Narnia: The Magician's Neighbor

[Narnia Content Note: Child Abuse, Animal Abuse, Ableism, Mental Illness]

Narnia Recap: Welcome to the start of a fresh new day!

The Magician's Nephew, Chapter 1: The Wrong Door

The ending to The Horse and His Boy was so abrupt that I actually had to go back through the archives to check to see if I'd actually finished the book. Apparently I have! And as there is not yet a THAHB movie of any sort (at least that I know of), we have no intermission. On to the next book!

The Magician's Nephew is one reason why I tackled the books in publishing order rather than canonical order: I remember not being a fan. We'll see if time and distance have mellowed me, but as a kid this was one of the books in the series that I didn't much care for. When I grew up and saw that Harper-Collins was actually packaging and marketing the series with TMN as "book one", I had a hearty bitter laugh and predicted that the kids they were marketing to would never read past the "first" book. The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe may have problems, but you can see what Lewis was going for and can fill in the gaps, often without even noticing that you're doing so. The Magician's Nephew is often just... surreal and not nearly so easy to aid with imagination-spackle.

And, if I recall correctly, the women get the short end of all the sticks. But now I'm jumping ahead.

   THIS IS A STORY ABOUT SOMETHING that happened long ago when your grandfather was a child. It is a very important story because it shows how all the comings and goings between our own world and the land of Narnia first began.

I mean! This is the first paragraph of the book, and what is Harper-Collins even thinking? The narrative clearly supposes the reader knows and cares about Narnia, enough so that they'd be interested in a backstory about the place. When you package this as "book one" in a series, you're completely misunderstanding how a reader--

No. Okay. I'm calm.

   In those days Mr. Sherlock Holmes was still living in Baker Street and the Bastables were looking for treasure in the Lewisham Road. In those days, if you were a boy you had to wear a stiff Eton collar every day, and schools were usually nastier than now. But meals were nicer; and as for sweets, I won’t tell you how cheap and good they were, because it would only make your mouth water in vain. And in those days there lived in London a girl called Polly Plummer.

This is interesting because we're almost setting up Polly to be the protagonist. Lewis has attempted female protagonists before--Lucy was an important character in both Lion and Dawn Treader, and Jill was ostensibly the protagonist of Silver Chair before being eclipsed by all the male characters--but he never quite seems able to stick with them before abandoning them mid-narrative for a more interesting (to him) male character. Then, too, there's the fact that the book itself is named after a boy (Digory, the titular nephew) than the girl we're being set up to follow.

But let's see. Maybe the sixth time's the charm.

   She lived in one of a long row of houses which were all joined together. One morning she was out in the back garden when a boy scrambled up from the garden next door and put his face over the wall. Polly was very surprised because up till now there had never been any children in that house, but only Mr. Ketterley and Miss Ketterley, a brother and sister, old bachelor and old maid, living together. So she looked up, full of curiosity. The face of the strange boy was very grubby. It could hardly have been grubbier if he had first rubbed his hands in the earth, and then had a good cry, and then dried his face with his hands. As a matter of fact, this was very nearly what he had been doing.
   “Hullo,” said Polly.
   “Hullo,” said the boy. “What’s your name?”
   “Polly,” said Polly. “What’s yours?”
   “Digory,” said the boy.

Digory and Polly have some antagonistic back-and-forth because Digory's face is dirty and he's been crying. He can't hide that he's been crying so instead he defensively blurts out that she would cry too if she used to live in the country and had a pony and a river and now his father has gone off to India and he has to live in London with his aunt and uncle because his mother is gravely ill and about to die.

