Narnia: Digory Went On

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

Narnia Recap: Uncle Andrew made Polly disappear and then guilt-tripped Digory into following her.

The Magician's Nephew, Chapter 3: The Wood Between The Worlds

Chapter 3 is probably the part people remember the most about this book (well, in addition to the horror that is Charn, but we'll get there) because it really is quite picturesque: we get to see the "Wood Between Worlds". This is a place which is the connecting point, so to speak, between all the worlds in the multiverse.

   UNCLE ANDREW AND HIS STUDY VANISHED instantly. Then, for a moment, everything became muddled. The next thing Digory knew was that there was a soft green light coming down on him from above, and darkness below. He didn’t seem to be standing on anything, or sitting, or lying. Nothing appeared to be touching him. “I believe I’m in water,” said Digory. “Or under water.” This frightened him for a second, but almost at once he could feel that he was rushing upward. Then his head suddenly came out into the air and he found himself scrambling ashore, out on to smooth grassy ground at the edge of a pool.
   As he rose to his feet he noticed that he was neither dripping nor panting for breath as anyone would expect after being under water. His clothes were perfectly dry. He was standing by the edge of a small pool—not more than ten feet from side to side—in a wood. The trees grew close together and were so leafy that he could get no glimpse of the sky. All the light was green light that came through the leaves: but there must have been a very strong sun overhead, for this green daylight was bright and warm. It was the quietest wood you could possibly imagine. There were no birds, no insects, no animals, and no wind. You could almost feel the trees growing. The pool he had just got out of was not the only pool. There were dozens of others—a pool every few yards as far as his eyes could reach. You could almost feel the trees drinking the water up with their roots. This wood was very much alive. When he tried to describe it afterward Digory always said, “It was a rich place: as rich as plumcake.”

With the usual caveat that good writing is subjective to taste, I like this part. I have given Lewis a lot of shit in the past about his inability to describe a scene when the contents do not matter to him, and his sense of scale is awful (nothing about the giants in Silver Chair works and I will die on this hill) but this is good. Or at least better? He's sat down and thought about what this place would look like and how it would feel. Given the improvements in his writing for this book, I do wonder if he had more time with this draft? It doesn't feel as rushed as a lot of his earlier books felt.

I'm jumping ahead a little, but the pools that we see "dozens" of on the ground (and presumably on and on into infinity as far as a body could travel) are all "worlds": Digory has come from our world, but there's a Narnia world and a Charn world and an infinite number of other worlds we don't have names for. That's nice; if you're going to have multiple universes, it's neat to have a spot where they all link up, and it's cool to let the reader grapple with a dizzying infinity of them. It's a shame we're going back to Narnia soon, because I'd much rather see some of the other worlds. Think of what a really good author could do with this concept!

   The strangest thing was that, almost before he had looked about him, Digory had half forgotten how he had come there. At any rate, he was certainly not thinking about Polly, or Uncle Andrew, or even his Mother. He was not in the least frightened, or excited, or curious. If anyone had asked him “Where did you come from?” he would probably have said, “I’ve always been here.” That was what it felt like—as if one had always been in that place and never been bored although nothing had ever happened. As he said long afterward, “It’s not the sort of place where things happen. The trees go on growing, that’s all.”

This is delightful in an almost Lovecraftian horror sort of way: the linkage place between infinite universes can suck all your memories away in an instant and make you forget your every love, worry, and ambition. Visiting for even a moment can cause you to become a part of the scenery there. It's as if the place itself is feeding on living things unlucky enough to pop in, draining their will in order to sustain itself. Given that Digory has been thoroughly established as caring quite a lot about his ailing mother, this is an effective way to shake the reader and establish stakes: Digory needs to find Polly and leave now before they become trapped here forever.

   After Digory had looked at the wood for a long time he noticed that there was a girl lying on her back at the foot of a tree a few yards away. Her eyes were nearly shut but not quite, as if she were just between sleeping and waking. So he looked at her for a long time and said nothing. And at last she opened her eyes and looked at him for a long time and she also said nothing. Then she spoke, in a dreamy, contented sort of voice.

