Book Review: The Magicians Nephew (1955)

It’s well known that the Narnia books all borrow elements from Christianity to form the backbone of their narrative. At time, the narrative can be mere suggestion or buried in subtext. In other books like The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, the subtext is less subtle. Aslan is Narnia’s representation of the incarnate Christ (in subtext and text). That book is very specifically a story of the resurrection of Christ and the redemption of a fallen world.

Up until now, I hadn’t read past the first novel in the series. I recall loosely trying to read the novel I just read this past weekend as a small child and being terribly confused by the plot. Approaching the book and the series as an adult, I have more complex thoughts on the series now. The Magicians Nephew, the second to last Narnia book published, is similarly a rather flippant adaptation of the Genesis creation story. It carries over most of Lewis’s ideas in the series and approaches the topic of Narnia’s creation with deft and fascinating tangents. Naturally it’s not a clean adaptation.

As is usual, our two leads are two children. Digory and Polly are two children exploring their neighborhood when they stumble upon his uncle’s secret den where they discover a great secret. As it turns out, their uncle is the last surviving magician on Earth. His the descendent of the last Fairy Godmother and he’s dedicated his adult life to occult experiments and magic. As it turns out, he has successfully discovered a way to travel between universes using magical rings. Initially he only tested it successfully on hamsters. When he tests two of the rings on his relatives, the two children are awoken in a strange world where they are faced with temptation and accidently unleash an unexpected evil onto a new world.

There are two major events in the novel that are explored in the book that are relevant to the overall story of Narnia: the resurrection of the White Witch and the Formation of Narnia by Aslan.

We discover early in the book what the true nature and identity of the white witch is. As becomes evident, she isn’t a natural denizen of Narnia. She’s not even one of Aslan’s subordinates (which I’d long assumed given that she seems to have some claim to Narnia in the original novel). As in The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, Jadis is the story’s metaphorical stand-in for Lucifer. She’s immensely strong but her greatest strength in the story is her ability to tempt. She tempts Digory and Polly to resurrect her (unknowingly), she tempts the Magician to be her servant and she ultimately tempts the children to further unleash evil onto Narnia.

It’s interesting then that the story treats evil as something alien and unnatural to Narnia. Evil doesn’t form in the heart of creation so much as it is introduced like a predator into a foreign ecosystem. Her role is primarily to corrupt and expand her influence like a cancer which she will ultimately do up until the point where Aslan’s magic is greater than hers.

The primary moral figures of the story though are the children. Having recently gone back and read George MacDonald’s fantasy novels like Phantastes and The Princess and the Goblin, I see just how deeply Lewis’s adoration for the great Scottish fairy tail writer was. Lewis adored the writer and famously referenced him frequently in his books, most famously in The Great Divorce. Those stories also followed young people stumbling onto magical worlds and delving into stories of magic and faith.

Lewis all but totally borrows the kinds of child characters we meet in those novels as the leads for this story. Transfiguring the Genesis narrative into a children’s parable does have weird moral consequences though. The kids accidently stumbling onto Narnia’s creation with the Witch Witch pursuing them is a strange creative choice for one. There’s a strange element of coincidence involved that could just be written of as “Aslan willed it to be so”.

What’s worse is the implications of how evil ultimately ends up corruption/not corrupting Narnia in comparison with the actual Biblical narrative. In the end, Diggory isn’t successfully tempted in the way that Adam is tempted. Additionally, Diggory isn’t one of the natural denizens of Narnia so there’s not Fall in the traditional sense. Evil just gets introduced to this world by foreign means and fault. Adding the element of childish innocence turns the novel from a great tragedy of human fallibility into a small blunder with massive consequences.

Maybe that’s the point. If Narnia is directly under the protection of Aslan and it hasn’t had an intentional fall yet, maybe it speaks to the innocence of its peoples and talking animals. Narnia is a rather naturally valiant and magical world. Outside of the creatures that are directly corrupted by the White Witch, maybe the majority of the animals and creatures aren’t technically fallen.

Debating metaphysical salvation in a children’s novel might be an exercise in futility though. At the end of the day, The Magician’s Nephew is the story of the human characters and how their influence ends up saving or damning this new world’s fate. It’s filled with moments of brilliance, human, drama and beauty. It draws fascinating parallels to other texts and between the characters themselves in the novel.

I was most fascinated by the way the novel compares the occult lusts of the Magician with the power lusts of the White Witch. As a post-WWII book, it’s not surprising that Lewis would compare the Will to Power with the lust to control the nature of reality.

The Magicians Nephew may just be a children’s book but it’s every bit as theologically charged as any one of C.S. Lewis’s works!

Published by Tyler Hummel

Editor-in-Chief at Cultural Review, Regular Film Critic for Geeks Under Grace, Published at ArcDigital, Rebeller, The DailyWire, Hollywood in Toto, Legal Insurrection and The ED Blog, Host of The AntiSocial Network Podcast

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