Narnia: He Grabbed Her Wrist

[Narnia Content Note: Misogyny, Coercive Violence]

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

When we last left off, the kids were in a hall of bodies. Let's finish off Chapter 4 real quick.

   This woman, as I said, was the last: but there were plenty of empty chairs beyond her, as if the room had been intended for a much larger collection of images.
   “I do wish we knew the story that’s behind all this,” said Digory. “Let’s go back and look at that table sort of thing in the middle of the room.”

I've been trying to be nicer in my deconstructions lately so I will say that I like the framing here of there being a huge impenetrable backstory that can't ever truly be breached by these children. Digory seems to have had this idea that they could pick a world at random, leap in, and learn everything they could from the alien culture within and it doesn't work that way. It wouldn't have worked that way even if they had selected a living world. Imagine two kids from another universe popping into Madison Square Gardens or in the middle of the London Tower tour and asked for The History of Earth Please, But Quickly Because We Must Get Back For Dinner. What could you meaningfully teach them in an hour or two? Not much.

   The thing in the middle of the room was not exactly a table. It was a square pillar about four feet high and on it there rose a little golden arch from which there hung a little golden bell; and beside this there lay a little golden hammer to hit the bell with.
   “I wonder … I wonder … I wonder …” said Digory.
   “There seems to be something written here,” said Polly, stooping down and looking at the side of the pillar.

As which pretty much every Narnia book it's unclear of the age of our protagonists but Digory and Polly have read as very young to me, so I actually laughed out loud reading about a "four feet high" pillar that has a bell Digory will soon ring. The average 8 year old is 4 feet tall so I'm not saying they wouldn't be able to reach it, but that bell is either at eye level or a little smaller. (And that's average in today's nutritional environment; I think folks were shorter on average in the setting we're in.)

   “By gum, so there is,” said Digory. “But of course we shan’t be able to read it.”
   “Shan’t we? I’m not so sure,” said Polly.
   They both looked at it hard and, as you might have expected, the letters cut in the stone were strange. But now a great wonder happened: for, as they looked, though the shape of the strange letters never altered, they found that they could understand them. If only Digory had remembered what he himself had said a few minutes ago, that this was an enchanted room, he might have guessed that the enchantment was beginning to work. But he was too wild with curiosity to think about that. [...]
   Make your choice, adventurous Stranger; Strike the bell and bide the danger, Or wonder, till it drives you mad, What would have followed if you had.

This is interesting because it feels like Lewis is trying to have it both ways. Digory and Polly are about to introduce original sin into an innocent world, like Adam and Eve into ours, but in order for Digory to commit that sin he needs to be able to read the writing. In order to read the writing, there needs to be magic. And once you've introduced the magic of Universal Translation, there's not a big leap of faith to suspect that the words are prophetic or a curse as well as simply legible: that the exhortation to be 'driven mad' has weight behind it, in other words.

Polly, in contrast, is skeptical.

   “No fear!” said Polly. “We don’t want any danger.”
   “Oh but don’t you see it’s no good!” said Digory. “We can’t get out of it now. We shall always be wondering what else would have happened if we had struck the bell. I’m not going home to be driven mad by always thinking of that. No fear!”
   “Don’t be so silly,” said Polly. “As if anyone would! What does it matter what would have happened?”
   “I expect anyone who’s come as far as this is bound to go on wondering till it sends him dotty. That’s the Magic of it, you see. I can feel it beginning to work on me already.”
   “Well I don’t,” said Polly crossly. “And I don’t believe you do either. You’re just putting it on.”

I've asked before why Polly is in this book. She doesn't need to be. She's used by Lewis and Uncle Andrew to propel Digory into another world, but Digory is so keen at the idea of exploring that it seems he would've leapt at the opportunity anyway if asked. And after her job as hostage is fulfilled she doesn't seem to do much except hang around and give Digory someone to explain himself at.