Before we get to their conversation, I point again to the deliciously creepy idea that the place is feeding on people. Polly isn't standing or sitting propped up against a tree; she's actually lying on her back with her eyes nearly shut. If this book were written by Tolkien or Piers Anthony, we'd hear about a tree root wrapped around her middle or grass shoots hooking into her flesh like little fishhooks. Something actively consuming her. Lewis doesn't quite go there and I'm a little disappointed that he doesn't; I suspect he couldn't quite commit to this place (which God must have created in his infinite wisdom, after all) being actively dangerous and malevolent to visitors.

   “I think I’ve seen you before,” she said.
   “I rather think so too,” said Digory. “Have you been here long?”
   “Oh, always,” said the girl. “At least—I don’t know—a very long time.”
   “So have I,” said Digory.
   “No you haven’t,” said she. “I’ve just seen you come up out of that pool.”
   “Yes, I suppose I did,” said Digory with a puzzled air. “I’d forgotten.”
   Then for quite a long time neither said any more.

We don't have a sense of scale for how time passes in this in-between place, so we don't know if Polly was gone for the same amount of time in which Digory experienced her being gone (if that makes sense). Still, it seems a rather short period of time for her to just decide to lie down in the grass and have a nap--which suggests that perhaps she's been away for longer than Digory experienced.

   “Look here,” said the girl presently, “I wonder did we ever really meet before? I had a sort of idea—a sort of picture in my head—of a boy and a girl, like us—living somewhere quite different—and doing all sorts of things. Perhaps it was only a dream.”
   “I’ve had that same dream, I think,” said Digory. “About a boy and a girl, living next door—and something about crawling among rafters. I remember the girl had a dirty face.”
   “Aren’t you getting it mixed? In my dream it was the boy who had the dirty face.”
   “I can’t remember the boy’s face,” said Digory: and then added, “Hullo! What’s that?”
   “Why! it’s a guinea-pig,” said the girl. And it was—a fat guinea-pig, nosing about in the grass. But round the middle of the guinea-pig there ran a tape, and, tied on to it by the tape, was a bright yellow ring.
   “Look! look,” cried Digory. “The ring! And look! You’ve got one on your finger. And so have I.”

I'm not sure how I feel about Polly being persistently referred to as "the girl" here. On the one hand, it's a neat way of showing through the tight point-of-view that Digory has forgotten her and is now experiencing her as a stranger. On the other hand, this book has an omniscient narrator who tells the story with the benefit of hindsight and with lots of little asides like "Digory did not realize the truth quite clearly either, or not till later." So the narrator knows that Polly is Polly, and he has no real need to obscure her identity simply because Digory didn't know her at this point in his experience. The effect somewhat removes Polly from her own story, at least briefly, and I dislike that.

The thought occurs that I would like this chapter much better had it been written from Polly's perspective as the protagonist. We could've seen her first impressions, what led her to lie down for a nap, and her reaction to a strange boy coming up from a pool.

   The girl now sat up, really interested at last. They stared very hard at one another, trying to remember. And then, at exactly the same moment, she shouted out “Mr. Ketterley” and he shouted out “Uncle Andrew,” and they knew who they were and began to remember the whole story. After a few minutes of hard talking they had got it straight. Digory explained how beastly Uncle Andrew had been.
   “What do we do now?” said Polly. “Take the guinea-pig and go home?”
   “There’s no hurry,” said Digory with a huge yawn.
   “I think there is,” said Polly. “This place is too quiet. It’s so—so dreamy. You’re almost asleep. If we once give in to it we shall just lie down and drowse forever and ever.”


Oh well, it is a children's story I suppose. I like to imagine Tolkien's frustration, though, reading through the story and recollecting his own Old Man Willow. Cast a drowsy spell? Check. Caused the little ones to lie down to rest? Check. A pool / stream nearby to dangle feet in? Check. Malevolent eating of the little ones? APPARENTLY NOT.

