Before there were Pevensies, there was Digory and Polly.
Before there was Narnia, there was the endless forest.
Before there was a White Queen, there was Jadis.
I give prequels a bit of a beating, on principle, which I think is incredibly fair because largely, a prequel is about making the world smaller and more boring. It’s about stepping to a point in a story where we know the conclusion and trying to find stuff in that experience that needs explaining, and is interesting to explain. It’s also often a cynical effort to keep using characters you like in a way that doesn’t require you to confront how they’ve changed by the story that people liked (Man, Obi-Wan Kenobi was such a dickhead and then the prequel series he was in made him so much worse). I am, simply put, not a fan of prequels.
But this prequel rules.
Oh yes, plot, the story. Basically, you have Digory Kirke who is the nephew of a dude who has weird ideas about alchemies and phlogiston. This guy (“this fuckin’ guy” he says) makes a science experiment doohickey that lets him prove the existence of other worlds, an experiment started when he acquired an actual box from Atlantis. Neat! What follows is a sort of Edwardian version of Sliders, where Uncle Dickhead, I mean, Andrew, gives Digory and his friend Polly a pair of rings that let them jump to the world between worlds.
When they’re there, they find themselves in that thing that a lot of people have tried to visualise when they start talking about alternate dimensions: What’s between the barriers? If universes are contained bubbles, what do the bubbles float in? It’s sometimes an astral sea, a silvery expanse, a grey nothing, a black void beyond all blackness, an unreality, depending on which universe you ask.
Here, it’s a forest.
A great big forest, with trees so thick and tall that you can’t see the sky, with grey grass and shallow pools all around; you fall into one, with the magical rings on, and you come out in a different world. And this is one of the ways in which Magician’s Nephew just stomps all over the metaphorical space of the other Narnia books. Narnia is a single end point with a single moral framework that you fall into through association with one boring group of British teenagers, at least those of them that aren’t her, since she knows what she did. The Narnia stories are not about finding other worlds, they’re about finding Narnia, a single place, and meeting that world’s Jesus (it’s not an allegory shut up).
In Magician’s Nephew, we instead see a world-hopping story that admittedly only goes to four worlds, but which create questions about how you’re shaped by your world, what makes worlds and their realities different, and how they are perceived.
Anyway, they go to Charn, a world where everything is dead thanks to a Magical version of the cold war having a heated gamer moment, and find the one remaining person there: A queen, on her throne, seeming dead and dreaming. She is seven foot tall, ivory pale, raven haired, and strong enough to twist apart a lamp-post with her bare hands, and an accomplished spellcaster responsible for that apocalypse. She spoke the unutterable world, a spell that killed everyone in the world, representing a victory but at the result of destroying the world in response, and it’s not allegory, okay? Why in the world would someone be worried about that idea in 1950?
They wake her up, they learn her name, Jadis, and don’t worry, it won’t come up again, and shenanigans ensue. They try and escape the world, the witch comes with them, and then their continued attempts to evade her end up with her in London, where she tries to do magic but finds it doesn’t work, because Edwardian England is the least magical place in all universes. She does that lamp-post thing I mentioned, just yanks a lamp-post apart and starts a fight, and they lure her back into the world between worlds, along with a cab and the cab’s driver – Eduardian England, so like the cab is a horse and buggy – and like, they get slurped into another world again (magic rings, keep up). They pick a world at random (whoops) and hey, look, it’s the darkest thing ever, because there’s no world here yet.
Like, they dove into a pool to take them to a new world and got a 404 error. But don’t worry, they happened to show up at exactly the moment that Aslan decided to start the world, and CS Lewis then writes out what amounts to an extremely Fantasia-ass narrative about the entire world coming into existence as if some poetic, artistic God character that you could personally have a relationship with was putting you there, front and centre. Phwooahhh, wouldn’t that be cool. The evil queen tries to kill Aslan with the lamp-post bit, but he’s so full of everything growing that hitting him with the bit of metal made the metal grow into a lamp-post and that’s why there’s a lamp-post in the woods of Narnia boom there, that’s the backstory, that’s what this whole story was in aid of.
Anyway, the evil queen runs off, Digory goes on a quest to try and save his mum and gets tempted by the white witch, doesn’t give in, Aslan makes the cabby the king of Narnia, they summon his wife from another world, and then eventually, Digory goes home with an apple core from Narnia, along with Polly, save Digory’s mum, but in the right way, and the first King and Queen of Narnia (Frank and Nelly) start the world on its long path that ends abruptly thanks to a monkey being an asshole.
This is a really brisk summary.
You may have noticed that this book has a lot of stuff going on in it compared to the others.
The entirety of Prince Caspian, as a book, can be yada-yada’d as ‘basically, they show up and put the right king in place’ and the rest is mostly inconsequential frippery, but to even just cover the basic plot beats of The Magician’s Nephew, a book written years after The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe, I needed a lot more space, and no matter how I cut it, the sequence of events is somewhat interesting.
What really surprises me, though, is how many really raw ideas or even lines of text there are in The Magician’s Nephew. Even now, some things stand out to me:
- The name of the White Queen, Jadis, being this sort of magically hidden fantasy name that is somehow still very potent itself. Also the name Charn, a great name for a brutal world we know mostly as a nuclear war allegory (which it isn’t)
- King Frank approaching kingship with an honest admission that all he can do is his best.
- Polly refusing to comment on Digory’s situation with his dying mother, refusing to influence his decision to commit a great sacrifice or a justifiable sin: After all, it wasn’t her mother who was dying.
- There might be things more terrible even than losing someone you love by death.
- Digory regards his uncle’s ‘man of science’ rationale justifying his research and how it exploits kids: “All it means,” Digory said to himself, “is that he thinks he can do anything he likes to get anything he wants.”
- And of course, a phrase that meant a lot to me, as a kid who was surrounded by people of, let’s say, a particular narrative position, Digory talking to his uncle directly, after being pushed too far: “I didn’t believe in Magic till today. I see now it’s real. Well if it is, I suppose all the old fairy tales are more or less true. And you’re simply a wicked, cruel magician like the ones in the stories. Well, I’ve never read a story in which people of that sort weren’t paid out in the end, and I bet you will be. And serve you right.”
I don’t think that The Magician’s Nephew is an amazing book. But it’s a better book than any of the other Narnia books we’ve spoken about so far, and that stands for something. It is a story which is about something, and speaks somewhat of the nature of reality as it sees it. A world with no people in it is a world that may as well not exist; Charn sealed away, even the portal to it no more. Equal to that is the idea that a single lone survivor is enough reason for a world to exist, though I suppose it’s also a bit mean to things that may be alive that aren’t people, like fish, or bacteria, but whatever.
I guess that’s it, though. The Magician’s Nephew is a work that has something on its mind in the way that the others don’t. They’re more about lessons for children, while this one seems to be more about a lesson for adults, told in a way that even children can understand.