Synopsis: When Digory and Polly are tricked by Digory’s peculiar Uncle Andrew into becoming part of an experiment, they set off on the adventure of a lifetime. What happens to the children when they touch Uncle Andrew’s magic rings is far beyond anything even the old magician could have imagined.
Hurtled into the Wood between the Worlds, the children soon find that they can enter many worlds through the mysterious pools there. In one world they encounter the evil Queen Jadis, who wreaks havoc in the streets of London when she is accidentally brought back with them. When they finally manage to pull her out of London, unintentionally taking along Uncle Andrew and a coachman with his horse, they find themselves in what will come to be known as the land of Narnia.
For the Writer: It is with great pleasure that I come to The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis, whom a host of authors, including Madeleine L’Engle and J.R.R. Tolkien, owe an acknowledgement for his great encouragement to our imaginations, just as Lewis acknowledged George MacDonald, E. Nesbit and Jane Austen among many for their contributions to his own work. I believe it is this Oxford Don and J.R.R. Tolkien that are primarily responsible for the modern explosion in children’s fantasy we enjoy today. I warned you I could gush a little.
To highlight those elements of Lewis’s fiction, which I think makes his writing great, I will turn to the pages, not in The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe – by far the most popular book in the series – but to The Magician’s Nephew, my favourite among a trio of most loved books in the series, including The Horse and His Boy and The Silver Chair.
The Magicians Nephew reads in under two hundred pages and within that economy of story-telling sets the foundation for the remaining books. It shows us the relationship between Narnia and England, the back story of the White Witch, the creation and creator of Narnia, the kind and character of creatures inhabiting Narnia and how and why they speak, the powers latent in all creatures for good or ill, the nature of the future evil that will come upon the untouched world, the central conflict – and take a breath – the unavoidable battles ahead.
So, my reader will say, must every other book of its ilk. True. But the difference is how well Lewis does it.
As an aside, to sit at our empty screens and create worlds is a great gift similar in a way to the Word breathing life into a world as recorded in Genesis. Writers of fantasy create, sometimes in incredible detail – think of the civilizations matched with accompanying traditions and languages in Tolkien’s trilogy The Lord of the Rings, other worlds, in which readers, for a time live and breathe. How much of a stretch would it be to think of God, not as a magisterial potentate, though He is, but as an artist, who has not only envisioned a world, but nudged it beyond the imagination into physical being. Far fetched? Think of the novels of Charles Dickens, which had the imaginative punch to knock social change into the heads of stubborn English society. The step through our imaginations into an improved though imagined physical creation is not impassable nor impossible. Us mere humans just lack the skill.
So how do C.S. Lewis’s books and The Magician’s Nephew in particular top the stack of books in its genre? Allow me to wade in.
The first element, which I have mentioned, is the book’s economy. Lewis did, in fact, write the MN last, as a prequel to the LW&W. So that is not quite the same thing as writing it first and developing the story as you go along. Everything by that time was already in place. In the MN Lewis was free to interject as much or as little information about the coming chronicles as he pleased. The author of this site has written a fantasy trilogy and knows the demands of rewrites to properly underscore the second and third books with the first. It presents, as I have read and have now experienced, a dilemma for the pantsy writer, who ironically must drive the novel with an eye to the review mirror if he wants to avoid getting hopelessly lost. A good deal of shuffling index cards, virtual or otherwise, is always a good idea, even if it is while you are happily running a marathon.
Lewis has every element weighed and measured. He has appointed Charn, England, the Wood Between the Worlds, and Narnia all in perpetual orbit like a perfectly balanced mobile. He knows their respective compositions of flora and fauna, their histories and their relative existence. That is a big job done well. Personally, I think the Wood Between the Worlds one of the best created worlds – I’m throwing out a challenge here – in children’s fantasy literature. Okay, Charn, Narnia and Middle Earth are pretty good too.
There is another facet of Lewis’s economy in his writing. His style is of the classic story-teller. Unlike many modern authors –I do not necessarily mean this as a criticism – who have a greater part of their personalities invested in their work, whose work says Look at me, at the clever way in which I handle language, Lewis steps backstage. That is not to say Lewis, the author, does not shine through. He does adopt a kind of old world patriarchal style of narrative, in which he even interjects warnings and often his attitude towards some things. Think of how he writes “and one should never close the door when inside a wardrobe” and his unmitigated distaste for the vain uncle Andrew. He goes beyond showing us Uncle Andrew, refusing at times to let the reader make up his own mind, but regularly comments as the third person omniscient narrator.
For example, Lewis comments: Children have one kind of silliness, as you know, and grownups have another kind. At this moment Uncle Andrew was beginning to be silly in a very grown up way.
Here is another example: Uncle Andrew, you see, was working with things he did not really understand; most magicians are.
Hey! That is telling, not showing. Respectfully, Lewis has already shown the reader that Uncle Andrew has been working with a kind of magic whose properties he does not understand and as to silliness, we have a detailed picture of Uncle Andrew seared into our imaginations when he is first introduced. I think the editor of these books should have gently nudged these interjections out of the manuscripts. They are unnecessary. Lewis has done an excellent job modelling his characters. These types of comments are trotting out the already-made-clear. It comes across as a tad condescending. I recall some advice from agents and publishers alike: “We do not want stories designed to teach a moral.” At least Lewis is sparing in his didactic impulses. The point is a mild irritation. For the most part Lewis bows to the story and does not hijack it too often.