But I think I realize now why Polly is here: she's supposed to be the manifestation of Digory's conscience. She has two big effects on him over the course of the narrative and one is here: she introduces the idea that the "curse" of the pillar's words is bunk and that she's fine so he is too. The fact that he doesn't listen to her is what leads to his sin. Later, she'll be his redemption when he realizes he can't betray her a second time.

So that's her role in the story: Morality Pet. Top notches for inclusion, Lewis.

   “That’s all you know,” said Digory. “It’s because you’re a girl. Girls never want to know anything but gossip and rot about people getting engaged.”
   “You looked exactly like your Uncle when you said that,” said Polly.
   “Why can’t you keep to the point?” said Digory. “What we’re talking about is—”
   “How exactly like a man!” said Polly in a very grown-up voice; but she added hastily, in her real voice, “And don’t say I’m just like a woman, or you’ll be a beastly copy-cat.”
   “I should never dream of calling a kid like you a woman,” said Digory loftily.
   “Oh, I’m a kid, am I?” said Polly who was now in a real rage. “Well you needn’t be bothered by having a kid with you any longer then. I’m off. I’ve had enough of this place. And I’ve had enough of you too—you beastly, stuck-up, obstinate pig!”
   “None of that!” said Digory in a voice even nastier than he meant it to be; for he saw Polly’s hand moving to her pocket to get hold of her yellow ring. I can’t excuse what he did next except by saying that he was very sorry for it afterward (and so were a good many other people). Before Polly’s hand reached her pocket, he grabbed her wrist, leaning across her with his back against her chest. Then, keeping her other arm out of the way with his other elbow, he leaned forward, picked up the hammer, and struck the golden bell a light, smart tap. Then he let her go and they fell apart staring at each other and breathing hard. Polly was just beginning to cry, not with fear, and not even because he had hurt her wrist quite badly, but with furious anger. Within two seconds, however, they had something to think about that drove their own quarrels quite out of their minds.

This has always been one of the nastiest scenes in the series for me, almost as much as Aslan mauling Aravis. Lions were scary but a distant fantasy but I knew all too well the powerless feeling of having someone hold my limbs so that I couldn't escape. Polly was trying to leave, to escape, to not be a part of this thing that Digory does, and he pins her to keep her there and force her complicity.

The narrator gives lip-service to this being bad, but in a distant way which diffuses responsibility. We hear how Digory felt ("he was very sorry for it afterward") and how other people felt, but nothing about how Polly felt past being furiously angry in this moment here. Did she grow up to resent Digory for this? Was she haunted by the part she was forced to play here, and the ensuing tragedy? We aren't told. I doubt Lewis thought much about it.

For Digory to force Polly to stay is bad, but it's especially frustrating that the moment is orchestrated this way in order to make this about him: his sin, his redemption. Lewis constructed an Adam and Eve story and then couldn't bear to let Eve have any agency because that might take the spotlight off Adam. I don't know if that's worse than an A&E version where it's all the woman's fault, but it doesn't seem better.

   As soon as the bell was struck it gave out a note, a sweet note such as you might have expected, and not very loud. But instead of dying away again, it went on; and as it went on it grew louder. Before a minute had passed it was twice as loud as it had been to begin with. It was soon so loud that if the children had tried to speak (but they weren’t thinking of speaking now—they were just standing with their mouths open) they would not have heard one another. [...] Finally, with a sudden rush and thunder, and a shake that nearly flung them off their feet, about a quarter of the roof at one end of the room fell in, great blocks of masonry fell all round them, and the walls rocked. The noise of the bell stopped. The clouds of dust cleared away. Everything became quiet again.
   It was never found out whether the fall of the roof was due to Magic or whether that unbearably loud sound from the bell just happened to strike the note which was more than those crumbling walls could stand.
   “There! I hope you’re satisfied now,” panted Polly.
   “Well, it’s all over, anyway,” said Digory. And both thought it was; but they had never been more mistaken in their lives.

The chapter ends there because I guess why not. *helpless shrug*


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