[Narnia Content Note: Misogyny]
Narnia Recap: Polly and Digory have agreed to explore a new world at random.
The Magician's Nephew, Chapter 4: The Bell and The Hammer
There is a rule of writing--and Google is failing to tell me who deserves credit--that asks "Is this the most interesting period in the protagonist's life? If not, why aren't you writing that?"
The rule isn't a perfect one, but it's something I fall back on when my brain wants to point out how convenient it is that these characters I've been reading about just happen to have an interesting and noteworthy experience: were it not for the interesting experience, we wouldn't have the book. So this isn't the story of Digory and Polly in which they just happen to visit Charn and Narnia (how convenient!). No, this is the history of Narnia and Charn, and the events which made the tale worth telling happen to include Digory and Polly.
All that is to say this: it is certainly convenient that the first pool Digory and Polly try leads to an interesting and noteworthy world which changes the course of at least one world's history forever, but if they went to a boring world full of boring people and went back home to earth and lived normal boring mundane lives, the story wouldn't have been worth telling. This story was deemed worth telling, thus something interesting must have happened. Q.E.D.
THERE WAS NO DOUBT ABOUT THE Magic this time. Down and down they rushed, first through darkness and then through a mass of vague and whirling shapes which might have been almost anything. It grew lighter. Then suddenly they felt that they were standing on something solid. A moment later everything came into focus and they were able to look about them.
“What a queer place!” said Digory.
“I don’t like it,” said Polly with something like a shudder.
What they noticed first was the light. It wasn’t like sunlight, and it wasn’t like electric light, or lamps, or candles, or any other light they had ever seen. It was a dull, rather red light, not at all cheerful. It was steady and did not flicker. They were standing on a flat paved surface and buildings rose all around them. There was no roof overhead; they were in a sort of courtyard. The sky was extraordinarily dark—a blue that was almost black. When you had seen that sky you wondered that there should be any light at all.
“It’s very funny weather here,” said Digory. “I wonder if we’ve arrived just in time for a thunderstorm; or an eclipse.”
“I don’t like it,” said Polly.
The fact that the narrative doesn't call attention to the fact that Polly is repeating herself verbatim makes me wonder if Lewis himself noticed. (Who has time to pay attention to girls and what they say?) We'll set that aside to say I do like the details here: a sky which is "a blue that was almost black" isn't something I can well imagine but it is very poetic.
The red light, too, makes me think of the dying red sun of H.G. Wells' The Time Machine. That particular short story was published in 1895, with The Magician's Nephew coming along sixty years later at 1955, so that might well have been an intended allusion. (For cross-deconstruction contrast, A Wrinkle in Time was published in 1962.)
Speaking of literary allusions, Digory wonders if they've arrived in time for an eclipse which might well be a cute reference to having read A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court (1889) but is probably just a coincidence. I think it's interesting that Digory concludes the "strange weather" is unusual rather than just being the way things are here on this alien world; I can't decide if that makes him more or less imaginative.
Lewis, of course, is engaging in his usual background radiation misogyny by having Polly be timid and a massive killjoy, but I'm honestly on her side about this being a less than stellar idea. Even assuming the locals are friendly, what are the odds that the environment is safe? They could be breathing in toxins from that blue-black sky! The strange red light could be giving them cancer! There's no reason whatsoever to believe that humans are safe in this place.
Both of them, without quite knowing why, were talking in whispers. And though there was no reason why they should still go on holding hands after their jump, they didn’t let go.
Then you have this, where Lewis tries to pretend that perfectly sensible actions are really childish and timid. Humans hold on to each other because it's a bad idea to be separated in a situation like this, and we whisper because sound can draw the attention of hostile things. We didn't lose all our prey instincts the moment we hit the top of the food chain, Lewis.
The walls rose very high all round that courtyard. They had many great windows in them, windows without glass, through which you saw nothing but black darkness. Lower down there were great pillared arches, yawning blackly like the mouths of railway tunnels. It was rather cold.