   “We might as well leave the guinea-pig,” she said. “It’s perfectly happy here, and your uncle will only do something horrid to it if we take it home.”
   “I bet he would,” answered Digory. “Look at the way he’s treated us. By the way, how do we get home?”
   “Go back into the pool, I expect.”
   They came and stood together at the edge looking down into the smooth water. It was full of the reflection of the green, leafy branches; they made it look very deep.
   “We haven’t any bathing things,” said Polly.
   “We shan’t need them, silly,” said Digory. “We’re going in with our clothes on. Don’t you remember it didn’t wet us on the way up?”
   “Can you swim?”
   “A bit. Can you?”
   “Well—not much.”
   “I don’t think we shall need to swim,” said Digory. “We want to go down, don’t we?”
   Neither of them much liked the idea of jumping into that pool, but neither said so to the other. They took hands and said “One—Two—Three—Go” and jumped. There was a great splash and of course they closed their eyes. But when they opened them again they found they were still standing, hand in hand, in that green wood, and hardly up to their ankles in water. The pool was apparently only a couple of inches deep. They splashed back onto the dry ground.

The subtle undermining of Polly as co-protagonist has begun: she asks the "silly" question about bathing things, which does seems like a silly concern when they're facing down a multiverse nexus which is trying to lull them into never returning home. It's a bit like being chased by a demon and stopping to fret that you're wearing white after Labor Day. She also can't swim as well as Digory can; not surprising since she's a city girl and Digory is from the country, but even so it grates a little.

   “What on earth’s gone wrong?” said Polly in a frightened voice; but not quite so frightened as you might expect, because it is hard to feel really frightened in that wood. The place is too peaceful.
   “Oh! I know,” said Digory. “Of course it won’t work. We’re still wearing our yellow rings. They’re for the outward journey, you know. The green ones take you home. We must change rings. Have you got pockets? Good. Put your yellow ring in your left. I’ve got two greens. Here’s one for you.”

Undermine the female co-protagonist count: 3. She's the frightened one when they face a minor setback.

   They put on their green rings and came back to the pool. But before they tried another jump Digory gave a long “O-o-oh!”
   “What’s the matter?” said Polly.
   “I’ve just had a really wonderful idea,” said Digory. “What are all the other pools?”
   “How do you mean?”
   “Why, if we can get back to our own world by jumping into this pool, mightn’t we get somewhere else by jumping into one of the others? Supposing there was a world at the bottom of every pool.”
   “But I thought we were already in your Uncle Andrew’s Other World or Other Place or whatever he called it. Didn’t you say—”

Undermine the female co-protagonist count: 5. Digory is the one who realizes that the other pools are worlds of their own. Polly not only has to be convinced of this (#4) but she still considers the evil and foolish Uncle Andrew as an authoritative source of information (#5).

   “Oh bother Uncle Andrew,” interrupted Digory. “I don’t believe he knows anything about it. He never had the pluck to come here himself. He only talked of one Other World. But suppose there were dozens?”
   “You mean, this wood might be only one of them?”
   “No, I don’t believe this wood is a world at all. I think it’s just a sort of in-between place.”
   Polly looked puzzled.
  “Don’t you see?” said Digory. “No, do listen.

Undermine the female co-protagonist count: 6. I just. Is this why Lewis writes female characters? So they can "look puzzled" at his young male avatar and the young male avatar can explain things at them? And the way Digory explains things to Polly is so deeply aggressive: "don't you see?" implies that she's a fool for not having caught on yet and "no, do listen" implies that she's on the verge of interrupting him--a special irony when he's just asked her a question. I guess "don't you see?" was rhetorical and Digory doesn't really want an actual answer from his girl-shaped information-void.

   “Don’t you see?” said Digory. “No, do listen. Think of our tunnel under the slates at home. It isn’t a room in any of the houses. In a way, it isn’t really part of any of the houses. But once you’re in the tunnel you can go along it and come out into any of the houses in the row. Mightn’t this wood be the same?—a place that isn’t in any of the worlds, but once you’ve found that place you can get into them all.”
   “Well, even if you can—” began Polly, but Digory went on as if he hadn’t heard her.

a woman files her nails and smiles insincerely

Undermine the female co-protagonist count: 7.

