Narnia: High and Lonely Destiny

[Narnia Content Note: Genocide, End of the World]

Narnia Recap: Digory prevented Polly from leaving so he could ring a bell. Now there's a very tall woman dragging them around the castle which is rapidly falling apart around them.

The Magician's Nephew, Chapter 5: The Deplorable Word

I'm sorry it's been such a long time since the last Narnia; life has been difficult over here and I'm so grateful for your continued patience with me. You are all the best. As you may recall, we last left off with the castle crumbling around the children while Jadis unhurriedly hauls them out whilst playing tour guide.

   They came at last into a hall larger and loftier than any they had yet seen. From its size and from the great doors at the far end, Digory thought that now at last they must be coming to the main entrance. In this he was quite right. The doors were dead black, either ebony or some black metal which is not found in our world. They were fastened with great bars, most of them too high to reach and all too heavy to lift. He wondered how they would get out.

This feels faintly strange to me but it's hard to explain why.

Up until now, the castle has continuously been described as derelict and decaying. We've also seen mention of the sky, and I had thought that meant there were areas where the children were actually out in open air--either because the castle had open courtyards or because some of the roof (or roofs, if the castle is made up of multiple structures) had caved in. If they're escaping the derelict castle as it collapses into rubble, why do they need to use the barred front doors? Shouldn't there be a breach in the walls somewhere, or an open courtyard where they can be safe?

There's a sense here that either Lewis had a clear idea of the castle which he failed to communicate onto the page, or he didn't have a clear idea of the castle at all and instead this new barrier has been erected in order to serve a literary purpose rather than to fit the setting thus far. The latter would appear to be the case, because we're about to see Jadis do her bad no-good magic.

   The Queen let go of his hand and raised her arm. She drew herself up to her full height and stood rigid. Then she said something which they couldn’t understand (but it sounded horrid) and made an action as if she were throwing something toward the doors. And those high and heavy doors trembled for a second as if they were made of silk and then crumbled away till there was nothing left of them but a heap of dust on the threshold.
   “Whew!” whistled Digory.
    “Has your master magician, your uncle, power like mine?” asked the Queen, firmly seizing Digory’s hand again. “But I shall know later. In the meantime, remember what you have seen. This is what happens to things, and to people, who stand in my way.”

I'm not on Jadis' side here; "I turn to dust all who stand in my way" seems like a generally bad philosophy. Let the record show my brave refusal to endorse wholesale slaughter of all opposition.

But... I can't help thinking that Lewis would be 100% on board with this philosophy if it were coming from, for instance, Aslan or the Emperor-Beyond-The-Sea. I'm imagining all the times we've seen enemies laid low with magic or brute force, like the time Aslan swallowed up the witch, or the time the woods themselves bestirred to rout the Telmarines, or the time Caspian and his men beat an elderly gate-keeper for not letting them inside with sufficient speed or humility, or the time a magician turned people into unnatural abominations, or the time Aslan transformed a Calormene prince into a donkey.

"This is what happens to things, and to people, who stand in my way" seems like a pretty good summation of how the Good Guys in this series act. And we haven't even gotten to The Last Battle yet! So it's hard to see this as a rejection of "might makes right" as a philosophy and instead seems to be setting Jadis up for her role as an authority which isn't so much evil (to be contrasted with the actions of those who are good) but rather illegitimate. It's okay, in other words, for opponents to be blasted into dust if the person doing the blasting has the authority to do so.

Aslan, yes. Emperor-Beyond-The-Sea, sure. Peter or Caspian or Rilian, usually. Jadis? No.

   Much more light than they had yet seen in that country was pouring in through the now empty doorway, and when the Queen led them out through it they were not surprised to find themselves in the open air. The wind that blew in their faces was cold, yet somehow stale. They were looking from a high terrace and there was a great landscape spread out below them.
   Low down and near the horizon hung a great, red sun, far bigger than our sun. Digory felt at once that it was also older than ours: a sun near the end of its life, weary of looking down upon that world. To the left of the sun, and higher up, there was a single star, big and bright. Those were the only two things to be seen in the dark sky; they made a dismal group. And on the earth, in every direction, as far as the eye could reach, there spread a vast city in which there was no living thing to be seen. And all the temples, towers, palaces, pyramids, and bridges cast long, disastrous-looking shadows in the light of that withered sun. Once a great river had flowed through the city, but the water had long since vanished, and it was now only a wide ditch of gray dust.