The stone of which everything was built seemed to be red, but that might only be because of the curious light. It was obviously very old. Many of the flat stones that paved the courtyard had cracks across them. None of them fitted closely together and the sharp corners were all worn off. One of the arched doorways was half filled up with rubble. The two children kept on turning round and round to look at the different sides of the courtyard. One reason was that they were afraid of somebody—or something—looking out of those windows at them when their backs were turned.
I wouldn't have noticed this as a child, but now that I'm an adult and an author myself it strikes me just how little we understand how this place looks. Don't get me wrong, I completely understand why Lewis gives us no details beyond 'red redness' and 'black blackness'; it would be incredibly hard to imagine and then convey the architectural details, design schemes, and internal furnishings of a truly alien world--none of which would work towards his larger theological points, so I can understand why he didn't feel the need to bother.
Yet we're left with such a paucity of details that the absence is almost a physical presence here. The floors are stone and the walls are stone... but what else? What level of technology does this place seem to have? We don't see glass in the windows and the stones are rough hewn and don't fit closely together, which would seem to be pointing towards medieval technological prowess but could just as easily describe an older site which the inhabitants chose to preserve "as is" rather than modernize as their technology developed. Better things to look for would surely be whether there are any metals in sight? Something that would need sophisticated tools to shape and cut?
I'm struck, too, by how familiar all this feels--and how much it shouldn't. Nearly everything H.P. Lovecraft would ever publish had already been published at this point (his publishing dates span 1917-1959), and Lewis should at least have been aware of the concept of alien things which feel genuinely alien to us: so unlike our ways of thinking that they look wrong. This place has arches and windows and is apparently identical so far to any one of a thousand old European castles, but why? Architectural designs on another world shouldn't be anything like ours!
Mind you, I'm not actually asking for Lewis to invent uniquely Charnian architecture on the spot. Yet a line or two about how disorientingly weird the place looks would not be out of place, and would do a lot to enhance the atmosphere--as well as justify further why Polly has the heebie-jeebies and would like to leave.
“Do you think anyone lives here?” said Digory at last, still in a whisper.
“No,” said Polly. “It’s all in ruins. We haven’t heard a sound since we came.”
“Let’s stand still and listen for a bit,” suggested Digory.
They stood still and listened, but all they could hear was the thump-thump of their own hearts. This place was at least as quiet as the Wood between the Worlds. But it was a different kind of quietness. The silence of the Wood had been rich and warm (you could almost hear the trees growing) and full of life: this was a dead, cold, empty silence. You couldn’t imagine anything growing in it.
Deconstructing Lewis is difficult because it's hard to tell if the inconsistencies are deliberate or not. One paragraph ago they were turning around with every step because they felt potential eyes could be watching them from the black windows of blackness, but now Polly sounds certain (or does she? we get so few clues on what her emotional state is, except a general all-purpose feminine fretfulness) that no one is here. So what "somebody—or something" is going to be looking out of windows?
Either way, listening confirms that they're alone and we have a third example of information coming to the children from nowhere: (1) Aslan's name gives you shivers, (2) the Wood feels like growth and sleepy life*, and (3) this place feels like dead emptiness. I'm okay with this because it has a degree of metaphysical consistency: humans in this 'verse have a sixth sense that picks up on whatever is giving these emotional cues. Okay.
[*I'm not good at biology by any means, but doesn't any place that feel like "life" necessarily have death involved? At least if the trees in the Wood are anything like our earth trees, they're going to need nutrients from the soil and those nutrients come from things dying and decomposing, yes?]
“Let’s go home,” said Polly.
“But we haven’t seen anything yet,” said Digory. “Now we’re here, we simply must have a look round.”
“I’m sure there’s nothing at all interesting here.”
“There’s not much point in finding a magic ring that lets you into other worlds if you’re afraid to look at them when you’ve got there.”
“Who’s talking about being afraid?” said Polly, letting go of Digory’s hand.
“I only thought you didn’t seem very keen on exploring this place.”
“I’ll go anywhere you go.”
“We can get away the moment we want to,” said Digory. “Let’s take off our green rings and put them in our right-hand pockets. All we’ve got to do is to remember that our yellow are in our left-hand pockets. You can keep your hand as near your pocket as you like, but don’t put it in or you’ll touch your yellow and vanish.”
