Typically, writers disclose tidbits of information about themselves in everything they write. In The Magician’s Nephew, sixth volume in the Chronicles of Narnia, C. S. Lewis provides some of the most poignant clues about his life. He draws on his early life as the basis for the book’s main character, a boy named Digory Kirke.
Some resources use the term prequel to set this book apart from the first-published volume in the Chronicles of Narnia series, The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe. I think backstory is a better term, denoting a narrative history that illuminates the story presented in volume one. As a literary device, backstory isn’t required if a reader chooses to read The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe as a stand-alone tale. In itself, it’s complete. However, the backstory provided in The Magician’s Nephew enhances one’s appreciation of Narnia by addressing unanswered questions that crop up after reading the first volume.
[Yes, the dictionary.com entry uses prequel as one definition for backstory, but I consider prequel unsatisfactory in this instance. My opinion.]
The action in The Magician’s Nephew begins in London about 1900. The setting and time are familiar to C. S. Lewis (who was born in Belfast in 1898). The lonely child Digory is not unlike Shasta (in The Horse and His Boy). Digory bemoans his current awful circumstances − being displaced from country to city, being brought to live in the “beastly Hole” of London, and worst of all, bereft of his father (who’s in India) and desperately afraid his mother is dying. Digory would agree with Shasta: “I am the unluckiest person in the whole world.” (Yesterday’s post here.)
Don’t get me wrong. I can understand that children sometimes feel the weight of the world on their shoulders; uncertainty related to one’s parents must surely create unbearable angst at a time when children are least able to understand and manage it. My mother was only six when her daddy died, and like C. S. Lewis, she was packed off to boarding school six weeks later. I can’t imagine how hard that must have been for her, but I believe it built into her a depth of character and courage that marks her life today.When Digory meets Polly Plummer, she provides a welcome distraction from his cares. Of course, when she’s almost immediately swept into another world (thanks to Digory’s unprincipled Uncle Andrew), distraction becomes a secondary concern. Digory views the moral imperative to rescue Polly, even if it means he must enter an unknown world from which he has no guarantee he and Polly will return.
There’s a sharp contrast between Uncle Andrew who believes he’s exempt from the ordinary rules of humanity. He claims he’s a man who possesses “hidden wisdom.” But Digory isn’t fooled by his uncle’s sophistry. Digory chooses to be the chivalrous knight resolved to save his friend, dismissing the dangers he may encounter.
Of all the Narnia books, this one provides the most farcical view. The characters move from our world into other worlds and back, and Uncle Andrew’s “magic” (about which he knows next to nothing) complicates every turn. Well-meaning Digory wants only to extricate himself and Polly, but his efforts are continually thwarted. Even though Digory is bitten by his curiosity and/or sympathy (resulting in added trouble), it is Uncle Andrew who looks at events through opportunistic eyes and potential for self-aggrandizement.
When Aslan sings Narnia into existence, it is a magnificent narrative, sprinkled with the beauteous and the comical. The majesty of the Creator Lion juxtaposes against the guileless and inquisitive newly-created talking beasts. The evil Jadis and malevolent Uncle Andrew exhibit disinterest when witnessing the birth of a new world. Others are fascinated and awed by it, because this new world is awesome! In Narnia, everything “comes to life and grows” − yes, even a purloined lamp-post!
There’s a brief scene in Chapter XII depicting the sweet communion between Digory and Aslan. Digory boldly asks the Lion for something to cure his mother. He stares into Aslan’s face and “What he saw surprised him as much as anything in his whole life. For the tawny face was bent down near his own and (wonder of wonders) great shining tears stood in the Lion’s eyes … for a moment he felt as if the Lion must really be sorrier about his Mother than he was himself.”
When I read those words, I sense these are the exact words (and tears) Lewis needed at his mother’s death. This is his inconsolable longing (the sehnsucht). Perhaps it isn’t surprising he spent five years to complete The Magician’s Nephew; almost fifty years after her death, Lewis was still seeking to reconcile the event.
There has been an ongoing discussion about the “proper” order for reading the Narniad. As might be predicted, I prefer to read them as I first did − in the order I’ve presented them on this blog. (The Last Battle will be tomorrow’s post.) In my view, the most compelling reason to adopt this ordering lies in learning to love Narnia before you partake in its creation.
By reading The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe first, Lucy’s enthusiasm and Edmund’s betrayal persuade us as readers that Narnia matters. This engagement with the characters and the lyrical soul of Narnia plants the roots of our imagination into the soil. We gain citizenship, just as four human children did when they ascended the thrones in response to the Lion’s bidding.
And when the Lion sings, we long to listen.