   “I didn’t know. I’m sorry,” said Polly humbly. And then, because she hardly knew what to say, and also to turn Digory’s mind to cheerful subjects, she asked:
   “Is Mr. Ketterley really mad?”
   “Well either he’s mad,” said Digory, “or there’s some other mystery. He has a study on the top floor and Aunt Letty says I must never go up there. Well, that looks fishy to begin with. And then there’s another thing. Whenever he tries to say anything to me at meal times—he never even tries to talk to her—she always shuts him up. She says, ‘Don’t worry the boy, Andrew’ or ‘I’m sure Digory doesn’t want to hear about that’ or else ‘Now, Digory, wouldn’t you like to go out and play in the garden?’”
   “What sort of things does he try to say?”
   “I don’t know. He never gets far enough. But there’s more than that. One night—it was last night in fact—as I was going past the foot of the attic-stairs on my way to bed (and I don’t much care for going past them either) I’m sure I heard a yell.”
   “Perhaps he keeps a mad wife shut up there.”
   “Yes, I’ve thought of that.”
   “Or perhaps he’s a coiner.”
   “Or he might have been a pirate, like the man at the beginning of Treasure Island, and be always hiding from his old shipmates.”
   “How exciting!” said Polly. “I never knew your house was so interesting.”
   “You may think it interesting,” said Digory. “But you wouldn’t like it if you had to sleep there. How would you like to lie awake listening for Uncle Andrew’s step to come creeping along the passage to your room? And he has such awful eyes.”

I feel all this works only if Polly and Digory are very young, which is why it's a touch frustrating to me that we don't get a strong indicator of age thus far. Are these children actually meant to be this young, or is this another Shasta situation where the protagonist is supposed to be 14 or 15 but reads like they're 5 or 6? (Lewisian children in general tend to sound much younger than they actually are.)

From an adult standpoint, this passage is also absolutely terrifying. We'll later learn that Uncle Andrew is abusive in "evil scientist" ways (he uses the children as test subjects in his experiments) but right now I'm worried about Digory for other reasons. I know that Lewis was something of an innocent and I am aware of the difference in time periods, but did no one involved in the publishing of this book toss up red flags regarding an uncle who creeps outside his nephew's room at night, such that the boy is afraid of this older man and his awful eyes? Whilst meanwhile the uncle's sister keeps desperately trying to prevent the uncle from spending any time whatsoever with their nephew?

   That was how Polly and Digory got to know one another: and as it was just the beginning of the summer holidays and neither of them was going to the sea that year, they met nearly every day.
   Their adventures began chiefly because it was one of the wettest and coldest summers there had been for years. That drove them to do indoor things: you might say, indoor exploration. It is wonderful how much exploring you can do with a stump of candle in a big house, or in a row of houses. Polly had discovered long ago that if you opened a certain little door in the box-room attic of her house you would find the cistern and a dark place behind it which you could get into by a little careful climbing. The dark place was like a long tunnel with brick wall on one side and sloping roof on the other. In the roof there were little chunks of light between the slates. There was no floor in this tunnel: you had to step from rafter to rafter, and between them there was only plaster. If you stepped on this you would find yourself falling through the ceiling of the room below. Polly had used the bit of the tunnel just beside the cistern as a smugglers’ cave. She had brought up bits of old packing cases and the seats of broken kitchen chairs, and things of that sort, and spread them across from rafter to rafter so as to make a bit of floor. Here she kept a cash-box containing various treasures, and a story she was writing and usually a few apples. She had often drunk a quiet bottle of ginger-beer in there: the old bottles made it look more like a smugglers’ cave.
   Digory quite liked the cave (she wouldn’t let him see the story) but he was more interested in exploring.

I'm quoting this part in full because--credit where it is due--I think this is the most proactive a female protagonist has been in a Lewis novel. I mean, yes, it's partly scenery-setting porn (which he loves) more than outright characterization, and yes, it's feminine characterization to an extent (she's nesting and decorating) but it's still active and not passive. I appreciate that. It's a weird feeling to run into a female character doing things in a Narnia book. I like it. More, please.

Digory asks Polly about the tunnel and she tells him that the walls don't meet the roof, which means the tunnel goes all the way down the row of houses to the very end. Polly has an idea that they could crawl past her house and past Digory's house into the next house down the line, which is abandoned and maybe haunted. Digory loves the idea (although he's kind of a jerk about it, and I'm reminded that one reason I didn't like this book as a kid was Digory's jerky treatment of Polly), and they do some maths to see how far they should go in the tunnel so they don't end up in the wrong house.

   When they had measured the attic they had to get a pencil and do a sum. They both got different answers to it at first, and even when they agreed I am not sure they got it right. They were in a hurry to start on the exploration.