This is a pretty paragraph, even if it feels like the good bits were lifted out of H.G. Wells' Time Machine and dusted off. I do have some questions about the city having pyramids, which aren't exactly some kind of mandatory stop on the "civilization tech tree" like we're playing Civ 5 all of the sudden. But I have even more questions about the temples, and who they were built to honor. Does an Aslan/Jesus analogue exist in this 'verse?

If yes, why wouldn't Jadis recognize him by whatever name he was known on Charn, when she runs into him later on Narnia? It seems like that would only strengthen Lewis' claim of Aslan being THE Jesus for all worlds and not just for Narnia. Even if Jadis wasn't a follower of his on Charn, she should recognize him as her mortal enemy whose name gives her Bad Shivers (TM). That's the established world-building, after all, for how all this works.

I wonder if Lewis didn't think about how Jesus/Aslan appeared to the Charnians, or if he was afraid of confusing his audience.

   “Look well on that which no eyes will ever see again,” said the Queen. “Such was Charn, that great city, the city of the King of Kings, the wonder of the world, perhaps of all worlds. Does your uncle rule any city as great as this, boy?”
   “No,” said Digory. He was going to explain that Uncle Andrew didn’t rule any cities, but the Queen went on:
   “It is silent now. But I have stood here when the whole air was full of the noises of Charn; the trampling of feet, the creaking of wheels, the cracking of the whips and the groaning of slaves, the thunder of chariots, and the sacrificial drums beating in the temples. I have stood here (but that was near the end) when the roar of battle went up from every street and the river of Charn ran red.”

I hate that we don't have a sense of how old this world and its population is. The red sun suggests a timeline on the scale of billions, but this civilization feels like it's maybe a few thousand years old at the most and moreover only recently (in the relative scheme of these things) removed from whatever evolutionary stage brought about the local equivalent of homo sapiens.

Again: there's not one civilization technology tree that every planet has to follow, and I'm not demanding robots and flying cars, but when you've got wooden wheels ("creaking of wheels...chariots") for transportation and your population is composed of manual laborers ("slaves") who are themselves motivated by overseers flicking animal hide at them ("cracking of the whips"), then this feels pretty dang "early human development" for a world that's supposed to be far more ancient than earth.

Of course, I suppose Jadis could have wiped out all life on Charn billions of years ago when the sun was young and yellow and only now has anyone come to wake her, but I don't think we're meant to get that impression. Thematically, Charn is supposed to be our older sibling whose mistakes we must learn from, not a younger sibling cut off in its infancy before it even had a chance to learn right from wrong.

She paused and added, “All in one moment one woman blotted it out forever.”
   “Who?” said Digory in a faint voice; but he had already guessed the answer.
   “I” said the Queen. “I, Jadis, the last Queen, but the Queen of the World.”
   The two children stood silent, shivering in the cold wind.
   “It was my sister’s fault,” said the Queen. “She drove me to it. May the curse of all the Powers rest upon her forever! At any moment I was ready to make peace—yes and to spare her life too, if only she would yield me the throne. But she would not. Her pride has destroyed the whole world. Even after the war had begun, there was a solemn promise that neither side would use Magic. But when she broke her promise, what could I do? Fool! As if she did not know that I had more Magic than she! She even knew that I had the secret of the Deplorable Word. Did she think—she was always a weakling—that I would not use it?”

Again, I don't really know what to do with all this because, I mean. *waves at paragraph* This is a villain monologue. But it's a villain monologue that wouldn't be out of place in the throat of the Emperor-Beyond-the-Sea. The next book in this series, after all, is about the total destruction of Narnia (and the Friends of Narnia) in order to bring everyone up to Heaven. Much like the problems with Left Behind and the Rapture, it's unclear to me how the Deplorable Word is worse than god ending the world and killing everyone so they can be in heaven now.

It's not that Jadis is good, in other words. She's not, and I make no claims to the contrary. But I'm struggling to see how she's any different from, or worse than, Aslan and his father. And I think that's why I'm struggling to analyze this chapter, and part of the reason why this deconstruction post has been so long in coming: this is all clearly very important in the sense of establishing character and backstory but because it's so very similar to the way Lewis' good guys operate, it's difficult to suss out what, exactly, Lewis expected us to take away in the sense of "why Jadis is bad".

Are we meant to think she's bad because "might makes right" is objectively bad, and we're just not supposed to notice that everyone else in Narnia operates that way to wild narrative applause? Or are we supposed to take away that Jadis is bad for some other reason, in which case...what? Because she's a woman? Because she's kinda sour and bitchy about the whole planet-killing thing, rather than shedding a single manly tear as she talks about how it was painful-yet-necessary? In other words, I know what crimes I feel Jadis has committed, but I'm not at all clear on whether Lewis is on the same page with me. It's hard to imagine he is or could be, unless he just had so profoundly a blind spot for "Turbo Jesus" that he didn't realize how similar his god is to his devil.

