The Magician’s Nephew has slowly grown on me over the years, I think. It’s the sort of slow-paced, understated story that doesn’t exactly seem gripping, but there’s a certain richness and emotional depth to it that makes it well worth revisiting. I distinctly recall attempting to “explain the story” when I was little and knowing that I wasn’t doing it justice, but I never recall being bored with it while I was reading it.
This book is ruled by Venus, which (as you’re probably well aware) is the Goddess of Fertility and general symbol of femininity. If The Silver Chair was coded-female, then this book is capital-F Female, where Life (new or otherwise) represents goodness. It’s (also quite obviously) rooted in the creation story from Genesis, in terms of Biblical influences. In terms of literary influences, however, it’s more akin to a Jules Verne novel – a Jules Verne novel with a child protagonist that involves using magic to visit actual other worlds instead of science/technology to visit proverbial other worlds, but it’s still rather scientific in its approach to magic.
While it’s hardly about gender, there is some fascinating subtext about Lewis’s shifting views on women. I think it’s safe to assume that by this point, Lewis was finally able to grasp a very important concept: You don’t have to be female to be feminine, and conversely, you don’t have to be male to be masculine. Some, if not most, boys (and men) have feminine traits, and that’s not a bad thing. I feel like the title character here (Digory) is more based upon Lewis’s childhood than just about any of the previous boys.
Evidently the story is set around the turn of the twentieth century (it’s the first book chronologically), when “Mr. Sherlock Holmes was still living in Baker Street”. We begin with something of an inversion of the first scene of The Silver Chair: A girl discovers a boy who’s been crying.
“All right, I have then,” said Digory in a much louder voice, like a boy who was so miserable that he didn’t care who knew he had been crying. “And so would you,” he went on, “if you’d lived all your life in the country and had a pony, and a river at the bottom of the garden, and then been brought to live in a beastly Hole like this. […] And if your father was away in India – and you had to come and live with an Aunt and an Uncle who’s mad (who would like that?) – and if the reason was that they were looking after your Mother – and if your Mother was ill and was going to – going to – die.” Then his face went the wrong sort of shape, as it does if you’re trying to keep back your tears.
Polly Plummer befriends the poor boy who has clearly been alone far too long and requires a hug (she doesn’t hug him, but she does turn his thoughts to the “cheerful” question of whether his uncle really is mad). They share active imaginations and evidently similar taste in literature, besides being next-door neighbors.
Over the course of a cold, rainy London summer, Polly naturally shows Digory around her house (she’s an only child and he clearly hangs out with her when he wants to get away from his family), including a little tunnel she discovered between the rafters and the roof, which evidently goes down the whole (connected) row of houses. Upon further pondering, they realize this would be a perfect way to explore a certain empty house beyond Digory’s.
“It’s all rot to say a house would be empty all those years unless there was some mystery.”
“Daddy said it must be the drains,” said Polly.
“Pooh! Grown-ups are always thinking of uninteresting explanations,” said Digory.
They employ a somewhat baffling (and clearly insufficient) method to figure out the distance they’d have to go down the tunnel to reach the empty house. They’re also rather amusingly convinced that they’ll find themselves in a Robert Louis Stevenson story. As you may have guessed from the chapter title, they don’t find the door they’re looking for. As a matter of fact, they end up in the very Forbidden Study which Digory had tried so hard to avoid, and we meet the very alarming and generally creepy Uncle Andrew.
The very first thing Uncle Andrew did was to walk across to the door of the room, shut it, and turn the key in the lock. Then he turned round, fixed the children with his bright eyes, and smiled, showing all his teeth.
“There!” he said. “Now my fool of a sister can’t get at you!”
LEAVE NOW WHILE YOU STILL CAN!
Unfortunately, before they become alarmed enough to actually run, Uncle Andrew gets between them and the door to the tunnel.
“Look here, Uncle Andrew,” said Digory, “it really is dinner time and they’ll be looking for us in a moment. You must let us out.”
“Must?” said Uncle Andrew.
Protip: Uncle Andrew REALLY doesn’t like to be told what to do.
The children attempt to wriggle out of the situation by saying they’ll come back later, but of course he doesn’t believe them – but for some reason he changes his mind…
He does, however, try to win over Polly with flattery and a gift (flattering a little girl and offering her pretty things? NO RED FLAGS HERE!).
“Why! I declare,” she said. “That humming noise gets louder here. It’s almost as if the rings were making it.”
“What a funny fancy, my dear,” said Uncle Andrew with a laugh. It sounded a very natural laugh, but Digory had seen an eager, almost a greedy, look on his face.
Digory tries to warn her, but Polly touches one of the rings and vanishes, and thus the chapter ends.
Next time: Digory and his Uncle…