Uh? Again, these may be very small children, but the "sum" is "take the length of Polly's attic, then double it because Digory's attic, then we should be there". I'm tempted to let this pass as a tiny plot hole not worth worrying about, except that Lewis keeps railing on about schools being the end of everything good. Lewis, I have my own issues with schools and schooling but your characters can't even double a number without getting a different answer four times.

   “We mustn’t make a sound,” said Polly as they climbed in again behind the cistern. Because it was such an important occasion they took a candle each (Polly had a good store of these in her cave).
   It was very dark and dusty and drafty and they stepped from rafter to rafter without a word except when they whispered to one another, “We’re opposite your attic now” or “this must be halfway through our house.” And neither of them stumbled and the candles didn’t go out, and at last they came where they could see a little door in the brick wall on their right. There was no bolt or handle on this side of it, of course, for the door had been made for getting in, not for getting out; but there was a catch (as there often is on the inside of a cupboard door) which they felt sure they would be able to turn.
   “Shall I?” said Digory.
   “I’m game if you are,” said Polly, just as she had said before. Both felt that it was becoming very serious, but neither would draw back. Digory pushed round the catch with some difficulty. The door swung open and the sudden daylight made them blink. Then, with a great shock, they saw that they were looking, not into a deserted attic, but into a furnished room. But it seemed empty enough. It was dead silent. Polly’s curiosity got the better of her. She blew out her candle and stepped out into the strange room, making no more noise than a mouse.

Reader, I am as astonished as you are that Polly is still getting to do things. First, she had the presence of mind to make the "smuggler's cave" in the first place. Then she had the knowledge that the little tunnel went all the way to the far end of the house. And while the narrative says Digory was the one who wanted to explore, it was Polly who thought up the idea of invading the empty house. Now here Polly is the one stepping into the room and blowing out her candle. Doing things!

Back in plot-hole-land, the two kids know that Digory's attic lies between Polly's attic and the abandoned house they're aiming for. Did they just assume Digory's attic didn't have a door? Because I feel like my first thought on seeing a door would be "ok, there's Digory's door, now we just have to open the next door." Anyway, spoilers: they're about to tumble out into Uncle Andrew's attic office.
   It was shaped, of course, like an attic, but furnished as a sitting-room. Every bit of the walls was lined with shelves and every bit of the shelves was full of books. A fire was burning in the grate (you remember that it was a very cold wet summer that year) and in front of the fireplace with its back toward them was a high-backed armchair. Between the chair and Polly, and filling most of the middle of the room, was a big table piled with all sorts of things—printed books, and books of the sort you write in, and ink bottles and pens and sealing-wax and a microscope. But what she noticed first was a bright red wooden tray with a number of rings on it. They were in pairs—a yellow one and a green one together, then a little space, and then another yellow one and another green one. They were no bigger than ordinary rings, and no one could help noticing them because they were so bright. They were the most beautifully shiny little things you can imagine. If Polly had been a very little younger she would have wanted to put one in her mouth.

One more point in the column under "these children are very, very young". (Again, credit where it is due: the turn of phrase there is evocative. I understand that impulse of "shiny thing goes in the mouth".)

   The room was so quiet that you noticed the ticking of the clock at once. And yet, as she now found, it was not absolutely quiet either. There was a faint—a very, very faint—humming sound. If vacuum cleaners had been invented in those days Polly would have thought it was the sound of a Hoover being worked a long way off—several rooms away and several floors below. But it was a nicer sound than that, a more musical tone: only so faint that you could hardly hear it.
   “It’s all right; there’s no one here,” said Polly over her shoulder to Digory. She was speaking above a whisper now. And Digory came out, blinking and looking extremely dirty—as indeed Polly was too.
   “This is no good,” he said. “It’s not an empty house at all. We’d better leave before anyone comes.”
   “What do you think those are?” said Polly, pointing at the colored rings.
   “Oh come on,” said Digory. “The sooner—”
   He never finished what he was going to say for at that moment something happened. The high-backed chair in front of the fire moved suddenly and there rose up out of it—like a pantomime demon coming up out of a trapdoor—the alarming form of Uncle Andrew. They were not in the empty house at all; they were in Digory’s house and in the forbidden study! Both children said “O-o-oh” and realized their terrible mistake. They felt they ought to have known all along that they hadn’t gone nearly far enough.