   “And of course that explains everything,” he said. “That’s why it is so quiet and sleepy here. Nothing ever happens here. Like at home. It’s in the houses that people talk, and do things, and have meals. Nothing goes on in the in-between places, behind the walls and above the ceilings and under the floor, or in our own tunnel. But when you come out of our tunnel you may find yourself in any house. I think we can get out of this place into jolly well Anywhere! We don’t need to jump back into the same pool we came up by. Or not just yet.”

This is interesting to me because we've pinged Lewis in the past for being human-centric whilst writing stories about Talking Animals. Now he has his avatar declare that "nothing goes on" in in-between places behind the walls. Hey, uh, Lewis? Remember the blessed mice that you care so much about? The ones who chewed the ropes from Aslan's wrists and ankles, and the ones who fought in Caspian's army with such valor, and the one in specific who sailed to the end of the world? They live in the in-between places and keep them quite active, actually. Just because humans don't use a space doesn't mean it's unoccupied and lifeless.

   “The Wood between the Worlds,” said Polly dreamily. “It sounds rather nice.”
   “Come on,” said Digory. “Which pool shall we try?”

Undermine the female co-protagonist count: 8. Polly is "dreamily" taking down names for the place while Digory is the active explorer of the duo.

   “Look here,” said Polly, “I’m not going to try any new pool till we’ve made sure that we can get back by the old one. We’re not even sure if it’ll work yet.”
   “Yes,” said Digory. “And get caught by Uncle Andrew and have our rings taken away before we’ve had any fun. No thanks.”
   “Couldn’t we just go part of the way down into our own pool,” said Polly. “Just to see if it works. Then if it does, we’ll change rings and come up again before we’re really back in Mr. Ketterley’s study.”
   “Can we go part of the way down?”
   “Well, it took time coming up. I suppose it’ll take a little time going back.”
   Digory made rather a fuss about agreeing to this, but he had to in the end because Polly absolutely refused to do any exploring in new worlds until she had made sure about getting back to the old one. She was quite as brave as he about some dangers (wasps, for instance) but she was not so interested in finding out things nobody had ever heard of before; for Digory was the sort of person who wants to know everything, and when he grew up he became the famous Professor Kirke who comes into other books.

Undermine the female co-protagonist count: 80? I think? What the fuck, Lewis.

Where do you start with this? Polly's objection is smart; before they go world-hopping, it would be nice to know whether they can go home or not. If they can't go home again, that would be a good thing to keep in mind whilst exploring because (whether they want to admit it or not) at that point they'll be in the market for a new home. But Digory stubbornly complains about how their fun will be spoilt by Uncle Andrew... somehow. He had a whole tray of those yellow rings, Digs and you only need to touch one to disappear, I have faith in your ability to duck and weave. Kids are squirmy.

Then we have this whole bullshit about how Polly was "quite as brave" as he in some ways, which feels so echo-y of Lucy being almost as good as a boy in the last book, but clearly not as brave as he in this case and that's because he's a natural manly explorer while she's a womanly homebody who lacks the driving mental curiosity of discovery which Digory possesses. And he grows up to become "the famous Professor Kirke" and by omission Polly grows up to be neither famous nor even particularly interesting and honestly fuck you, Lewis.

Remember when Digory had an ailing mother who would literally die of grief and shock if Digs went missing without an explanation? I do! But Digory has forgotten all about his sainted mother, and this completely undermines his character as it has been established and guts his later motivations--all because Lewis couldn't bear to let Polly be the explorative one and make Digory the cautious one who wants to be certain they can get safely back to the beloved parent who needs him.

