyle because I enjoy reading their novels. They delight me. It is true that part of the delight is realizing the truths about this world contained within the pages of these books, but that is certainly not the whole picture.
If our children are to become readers of good books, it is essential that they experience this delight that a good book can bring about. One of the better instances in children’s literature occurs at the end of The Magician’s Nephew when the reader discovers that Digory and the professor in The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe are one and the same. I distinctly remember the thrill I experienced when I read that for the first time almost thirty years ago. This experience and others like it made me a reader, and will continue to make readers out of children if good books are left unhindered to do their quiet and delightful work.