To summarize the summary: the problem with this chapter is that Jadis doesn't do anything fundamentally different from what Aslan and the Emperor do over this series. And it's one more reason why I will only deconstruct this series in published order (rather than "chronological"), because it is crucial to point out the juxtaposition of the upcoming book. The Last Battle will see Aslan and the Emperor hauling out their own version of the Deplorable Word in order to end Narnia when a rival rises to challenge them, and that seems relevant to any discussion of Jadis using the Deplorable Word in order to end Charn when a rival rises to challenge her.

Lewis' position seems to be that the Deplorable Word is fine as long as the "right" person is using it, and that's...a difficult position to defend. And he doesn't really defend that position so much as assert it as objectively and self-evidently true and then yell look over there a distraction at the reader.

   “What was it?” said Digory.
   “That was the secret of secrets,” said the Queen Jadis. “It had long been known to the great kings of our race that there was a word which, if spoken with the proper ceremonies, would destroy all living things except the one who spoke it. But the ancient kings were weak and soft-hearted and bound themselves and all who should come after them with great oaths never even to seek after the knowledge of that word. But I learned it in a secret place and paid a terrible price to learn it. I did not use it until she forced me to it. I fought to overcome her by every other means. I poured out the blood of my armies like water—”
   “Beast!” muttered Polly.

I just. Again. This is what Lewis believes his own god will do in the end times. It is what happens in Narnia in the next book. Hell, "poured out the blood of my armies / people like water" is a pretty good summary of a lot of this entire series. Lewis is not anti-war when god is doing it! So Jadis' war-mongering is bad because... she's a woman? she's not a christian? she's not god? she's not doing it for a sufficiently good "cause"? Why, exactly, is Jadis wrong for going to war over her claim to the throne, but Caspian wasn't wrong to go to war over his claim to the throne? Why, precisely, is Jadis wrong for spilling blood over an ideological struggle in Charn, but Aslan isn't wrong to spill blood over an ideological struggle in Narnia? We need more than just asides from the peanut gallery!

This is supposed to be a book which sets forth THE theological roots of Narnia. This is Satan's origin story, this is his fall from grace, this is how he went from Lucifer the angel of light to Satan the deceiving serpent. Lewis wanted to sit down and set out the theological basis for why Satan is wrong and Jesus is right, and that requires a lot more than casual misogyny about Jadis' appearance coupled with sneers from Polly about Jadis' lack of remorse whilst relating her history.

    “The last great battle,” said the Queen,

Oh my god, he even uses the same phrase for the fall of Charn as he does for the title of the book about the fall of Narnia. I hadn't noticed that, but he does. Lest anyone think I'm stretching by comparing Jadis:Charn :: Aslan:Narnia, here is textual evidence.

   “The last great battle,” said the Queen, “raged for three days here in Charn itself. For three days I looked down upon it from this very spot. I did not use my power till the last of my soldiers had fallen, and the accursed woman, my sister, at the head of her rebels was halfway up those great stairs that lead up from the city to the terrace. Then I waited till we were so close that we could see one another’s faces. She flashed her horrible, wicked eyes upon me and said, ‘Victory.’ ‘Yes,’ said I, ‘Victory, but not yours.’ Then I spoke the Deplorable Word. A moment later I was the only living thing beneath the sun.”

I think this is supposed to read as cold and unfeeling, but honestly I'm left with the impression that Jadis showed surprising forbearance to wait until the last possible moment to play her trump card? Aslan isn't nearly so patient when he ends Narnia in the next book; you get the impression that he's been itching for a while to get the apocalypse started. (By the way, if ya'll haven't watched Good Omens on Amazon Prime, it is so good and so very gay and I love it so much. I didn't expect to like it but I loved it.)

   “But the people?” gasped Digory.
   “What people, boy?” asked the Queen.
   “All the ordinary people,” said Polly, “who’d never done you any harm. And the women, and the children, and the animals.”
   “Don’t you understand?” said the Queen (still speaking to Digory). “I was the Queen. They were all my people. What else were they there for but to do my will?”
   “It was rather hard luck on them, all the same,” said he.

It is frustrating to find myself in the position of defending this, because I find it indefensible. Just to be clear! Wiping out every living thing on earth because you lost a war is not a defensible position. It is bad. But, again, this is what Aslan and the Emperor will do to Narnia in just a few short pages. It is what Lewis wants God to do on Earth: kill everyone and take them home to heaven so we can all get on with the afterlife.