   After a good deal of arguing they agreed to put on their green rings (“Green for safety,” said Digory, “so you can’t help remembering which is which”) and hold hands and jump. But as soon as they seemed to be getting back to Uncle Andrew’s study, or even to their own world, Polly was to shout “Change” and they would slip off their greens and put on their yellows. Digory wanted to be the one who shouted “Change” but Polly wouldn’t agree.

a woman looks quietly furious

   They put on the green rings, took hands, and once more shouted, “One—Two—Three—Go.” This time it worked. It is very hard to tell you what it felt like, for everything happened so quickly. At first there were bright lights moving about in a black sky; Digory always thinks these were stars and even swears that he saw Jupiter quite close—close enough to see its moon. But almost at once there were rows and rows of roofs and chimney pots about them, and they could see St. Paul’s and knew they were looking at London. But you could see through the walls of all the houses. Then they could see Uncle Andrew, very vague and shadowy, but getting clearer and more solid-looking all the time, just as if he were coming into focus. But before he became quite real Polly shouted “Change,” and they did change, and our world faded away like a dream, and the green light above grew stronger and stronger, till their heads came out of the pool and they scrambled ashore. And there was the wood all about them, as green and bright and still as ever. The whole thing had taken less than a minute.

There's that omniscient retrospective narrator: "Digory...swears that he saw Jupiter quite close." It's an odd reference that he saw its "moon", singular; Galileo discovered the biggest four moons in 1610, and dozens more moons were known in the 19th century. Whether Digory as a child would've been aware Jupiter has plural moons is less interesting to me than the fact that they ought to have been there based on the information available to Lewis at time of writing. Chalk that up to research fail, I guess. Happens to the best of us.

   “There!” said Digory. “That’s all right. Now for the adventure. Any pool will do. Come on. Let’s try that one.”
   “Stop!” said Polly. “Aren’t we going to mark this pool?”
   They stared at each other and turned quite white as they realized the dreadful thing that Digory had just been going to do. For there were any number of pools in the wood, and the pools were all alike and the trees were all alike, so that if they had once left behind the pool that led to our own world without making some sort of landmark, the chances would have been a hundred to one against their ever finding it again.

This is the one really sensible idea that Polly is allowed in this chapter, and it is vexing that it will soon be used to mark her as a nagging harridan and will be the justification Digory uses for hurting her later. But set that aside for the moment and let us talk about Digory's character.

None of this makes sense. Digory has been established as an explorer, yes; he was the one who came up with the idea to use Polly's "cave" in the crawl space to expand to other homes and look through them. But it took days or weeks for him to come up with that idea and it was more of a "hey wouldn't it be fun" thing from a bored child, not this intense go-go-go need which seems to have seized him. I'm fine with his character developing in this direction, but... I feel like we skipped a step?

Digory's driving motivation in the last chapter was a desire to protect Polly and shield his mother from the horrors of Uncle Andrew's experiments. He had to be coaxed and goaded into going after Polly, with Andrew pulling out every guilt trip in the book to push Digory into a rhetorical corner. There was no sense that he was excited in spite of his fear and trepidation, that a core seed of but I'll go somewhere no one else has gone before was taking tender root in his trembling soul. He went because it was the only decent thing to do, and there was a sense that he intended to return with Polly right away: in part because he wanted to protect her, and in part because he wanted to return before his mother learned he was gone.

These were sensible motivations and gave us an understanding of the character: Digory seemed older than his years might indicate, pressed into an adult's role by the events of his father's absence and his mother's illness. He felt protective of his friend and protective of his mother, and there was a strong "you're the man of the household now, son" vibe from him: he wants to be the protective man that his father can't be there to be for him.

Now he's petulant and resentful of Polly's fears, suggestions, and even very presence. He's gone from being someone who cooperated with her as they carefully mapped out and mathed at their exploration plan to someone who... doesn't seem to even like her very much. He's impatient, exasperated, pulling to go and damn the consequences. I suppose we could chalk this up to some aspect of the Wood--he did, after all, forget his mother for those few crucial moments--but those memories came flooding back when they saw the guinea-pig and there's no indication that they leeched away later. He seems to be functioning at full capacity, but he no longer seems to care about Polly or his mother. It's a strange and sudden change from the last two chapters.