Well, yeah, on account of you taking the first door you saw. But okay.

I spend a lot of time criticizing Lewis and rightfully so, but I'll say that this whole attic scene is deeply evocative and I like it. If he'd put this much care into the rest of his books, I think they'd have been better for it. I'm thinking of all the fantastical scenes we've read together where we were like "wait, where is everything in relation to each other" and "what's the scale here" and yet this study is really well done. Maybe Lewis was better at describing things he could see and feel, such that we get this deeply descriptive passage about books and journals and microscopes, but things like how tall the giants were in Silver Chair become this glossed over blur.

   Uncle Andrew was tall and very thin. He had a long clean-shaven face with a sharply-pointed nose and extremely bright eyes and a great tousled mop of gray hair.
   Digory was quite speechless, for Uncle Andrew looked a thousand times more alarming than he had ever looked before. Polly was not so frightened yet; but she soon was. For 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!”



   It was dreadfully unlike anything a grown-up would be expected to do. Polly’s heart came into her mouth, and she and Digory started backing toward the little door they had come in by. Uncle Andrew was too quick for them. He got behind them and shut that door too and stood in front of it. Then he rubbed his hands and made his knuckles crack. He had very long, beautifully white, fingers.
   “I am delighted to see you,” he said. “Two children are just what I wanted.”


   “Please, Mr. Ketterley,” said Polly. “It’s nearly my dinner time and I’ve got to go home. Will you let us out, please?”
   “Not just yet,” said Uncle Andrew. “This is too good an opportunity to miss. I wanted two children. You see, I’m in the middle of a great experiment. I’ve tried it on a guinea-pig and it seemed to work. But then a guinea-pig can’t tell you anything. And you can’t explain to it how to come back.”
   “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.
   Digory and Polly glanced at one another. They dared not say anything, but the glances meant “Isn’t this dreadful?” and “We must humor him.”
   “If you let us go for our dinner now,” said Polly, “we could come back after dinner.”
   “Ah, but how do I know that you would?” said Uncle Andrew with a cunning smile. Then he seemed to change his mind.

Three points to Polly for cleverness.

   “Well, well,” he said, “if you really must go, I suppose you must. I can’t expect two youngsters like you to find it much fun talking to an old buffer like me.” He sighed and went on. “You’ve no idea how lonely I sometimes am. But no matter. Go to your dinner. But I must give you a present before you go. It’s not every day that I see a little girl in my dingy old study; especially, if I may say so, such a very attractive young lady as yourself.”
   Polly began to think he might not really be mad after all.

Minus thirty points from Polly (and Lewis) for being mollified by such a weak and transparent compliment. Also, it has to be said: This ableism thing where Andrew is supposed to be mentally ill instead of evil is really gross and it can stop at any time, thank you.

   “Wouldn’t you like a ring, my dear?” said Uncle Andrew to Polly.
   “Do you mean one of those yellow or green ones?” said Polly. “How lovely!”
   “Not a green one,” said Uncle Andrew. “I’m afraid I can’t give the green ones away. But I’d be delighted to give you any of the yellow ones: with my love. Come and try one on.”
   Polly had now quite got over her fright and felt sure that the old gentleman was not mad; and there was certainly something strangely attractive about those bright rings. She moved over to the tray.
   “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.
   “Polly! Don’t be a fool!” he shouted. “Don’t touch them.”
   It was too late. Exactly as he spoke, Polly’s hand went out to touch one of the rings. And immediately, without a flash or a noise or a warning of any sort, there was no Polly. Digory and his Uncle were alone in the room.

That's the end of Chapter 1. It's a surprisingly good chapter for a Lewis book. I mean, it's terrifying and Uncle Andrew is eleven different kinds of creepy danger, but it's clearly meant to be terrifying so well done, mission accomplished. Though you do have to wonder at whether this was really appropriate for children, but then again when has this series ever stopped to ask itself that question?

But still, a strong opening chapter. Much better than Dawn Treader where we had to learn about how Eustace's parents were awful because of their food- and underwear-choices. Uncle Andrew has been established as a terrifying villain not because he's a feminist or a vegetarian but because he traps children in his study and hurts small animals. I think we can all agree that's an improvement.


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