"What else they for but to do [the king's / god's] will" is almost canonically Lewis' position towards commoners! It's why he's so unfussed about, for example, a ruler turning all his subjects into unnatural abominations. It's why he doesn't mind writing a god who mauls a young girl for breaking a rule she didn't know existed. It's why he doesn't even blink over letting his human Telmarine invaders kill off 90% of the native Narnian population. It's why he sees no ethical dilemma about Caspian ruling with an iron fist, up to and including barring people from trying to search for the lost prince. It's why he can't even imagine an objection to using swords and whips on small children for the crime of being priggish bullies. It's why he doesn't see a problem in turning a score of bored children into pigs. All these "common people" exist to be used by God and/or his kingly representative, and once they stop being useful they are fit for ridicule, harm, or death.

So it's... I disagree with Jadis' position. But the hypocrisy here--where we're supposed to ignore that she's no different from Lewis' kings and gods except by virtue of being a woman and not kowtowing to the Emperor-Beyond-the-Sea--is hard to swallow. Hard enough that I'm choking.

   “I had forgotten that you are only a common boy. How should you understand reasons of State? You must learn, child, that what would be wrong for you or for any of the common people is not wrong in a great Queen such as I. The weight of the world is on our shoulders. We must be freed from all rules. Ours is a high and lonely destiny.”

Not to repeat myself, but. *waves at the entire canon of this series*

I do think that Lewis would disagree with one thing here and that's the point about "we must be freed from all rules". Lewis absolutely wants his rulers bound by rules. But I would point out that those binding "rules" are different from the rules the common people live by and (in the case of Aslan and the Emperor) self-imposed to be whatever they want them to be. On a practical level, I don't parse much difference between "I don't live by rules" versus "I live by my own set of rules that I make up for myself and which are not available for you to review, peruse, or argue."

Or, to quote a recent Order of the Stick:

HEL: "You hypocrite! You cheat all the time!" LOKI: "I'm not taking a principled stand against cheating, sweetie. I just don't want YOU to do it right now. It's hard to be a hypocrite when your guiding philosophy is "Do whatever's best for you.""

   Digory suddenly remembered that Uncle Andrew had used exactly the same words. But they sounded much grander when Queen Jadis said them; perhaps because Uncle Andrew was not seven feet tall and dazzlingly beautiful

Ah, yes, we all know about "female privilege" and how it lends so much weight to the words we say.

   “And what did you do then?” said Digory.
   “I had already cast strong spells on the hall where the images of my ancestors sit. And the force of those spells was that I should sleep among them, like an image myself, and need neither food nor fire, though it were a thousand years, till one came and struck the bell and awoke me.”
   “Was it the Deplorable Word that made the sun like that?” asked Digory.
   “Like what?” said Jadis.
   “So big, so red, and so cold.”
   “It has always been so,” said Jadis. “At least, for hundreds of thousands of years. Have you a different sort of sun in your world?”
   “Yes, it’s smaller and yellower. And it gives a good deal more heat.”
   The Queen gave a long drawn “A—a—ah!” And Digory saw on her face that same hungry and greedy look which he had lately seen on Uncle Andrew’s. “So,” she said, “yours is a younger world.”

Ah, okay, that answers my question about how old Charn was when the Deplorable Word was spoken. So, yes, it was already an ancient world in comparison to our own Earth, but for reasons which I suppose we're not meant to dwell upon they were essentially stuck on Old Testament Egyptian level of technological and social advancement.

   She paused for a moment to look once more at the deserted city—and if she was sorry for all the evil she had done there, she certainly didn’t show it—and then said:
   “Now, let us be going. It is cold here at the end of all the ages.”
   “Going where?” asked both the children.
   “Where?” repeated Jadis in surprise. “To your world, of course.”
   Polly and Digory looked at each other, aghast. Polly had disliked the Queen from the first; and even Digory, now that he had heard the story, felt that he had seen quite as much of her as he wanted. Certainly, she was not at all the sort of person one would like to take home. And if they did like, they didn’t know how they could. What they wanted was to get away themselves: but Polly couldn’t get at her ring and of course Digory couldn’t go without her. Digory got very red in the face and stammered.

I'm trying to remember if this revelation puzzled me as a child; it certainly doesn't now. There's no living thing on the planet--no flora or fauna--so it's not a surprise that Jadis would want to leave. Even if she's as introverted as I am, a girl needs food. This feels like one of those points where Lewis tries to make the reader feel smart by making the characters particularly thick--"of course she wants to go back with you, you ninnies," being presumably the intended reader reaction.

