The Magician’s Nephew, CS Lewis (1955)

“Narnia, Narnia, Narnia, awake. Love. Think. Speak. Be walking trees. Be talking beasts. Be divine waters.” Aslan

And the longer and more beautiful the Lion sang, the harder Uncle Andrew tried to make himself believe that he could hear nothing but roaring….And when the Lion spoke and said, “Narnia awake,” he didn’t hear any words: he heard only a snarl. And when the Beasts spoke in answer, he heard only barkings, growlings, bayings, and howlings.

This is my second read through and I still found the first part dull, the magic not particularly, well, magical. I remember thinking the first time around I would stick with it, because I wanted to read the series. Similarly, this time I felt the same dull disinterest.

And then suddenly, Aslan appears and the book takes a most promising turn!

The Story

Digory and Polly, neighbor children who are thrust into the void by the power of the magic rings invented by Digory’s Uncle Andrew land in a world made up of innumerable ponds and woods. It is a new world without flora or fauna, but that changes as a magnificent and glorious sound pierces the air and the children realize Creation is being sung into being before their very eyes!

There were no words. There was hardly even a tune….It was so beautiful he [Digory] could hardly bear it…Then two wonders happened at the same moment. One was that the voice was suddenly joined by other voices; more voices than you could possibly count….The second wonder was that the blackness overhead all at once, was blazing with stars….a thousand points of light leaped out—single stars, constellations, and planets, brighter and bigger than any in our world….If you had seen and heard it, you would have felt quite certain that it was the stars themselves which were singing, and that it was the First Voice, the deep one, which had made them appear and made them sing….The Voice rose and rose till all the air was shaking with it; the sun rose. You could imagine that it laughed for joy as it came up….the earth was of many colors; 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 and stood facing the risen sun. Its mouth was wide open in song….

Creation being formed out of Song and love and beauty by a Lion who is at once Creator and Sacrifice (LWW). Because, yes, one cannot but help to see that connection. Aslan is birthing the world through the sound of his Voice, bringing forth the first plants, the new starry heavens, the sun and wind and all the animals, birds and beings that will populate this new world.

Out of the trees wild people stepped forth, gods and goddesses of the wood; with them came Fauns and Satyrs and Dwarfs. Out of the river rose the river god with his Naiad daughters. And all these and all the beasts and birds in their different voices, low or high or thick or clear, replied. “Hail, Aslan. We hear and obey. We are awake. We love. We think. We speak. We know.

Aslan tells the animals and other sacred beings to guard and protect the land because evil has been let loose. The Witch followed Digory and Polly into Narnia, but for now she is headed for lands far away and won’t trouble Narnia for hundreds of years. In the meantime Narnia must be made strong. Aslan sends the children on a journey to find the fruit of a special apple tree that once planted in Narnia will reign over it against all evil. When they return Aslan tells Digory to throw the apple a certain distance and it settles into the soft mud. In the morning the tree is big and filled with fruit. Digory is certain an apple from this tree will help his mother’s cancer and Aslan gives him one to take home.

When Digory and Polly return to London, Digory’s mother eats the apple and is cured. Digory plants the core and a tree grows again overnight. As the years pass and the children grow up so does the tree which has a symbiotic relationship with the one of its origin: it wiggles a bit on days when it is windy in Narnia, even when there is no wind in London. But its shaking has weakened its roots, and one wind-filled day in London the tree topples over. Now middle aged and with unfaded memories of Aslan and Narnia and all he saw there, Digory cannot just chop up the tree for fire wood. So he takes part of the tree and builds a wardrobe which he puts in his house in the country….

The Controversy: Chronological Order or Published Order

In my Harper Trophy editions, The Magician’s Nephew (MN) is the first in the series with The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe (LWW) second. I didn’t know any better and read this first. I had struck up a conversation with a woman in a bookstore who is an avid Narnia fan. She told me that after Lewis published the LWW a friend asked him about the lamppost that appeared out of nowhere and in order to clear that up he wrote The Magician’s Nephew. In that moment it made sense to me to stick with the order in my series. But what did Lewis himself say?

In 1957, an 11-year-old boy named Lawrence Krieg was preparing to read the Narnia books for a second time. Lawrence wondered if he should re-read them chronologically, but his mother felt he should stick with the original published order. So, Lawrence wrote a letter to the author and received this response:

“I think I agree with your order for reading the books more than with your mother’s. The series was not planned beforehand as she thinks. When I wrote The Lion I did not know I was going to write any more. Then I wrote P. Caspian as a sequel and still didn’t think there would be any more, and when I had done The Voyage I felt quite sure it would be the last. But I found as I was wrong. So perhaps it does not matter very much in which order anyone read them.”
C. S. Lewis, letter dated, 4/23/57

Douglas Gresham, stepson of C.S. Lewis

“[HarperCollins] asked, ‘What order do you think we ought to do them in?’  And I said, ‘Well … I actually asked Jack himself what order he preferred and thought they should be read in.  And he said he thought they should be read in the order of Narnian chronology.’  So I said, ‘Why don’t you go with what Jack himself wanted?’

Lewis scholars almost universally agree that the original published order is superior. They suggest that The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is more initially captivating than The Magician’s Nephew, that certain lines in Lion do not make sense when the book is not read first,and that Nephew has greater mythic power when read as a prequel.

I think I agree with the assessment that LWW is best to read first, if only because the first half of MN is not so interesting. It would be a shame to turn off a young reader of this marvelous series, because the first one they read doesn’t capture their imagination. Though I didn’t know better and read MN first, I do wish I’d saved it and read the books in published order. I got so much more out of it this time around; the story’s magical qualities come to the fore with the writing, which for me is ‘pure magic.’ I imagine though reading order will be an argument that will last until the end of time!

Narniathon21 hosted by Chris at Calmgrove continues with a discussion of The Magician’s Nephew on his website.

8 thoughts on “The Magician’s Nephew, CS Lewis (1955)

  1. Lovely review, Laurie, giving me lots of food for thought!

    Having approached the Chronicles in both fashions O have to say that, however much I like events neatly laid out in time – cause and effect, and logical progression – I’m enjoying the publication order a lot more than the one-volume edition which began with TMN, even though I knew then that it spoilt the revelations about Aslan in LWW.

    Having said that, I still don’t find the preamble, Wood between the Worlds, and Charn episodes dull: the reverse in fact, especially as they awake so many resonances for me from myth and legend, literature and fairytale. That delaying of gratification until Aslan appears is classic storytelling, ratcheting up the tension until what we’re expecting finally appears.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Ah the reading order controversy … glad you agree with me on this one, even though it’s for a different reason — I don’t find the first half of MN dull, I loved the idea of the Wood Between the World and the magic rings that reminded me of The Story of the Amulet. And Charn was creepy! But I agree too that the creation of Narnia is the best.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Charn was indeed creepy and I can appreciate it. I was hoping in this reread I would see the book in a way I didn’t before. When I read it the first time Narnia had such a build up. Maybe I was impatient, because I didn’t expect the darkness. This time around it just felt like another book until Aslan came on the scene. I think I will be forever stunted when it comes to this book, because of that build up and reading it first. Moral of my story? Never let anyone read The Magician’s Nephew first!

      Liked by 3 people

      1. t is interesting to hear from people who did that and found it unsatisfactory. I have always started with Lion (that’s how the books were numbered in my day) so I have to strain to imagine what it would be like to start another way. But I don’t think it’s a good idea.

        Liked by 3 people

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