   Digory’s hand was shaking as he opened his penknife and cut out a long strip of turf on the bank of the pool. The soil (which smelled nice) was of a rich reddish brown and showed up well against the green. “It’s a good thing one of us has some sense,” said Polly.
   “Well don’t keep on gassing about it,” said Digory. “Come along, I want to see what’s in one of the other pools.” And Polly gave him a pretty sharp answer and he said something even nastier in reply. The quarrel lasted for several minutes but it would be dull to write it all down. Let us skip on to the moment at which they stood with beating hearts and rather scared faces on the edge of the unknown pool with their yellow rings on and held hands and once more said “One—Two—Three—Go!”

It's an ugly cop-out that Lewis doesn't give us the full quarrel because it will be relevant again very shortly. By drawing a veil over the actual details, he lets us fill in the implication that Polly was nagging and annoying without giving us the benefit of her words to determine for ourselves. And we are meant to dislike Polly here: the words he uses for her (she "absolutely refused" and "wouldn't agree") make her sound stubborn and mulish--a barrier in the way of Digory's explorative impulse and of the continuation of the story.

Polly is positioned here to be petulant: "It’s a good thing one of us has some sense" she says, needling Digory. But this is coming after paragraphs of him treating her as though she were a fool, then interrupting and talking over her, then objecting to a perfectly sensible plan to see if they can return home, then demanding her plan center him (with him wanting to be the one to yell "Change!"), then all but dragging her into another pool without pausing to (again!) make sure they can get back. Polly has saved them from a terrible fate; I think she's entitled to be a little snippish at this stage.

   Splash! Once again it hadn’t worked. This pool, too, appeared to be only a puddle. Instead of reaching a new world they only got their feet wet and splashed their legs for the second time that morning (if it was a morning: it seems to be always the same time in the Wood between the Worlds).
   “Blast and botheration!” exclaimed Digory. “What’s gone wrong now? We’ve put our yellow rings on all right. He said yellow for the outward journey.”
   Now the truth was that Uncle Andrew, who knew nothing about the Wood between the Worlds, had quite a wrong idea about the rings. The yellow ones weren’t “outward” rings and the green ones weren’t “homeward” rings; at least, not in the way he thought. The stuff of which both were made had all come from the wood. The stuff in the yellow rings had the power of drawing you into the wood; it was stuff that wanted to get back to its own place, the in-between place. But the stuff in the green rings is stuff that is trying to get out of its own place: so that a green ring would take you out of the wood into a world. Uncle Andrew, you see, was working with things he did not really understand; most magicians are. Of course Digory did not realize the truth quite clearly either, or not till later. But when they had talked it over, they decided to try their green rings on the new pool, just to see what happened.

This does not match what was written in Chapter 2, and it's a good example of why editing and re-writing is necessary in order to not break continuity. Uncle Andrew does not say "yellow for the outward journey"; in fact, the word "outward" does not appear in Chapter 2, nor does the word "homeward", so it is very jarring to see them used in quotes here as though he'd used those terms.

What Andrew does say is that the dust in the yellow rings "would draw you back to the place it had come from", which is pretty much what is repeated in the paragraph above when it says "it was stuff that wanted to get back to its own place". I've been harping on Lewis' failure to use editors to catch wrong things, but it seems he needed an editor this time to catch a right thing: Uncle Andrew was correct in Chapter 2 and now he's being re-written in Chapter 3 to have been wrong.

   “I’m game if you are,” said Polly. But she really said this because, in her heart of hearts, she now felt sure that neither kind of ring was going to work at all in the new pool, and so there was nothing worse to be afraid of than another splash. I am not quite sure that Digory had not the same feeling. At any rate, when they had both put on their greens and come back to the edge of the water, and taken hands again, they were certainly a good deal more cheerful and less solemn than they had been the first time.
   “One—Two—Three—Go!” said Digory. And they jumped.

If the omniscient narrator knows what was in Polly's heart of hearts at this moment, then that means he interviewed Polly for her version of these events. In that case, I am extra annoyed at the anti-Polly tone taken in the narrative about how she's not as brave as Digory and so forth, because somehow it's worse that the narrator is a jerk to Polly if he met her in real life and got her side of the story.


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