There's a dissonance, though, to their reaction. I can understand not wanting to take Jadis back to earth after the revelation that she can end all life on a planet with a single word! But the language here is so anodyne. They had "seen quite as much of her as he wanted" and "she was not the sort of person one would like to take home". There's no sense of Digory or Polly being afraid of her, the way one would be afraid of, say, Hannibal Lecter. (Who, it must be pointed out, has killed far fewer people than Jadis has.)

Instead this feels like more of Lewis' sneers over propriety. Jadis isn't a proper woman, she's got no class, she's foreign and not a good English lady. She isn't the sort of person one would take home in the way one wouldn't take home a feminist or a foreigner; family and neighbors would judge you. Lewis doesn't take Jadis seriously as a threat to life or limb, but rather as a threat to imperial homogeneity and local property values--and, thus, neither do Polly and Digory.

   “Oh—oh—our world. I d-didn’t know you wanted to go there.”
   “What else were you sent here for if not to fetch me?” asked Jadis.
   “I’m sure you wouldn’t like our world at all,” said Digory. “It’s not her sort of place, is it, Polly? It’s very dull; not worth seeing, really.”
   “It will soon be worth seeing when I rule it,” answered the Queen.
   “Oh, but you can’t,” said Digory. “It’s not like that. They wouldn’t let you, you know.”
   The Queen gave a contemptuous smile. “Many great kings,” she said, “thought they could stand against the House of Charn. But they all fell, and their very names are forgotten. Foolish boy! Do you think that I, with my beauty and my Magic, will not have your whole world at my feet before a year has passed? Prepare your incantations and take me there at once.”
   “This is perfectly frightful,” said Digory to Polly.

I don't really know how many times I can point out that this is the Left Behind fantasy: that Jesus will come with a sword and make the whole world fall before his feet. The problem here, again, isn't that Lewis thinks global conquest is inherently bad! He just thinks global conquest by this particular person would be bad.

   “Perhaps you fear for this Uncle of yours,” said Jadis. “But if he honors me duly, he shall keep his life and his throne. I am not coming to fight against him. He must be a very great Magician, if he has found how to send you here. Is he King of your whole world or only of part?”
   “He isn’t King of anywhere,” said Digory.
   “You are lying,” said the Queen. “Does not Magic always go with the royal blood? Who ever heard of common people being Magicians? I can see the truth whether you speak it or not. Your Uncle is the great King and the great Enchanter of your world. And by his art he has seen the shadow of my face, in some magic mirror or some enchanted pool; and for the love of my beauty he has made a potent spell which shook your world to its foundations and sent you across the vast gulf between world and world to ask my favor and to bring me to him. Answer me: is that not how it was?”

I mean, again, "who ever heard of common people being Magicians" is practically the tagline to this series? Everyone with magic in this series has so far come by it from their bloodline; they're either a magical race or a star or a god or something similar. Those few we've seen who may not have come by magic "naturally" by their bloodline were almost universally bad people who, by implication, were bad because they didn't know their place and chose to grasp for more than they'd been given. It is extremely difficult to parse a lot of what Jadis says when she is canonically correct.

The whole thing with her assuming that Uncle Andrew is in love with her and sent these children to plead his case is, of course, meant to make her seem vain and foolish--but I don't really think it works when she's really just being genre savvy for this series. I mean, we've seen magic mirrors and enchanted pools in spades. I've lost count of the number of magic mirrors and enchanted pools, actually. I don't really think you get to turn around and laugh at someone for being aware they exist. 

   “Well, not exactly,” said Digory.
   “Not exactly,” shouted Polly. “Why, it’s absolute bosh from beginning to end.”
   “Minions!” cried the Queen, turning in rage upon Polly and seizing her hair, at the very top of her head where it hurts most. But in so doing she let go of both the children’s hands. “Now,” shouted Digory; and “Quick!” shouted Polly. They plunged their left hands into their pockets. They did not even need to put the rings on. The moment they touched them, the whole of that dreary world vanished from their eyes. They were rushing upward and a warm green light was growing nearer overhead.

That's the end of the chapter. I'm sure everything will turn out fine.

I couldn't find a place to work it into the post, but as part of the research for this chapter I came across this C.S. Lewis quote on Milton and Paradise Lost and I am quite frankly dead from irony.

It is in their 'good' characters that novelists make, unawares, the most shocking self-revelations.


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