Here are some other outstanding features of the books in this series:
Firstly, Lewis writes great dialogue. He loads the books of the Chronicles with believable, engaging dialogues that reveal character, setting and themes – in The Magician’s Nephew the internal struggle between selfishness and sacrifice, expanding to the larger battle between good and evil.
[…] Instantly Uncle Andrews hand was over his mouth. “None of that!” he hissed in Digory’s ear. “If you start making a noise your mother’ll hear it. And you know what a fright might do to her.”
As Digory said afterwards, the horrible meanness of getting at a chap in that way, almost made him sick. But of course he didn’t scream again.
“That’s better,” said Uncle Andrew. “Perhaps you couldn’t help it. It is a shock when you first see someone vanish. Why, it gave even me a turn when the guinea-pig did it the other night.”
“Was that when you yelled?” asked Digory.
“Oh, you heard that, did you? I hope you haven’t been spying on me?”
“No. I haven’t,” said Digory indignantly. “But what’s happened to Polly?
“Congratulate me, my dear boy,” said Uncle Andrew, rubbing his hands. “My experiment has succeeded. The little girl is gone – vanished – right out of the world.”
“What have you done to her?”
“Sent her to – well – another place.”
“What do you mean?”
Uncle Andrew sat down and said, Well, I’ll tell you all about it.
[Uncle Andrew here tells the story how he came to dabble in magic, in which he divulges how he broke his word to his godmother to get his grasping hands on something he promised her to destroy upon her death. The back story reveals Uncle Andrew’s vanity, his obsession with magic and his disregard for any creature that gets in the way of his great experiment, which led to deceiving Polly, Digory’s friend, and make her disappear.]
The dialogue continues…
“Oh, do stop jawing,” said Digory. “Are you going to bring Polly back?”
“I was going to tell you, when you so rudely interrupted me,” said Uncle Andrew, “that I did at last find out a way of doing the return journey…”
[I have omitted a sentence here for the sake of spoilers.]
“But Polly hasn’t got… [omitted]
“No,” said Uncle Andrew with a cruel smile.
“Then she can’t get back,” shouted Digory. “And it’s exactly the same as if you’d murdered her.”
“She can get back,” said Uncle Andrew, “if someone else will go after her […]
[Uncle Andrew explains the process that necessitates Digory going after Polly]
And now of course Digory saw the trap…
These rich dialogues dominate the writing throughout the book, expanding on the themes of evil manipulation between people and the kind of evil which exempts personal responsibility and relativizes goodness. Sounds like heavy stuff for a book of middle grade fiction, but a compelling story combined with masterful dialogue spoon feeds the reader with meaty philosophical fare.
Another feature is Lewis’s ability to flesh out worlds in simple descriptive language. Take a moment to re-read his chapter The Woods between the Worlds. In a few pages Lewis creates one of the richest settings in literary fantasy.
My readers may know that C.S. Lewis held academic positions at both Oxford University (Magdalene College), 1925–54, and Cambridge University (Magdalene College), 1954–63, specializing in Mediaeval and Renaissance Literature, that he had also written essays as a Christian apologist and many other works of adult literary fiction. And yet he did not consider himself abundantly over-qualified for the job of writing middle grade fiction. I am only glad that Lewis did not think the genre below him.
Lewis possesses what many a writer does not, a luxuriously rich academic background in literature and languages from which to draw material. And it all seeps into his work in a myriad of ways, including Lewis’s use of magical objects, which speed his characters in and out of other worlds. He discusses the use of such objects in an essay titled On three ways of writing for children found in a compilation of essays on children’s literature, which YOU MUST READ, including contributions from J.R.R. Tolkien, Lillian H. Smith, P.L. Travers, and Graham Greene. The collection of essays is called Only Connect : Readings on children’s Literature. In his contribution Lewis touches on gadgetry verses traditional objects in fantasy. His chapter The Bell and the Hammer aptly illustrates his disposition towards the use of traditional and compelling objects, such as those identified in the chapter’s title. The Bell and the Hammer and the chapter following The Deplorable Word are unparalleled chapters of action and fantasy adventure, using peculiar objects in singular acts that impact whole worlds.
I know. I’m getting repetitive. Permit me to gush a little more.
The power of understatement in descriptive narrative cannot be emphasized enough as another feature that sets Lewis apart..
Digory had never seen such a sun. The sun above the ruins of Charn had looked older than ours: this looked younger. You could imagine that it laughed for joy as it came up.
I think every reader has his or her tolerance for varying lengths of descriptive passages in fiction. I know a person who will not read Tolkien’s TLoTR because of its long illustrative passages showcasing locale after locale. I suppose writers will always pen more or less description given the genre and age group, etc., but Lewis has created something more with less. It is the power of suggestion, the measured application of an impression, stimulating reader’s imaginations, who fill in the details. Lewis applies the impressionist painter’s brush with skill.
The Magician’s Nephew is a classic on the shelf of writer’s lesson books.