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.

The Horse and His Boy, CS Lewis (1954) #Narniathon21

I’m a free Narnian.”
We’re free Narnians.
He was a free Narnian horse.

“I have been longing to go to the North all my life.” “Of course you have. That’s because of the blood that’s in you. I’m sure you’re true Northern stock.”

For a series of books written for children CS Lewis sure doesn’t sugar-coat childhood. He tackles bullying, the separation of families by war, the betrayal of siblings against each other and in this one child slavery, physical abuse and forced marriage, just to name a few. In The Horse and His Boy, there is less magic and playfulness and more realism. Lewis is telling a different kind of story here, where Aslan is mostly absent and Shasta and Aravis, the main characters, are on their own. In previous stories, the children knew they were on a mission for Aslan. This time, however, both have never even heard of Aslan and only find out later he has been guiding them from the beginning. But in the moment, their desire to escape, their plans and strategies have been due to their own will and wits.

Lewis also uses a different storytelling technique in this novel than he does in the others. In all the other books he is the creator of all the fantastic beasts, the flora and fauna and other beings. In this novel, he borrows the Calormen from a known culture, who are based on a middle eastern country, or tribe, or people, and sadly, are full of all the stereotypes one could imagine. At present, he has been rightly criticized and perhaps should have rethought this, however, I believe the story is still a good one and should be taken in the context of the time he was writing during which Asia and the Middle East were rather mysterious to the West.

When the story begins we meet Shasta, who as a young child was found drifting in a boat and is now the property of Arsheesh, a poor fisherman. Shasta is beaten regularly at Arsheesh’s whim. There are days when Shasta wants to escape and feels a pull to the North. Arsheesh is only too happy to turn him over to a Calormen nobleman who wants to buy him and while awaiting his fate in a stable Shasta finds that one of the horses can talk. Bree is a Narnian Horse belonging to this man, although he has kept his identity secret, and is treated cruelly, which both realize will be the same fate for Shasta. The two contrive a plan to escape to Narnia. On the road they meet another escapee from these lands, Aravis who is fleeing an arranged marriage. She is riding her horse, Hwin, who also happens to be a Talking Horse from Narnia.

The four team up, but it is a perilous journey and the children are challenged by the desert, ghoulish imaginings in the night, stalking, by what seem to be many lions, in which Aravis is wounded and an army trying to stop them that also wants to capture Narnia.

While this is very much an escape story, it is also a story about freedom and identity and about discovering who you really are and in remembering who you are. “I am a free Narnian,” says Bree repeatedly. Though long captured he hasn’t forgotten he is a noble war horse from Narnia and he is a free horse, belonging to no human.

Excuse me, Tarkheena [Aravis]…We’re free Narnians, Hwin and I, and I suppose, if you’re running away to Narnia, you want to be one too. In that case Hwin isn’t your horse any longer. One might just as well say you’re her human.

Shasta has always been attracted to the North (where Narnia is located), not the South even though southern travelers often come to sell fish and have great stories to tell. He knew who he was, before he was aware of it. And in a fairly obvious twist of fate it turns out Shasta’s identity is more than that of a common Narnian citizen.

And what to make of this Aslan? Though largely absent throughout the book when he appears he is often distant, distracted and removed. In a very different relationship with the main characters in this book than in previous novels, he is allowing them their journey without micromanaging the details. I believe this is a conscious shift in the message Aslan brings up to this time between what it means to be a child with all the hands-on guidance those ages entail to the next stage when you go out in the world and experience it through what you have been taught so far, including the making of mistakes. And with this new stage is the responsibility you accept for these mistakes, as Aravis learned when she experiences the consequences of a selfish act made against someone more vulnerable and much less socially powerful.

“It was I who wounded you,” said Aslan. Do you know why I tore you?”….The scratches on your back, tear for tear, throb for throb, blood for blood, were equal to the stripes laid on the back of your stepmother’s slave because of the drugged sleep you cast upon her. You needed to know what it felt like.”

That is harsh. But a very good example of a true understanding of an “eye for an eye,” which is not the same punishment, but a fitting punishment.

And then there is this passage that seems very odd, but I connect it to the idea of identity. This is Aslan’s response to Shasta when he meets him for the first time and asks who he is.

“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.

It sounds like Aslan is trying to justify himself to more than Shasta. I would like to know what anyone else makes of this?

Suffice to say that I have no idea how I would have responded to this book as a child, but as an adult I feel like I am on a journey with these books as a whole. Almost like exoterica and esoterica, that is, you can read them as delightful adventure stories, but there is the deeper, hidden messages that take time to decipher. In fact, I had a thought as I was finishing this up that this whole story is reminiscent of the Old Testament and the Israelite’s journey out of slavery in Egypt to the freedom of the Promised Land-Shasta was found floating in a boat like Moses in his basket, Shasta is more than even he thinks he is again like Moses, Aslan is a fearful and often cold entity, the Calormen lands are in the desert. To plumb for another time?!!

“I was the lion who forced you to join with Aravis. I was the cat who comforted you among the houses of the dead. I was the lion who drove the jackals from you while you slept. I was the lion who gave the Horses the new strength of fear of the last mile so that you should reach King Lune in time. And I was the lion you do not remember who pushed the boat in which you lay, a child near death, so that it came to shore where a man sat, wakeful at midnight, to receive you.”

“By the Mane.” “Thanks be to the Lion.” “By the Lion’s Mane.” “By Aslan.”

Bree and Hwin lived happily to a great age in Narnia and both got married but not to one another. And there weren’t many months in which one or both of them didn’t come trotting over the pass to visit their friends at Anvard.

The discussion for this book will take place on April 29th, hosted by Chris at his blog Calmgrove. If you have read this book or are interested in what others have to say, please take a look at Chris’s post and the comments section.

CS Lewis, born November 29, 1898, is a Night-Sky Poet and #Narniathon21

Normally, the birthday of CS Lewis would not be on my radar. Thanks to a fellow blogger who has created a Lewis reading event that I can’t wait to participate in, I have a reason to simultaneously acknowledge his date of birth, mention the reading event and share a poem of his I love.
 
Narniad
 
Chris of Calmgrove has generously agreed to host a reading of CS Lewis’s, The Chronicles of Narnia, one book a month beginning this December. On the last Friday of the month (for December it will be the last Thursday) he will put up a post on his blog with some questions to prompt a discussion in the comment section. For the reading schedule and more information you can go here. I hope you’ll consider participating, even if you only want to join in once or twice. I am so looking forward to hearing all the different approaches to these books!
 

Narniad2

 
 
 
Interestingly, and it may just be me, but I don’t think of CS Lewis as a poet though I have not researched this. As a night-sky lover his poem, The Meteorite, popped up one day and became a favorite. It’s not the best poem ever written and I think it is a bit crudely shaped, but the imagery is vivid and the words a literary mix of science and nature, which I very much like. So happy birthday Mr. Lewis, I hope you know that all your various works are still being read and loved by a multitude across generations and continents.
 

The Meteorite, by CS Lewis

Among the hills a meteorite
Lies huge; and moss has overgrown,
And wind and rain with touches light
Made soft, the contours of the stone.

Thus easily can Earth digest
A cinder of sidereal fire,
And make her translunary guest
The native of an English shire.

Nor is it strange these wanderers
Find in her lap their fitting place,
For every particle that’s hers
Came at the first from outer space.

All that is Earth has once been sky;
Down from the sun of old she came,
Or from some star that travelled by
Too close to his entangling flame.

Hence, if belated drops yet fall
From heaven, on these her plastic power
Still works as once it worked on all
The glad rush of the golden shower.