Polly doesn't get any credit for staying with Digory rather than leaving him behind and I must say this irks me. Then again, she can't go back to the Wood, can she? The last time she went alone, she nearly succumbed to its lullaby and almost fell asleep. And even if she could be confident that won't happen again, the only real alternative she has besides "try another world" and "stay in the Wood forever" is to go back to earth and land in Uncle Andrew's office alone, which honestly sounds terrifying from the perspective of a little girl. The man was willing to kill her. So I suppose staying with Digory is the most prudent of a bunch of bad options and probably Lewis would say she's not brave enough to try the others--assuming he even realized she has the agency to leave on her own.
Anyway, let the record show that Digory is... kind of a butthead? This thing where he keeps insulting Polly and then being all 'oh, I'm just being honest and calling it like I see it; didn't mean to upset you' is annoying as heck. What's even more annoying is that I think we're supposed to find Digory irritating here as part of Lewis' literary dalliances in self-hatred, but the problem is that the message becomes decidedly muddled when the narrative around Digory keeps trumpeting that he's Righty McRightpants and his only real error is one of Too Much Honesty. We end up with a situation where Lewis wants us to read Polly as definitely scared and Digory being rude to say so, but not actually factually wrong.
They did this and went quietly up to one of the big arched doorways which led into the inside of the building. And when they stood on the threshold and could look in, they saw it was not so dark inside as they had thought at first. It led into a vast, shadowy hall which appeared to be empty; but on the far side there was a row of pillars with arches between them and through those arches there streamed in some more of the same tired-looking light. They crossed the hall, walking very carefully for fear of holes in the floor or of anything lying about that they might trip over. It seemed a long walk. When they had reached the other side they came out through the arches and found themselves in another and larger courtyard.
“That doesn’t look very safe,” said Polly, pointing at a place where the wall bulged outward and looked as if it were ready to fall over into the courtyard. In one place a pillar was missing between two arches and the bit that came down to where the top of the pillar ought to have been hung there with nothing to support it. Clearly, the place had been deserted for hundreds, perhaps thousands, of years.
“If it’s lasted till now, I suppose it’ll last a bit longer,” said Digory. “But we must be very quiet. You know a noise sometimes brings things down—like an avalanche in the Alps.”
It would be wrong--both in a moral sense and in a factual sense--to judge Professor Kirke by his actions as a child. We aren't who we were at 10 years of age, after all. But between this week's chapter and the Wrinkle in Time deconstruction, I'm beginning to feel that perhaps Christian writers shouldn't write scientists and explorers if all their image of the sciences boils down to "reckless" with a soupcon of "snotty". Digory's assertion that the place is probably totes safe for them to explore doesn't read as correct or intelligent so much as him placing his desire for exploration above all other considerations and invoking some smarty-pants words to justify the decision he's already made.
This part is hard to analyze because again I think this was intended. For one, Digory hasn't met Aslan yet and is therefore in an unsaved state; anything he does while fallen from grace is not intended to be unmitigated pure and good. For two, Digory is another of Lewis' avatars of himself as a young man, about which he had a whole mess of complicated negative feelings. For three, the narrative will later call Digory out for a lot of what he does in this chapter and will say he was in the wrong. So this headlong dive into danger which places himself and Polly in harm's way in order to justify his curiosity is probably meant to be read as a Sinful Lust for Knowledge or something akin.
Yet while Lewis and I are probably on the same page that Digory is being a jerk, I very much doubt we're on the same paragraph. Endangering everyone with your recklessness: probably pretty bad, yeah. Treating your friends and companions as fools and mere footnotes to your story: probably worse!
Speaking of footnotes: Why is Polly here?
I don't mean in this scene, but rather in this book. Why is she here? What does Polly add that we would lose if her character had been written out? She's the impetus for Digory to use the ring--so he can go save her--but was it really necessary for him to use the ring to save someone? He's interested in exploration, so why not have Uncle Andrew simply tempt him with the prospect of a new world to explore? He could even dangle the idea that Digory might find a cure for his mother's illness, which would make a later plot-arc more central to the story and less of a tacked-on idea. I hate to argue for writing out a female character, but does Polly's presence add anything but narrative misogyny?
While we consider that, I'm going to cut here for the day.