Monday, March 17, 2014

The Magician's Nephew (The Chronicles of Narnia) book 1 or 6 by C.S. Lewis

Narnia captured my imagination as a child. My best friend and I devoured this series and then acted out the books. In this story, Digory Kirke and Polly Plummer's adventure starts with them crawling through the connected attics of the row houses where they lived. The two carefully moved through a small tunnel with a brick wall to one side and sloping roof on the other scrambling from rafter to rafter so as not to fall through the ceiling. The darkness was lit by the occasional light coming through a slat or eave. Armed with flashlights my friend and I mimicked the characters by going on a spree of exploring our own rooftop attics looking for hidden treasures. We found oodles of cobwebs, spiders, and bats, and used our imaginations to create adventures like Digory and Polly's. And while the only treasure we found was an old crucifix, we had a hey-ho time exploring. However, we never found the perfect attic as a hideout. It was either too hot, too insulated, or too cold. Minnesota weather isn't cooperative for attic adventures. My friend's dad, an engineer by trade, made her a tree house in the backyard that became our secret hangout. We imitated Polly and Digory's secret whistle to signal if one of us was in the hangout or not. While we moved on to making mischief by imitating other adventures in the series, Digory and Polly's shenanigans had more serious consequences than ours, for Digory accidentally released evil into the world of Narnia as it was being created.

Digory and Polly are exploring the attic because Polly thinks a squatter is living in the empty row house several doors down from theirs. She hears suspicious noises and tells her dad, but he thinks it is the drains. She doesn't like his unimaginative response: "Pooh! Grown-ups are always thinking of uninteresting explanations." As adults we oftentimes lose that sense of play and imagination that children fall into so easily. A kindergartener asked me just last week if I liked her hat. There was nothing on her head. I said it was beautiful and she went on to describe its colorful "fedders." As adults, we become indoctrinated as to what is real and what is not. Part of the fun of reading children's books aloud or to myself is remembering the imaginative play of youth and good childrens' authors, like Lewis, can recapture this in their books.

When Digory and Polly's crawling through attic leads them to Digory's uncle's study room versus the empty row house, a series of good and bad choices lead the two children into the land of Narnia. Uncle Andrew Ketterly has discovered some magic rings that he is afraid to use on himself. When Digory and Polly show up unexpectedly, Uncle Andrew tricks Polly into putting on a ring and she vanishes into thin air. Aghast, Digory tells his uncle to go after her but his uncle refuses setting himself above others. The ensuing conversation reveals the contrast between virtue and vice in people. Uncle Andrew is a self-centered coward. He makes choices big and small that show he doesn't care or love others. He shows over and over small decisions that nurse his greedy, proud, and cowardly nature. Digory, in contrast, honors his promises and is loyal to his friends. He is virtuous and rescues Polly willingly because it is the right thing to do. His small decisions show a person who makes mistakes and is willing to correct them in order to do the right thing. Characters make moral choices throughout the story that are either good or evil; furthermore, those choices have a cumulative effect in defining them as people.

The ethical decisions of characters is what makes this novel complex and fascinating for me, not to mention the amalgamation of Christian theology and world myths. After Digory went after Polly, the two discovered Narnia and in a series of adventures Digory released an evil witch into the land. Aslan, the Lion and just ruler of Narnia, asks him how to undo the wrong he has done. Digory gives excuses and says he doesn't know how, but later says he'll do whatever he can. Aslan hopes that Digory will take full responsibility for his actions and Digory does not let him down. Next Digory asks Aslan how he can heal his sick mother. Aslan shows compassion, but doesn't really answer him. Aslan says Digory must first get an apple from a garden that will protect Narnia from the evil witch.

When Digory arrives with Polly at the garden's golden gates there is a warning that the fruit can be taken only if it is used to help others. Digory sees the witch eating an apple for herself and she tries to talk him into stealing one in an exciting climax. Digory is horribly tempted to sneak an apple. In a debate with the witch he shows his steadfastness to keeping promises, a message throughout the book. He almost takes the apple until the witch tells him to leave Polly behind and he sees her selfishness in its true form. He knows it is wrong to steal and that his mother would not want the apple if that is what he did even though it would heal her. The moral decisions made progressively throughout the plot by Andrew, the witch, and Digory shape them into good or bad people. Andrew and the witch are incapable of loving others like they love themselves - they have no qualms about killing or exploiting others - while Digory, on the other hand, is willing to sacrifice himself for others and not give into greed, prejudices, or pride. And if he does, he is willing to take responsibility for his mistakes. As a result, Digory reaches his potential as a good person while the other two are shown as stunted, miserable, and unsatisfied people.

Reading this as an adult, I find the mix of folklore elements and Christian symbolism fascinating. Digory is tempted to steal a silver apple in the garden and bring it to his mom for healing. Plus, the tree that grows from the apple Digory picked for Aslan brings Narnia protection. The witch has eaten an apple because she wanted to be young and immortal. She got this wish but it does not bring her contentment. The symbolism and references to theology and myths is jumbled up enough to keep the story from being strictly allegorical. The symbolic tree in Genesis of the Bible was in the garden and symbolized the knowledge of good and evil. Taking the tree's fruit caused Adam and Eve to know right from wrong. The goddess Idun in Norwegian mythology was the keeper of golden apples that made the Norse gods young and immortal and Yggdrasil, the world tree, held Heaven, Earth, and Hell together. The Garden of Hesperides had immortal golden apples in Greek mythology. In Celtic mythology the silver apple branch was used for entry into death. It came from the Isle of Apple Trees that could heal the sick. King Arthur went to the island of apples to be healed of his mortal wound. In Celtic mythology the Druids believed the apple tree had healing properties. This mish-mash makes for an unusual mix that comes out original and refreshing.

Lewis avoids being preachy for the most part. Once he makes a jab at the youth of the day by having the narrator state, "Do Not Steal" is "hammered into boys heads more during Digory's time than today." He also has occasional lapses into presenting Polly as a stereotypical female that represents the mindset of the 1940s and 50s. I laughed aloud when I read: "...that is, he gave Digory a rough heave and set Polly as gently and daintily on the horses's back as if she were made of china and might break." Later the comment on Polly not being able to swim confused me and seemed condescending. I know girls swam then. Esther Williams was the rage. Later, Digory teaches Polly. As a kid my best friend and I would fight over who got to pretend to be Peter. Neither of us ever wanted to be any girl in this series. I've always wondered why and now I know. I was the kid who did back flips off of dining room chairs and climbed roofs. I'm not going to identify with a character that is like breakable china. I'm the character that breaks the china. Lewis presents the strongest and most righteous characters as male, so it only seems natural that my friend and I identified with them. Plus we had great sword fights.

5 Smileys

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